Impose New Structure

How did yesterday unfold for you? Did you spend your day doing work that you added value to, and that added value to you? Was it work that generated progress toward your and the organization’s most important goals? On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your day? Was it a ten? Or, deep down, do you feel that was it more like a one?

The paradox here is that many of us have a lot of say in the work we do. Whether we are managers or employees, we have a degree of freedom that earlier generations would have envied. As more and more companies recognize the power of autonomy to motivate people and unleash creativity, we’re able to make many choices about what work we do, which aspect of projects we focus on, and who we collaborate with. Organizations have become competitive marketplaces of ideas where bold initiatives are springboards to promotions. Fewer and fewer of us are simply given a wrench and told which nut to turn.

And yet in many ways, we might as well be stuck in the old days of the industrial efficiency movement, when the starched-collar management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor, also an Olympic golfer, saw workers as little balls to be swatted around corporations with maximum force for maximum efficiency.

Why do we consistently end up getting pulled into collaborative work that has nothing to do with where we want to go in our careers or who we want to be? It’s as though some invisible force were dictating our work to us and continually knocking us off paths we would prefer to be traversing.

The purpose of the previous chapter was to show that this invisible force is partly a product of our own unarticulated needs, emotions, and motivations—in other words, that the things that happen to us are actually, in large part, things we do to ourselves. The purpose of this chapter is to show that there are structural solutions to this problem that can free us from being strong-armed by the system so that, instead, we can take control and shape the system to our needs.

“Control” is a complicated and loaded word. In the previous chapter, we saw how fear of losing control can be a trigger that gets us into collaboration overload. We saw that managers who are obsessed with control can create vast amounts of churn in the workplace. But that is not the kind of control I mean. I’m not talking about the need to do everything yourself.

Instead, I’m talking about knowing where you want to go, for yourself and the organization, and making sure that you keep progressing in that direction—making sure that collaboration overload doesn’t turn your life into a Groundhog Day nightmare of waking up every day in exactly the same place.

“What Was I Doing?”

Let’s get back to Scott, the struggling leader we met in chapter 1. Scott provides a good example of the use of structure to alleviate overload. When I met him, the organizational network analysis we had conducted on the top 10,000 people in his organization showed that he was the number-one most overloaded person. By working with him, my colleagues and I were able to move him down to number seventeen, and then to number twenty-three. The process ultimately reframed his role and positioned him in work streams where he added unique value. As described in chapter 1, part of his reinvention involved altering his view of what it means to be a servant leader. He came to understand that it was better to help people develop their own capabilities than to directly assist them. Another big part of it was looking at structural elements of his work life.

It started with the company’s response to Scott’s physical health. He was wrung out and struggling on many physical fronts. So, the company took an action I did not know was possible: it sent him to a ten-day health and wellness retreat. The critical part was that the retreat unplugged him. He had to give up his devices—that’s devices, plural. He describes the first day offline as being like heroin withdrawal. And to some degree, we know this is not too far off—neuroscience shows us that the jolts we get from continually checking our devices entrain us into a vicious cycle.

Somehow Scott managed to fight through the ten days, doing yoga, meditating, and not using his devices. But on day eleven, he was back on email. Ten days of messages had piled up. He had thousands of them, and he was determined to get caught up.

Diving back into his emails led to his greatest epiphany, a learning that has held to this day. He jumped into the email threads with renewed vigor from the respite. As he began to see issues emerge, he viscerally felt his body react. His pulse rose. His face flushed. He could feel his blood pressure rising as he thought, “I need to get into this.” But then he would follow the threads over the days up to the present and realize—to his amazement—that many of the issues had been settled without him. Most were resolved within an hour or two after the point where he would have jumped in to “help.”

He worked with a coach who pointed out, via feedback from direct reports and colleagues, that not only were these issues resolved without his input, they were resolved faster—and typically better—than if he had been involved. “What was I doing?” he asked, shaking his head. “My well-intentioned impact of jumping in was causing bigger problems.”

Scott went back four months into his calendar to review his collaborations. He soon saw, in analyzing his day-by-day interactions, that his desire to be helpful wasn’t the only cause of his problems. In a number of cases, the cause was the corporate penchant for creating bureaucracy. Routine decisions often become embedded in time-consuming processes because somewhere back in the mists of time, someone made an error, such as delivering a flawed product to an important customer, and the response was to create a policy, process, or procedure to ensure this never happens again. But typically, these solutions to a one-off mistake ended up consuming enormous amounts of collaborative time. Scott’s calendar was full of interactions tied to policies, processes, and procedures like that.

