1 + 1 = 3:  An equation for SYNERGY

Collaboration is on the rise and that’s a wonderful thing…or is it?  With an ever-changing, highly-global and more virtual business environment, the silo structure is becoming extinct, face-to-face connectivity is harder to maintain, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success though increasingly difficult to do considering the time constraints in our organizations. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review January–February 2016 issue (pp.74–79) the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has increased by 50% or more. This is an encouraging development; however, when these activities are added without also finding ways to be more efficient as a whole, then performance actually suffers as the collaborators become buried in the amount of tasks to do.  When you analyze the amount of time spent during a typical work week in meetings, making or returning calls, replying to emails and executing the other duties of your role, managers and employees are quickly overwhelmed. They feel like they have to take work assignments home, and according to a large body of evidence stress, burnout and turnover become real risks.  They become so overworked they are no longer effective and the motivation to collaborate wanes.

So what can leaders do to encourage collaboration and not have the negative side effects?

Leaders can solve this problem in two ways: by streamlining and redistributing responsibilities for collaboration and by rewarding effective contributions.

Redistributing the Work

Any effort to increase your organization’s collaborative efficiency should start with an understanding of the existing supply and demand. Employee surveys, electronic communications tracking, and internal systems such as 360-degree feedback, two-downs, CRM programs and reports can provide valuable data to identify the people most at risk for collaborative overload. Once that’s been done, you can focus on three levers:

Encourage behavioral change.

Show the most active and overburdened collaborators how to filter and prioritize requests (these could come from inside the organization or outside from volunteering requests); give them permission to say no (or to allocate only half the time requested); and encourage them to make an introduction to someone else when the request doesn’t draw on their own unique contributions. An employee study at one Fortune 500 technology company, determined that although 60% wanted to spend less time responding to collaboration requests, 40% wanted to spend more time training, coaching, and be mentored. After their contributions were shifted to those activities, employees were less prone to stress and disengagement. Resetting expectations regarding when and how to initiate or respond to e-mail requests or meeting invitations can free up a great deal of wasted time. Enlightened managers can really create impact by delivering to their employees time-saving or task management tools and skills best offered via a third-party trainer or facilitator.  In addition, requests for approvals can be reduced in many risk-averse cultures by encouraging people to take action on decisions they should be making themselves, rather than constantly checking with leaders or stakeholders.  Admittedly, this suggestion requires some strategic thought to the policy, procedures and conditions for this empowerment but definitely worth evaluating to improve efficiency.

Leverage technology and the office environment to make resources more accessible and engaging.

Leaders need to be aware of relevant technical tools which include Slack and Salesforce.com’s Chatter, with their open discussion threads on various work topics; and Syndic and VoloMetrix (recently acquired by Microsoft), which help individuals assess networks and make informed decisions about collaborative activities are available and useful.  This is particularly useful in environments with a large millennial work force. A study led by the Boston University assistant professor, Stine Grodal, documented the detrimental effects of long, routine meetings and unnecessary e-mails on the development and maintenance of productive teams. It’s not that team meetings and emails are not important. Managers need to be mindful of the quality of the content of those meetings and encourage smaller, shorter, mini meetings throughout the week with each other.  Managers also need to have an email policy or at least a strategy on when emails are the best form of communication and when face-to-face or voice-to-voice is better.  Managers should also consider how their organizations office space is configured and if the environment fosters productivity.  

Evaluate if you have a bottle neck or need a buffer.

If ‘the buck stops’ with you (or all the bucks), you might have a bottle neck preventing optimization.  Are there other areas where productivity seems to get bogged down? Can you shift decision rights to more-appropriate people in the company (from a strategic perspective)? It may seem obvious that lower-level managers should be authorized to approve small capital expenditures, travel, and some HR activities, but in many organizations they aren’t. Over the course of the next week make note of the things ‘only you’ can approve (and the dollars associated) and see if it might make sense for someone else to be trained up or be responsible to do that task.  Also consider whether you can create a buffer against demands for collaboration or wherever there may be more demand on your talent resource. Many hospitals now assign each unit or floor a nurse preceptor, who has no patient care responsibilities and is therefore available to respond to requests as they emerge. The result was fewer bottlenecks and quicker connections between nurses and the right experts. Other types of organizations might also benefit from designating “utility players”—which could lessen demand for the busiest employees—and possibly rotating the role among team members while freeing up personal resources by reducing people’s workloads.  Many banks have already implemented this strategy to adjust to the changing preferences of consumers in the banking industry.

