Author Talks: Beyond collaboration overload

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Tom Fleming talks with Rob Cross, the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and the cofounder and director of the Connected Commons consortium. In the book Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021), Cross reveals how high performers collaborate in ways that enable them to be 18 to 24 percent more efficient than their peers while simultaneously improving their well-being. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What do we get wrong about collaboration?

The problem is in the ways that organizations have evolved over the past decade. We’ve gone through all of these delayering initiatives to streamline decision-making cycles, assuming that was the thing that was slowing everything down. At the same time, we’ve layered on all these collaborative tools.

It’s the Slack channels, team spaces, emails, Zoom calls, maybe a gratitude application, plus one or two other custom things that people are doing in their organizations. All these technologies look cheap from the chief investment officer’s office, but layering them on creates a phenomenal “overwhelm.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, people were spending about 85 percent of their time on the phone, on email, and in meetings. That number had progressively gone up over the past decade, about 50 percent or more. It has gone up again through the pandemic: people are working about five to eight hours more a week, and they’re working earlier in the morning and deeper into the night.

And this can lead to what you call ‘collaboration overload.’ Tell us more about it.

Most people will immediately say the first thing they do in the morning when they roll out of bed is to check the phone. Many, many people, unfortunately, are checking it through the night, but it starts first thing in the morning, and it rolls forward through meeting schedules and email and other kinds of connectivity.

We’ve now done over 800 interviews with high performers, and we started with the really efficient collaborators to see what they were doing. And then we worked our way into the kind of things that create performance and drive well-being. You get into these conversations that, for the first ten minutes, are like the ones we always have: “Everything’s great.” But then you start digging down, and you really hear how people are struggling to manage today.

For me, it has become super personal—conversations with hundreds of people that most of us only ever have with three or four people. The pattern you see is an increasing effort to manage across all these platforms, to manage more meetings. One of the crazy things during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, is that many of us have had this great idea that we’re just going to try to jam more meetings in the same day, right? So you move from eight one-hour meetings prepandemic to 16 30-minute meetings now. And it’s exhausting.

You’re more intense in those meetings because you’ve got to be fully present. You’re switching across things more rapidly and trying to catch up on a text or two in a split second. That’s exhausting. Then you end the day with a to-do list based on not eight meetings but 16.

But as you note in the book, it’s more than just the technology fueling this. How do we exacerbate the problem ourselves?

I had initially been convinced that collaboration overload—the excessive demands that are hurting performance—were completely external. It was emails, time zones, nasty bosses, and demanding clients. I came out the other end of what’s now about 800 interviews completely convinced that 50 percent or more of the problem is us.

We all have these triggers that lead us to jump in when we shouldn’t. For me, it’s a desire for accomplishment. If I see five minutes of room, I’m going to jam in 60 minutes of stuff and ignore the three hours of communication I have to do in order to get other people on board. Then I wonder two, three, eight weeks out, “Why am I overloaded?” when it was me that started it to begin with.

I’m grumbling about the situation, but we find that it happens so much for people. With all these subtle triggers, we just don’t realize, sometimes, how we’re creating our own problems because of the distance between what we do and how we experience it.

What’s the cost of collaboration overload?

One cost is lost engagement. We basically see that people who collaborate well get back 18 percent to 24 percent of their time. You start adding that up, and it is significant. And where we’re getting hit is, number one, around innovation. We’ve seen this again through the pandemic: people’s connectivity patterns have focused more internally, and they’ve been losing those bridging connections to other pockets of the organization.

The second big cost is around attrition and losing the overwhelmed people. Especially as we go into 2022 and the resignations that are planned, the big surprise that people are going to have is that it’s the people who were overwhelmed to begin with who learned through the COVID-19 crisis that there is a different way to live their lives. So they’re not going resubscribe to it, right? And that’s going be a very substantive cost that companies don’t measure well.

They’ll measure it as the cost of acquiring the talent. But they’ll forget that if they make ten other people’s lives 5 percent harder for six months, until they find another replacement, there’s a real cost to that economically. It can be much bigger than the human-capital piece of it.

The third is around the mental-health costs. They’re skyrocketing in places. Of course, there’s a lot more involved in people’s mental health than just collaboration, but it is a factor—especially in the context where people feel like they are just drowning. They’re trying to figure out how to get through all these demands as they go.

What can people do to address collaboration overload?

I would, first of all, say there’s no single, seductive principle. I’m always asked, “What’s the one thing—if you just had one idea—for people and what they need to do?” This is not that game. This is more of a brawl than a ballet. I find that the successful people are clawing back time by being really persistent.