The four-month time frame that he examined was critical. You can’t look back just one week; if you do, you’ll be so close to the issues that you’ll see everything as completely justified. But when people get some distance, they are always surprised by the range of nonessential collaborations they are pulled into, usually because these things have somehow become part of the structure of their roles through others’ expectations.

Scott scanned through each day on his calendar, looking for recurring activities or meetings. He was able to identify many opportunities where his time burden could have been reduced by shifting decision thresholds or roles or creating alternative go-to people.

Then he looked forward two months, scanning for the same kinds of recurring meetings and nonvalue-added activity. He was sickened by what he saw. There were many planned interactions in which he would clearly add no value, yet his participation had been built into the fabric of how work was done. For most of the items embedded in his calendar, his role was not to provide ideas, vision, or inspiration, but to coordinate work that others could have coordinated, or simply to be present so that people who lacked confidence to act independently could reassure themselves that they weren’t making mistakes.

Using the Calendar Strategically

Scott recognized that he needed to put his North Star objectives—capabilities he wanted to deploy in his work and values he wanted to live through his career—front and center, and that in light of those objectives, he would have to rethink what decisions and informational requests he needed to participate in, whether portions of his role should go to others, and whether he could reduce his meeting time. He would have to be proactive about structuring his professional life more intentionally through his calendar.

North Star objectives

Scott reflected on what his true goals were for his life and his work. Long ago, he had been clear about what drew him to this company: his sense that the company’s size, reach, and visionary leadership uniquely positioned it to provide tools to help the working poor and new immigrants begin to use the banking system. Many of the initiatives that Scott had been involved with were aimed at the “unbanked” and people with bad credit, helping them save money, transfer funds, and use ATMs. His work, he felt, had the potential to make the world a better place. That was important to him.

He had gotten too far away from all that—now his days seemed to be all about the minutiae—so he resolved to refocus himself on the “why” of his work. “Being clear on the values I wanted to live through work was simple,” he said, “but it had a profound effect on how I started prioritizing and eliminating interactions.”

Decisions and informational requests

He also saw that his decision threshold was too low: he was willing, even eager, to pass judgment on issues that other managers at his level would have considered too trivial to merit their time. In order to get out of collaboration overload—as well as to provide others with a greater sense of autonomy and engagement—Scott reset his threshold, at least for certain kinds of decisions. He stopped getting involved in travel approvals, for example, as well as human resources decisions for people who were so far down the hierarchy that he had never even met them. As he looked at each decision, he asked himself: Could a colleague handle this?

He found many requests for information that shouldn’t have been directed at him. He discovered that a significant number were from past colleagues seeking his technical knowledge in areas, such as prepaid cards, that were ancient history for him now and didn’t benefit him anymore. He realized he had probably tacitly encouraged these queries because he enjoyed being helpful to, and held in high regard by, his old coworkers. But no more—spending his time on things like that didn’t benefit him or the company. Stepping back, he was able to parse the informational requests into various categories and then named an emerging talent who was more current on the topic areas as a go-to person for each group of requests.


With his new lens, Scott began to question parts of his role. He took an experimental approach: “Some things I just stopped doing, and waited to see what would happen,” he said. “If I got one or two emails asking why I was missing a meeting, I just ignored them and life went on and adjusted around me. Only when I kept getting urgent requests did I look further into them to see if I was truly needed.”

In situations where he was indeed playing an important role, he looked to shift as much as possible to less-overwhelmed people. In the past, he had been told by coaches and senior executives that he needed to delegate more, but he had responded by shifting responsibilities to the one person he already relied on most heavily—in other words, to the next-busiest person in his area. That person quickly became overloaded, and the responsibilities bounced back to Scott. This time he identified people who could learn to handle big chunks of his responsibilities without routing them back to him. Equally important, these were people he was trying to cultivate and slingshot into the kinds of work where they could improve their productivity, become resources for everyone, and further balance collaborative demands throughout the system.

Meeting time

Scott looked at the length of each recurring meeting and asked himself if it could be cut in half. He also identified meetings that could be scheduled less frequently or, in some cases, canceled.

