Collaboration overload is a symptom of a deeper organizational problem
Many leaders are now aware of the dangers of collaboration overload and collaboration-tool overload in the workplace. The evidence continues to mount that, for many organizations, the costs associated with meetings, emails, IMs and other forms of workforce collaboration now exceed the benefits.
But what can get lost in the eye-popping statistics around excess email and meetings is this: Collaboration overload is almost always a symptom of some deeper organizational pathology and rarely an ailment that can be treated effectively on its own. Attempts to liberate unproductive time by employing new tools (for example, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Box) or imposing new guidelines and meeting disciplines will prove fruitless unless steps are taken to deal with the underlying organizational illness. Companies that have successfully combatted the excesses of overload have done so by focusing on the root causes of unproductive collaboration—and not merely the symptoms—in devising the cure.
Meetings, emails, IMs and other workplace interactions don’t just happen; they are a by-product the company’s organization. They reflect attempts by managers and employees to get work done within the confines of prescribed structures, processes, and norms. In our experience, unhealthy collaboration most often stems from two underlying organizational maladies: organizational complexity and a “collaboration for collaboration’s sake” culture.
As companies grow, they naturally add new dimensions to their organizations. A single-product enterprise, for example, might add new products, focus on new customer segments, or even enter new geographic markets. Each of these additions necessitates more interactions between stakeholders in order to make and execute critical decisions.
Complexity increases geometrically with the number of new functions, products, customers, geographies or other nodes added to an organization. Adding a new geography to an organization, for instance, will require that managers in this new territory coordinate with representatives from various functions, product teams, and customer support groups to get work done. In short order, the number of nodes involved in decision making and execution explodes, resulting in more meetings, more emails, more IMs and more hours devoted to collaboration. Calls for fewer meetings and emails—even from the very top—will do little to stem the tide of interactions brought about by organizational complexity.
A “collaboration for collaboration’s sake” culture
On its face, more collaboration is a laudable goal. After all, two heads are almost always better than one. But left unchecked, calls for greater collaboration can lead to a culture of “collaboration for collaboration’s sake,” undermining productivity.
Take meetings, for instance. If meetings become the norm for how work gets done in an organization, an individual employee can do very little. If an individual employee is invited to a meeting—particularly by his or her boss—he or she has little choice but to attend or risk offense. Over time, meetings become a status symbol—that is, the more meetings to which an executive is invited, the more important he or she is assumed to be. Even worse, meetings can become a substitute for effective leadership communication. Rather than taking the time to share the specifics discussed in a meeting with subordinates who did not attend, some leaders opt to invite an army to every meeting. As bosses fail to cascade vital information following important meetings, employees come to believe that they need to attend every meeting or risk missing out. So, what starts out as a well-intentioned drive for inclusiveness turns into a downward spiral of more meetings and wasted time. No attack on collaboration overload can be effective unless it addresses cultural norms such as these head-on.
Addressing the root causes
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Bain research, conducted with the support of the Economist Intelligence Unit, found that the most productive companies—namely, the top quartile in our study’s sample of 300 large corporations worldwide—lose 50% less time to unnecessary and ineffective collaboration than the rest. The best companies save more than half a day a week for all of their employees (vs. less productive counterparts) by reducing organizational drag – all those factors that slow the organization down. But they don’t drive workforce productivity by attacking the symptoms of collaboration overload. Instead, they take steps to address the underlying causes:
Simplify the operating model
A company’s operating model encompasses its structure, governance, accountabilities, and ways of working. It determines how many nodes need to be activated in order to make and execute critical decisions. A complex operating model produces too many nodes and collaboration overload; a built-for-purpose operating model significantly reduces unproductive collaboration, liberating organizational time.
When Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital acquired Anheuser-Busch in 2008 to form AB InBev, it dramatically reduced the number of executives involved in making key decisions. The firm removed several layers of management, flattening the organization. And it established new ways of working in which all senior executives at AB InBev work around a common conference table. Supply chain leaders are expected to interact with marketers, for example, to solve complex problems in real time rather than rely on armies of subordinates and hours of review meetings. By streamlining the operating model, AB InBev dramatically reduced the number of interactions required to get work done, reducing costs and accelerating decision making and execution.
Align the organization
Even when an organization’s structure is lean by most accounts, it can be misaligned. As a result, it may take more interactions than it should to get work done. In technology, for example, sales can be highly complex, involving generalist sales makers, product specialists, technicians and the like. If each of these groups is organized differently, then the number of interactions required to make a sale can balloon.
Dell Technologies is a case in point. When leadership examined the number of interactions required to make a typical sale at Dell, it found that 11 people were typically involved, representing generalist account executives (organized by industry vertical), product specialists (organized by product) and technicians (organized by product and geography). Two nearly identical sales to similar types of customers in the same region who are buying similar products could involve completely different teams of individuals, making it challenging for teams to grow accustomed to working together. By moving to a geographic structure for sales makers, product specialists, and technicians, Dell cut the number of interactions required to make a customer sale by half (on average) and increased the percentage of familiar teams, further bolstering sales productivity. The company accomplished all of this without sacrificing account coverage in any way.
Set a zero-based time budget
One discipline that we have seen work to reduce the number of unnecessary meetings is to create a fixed meeting time bank in which all new meetings are funded out of the current bank. To start, determine the total amount of time currently dedicated to meetings by level in your organization. Then place a ceiling on that total. Now, for every new meeting an executive requests to schedule, ask (or require) him or her to remove some other meeting of equivalent (or greater) time. At the very least, this approach will highlight the total time devoted to meetings in your company. Over time, it may enable your organization to lower the ceiling and liberate countless hours of unproductive time.
Require business cases for new initiatives
When a company makes a major capital investment, senior management nearly always demands some form of business case—that is, an explicit statement of the expected benefits from making the investment weighed against the costs. New initiatives often demand hours of senior leadership time and can involve hundreds of meeting hours each month for the organization. Yet time investments of this sort are rarely held to the same standard as those involving financial capital. As a result, initiative overload is a common complaint at most companies. Perhaps more insidious, initiative overload can be a leading factor contributing to collaboration overload. By requiring that concrete business cases be developed for all initiatives that demand the time of senior leadership, an organization can slow the growth of new initiatives and winnow the existing set of initiatives to those that demonstrate clear benefits in excess of their organizational cost.
Provide real-time feedback
In some instances, it is possible to modify an organization’s cultural norms by providing its leaders with real-time data on the load they are placing on their teams as a result of the emails they send and meetings they schedule. Microsoft Workplace Analytics and other applications now make it possible to provide executives with regular feedback on the (often unintended) costs of collaboration. Over time, executives can modify their own behavior in response to this feedback—for example, eliminating unnecessary meetings, reducing the number of attendees at meetings, shortening meetings, reducing the use of “reply all” in email. Such self-policing can save thousands of hours each year, reducing collaboration overload.
There is much to like—and dread—about collaboration in the workplace. We have all grown weary of the needless meetings, unnecessary emails and other unproductive interactions associated with collaboration at work. Excess collaboration saps energy and leaves employees with too little time to complete their work during the day, forcing too many workers to spend time playing catch-up after hours and on weekends. But it is possible to capitalize on the benefits of collaboration while reducing its ill effects. Doing so requires examining the whole organization—its structure, processes and cultural norms—and treating the root causes of collaboration overload and not merely finding new, inventive ways to manage the symptoms.
This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review.