One practice is that they put structure into their work on the margin. So you’re much more likely to see, for example, the more efficient collaborators strategically calendar Friday night or Sunday night with a one-week horizon and also about a three-month time frame in mind. They’re putting structure into their calendar that’s putting energizing interactions after de-energizing ones. Or they’re starting to set up conversations with others that lead into capabilities they want to be using in their work.

There’s no single, seductive principle [to address collaboration overload].... This is not that game. This is more of a brawl than a ballet.

Another practice is that they manage these “identity triggers”—our tendencies to jump in when we shouldn’t—which is much bigger than we realize. Then finally, just behaviorally and tactically, they focus on setting norms around collaboration. Not just for themselves: they bring those norms into their team so that the practices hold in different ways.

How do high-performing leaders spend the time they’re able to claw back? What do they do differently?

The real key, to me, is not just getting that time back. It’s how they spend it that enables them to innovate in very different ways to create things at a greater scale. The key thing that we’ve learned from these people is that they tend to collaborate in ways that drive more innovation through their networks.

What do they get right from a networking standpoint?

We’ve known for a long time, since the 1970s, that it’s not a big network, typically, that’s predicting high performance. It’s one with more bridging—connections into different pockets of an organization. But then the question is what to tell busy people to do with this.

What we learned is that the more successful people tend to spend about 20 percent to 25 percent more time exploring possibilities with others and saying, “How could we work together, from different functions, different capabilities, different geographies?” They’re just a little bit more conscious of the value of doing that.

What I thought was really cool was that it’s not somebody tapping some invisible power structure in places. They’re seeding relationships and developing an understanding of how they could work together with others. Then when the opportunity comes by, their response is much greater than those of people who don’t do this. So they’re able to mobilize resources that produce a bigger outcome, versus the person who has just stayed hunkered down or is just turning to the same five people they did the last ten times.

You also describe the sheer enthusiasm these leaders bring to collaboration. What role does energy play?

Myself and people on my team have gone behind the network diagrams now for 20-plus years. We would interview the energizers—the people who are creating the enthusiasm—and also the people they energized to see what was going on with these connections. And we hear things like, “They see realistic possibilities to connect with what others care about.” It’s not that they’re positioning ideas in a way that’s just good for them or that it’s so extreme that it doesn’t connect with what others care about.

High performers are really good at figuring out how to frame things in a way that has other people get engaged, too, and pulled into the effort. We find, for example, that most energizing leaders tend to be the ones who have systematic one-on-one interactions with their followers, with about 50 percent or more of the time being off task. They’re exploring those people’s interests or aspirations. On the margin, they’re able to shape the nature of the work that comes to those people. Not entirely, but on the margin, they can line it up in ways that just get better engagement, better enthusiasm.

And they win. Not because they’re cheerleaders—you’re just as likely to hear them disagree as agree. They win because they have better talent wanting to work for them because the growth opportunities are there. That talent stays longer with them, and they’re getting scale right out of their network, right? That’s the real key to why the energizers win. It’s not just that they’re happy people. It’s the way that they create pull on the network that enables them to scale what they’re doing.

In what other ways do strong collaborators distinguish themselves?

From a well-being standpoint, one of the things that I consistently heard were stories of people who would enter into these highly demanding jobs and fall into what I call an echo chamber. People would describe points in their lives or their careers where work had become all consuming. They’d fallen out of the groups that had been pieces of their identity and really deeply into that system of work: thinking things are going great, feeling energy, pursuing revenue goals.

Then they’d have some stark wake-up moment. Sometimes it was three, five, eight years in, where they woke up and said, “Wow, I’ve been living in a way that isn’t who I meant to be to begin with.” One executive had a flight canceled. He pulled into his driveway, looked around, and realized that his kids were gone, his wife was off doing something else, and he’d lost all his hobbies. Another woman was describing how she’d given eight years of her life in this really high-intense job in Silicon Valley and thought she had really great friends. Her mother passed away, and nobody showed up at the funeral.

What I would see high performers do to get out of that echo chamber were one of two things. One is they would reach back to relationships that were strong from the past and use some kind of activity to pull them back together—maybe travel, a game night. It could be all sorts of things. The idea is tapping back into these dormant connections.

The other is to pick a passion from the past and use that to “slingshot” yourself into a new group. One of my favorite interviews was the head of neuroscience at one of the leading hospitals in the world. Here’s this very pedigreed person—mid-60s, probably—and just giddy, telling me how he’s started playing guitar again, and he’s hanging out with 20-year-olds. He’s creating a new version of who he is and how he’s experiencing things.

When I look at the happiest people—the people who are scoring high on thriving, resilience, psychological well-being, engagement—they tend to have at least two, and usually three, groups they’re engaged with outside of work. This could be running clubs—book clubs, dinner groups. They create dimensionality in their lives that keeps work in perspective.

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