Pulling the whole picture together, Scott created what he called a “strategic calendaring” regimen. He looked ahead at each coming week, as well as at the coming four weeks, and tried to make sure all his activities were aligned with his goals. He scouted to see where nonessential collaborations were sneaking onto his schedule. He made a plan to connect the people around him and develop capabilities in his team. And he set aside time for reflection.

All these actions involved being proactive and refusing to cede control to the invisible forces of collaboration overload. None of the steps were particularly difficult, yet they had a huge effect on both his career and his marriage. “I was able to build more regenerating interactions into my life,” he said.

Pursuing his goals gave him new energy. “I made sure that I built interactions into my schedule that matched up with values I wanted to experience in my career and my life,” Scott said. “For me, these included developmental interactions and ones that were creative and involved plotting the company’s future.”

Scott was surprised at how little pushback he got. On the length of his meetings, for example, he said, “Humans can expand activities to fill meeting time like nobody’s business. When I did the reverse and shrank the meetings, I didn’t get a single complaint!”

I’ve heard so many stories like Scott’s. Over and over, the efficient collaborators I interviewed told me how they escaped from meaningless interactions. In the next section of this chapter, I’ll call out their most common structural practices for overcoming overload and engaging in essential collaboration. These practices can be grouped into two areas: the first are about orienting networks to North Star objectives, and the next are about shaping role interdependencies to improve collaborative efficiency. Let’s look at each group in turn.

Orienting Networks to North Star Objectives

In order to feel confident about which collaborative tasks are right for you and which to avoid, you need to have a clear idea of what really matters to you. What are your North Star objectives? I’m talking about not just a single goal such as getting a promotion to a specific position, but a combination of expertise, values, and identity.

I realize that sounds abstract, so I’ll get more specific (and, again, please take a look at the end of the chapter for a summary view of these practices).

Focus on your expertise

Reflect on capabilities that you want to develop, be known for, and grow into during the coming five years. Focus on the kinds of expertise you enjoy using, rather than on the demands of a specific role or function. This area of expertise might already be a strength for you, or it might be aspirational. Either way, it must be something that you enjoy, or would enjoy, deploying. It should also provide significant value for the organization.

That’s a lot to unpack: What area of expertise, which you enjoy deploying and in which you are or wish to be strong and which adds a lot of value to the organization, would you like to see become a distinguishing feature of your work?

There are several diagnostics that can help you figure this out, such as Gallup’s CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinder) or Donald Super’s Work Values Inventory. An example might be expertise in connecting people. Let’s say you really enjoy linking people with similar interests across silos, and you’re good at it. You know it’s beneficial to your company, but so far you haven’t been able to do it much because you’re stuck in work that doesn’t make use of this talent. Defining your North Star objective might mean developing a clear sense that you want to become known and respected—and promoted and compensated—for this talent.

Defining a North Star objective in this way—and not with a focus on a role or promotion—is critical to the reputation you develop and to influencing networks to draw you into satisfying, purposeful work.

Focus on your values

What do you truly value? Be honest: Is it material items? Accomplishment? Creativity? Helping others? Don’t aim too intently at specific roles. And focus on what you care about, not what culture or social media tells you is important.

Think about times when you were thriving in your work—showing up fully engaged and absorbed in what you were doing. Identify aspects of the work you found meaningful. Then characterize the nature of interactions you had with your network at this time that mattered to you. Did you love the co-creation aspect of it? Did you love working with people who cared about similar aspects of the task? Did you love the humor in the work environment? (Yes, humor is an important value too.)

Focus on your identity

What are the personal, outside aspirations and commitments that you want to hold true to? The list might include family or community involvement. Or it might include exercise. Is your identity that you are a civic-minded person? An activist? Fighter? Athlete? Provider? Caregiver?

These aspirations and commitments help you create boundaries around work and implement buffering strategies such as specific rules around when you will answer email, check texts or phone messages, and leave the office. They will also help you make what I call network-anchoring investments—investments of time with at least one and usually two groups of people outside of work that pull you into different domains and help you value things more broadly than work (I will say much more about these anchoring investments in chapter 8).

Once you have defined a North Star objective on the basis of your expertise, values, and identity, you can focus on the practices that successful collaborators employ to reach their objectives:

Focus on your strengths

Develop clarity on the strengths you want to use in your work. This will guide which collaborations you get involved in, what you say no to, and what you teach others to solve for.

