Structuring smart collaboration

Businesses are hyper-focused on collaboration. Increased demand for innovation, connected global workforces and flatter organizations accelerating the speed of execution are among the driving forces.

Organizations have spent the last two decades enhancing team skills, carefully designing workspaces and implementing technology to promote collaboration from any location. Kellogg School of Management professor of strategy Benjamin Jones studies this phenomenon and points out that in a world of exponentially more data, our individual knowledge base is becoming more specialized, so the need for better, faster collaboration continues. “There’s more and more to know in the world, and you can only have so much in your head,” he says. “So the share of stuff you know as an individual is declining in any field.”

But how do organizations get better, and individuals keep pace and thrive without burning out? I’ve had the pleasure of working with organizational network expert Rob Cross over many years. Cross’s research of 300-plus organizations shows the distribution of collaborative work is often uneven, with 20-35% of value-added collaboration coming from just 3-5% of employees. For organizations to continue to improve the quality – not the quantity – of collaboration, leaders need to think of organizational networks as assets, and design them to optimize organizational performance. Doing so requires new data-driven tools like organizational network analysis (ONA), and new frames on what collaborative resources individuals have to accelerate, innovate and drive execution.

Leaders tend to trust instincts. However, as Cross’s research shows, our instincts are only about 50% accurate. The data typically highlights a number of surprises in terms of unrecognized great collaborators, as well as some renowned ‘stars’ who are actually poor collaborators. Structuring the network to drive execution starts with identifying the valuable connectors. You can then cause a change in the pattern of interactions by connecting the right people, redistributing work and rewarding the collaborators. It is also useful to reframe the resources individuals have to invest in any collaboration. Cross outlines three: informational (knowledge and expertise), social (access to others and position), and personal (time and energy). The three types of resources are not shared equally. Understanding who has capacity to collaborate, and what’s being shared, reveals many important truths.

Organizational performance aside, the uneven distribution of collaborative work also taxes and tires individuals disproportionately. So, what can you do as an individual to alleviate collaborative overload? Cross recommends you adopt three key practices to remain a solid collaborator – and reclaim up to 20% of your time.

Practice 1

Challenge beliefs

People often are not fully aware of how their own beliefs can be part of the problem. Be aware and monitor your own tendency to insert yourself or volunteer to collaborate in situations where others may have the knowledge and experience to handle it.   

Practice 2

Impose structure

Rather than fall into patterns dictated by other people’s objectives, specify your role and set expectations of collaborative interdependencies around you.

Practice 3

Alter behaviours

Effective collaborators adjust their use of communication mediums and promote efficient network norms. Offer people 30 minutes instead of an hour, or abandon email when it is not the right medium.

Today, leaders have to look beyond the formal organization to significantly improve collaboration. And as individuals, we need to reexamine our beliefs and behaviours to add unique value – and cope with the never-ending demands for more collaboration.

— Michael Canning is global head of new businesses at Duke Corporate Education