Rewarding Effective Collaboration

We typically see an overlap of only about 50% between the top collaborative contributors in an organization and those employees deemed to be the top performers. As many helpers underperform because they’re overwhelmed; managers should be aware and look to redistribute work when necessary, realizing this redistribution is usually temporary. The challenge with determining who to ask step in is that roughly 20% of organizational “stars” don’t want to help; they hit their numbers (and are naturally celebrated for it) but don’t voluntarily step in to ensure the success of their colleagues who are going the extra mile. In these cases, as the former Goldman Sachs and GE chief learning officer Steve Kerr once wrote, leaders are hoping for A (collaboration) while rewarding B (individual achievement). Great leaders learn how to spot and reward people who do both.  Further, great managers are mindful of the traction that the group as a whole gains as a result of the collaborative efforts.

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” —Henry Ford

 “Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” —Vince Lombardi

Why Women Bear More of the Burden

Research indicates the lion’s share of collaborative work tends to fall on women. They’re stereotyped as communal and caring, so they’re expected to help others with heavy workloads, provide mentoring and training to more-junior colleagues, recruit new hires, and attend optional meetings. As a result, the evidence shows, women experience greater emotional exhaustion than men. By improving systems for measuring, recognizing, and rewarding collaborative contributions, leaders can shift the focus away from the gender of the employee and toward the value added.  The takeaway here is there are members of your team who’s strength is generating production in the form of revenues and there are those who’s productivity is seen more so in the form of increased efficiency, improved morale, and a creating a more balanced team. Both are good for business and both should be rewarded.   

Consider professional basketball, hockey, and soccer teams. They don’t just measure goals; they also track assists. Organizations should do the same, using tools such as network analysis, peer recognition programs, and value-added performance metrics.  A well-known consultancy had recommended retention bonuses for leaders. But such a narrow approach failed to consider those influential employees deep in the acquired company who had broad impact but no formal authority. Network analytics allowed the company to pinpoint those people and distribute bonuses more fairly.

Generous sharing of informational, social, and personal resources should also be a prerequisite for positive reviews, promotions, and pay raises. 

Corning, the glass and ceramics manufacturer, uses similar metrics to decide which of its scientists and engineers will be named fellows—a high honor that guarantees a job and a lab for life. One criterion is to be the first author on a patent that generates at least $100 million in revenue. But another is whether the candidate has worked as a supporting author on colleagues’ patents. Corning grants status and power to those who strike a healthy balance between individual accomplishment and collaborative contribution. 

“The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts”. First coined by the philosopher Aristotle, defines the modern concept of synergy.

noun: synergy; plural noun: synergies; noun: synergism; plural noun: synergisms

  1. The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.
  2. A concept in holism. Related to the idea that the total effectiveness of a group of things each interacting with one another is different or greater than their effectiveness when acting in isolation from one another.

Collaboration is indeed the key in creating the synergy needed for businesses to overcome today’s challenges. There is an art in creating an environment that fosters collaboration and fairly rewards all types of contributors.  Business owners must have a well-defined collaboration initiative, effectively communicate the expectations of the collaborative activities and understand that collaboration does consume time and needs to be factored in to the weekly KPI metrics, goals and reviews so to encourage collaborative behavior. Leaders must also learn to recognize, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work, or their teams and top talent will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply. In fact, the time may have come for organizations to hire chief collaboration officers. By creating a senior executive position dedicated to collaboration, leaders can send a clear signal about the importance of managing teamwork thoughtfully and provide the resources necessary to do it effectively. 

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