Articulate August 2017

Are Collaboration and Communication Killing Your Organization’s Productivity?

Written By: Heather Parbst, Lead Consultant, Clarity3 Consulting

It often feels like you are in meetings all week, and when you aren’t in a meeting, you are drowning in emails. You have good people on your team, but they aren’t producing like you had hoped. Worst of all, your best people seem to be more and more disengaged, even though you have gone out of your way to create a collaborative environment that encourages high-level participation. Decisions take forever, as do meetings, which drag on and result in no clear action. Administrative costs creep up, and productivity slows down. What’s wrong here?

You could be dealing with collaboration overload, and you are almost certainly dealing with some level of organizational drag. Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain & Company and co-author of the new book “Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power,” describes organizational drag as a squandering of — you guessed it — your organization’s time, talent and energy. So, what causes each of these phenomena?

The research of Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant has shown that collaborative activities are ballooning across organizations, with sometimes as much as 80 percent of an organization’s time being devoted to collaborative efforts, leaving 20 percent or so to the work that must be executed solo. In addition, the collaborative load is lopsided, with up to a third of the value-added collaboration coming from only three to five percent of employees. Mankins also points out that overall productivity growth has been on the decline since 2007. It would seem that something is amiss.

A primary cause of collaboration overload is how we are choosing to collaborate. It is helpful to understand that there are three different types of collaboration: informational – knowledge and expertise that can be recorded and passed on; social – one’s awareness, access, and position in a network; and personal – one’s own time and energy. Personal collaboration carries the highest cost. For example, it is less costly to provide a collaborative knowledge bank that can be accessed by others as needed than to have to sit in every meeting personally to answer questions.

Then, there are your 3 to 5 percent of employees bringing the most value to the collaborative process. As they become known for being helpers, demand for them grows. They are drawn into more and more projects, and they do indeed drive your organization forward. The downside? They become bottlenecks in your organization, their effectiveness plummets and they burn out. Adam Grant, an industrial psychologist, has a great TED Talk on this topic entitled “Are You a Giver or a Taker?” that is worth the watch.

What about the communication piece? You might find it interesting that the average company loses more than 20 percent of its productive capacity to what Mankins calls “organizational drag.” You can think of organizational drag as the structures and processes that consume your employees’ time and prevent them from getting things done. This is essentially the organization getting in its own way, and much of this drag takes the form of meetings and e-communications. The number of meetings, number of attendees of meetings and length of meetings have all gone up. If you’ve been in the workforce for more than 10 years, you likely recognize this intuitively. The cost of setting meetings, or replying all is nonexistent on the front end. On the back end, the costs can be quite significant as each person processes email, sits in the meeting, etc. In a recent interview, Mankins stated that 30 percent of emails are emails that never should have been received and 55 percent of emails are unproductive and don’t lead to collaboration.

I’m certainly not denouncing collaboration, nor do I suggest that we opt for less efficiency in scheduling meetings or that you cease and desist all email communications. But, I am suggesting that we start working to ensure that our collaboration is effective and our communications are both necessary and helpful. These issues are culturally engrained behaviors that will take time, focus and persistence to change. There is no quick fix, but here are a couple pointers to get you moving in the right direction:

1.  Time is Your Scarcest Resource — Manage It Like Your Money

Start managing your time like you manage your money. Focus on where you are spending your most valuable resource — your organization’s time — and ensure that it is focused on the right priorities. Also, limit who can spend company time. Not everyone in your company has access to the corporate bank account or credit card. The same rules apply here.

2.  Protect Your “Givers”

Recognize your “givers” and teach them the skills to collaborate more effectively. Allow, and even encourage, them to say no. Supporting your “givers” while weeding out your takers will help to improve your culture and enhance the quality of contributions overall. It will also help you hold on to your best people.

3.  Encourage Different Types of Collaboration

More collaboration isn’t always better. Leaders need to recognize the right kinds of collaboration for the work at hand. Teach your team to invest different types of resources into collaboration. Depending on only personal resources will create bottlenecks, deplete the energy of your team and contribute to organizational drag. Shifting away from emphasizing personal resources as the primary form of collaboration alone can have a big impact on organizational culture, freeing up people to work on executing rather than sitting in meetings.

None of these are quick fixes, nor is this short list of three comprehensive. Other key areas of focus include addressing who has decision rights as well as your meeting culture, two topics too large for this article. True change needs to be part of a more holistic approach driven by leadership. Turning our eyes toward maximizing the effectiveness of collaboration and reducing organizational drag are two of the best things leaders can do to empower our teams and increase productivity.


EATHER PARBST is a business consultant and founder of Clarity3 Consulting, a company helping organizations solve their operations, culture and leadership challenges. Heather uses her past experience owning, leading, growing, and selling a technology company along with a background in psychology to help her clients execute on their objectives, move toward organizational excellence and increase their impact.

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