For Darren, an HR executive at a global tech company, his clear strength is solving thorny problems through a network approach. “I know I’m one of those people who love to run at things that are complex and hard,” he told me. “I love looking at complex problems that most people would run away from. I love pulling those problems apart into micro-pieces and solving them incrementally by going to the network to find folks who are going to help me unpack the problem and solve it.”

However, with many years’ experience, he’s also a whiz at handling the routine decisions that come up all the time in HR. In fact, he recognizes that because he spends so much of his time dealing with super-complicated issues—“problems with long, long tails”—it can be tempting to take a break from these headaches by focusing on quick, easy, low-level decisions.

“When I’m having a bad day where I’m working on something hard and thorny, and I know it’s going to take me three months to get it done, the most seductive thing for me is to get an email with a question that I know the answer to or with a request for a decision that I can easily make,” Darren said. “It’s seductive because I know I can type in the answer, hit the ‘send’ button, and feel that I’ve accomplished something that helped someone. I know I would feel, ‘Damn, I got something done today!’ It’s like when I pull weeds in the yard on the weekend: I can look back in a couple of hours and say I actually did something tangible!”

But his superpower of being able to quickly dispatch low-level decisions is a strength he doesn’t want to deploy. He restrains himself from using it. “I know that if I dealt with those problems, I’d just be stroking my personal ego rather than doing what’s best,” he said. “I know that what the company needs me to do, and what I need to do for my team’s growth, is to hand off these requests to people on my team. Their job is to learn, and this is how they learn, so if I dealt with a request myself, I’d be taking away their ability to do their job. So instead of giving in to the temptation to deal with these issues myself, I’ll say to a team member, ‘Here’s something that could be kind of interesting. Go work it out. I trust you.’”

This self-discipline helps him stay aligned with the values he wants to live and the identity he wants to build his life around. He is able to continue to develop his team and grow into the kind of visionary and inspiring executive he wants to be. He knows he can’t stay focused on the big picture if he lets himself get absorbed in collaborations that should be other people’s responsibilities.

Like Darren, the most-efficient collaborators have figured out how to build their important aspirations into their work and their lives.

Focus on connections

Proactively initiate network connections important to professional and personal success. Too often we completely overlook the fact that we are social beings who function within networks of social beings. In the hundreds of interviews I conducted, it was vanishingly rare for these accomplished individuals to even acknowledge that their ideas and achievements had anything to do with other people’s contributions. This is just human nature. Most of the time we put ourselves at the center of our success and forget about the impact of the networks around us.

Yet research shows that we are all guided by our connections to others. We shouldn’t forget that fact. We should actively seek out and make connections with people who can help us meet our goals, and in so doing create powerful networks that I describe as noninsular.

A noninsular network is one that takes you off your island, whatever that island is (“insular” comes from the Latin word for island). By spanning boundaries, noninsular networks offer rich opportunities to get help with projects, tap into ideas, and gain a broad perspective. Efficient collaborators initiate these connections across short, medium, and long time horizons and do not let the more-distant-horizon interactions fall away, as so often happens to people who are collaboratively overwhelmed (more on this in chapter 6).

Block time in your calendar for more-reflective work

Acutely aware that time is their most important asset, the most-efficient collaborators use their calendars as tools to avoid unnecessary collaborations and consistently move toward their North Star objectives through their professional and personal activities. They’ll typically build rolling calendars and create categories that are important to their overall success and make sure there are activities in each of these categories in each of the time periods.

Many specifically make sure they include enough energizing interactions sprinkled throughout any given week to offset the less-energizing interactions. Scheduling energizing interactions allows you to maintain your sense of purpose and engagement so you can consistently be present for people and build supportive networks. (See the Coaching Break, “Strategic Calendaring.”)


