Like so many professionals, I’m challenged to have enough time to respond to requests from others and get my own work done. It felt like the authors of the Harvard Business Review article “Collaboration Without Burnout” were speaking to me with this gem:
“Much overload is driven by your desire to maintain a reputation as helpful.”
The article by Rob Cross, Scott Taylor and Deb Zehner is centred on research with “efficient collaborators – people who work productively with a wide variety of others” using the least amount of time.
A few years ago, I developed a process we use with clients to create engagement plans for effective collaboration. Since my process and the article represent two perspectives on the same topic, I decided to compare them to see what we can learn.
While many time management approaches focus on habits, processes and tools, the researchers found the best practices of the efficient collaborators covered three broad categories (the link to my process is in brackets):
- Beliefs (understanding why)
- Role, schedule and network (determining what to take on based on “professional aspirations and personal values”)
- Behaviour (how to collaborate productively)
Read the full article in Harvard Business Review:
Why Do You Want to Do It?
Taking a thoughtful approach to how we engage employees and others in projects and decisions can help make sure their time – and ours – is well used. One of the initial steps is figuring out both what they can contribute and why they would want to be involved – what’s in it for them.
This connects with the best practice related to beliefs in the HBR article. The challenge at an individual level is evaluating whether you bring value to the collaboration or if the desire is more ego-driven: how you see yourself and want others to see you. The authors in the HBR article call it “identity-based triggers.”
The quote about reputation spoke to me because I’ve built a career on being a “go to” person. As an entrepreneur, I need to be more selective about tying my self-image to that role, especially when it comes to work that doesn’t align with my chosen direction.
What Will Guide Your Choice of Opportunities?
In planning for engagement, we work through another important question: at which points can various people add value? Just because someone’s collaboration is important to a project, that doesn’t mean they need to be involved from start to finish. This critical step manages expectations and keeps the level of effort reasonable. It’s more respectful of people’s time – we ask for their involvement only when they can have a meaningful impact on the outcome.
From an individual perspective, the HBR article talks about taking a broad proactive approach that includes clarifying your “north star” and making changes to your role, schedule and network based on that. This best practice is meant to help you avoid even being asked to collaborate on things that aren’t aligned with where you want to go.
I love their suggestion that leaders identify decisions where their involvement could be delegated. That approach provides opportunities for others. It also makes sure the person who asked for their collaboration gets someone who will not only bring value, but who will also receive value from the experience! They’ll likely be more invested in the outcome too.
I’m in a period of re-positioning my business with a focus on helping organizations access the talent, insight and capacity of their employees. There were years in my business where we did whatever clients needed. While that may sound like a good idea, it really means the clients were my north star. Without clients, Essence wouldn’t exist: I guess you could say they are our sun. However, we can best support them by focussing on our north star – our mission, and the unique processes and products we offer.
Good leaders harness power: they take it and try to make the wisest decisions to have the most impact.
Great leaders distribute power: great leaders recognize that fundamentally power is not a finite resource. Power is not scarce. Power is abundant.
~ Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, Technology executive, entrepreneur, founder of the Boardlist
How Can You Make the Most of Collaboration?
No surprise here: the biggest time sucker they identified is poorly run meetings! This is something I’ve talked about before. Look at the following articles for more information:
In planning for engagement, we consider what the client needs, what the participants need and want, and the best process. That means it may be a very structured and facilitated process or a broader discussion. The best choice may not be a meeting. It could involve sharing information or ideas for feedback using a different tool. The point of an engagement plan is to consider everyone’s needs and perspectives, and make effective use of their time.
Then there are the smaller – but still important – efficiency steps: considering how you use tools such as email, collaborative software or services, and knowing when it’s time to talk live!
On a personal level, I’m going to take a closer look at their suggestions regarding networks.
Organizational Vs. Individual Responsibility
I agree with the authors that organizations could be managing collaboration more strategically. Overload makes it hard for people to give their best and make the most of the opportunities. While there are steps individuals can take, it’s a topic worth some discussion by leaders.
Rob Cross, one of the authors, created a tool to evaluate your situation. It allows you to assess your individual habits and even have other colleagues or team members do the same. (I’ve tested it. It even allows you to compare your results to other groups.)