Current template: single.php

Collaboration Is Not the Culprit

face surrounded by reaching hands

Several recent studies have indicated that collaboration can hurt your organization and your best people, the most insightful and capable, the best team players. The truth, though, is that collaboration is typically misunderstood and improperly applied. So instead of blaming this problem on collaboration, leaders need to address the real causes of this situation.


Let’s take a look at some of the most common collaboration mishaps.

1. Invisible Demands

Your employees can get overloaded with demands from others in the organization, which may not be evident to anyone else, including senior leaders. This results in decreased productivity by your top talent, and eventually, their burnout. Many capable people leave because their load becomes unbearable, while their leaders and teammates remain in the dark about the reasons behind such departures.

Bring the Demands into the Limelight and Use Collaborative Planning to Guide Commitments

Watch for the signs of excessive demands and acknowledge the real cause of the problem.  Is your star employee always engaged with others as you walk by her desk? Does she mention being too busy or pulled in too many directions? Does she bring up challenges of others while her own work remains untouched? Is she working too many hours?

Too many demands on one person means there are too many things going on with not enough resources to get them done. Take a critical look at the organization as a whole. Are there too many projects in the pipeline?  Is there a culture in which leaders never say “no”? Have priorities been set to help team leaders and team members make tradeoffs about what needs to get done first?

When the culture doesn’t permit team members to negotiate and say “yes, if”, or “not now,” the resources get stretched too thin. Leaders who over-commit their teams place unrealistic demands on themselves and others.

Collaborative team-based planning begins to solve this problem – but it can only work when leaders give teams time to plan and then negotiate commitments that are achievable. Team members, including the most talented ones, need to have a say in what they can realistically deliver based on their capacity and capability—and be trusted by their leaders when they do so.

2. Involved in Everything

Another recent study mentioned in the Harvard Business Review demonstrated that the more in demand an employee was, the less engaged he tended to be at work. The truth is, being in demand too much is demoralizing, because it usually means that others can’t help the person in demand. Having everything depend on one capable person is an organizational flaw. Capable employees get the short end of the stick here, because as they get involved in more initiatives, they wind up with more responsibilities. To avoid this, organizations need to put more effort into developing talent and other capabilities.

Get Help for Those in Demand!

Every leader is aware of the need to train and nurture talent; however, the challenge is in setting goals accordingly and giving people time to learn. Companies with a culture of learning and talent development build in this extra time and make sure their most valuable employees focus on training others so that they aren’t the only ones able to save the show. The value of having multiple star individuals far outweighs the extra time it might take to help your staff build their skills.

A culture in which leaders can’t say “no”, “not now,” or “yes, if” makes it difficult for resource area leaders (RALs) to find the time to build internal capacity. However, adding resources isn’t the only way to increase capacity.  An organization may gain capacity by defining top priorities and reallocating existing resources to them from less important areas of the business. Additionally, developing someone’s capability has a direct impact on capacity. Your top talent can get help with many things that take up their valuable time, but don’t require their level of expertise.

Consider implementing a standard resource management process in which RALs work with their functional teams to define current capacity and a portfolio of work that can be accomplished with that capacity. This same process identifies capacity needs that will allow the organization’s portfolio to expand. Once you know what your organization needs in order to grow, the next step is to respect the fact that growth requires time and resources.  Growth can and needs to be planned!

3. Too Little Time to Focus

A growing body of academic research shows that multitasking hurts knowledge workers the most, as it diffuses their ability to focus, which is essential to their productivity and the quality of their work. Leaders stepping into a role of greater responsibility often experience the so-called “success syndrome”, when they feel the pressure to assume their new role along with supporting requests (and thus additional work) from the collaborative relationships from their previous role. Time-management strategies can help here, but the real issue is in the lack of organizational focus.

Focus on Outcomes at the Organizational Level

Knowledge workers need time to focus and produce. They also need an environment in which they can trade ideas, take advantage of specialized knowledge they lack but others have, and work with peers whose similar expertise and critical eye can help improve the outcome.

Start by focusing the organization on producing your desired outcomes. An organizational culture that attempts to get everything done is a culture in which nothing receives any focus. So, if you want your knowledge workers to focus on what they are accountable for, make sure that someone else can be accountable for tasks that might distract them. Similarly, when a leader steps into a new role, let him focus on that role. His previous role should become someone else’s accountability.

As with individual workloads and team commitments, the organization as a whole needs to focus on what can get done with today’s capacity, while building in time to plan and prepare for the future.

Truly collaborative work helps organizations accomplish these goals. It also creates an environment in which more talented workers can flourish. If you think collaboration is slowing your organization’s productivity and growth, think again!

Cathy Cassidy

As the Managing Director of the International Matrix Management Institute, Cathy helps organizations and practitioners adopt the skills and methods they need to succeed in today’s complex, dynamic environment. She is a Matrix Management 2.0™ Master Consultant and the author of several books on matrix management, including her most recent publication, Managing Projects in a Matrix. She is a key contributor to the Matrix Management 2.0™ Body of Knowledge, co-developer of the Matrix Management 2.0™ organizational operating system, and a lead developer for the company.