Strategic Calendaring

The best way to manage your time is to create a visual model of it. That’s why strategic calendaring is so important. Follow these steps:

  1. Define your priorities. That always comes first. Don’t let your priorities be defined by others or by societal expectations that you will attain lofty positions that may not line up with what you want to do or be. Be clear on capabilities you want to distinguish yourself on and develop in the coming five years and values you want to experience in your career.
  2. Create a development plan for yourself and then reach out to a network of advisers. Don’t focus exclusively on people who fulfill the roles you want; instead, include people who live the way you most want to live, whether they are older or younger and whether they are inside or outside of your traditional career path.
  3. Create a weekly, biweekly, or monthly rolling calendar. Base the calendar on holistic categories that are important to your overall success. Categories might include current business contributions, strategic or long-term planning, team and network development, personal or professional development, and mental and physical well-being.
  4. Set aside a one-hour block at the end or beginning of each time period. Use the time to create your calendar for the next period.
  5. Incorporate your priorities into the calendar. Set up meetings with people to focus on what you want to do. At the same time, your priorities should guide your decisions about which meetings you don’t need to attend. Some people color-code their calendars to help them see the big picture. For example, label meetings that you must attend as green, those that you don’t need to attend as red.
  6. Use your calendar to limit the time that you allocate to work, email, or social media. Create buffering strategies such as rules around when you will answer email, check instant messaging or phone messages, and leave work.
  7. Lock in important activities related to your objectives. Shape your planned interactions to create new possibilities and generate work that you find engaging.
  8. Adhere to your calendar to fulfill commitments. Those commitments include family, exercise, or community involvement.
  9. Make sure that your interactions are balanced for maximum energy. If you know you’re going to have to go through a de-energizing interaction, balance it with an energizing interaction so that you can restore your sense of purpose in your work.
  10. Employ buffering mechanisms such as administrative assistants. Allow teams to have visibility into blocks of time they can schedule with you in relation to key activities, deliverables, and important milestones, but otherwise limit people’s access to you.

Manage to your best rhythm of work

What rhythm of work has proved to be most effective for you? If early morning is a time of energy and clarity, what’s your best use of that time? Maybe it’s engaging in creative thought.

Late afternoon is a desert for many of us, a time when we seek out the oases of small workrooms equipped with comfortable chairs so we can close our eyes for a few minutes. But for others, late afternoon is a low-pressure time of relaxed clarity—perfect for knocking out emails or organizing next week’s calendar. Some people gain new energy late at night after everyone else has gone to bed, becoming intensely creative in the final hours of the day.

Listen to your rhythms. Work with them; manage to them. Schedule the most important activities to match your expected surges of energy and creativity, and reserve the most routine stuff for your dead times.

As he gained an understanding of essential collaboration, Scott became highly attuned to his rhythm of work and began sticking to it. For years, he had been in the habit of starting on email first thing in the morning (I got some messages from him as early as 3 a.m.). The idea was to get the emails out of the way so he didn’t hold people up and he could get on to his strategic work. But, of course, that never happened. Email begets email.

He realized that “by answering emails, I was letting other people start my day for me,” he said. So, he reversed the order of his activities, using the early-morning time for what mattered most to him. “I learned that I was much better off starting with the reflective, creative work. I forced myself not to look at email. Then I had my EA block time for email through the day to take care of urgent items. As people got used to this pattern, they quit sending me emails on big issues that should have been discussions anyway.” (See the Coaching Break, “Taking Small Steps.”)


Taking Small Steps

Contrary to what most people assume, shifting routine work to others doesn’t require a massive effort. Instead, it’s a matter of a few small steps.

  • Develop an awareness of others’ expertise and aspirations. Knowing where expertise lies in the network broadens the way you conceptualize problems and solutions. Knowing others’ aspirations informs how you enroll people and diffuse ownership. Every week, meet with colleagues and/or employees or use social-media tools to extend your understanding of others’ knowledge and motivations.
  • Set expectations. If you’re a leader, establish expectations that people around you will solve problems collaboratively rather than come to you for approval or face time. Look for opportunities to distribute work within your networks in ways that might prevent excessive collaborative demands from coming to you. For example, pairing high and low performers can leverage the team’s expertise and provide developmental support to lower performers. Every week, find a way to provide informal recognition for others’ collaborative problem solving.
  • Engage others in co-creation of solutions early. They should feel ownership and begin building collaborative relationships that help you step out of tasks. One leader’s steadfast rule is I never do anything alone. This stands in contrast to less-effective people who think they should hold on to an idea until it has developed and then have to invest time and effort to get others up to speed and connected to the right people in the network. Every week, bring someone with you to meetings, client interactions, or lunches as a way to engage others early and diffuse ownership of work and innovation.

