What can you do to avoid collaboration overload?
Collaboration overload can be defined as the point when you spend more time working on ad-hoc requests from colleagues than accomplishing your tasks and working towards your own goals. It might be frustrating and generate unnecessary stress.
The Harvard Business Review published an article on the subject in 2016, written by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant. In this article, the authors state that around 80% of work time is spent between meetings, phone calls and emails.
Their analysis points out the issues that can arise when collaboration isn’t properly structured.
First, collaboration overload often is a symptom of communication overload. If your organization lacks a system to efficiently share knowledge, you might end up spending 80% of your time communicating and sharing information that - with the right system -you would have been able to find on your own.
The second issue is the lack of work management and a structured way of work. With no process or templates, with no structure for knowledge sharing, you will need help from others more often.
Furthermore, lack of priorities will give you a hard time setting and structuring your activities and you will be more vulnerable for collaboration overload.
Meetings are also a source of wasted time - especially when they lack a clear agenda, don’t have a limited timeframe, and are attended by people who are not always directly concerned.
All these causes of communication overload are generated through a lack of structure in the way the organization shares knowledge and through poor collaboration etiquette.
How to regain control?
Collaboration overload mostly is a signal of a deeper organizational problem. Structuring collaboration around the right set of tools and practices will certainly help to regain control. Collaboration relies on three main pillars: team communication, knowledge sharing, and work management. Structuring and normalizing collaboration on these three levels will effectively reduce collaboration overload.
First, information and collective knowledge should be accessible to all employees. Create a repository of available information and design it to evolve and include more information over time. You can also create company wikis, documentation that can evolve with time as collaborators contribute to them. These can document good practices, processes, and other critical information, making it all widely available.
The second point is to constantly share new information in existing repositories and communicate the fact that new information is available on a topic to the other co-workers concerned.
Another way to reduce noise is to set processes and use templates and checklists for recurrent tasks and projects. Doing so formalizes the work and makes more information available to the right person at the right moment.
Finally, lowering the number and lengths of meetings also contributes to regaining control. Since information can be shared more easily and is increasingly available, a lot of meetings will become unnecessary.
If you are trying to regain control on a personal level, two solutions are available to you. The first is to try to shake your organization's existing structure to apply any or all the solutions above. The second is to develop a constructive collaboration etiquette by doing the following things:
• Share any new information in the appropriate repository
• Communicate whenever new information is available (what it is and where it is)
• Give status updates on the progress
• Search before you ask
• Hold meetings only when they are necessary and beneficial to every attendee
• Say no to impromptu, not urgent requests and build in some response time.
Collaboration overload is a phenomenon that must be addressed before it leads to unproductive collaboration and eventually to burnout.
Collaborative Overload. Rob Cross, Rob Rebele, Adam Grant. HBR, 2016.
Death by Information Overload. Paul Hemp, HBR, 2009.