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Collaboration overload: when the outcome of your innovation effort is less than the sum of its parts

Posted by Oana-Maria Pop on Sep 14, 2015 6:00:00 AM

Here is an outlandish but probably familiar thought: We employ too many mechanisms to move ideas forward and far too few to grow promising ones “back”.

The root cause of this imbalance is leaders’ intolerance to risk accessorised with a “practical” collaboration protocol inside the company or, more recently, tailor-made software to do the housekeeping. As a result – intended or otherwise – the IT tool or habit (or both) work swiftly and uninterruptedly to place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on indexing, analysing, and transforming tried & tested (sometimes out-dated) ideas into something which is, at its best, only faintly useful to the company. While burning out a few key members of staff too.

Although this process can vary in length from a few weeks to months or even years (depending on the length of the innovation project in question), the conclusion is always the same:

Too much collaboration and most of it for all the wrong reasons.

Makes you wonder: Why collaborate in the first place if we keep getting it wrong? Truth be told, collaboration itself, clever IT tools & protocols included, is not the real concern. The real concern is collaboration overload or when the outcome of your innovation effort – i.e., complex reshuffling of capital, people and time, is less than the sum of its individual parts.

Now that I have your attention, let me direct it further towards one of my favourite reads on the topic: Where Has The Time Gone? Addressing Collaboration Overload in a Networked Economy by McIntire Professors Rob Cross and Peter Gray. Starting from the premise that excessive collaboration harms organizational performance, overworking employees for only marginal gains, Cross & Gray’s article elegantly and entertainingly shows how traditional approaches to collaboration slow decision-making and hurt ROI. Luckily for us, matters are not left at that. The second part of the article is devoted to solutions designed to improve the life of employees, enhance productivity and free up resources that can be applied elsewhere. 

Hungry for some facts? Let’s dig in.

Studying collaboration overload: The “how to” and the “why”

For the purpose of their research (started in 2006 and finalised by 2013) Cross & Gray surveyed 14 large companies in various industries analysing and eventually solving, fully or in part, their most prominent issues with collaboration through a method called Organizational Network Analysis (ONA). The goal was twofold: First, to uncover, through data, the bottlenecks, and second, to develop strategies that reduce excessive collaboration – i.e. delaying network overload points and streamlining decision and information networks. Sounds a bit technical, but I will explain in a bit. In exchange for the close cooperation, participants received an accurate x-ray of the inner workings of their organizations and, more importantly, were taught to look at the negative versus the positive outcome of (too) many inter-personal ties. 

To be or not to be… over reliant on formal structures? That is the question.

In terms of background, Cross & Gray begin their article with a detailed account of what it actually means for an organization to be over reliant on formal structures in the light of collaboration. Imagine the following: An expert is sought out by twice as many individuals from other groups than the next five experts in his group combined – or so the ONA analysis shows. In other words, a structural imbalance in expertise-seeking has occurred. It might be that the expert is indeed indispensable. But it can also be that the organogram, workflows or the search engine on the intranet point continuously to that person and that person only, leaving others’ resources untapped. This is the point when over reliance of formal structures becomes dangerous because unwillingness to delete arrows and delegate roles ends in burnout. And so the Dominos begin to fall: The overworked expert quits, which means loss of important interactions, which reduces connectivity, which adds weeks to product/ service development cycles, which leaves the impression that information that was easily and readily available in the past is much harder to source now. (1)

From the authors’ calculations, overload only becomes a serious issue once more than 25% of a person’s network cannot get enough of that individual’s time. If this happens, it’s time to lighten the structure by reducing the need for greater access to certain key members of personnel.


 Source: Cross & Gray (2013)

And if you need an extra incentive to change, there few arguments as convincing as this one: According to the Turnaround Society’s 2014 survey results, companies generally crumble because of internal reasons and not (absence of) cash flow. These quiet killers build up until they reach a point where they can no longer be ignored. Now, you know better than to become a statistic, don’t you?

Technology is not always the answer

The next worst thing for organizations seeking better collaboration, after being over reliant on formal structures, is overreliance on technology. For long it has been thought that the two fundamental value propositions for technologies, enabling new people-to-people and people-to-content connections as well as increase of individual content consumption, were effective for everyone. Studies are showing the opposite, though. In their article Cross & Gray remind readers that only some individuals benefit from social media, while others become far less productive. Furthermore, people that were once self-reliant may be under the impression that they must always consult others before acting. And let’s not even get started on voting and linking algorithms (we mentioned them before under over reliance on fiendish formal structures) that make certain experts constantly appear at the top of search results, directing disproportionate attention or “traffic” to them. We want this for our websites but not for our talents. (2)

The structural and behavioural solutions

Having understood what the major problems are, it’s time to focus on solutions. The recommendations are of two types: structural and behavioural. My favourite four under each heading are listed below. For the complete list, browse the full paper.


 Visualizing overload points. Source: Cross & Gray (2013)

Structural solutions:

  • Make information that you are routinely asked for available through other people or websites;
  • Shift portions of your role to people on the fringes of the network as a development opportunity (not a burden or curse);
  • Acquire buffers – i.e. assistants, that encourage collaborators to be focused and efficient;
  • Hold periodic meetings instead of many fragmented interactions.

Behavioural solutions:

  • Avoid being responsible for expertise that is less central to your success than it used to be;
  • Correct collaboration problems quickly, before they escalate;
  • Co-create solutions with employees – over time they will take ownership and demand less interaction;
  • Go face-to-face for high stake interactions, thereby reducing the need for follow-up meetings.

Other facts to take with you

Some other interesting stats from the paper to keep in mind when thinking about collaboration include:

  • In a risk-averse culture, decision-making processes mimic what has worked in the past;
  • 3% to 5% of the people in an organization commonly account for 20% to 35% of the value-added collaborations;
  • Leaders often underestimate by as much as 50% just how many people in their organization are overloaded; most-overloaded employees delegate to the next most busy people and simply shift the burden without solving the problem;
  • When interviewed, people cite being summoned for information about roles they had transitioned out of as far back as 5 years ago;
  • Simple adjustments yield large improvements: Using a blog to communicate thoughts, or instructing people to participate in meetings only when they feel they will get something out of them (fellow HYPE blogger Jaspar has a great post about it);
  • Collaboration efficiency is (best) improved one individual at a time; if executed correctly, its impact is distributed broadly throughout the network – the so-called ripple effects.

To conclude, it can be hard to keep employees focused on the task and activities that are most crucial to value creation. Nevertheless, forcing them to collaborate is not the answer. Leaders who actively seek to remove unnecessary and inefficient collaboration will help employees be more effective (and happier?) in their jobs. Take the 14 (now) happy organizations investigated by Cross and Gray’s word for it. 


(1) Situations like these call for immediate intervention. One solution proposed by the authors is drafting plans to retain employees at risk. Using data in predictive and proactive ways is key, especially since companies tend to generate more data than they can crunch, very often in fragile spreadsheets. On the mid and long run, companies are encouraged to transition to a “delayered” structure and increasingly use non-traditional metrics like, for example, total number of incoming ties and % of contacts who needed greater access to each manager.

(2) Once again, in terms of intervention, expertise-focused discussion groups to engage underutilized experts are cited. In time, the search group archive will provide more information. This is what travel blogs and expat forums have known for years. 

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