Has workplace collaboration gone ‘too far’?

The nature of the work should shape how we work.

Collaboration is vital to the lifeblood of an organisation. The capacity to leverage diverse perspectives to solve problems and realise significant business opportunities is critical for sustainable organisational success. But amidst the back-to-back calendar meetings, constant email requests for input and long list of phone calls to return, is it possible that constant collaboration is obscuring our need for deeper thinking?

With headlines like ‘Collaboration Overload’ and ‘The Collaboration Curse’, the Harvard Business Review and The Economist certainly think so. HBR estimates the time that typical employees spend in meetings, on the phone, or responding to emails at about 80%. This figure seems high, but will resonate with many Australians.

In some organisations I have seen this relentless collaboration become a ‘defense mechanism’. Collaboration becomes a barrier to actually sitting with, and working through, the complexity and ambiguity associated with a challenge or task. In some organisational cultures it also provides a socially accepted way to avoid individual accountability for delivery of outcomes.

So when did we lose sight of the nature of the work in our thinking? Could we have forgotten about why we need to collaborate, about having the space to consciously determine when we do it (or don’t!), and what to do next?

Why – and how – collaboration is necessary

Collaboration solves problems and creates the opportunities we couldn’t create on our own. It is also a powerful source of ideas and discovery.

The conditions, however, need to be right for change to come about. Notable examples are found throughout science and research, including James Watson and Francis Crick, who received a Nobel Prize for mapping the unique double helix structure of DNA. As I discovered during my recent visit to the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, whilst many other more qualified researchers were formally working on DNA (including Rosalind Franklin and Linus Pauling), Watson and Crick’s story is remarkable in that mapping the structure of DNA was not part of their formal research. Their journey to discovery was driven by out-of-hours, informal and lively discussions over beers at the pub – at times full of debate and disagreement. It shows how collaboration requires space at the right times, coming together, some rule breaking and mutual respect as well asdiversity of skillsets.

Getting the conditions right for hard-core thinking

As The Economist observed: “It is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem.”

In an increasingly global, networked, and tech-enabled world, uninterrupted concentration is needed more than ever for deep thinking. So to create enduring value in an organisation, we need to know when collaboration makes sense, when it doesn’t, and when quieter, deeper thinking needs to happen.

We also need to be able to collaborate appropriately based on the level of complexity of the actual work to be done. Elliott Jaques outlines this in his model of Requisite Organization. In this model, he outlines a definable strata of work to be done, with each stratum representing one complexity step beyond the other, to ensure an organisation’s effectiveness and viability. What collaboration needs to look like at Stratum II, therefore (where colleagues within a team or operating unit might collaborate to generate continuous improvement ideas to refine existing work processes), will no doubt be very different to collaboration at Stratum IV (where stakeholders with competing interests may come together to generate completely new customer value propositions which shore up competitive position in a dynamic market).

A leader needs to be thinking at the right level of complexity in order to determine what the nature of the challenge is, the type of collaboration required, and who needs to be part of it.

The role of leaders in stewarding this type of process is outlined beautifully in Peter Senge’s Vision Engagement Model (from his book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook). He looks at the different ways leaders can engage their people in vision creation. In a detailed analysis he considers 5 different approaches: Telling, Selling, Testing, Consulting, and Co-creating. He acknowledges that a different capacity for complex thinking is required at each level of the task, and that employees need to have the required capacity to think at that level.

I know we are social beings, and organisations are social entities, but surely we can think more deeply about what we choose to collaborate on and how we do it, based on the actual nature of the work to be done. Without doing so we run the risk of creating endless loops of non-value adding interactions, masquerading as collaboration.

Let’s not mistake our desire to feel included and connect with other human beings at work as a requirement for carte blanche collaboration.

In years to come, we may well look back on this collaboration craze in the same way we now look back on experts who claimed a single ‘best’ leadership approach and realise just how immature in our thinking we were.

About Fiona Stewart

Fiona Stewart is the Managing Director and Co-Founder of LTA People, a specialist Organisation Development consultancy based in Melbourne, Australia. Fiona defines the critical people levers that drive strategy execution, and translates these into actionable people and culture frameworks, plans and programs that are woven into the fabric of the organisation.


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