Collaboration yes, but to a reasonable extent

With the rise of the Internet and the increasing complexity of organizations, collaboration has become a favorite word in modern management. But collaborating also has a cost, in time and resources. How to find the right amount? 

If there is an issue on the agenda of today’s management world, it has to be collaboration. In recent years, so much has been written throughout popular articles in the field, academic papers and books talking about the importance of accomplishing it and the ways to do so. 

The logic behind this -not so novel- need, lies in the increase in complexity of organizations: new demands can no longer be resolved by a single area, but rather require different types of expertise for their solution. Modern executives are expected to be able to break down silos and tackle projects that, because they involve various units, are enriched by the multiple perspectives of the company. 

In increasingly larger companies, with increasingly challenging objectives, this is not easy, much less spontaneous. Building trust between areas with misaligned interests requires time and dedication on the part of managers. For this reason, those companies that define routines, tools, methods and design a culture that stimulates it, have a great advantage over others. 

However, ensuring this collaboration is effective and the cost involved is less than its benefits is not an easy task. Many times, by pursuing it, we end up paying too high a cost, which is verified in too many meetings with too many people, in huge amounts of emails or in a rushed version of many co-workers who do not know what role they play. Too many cooks spoil the broth. 

More is not always better 

Morten Hansen is a professor at the University of California and at INSEAD, who has studied collaboration in business for over 15 years. According to him, the key to determining the ideal degree and type of collaboration lies in evaluating its return; does its performance justify the time and resources necessary to collaborate? 

Collaboration is not free. Both due to the bridges, routines and processes put together to make the collaboration effective, as well as because of the high level of communications necessary to keep the participants informed. 

In order to assess whether or not to collaborate, it is first necessary to measure the direct costs of working with several units simultaneously. It is not merely the trips necessary to coordinate the work of sales offices in different areas or factories far from each other. There are also costs associated with the normal inefficiencies of the early stages of working together: when goals become aligned and information sharing begins. 

In the second instance, we also need to analyze the opportunity costs. The time, effort and resources assigned to the collaboration project are not being used in other types of projects, which could perhaps be more profitable, even when the areas involved work independently. 

Collaboration must always have a justification. When this is not the case, it can become a dangerous way of socializing decisions.

Many times even, in the name of collaboration, more people are invited to meetings, we copy everyone in emails, we send material “for your information” and we end up overloading agendas at times when, if something is really not needed, it is more content and less focus. 

With the excuse of incorporating new points of view, the responsibility for each decision ends up being divided among a large number of participants. 

Types of collaboration 

According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review report, three types of resources are susceptible to collaboration: information (knowledge, skills); social resources (access to a position in a network); and personal resources (one’s own time and energy). 

The mechanics are different in all three. Information and social resources are not exhausted by collaboration: those who share their knowledge or mediate between two people so they may get to know each other have nothing to lose by doing so. However, the individual who collaborates with their time (personal resources), is no doubt exhausting the stock of hours he/she needs for their own work. 

In this sense, an example of wasting resources is that of the employee who requests a half-hour meeting with another to obtain information they could have found on their own, if they had only spent five minutes searching for it. 

Best Practices 

There are many practices that can be applied to improve collaboration, to a reasonable extent. In our experience, the companies that have best solved the problem are those that focus on responsibility and teach their employees to prioritize requests for help, to counteroffer shorter meetings, or to simply say no when necessary. 

In risk-averse business cultures, requests to check certain issues or for approvals rob an organization of precious time. Deciding on one’s own is a risk, undoubtedly, but on many occasions, it is an essential risk inherent in the exercise of leadership. That is why it is crucial that employees have the necessary tools to assume it. 

To promote the right level of interaction, the architectural design of the meeting place is as important as the new software applications that allow conversations in large teams, without abusing email. Open and transparent rooms, computer systems that limit the duration of the meeting, or spaces without chairs, are some of the solutions found by the most advanced companies. 

Incentive systems must, of course, also be aligned. Companies insist again and again on the need to collaborate but continue to reward individual achievements. Today’s complexity in multidimensional arrays requires a different logic of compensation if what we are looking for is healthy interactions. Perhaps, it is worth turning to team sports for inspiration. In basketball, hockey or soccer, achievements are celebrated as a team. And effective assists are also measured. Not everyone collaborates with everyone at all times. To score goals, you need work and planning.

Ernesto Weissmann
Partner at Tandem.

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