Sculpt your work to align with your objectives

If we’re not careful, we can get pulled into all sorts of collaborative work that has nothing to do with where we want to go in our careers or who we want to be. For example, Tristan, a manager at a consulting firm that partners with state governments to build wireless networks, was good at making social connections. He had a reputation as someone who would say yes to just about anything: yes was his answer to colleagues who needed assistance finding sites for wireless nodes; yes was his answer to wrangling permits; yes to helping debug a piece of proprietary software; yes to giving talks at schools about the smart grid.

He said yes for many reasons, chief among them that he enjoyed interesting, challenging projects. He had a big appetite for life, and his firm allowed him to eat his fill. The CEO appreciated the way Tristan spread his enthusiasm from one corner of the company to the other, so she encouraged him to cross boundaries.

But because Tristan’s efforts lacked the purpose and thoughtfulness that characterize the most-efficient collaborators, he had never been able to set a clear direction for his career. He did a lot of this and a lot of that but ended up going in circles. Finally, feeling frustrated, he clarified his North Star objectives: he wanted to sculpt his career by building on his interest in and skill at managing operations, and he was determined to help the company grow beyond its current regional presence. In addition to using strategic calendaring and finding alternative go-to people who could handle the kinds of requests he was used to handling himself, Tristan went a step further, getting involved in operational aspects of the firm that he had previously stayed out of.

Not only did he become more effective overall, he also got the attention of the CEO as an operational maven. When the COO position opened up, he got the job.

Shaping Role Interdependencies

The second set of structural practices focus on roles and the interdependencies among them—in other words, these practices are about being mindful and proactive about who depends on whom, for what, and to what extent.

Sometimes we inadvertently invite people to become too dependent on us. An extreme example is Asher, who is part of a team that handles back-office functions for a global consulting firm. Asher’s team members are known for their collegiality. But if you spend any time in his area, you’ll see that it’s not just collegiality that constantly brings his coworkers to his cube. Asher has a reputation for knowing how all the intranet applications work. Sometimes a line forms at his desk. “Asher, when you get done helping that person with the KM app, could you help me with the scheduling process?”

Asher spends hours every week helping his coworkers on technical-support issues, even when he knows he shouldn’t. For example, when the company rolled out its brand-new expense system, he was the only person who seemed to be able to figure it out. It became a perfect storm: a very-user-unfriendly system plus a very-user-friendly colleague. So, he answered all comers who needed help, leaving him with hardly any time for his own work. Now he doesn’t know how to get out of the situation. He is a prototypical example of how easily servant-minded people can get stuck under a burden of collaboration overload.

In addition to being inundated with requests from his coworkers, Asher continues to get a steady stream of assignments from above, and rarely do these requesters ask what else he’s working on or whether he has the bandwidth to take on something new. But like most of us, he doesn’t want to hesitate and doesn’t want to be a complainer. So, he feels that he has no choice but to say yes.

“Shaping role interdependencies” means using role management as a buffer. Erecting barriers between you and sources of overload by understanding and managing the network will help you systematically buy back time. The most adept collaborators use the following practices.

Periodically review calendars and email

Do this to define information requests that you are involved in and that could be either reallocated to less-overloaded people or more efficiently addressed with a revised process or policy.

We saw Scott do this well. He defined information requests, routine decisions, and meetings that could be removed from his work stream. Do as Scott did, reviewing your email and calendar on a continuing basis. Look at the past, look at the future: What are you doing, against your better judgment? Are all of those collaborations necessary, not only for you, but for the organization?

Categorize requests into action requests and informational requests. Which of those actions are really required? Which of those requests could be answered by someone else? Do the same for decisions and meetings. Could you reduce your collaboration load by 10 percent? 20 percent? More? This is the beginning of creating a buffer. (See the Coaching Break, “Rethinking Routines.”)


Rethinking Routines

With a little effort, you should be able to identify a number of opportunities to let go of routine activities. Look back four months in your calendar and your email, and two months ahead in your schedule. Scan through each day and follow these steps:

  1. Notice calendar items and email subject lines that indicate recurring or routine informational requests or times when people seek you out for expertise in areas that are no longer central to your success.
  2. Reflect carefully on the nature of decisions you get pulled into. Routine decisions often become embedded in organizations because the knee-jerk reaction to an issue or crisis was to create a policy, process, or procedure that now consumes an enormous amount of collaborative time.
  3. Identify four to five opportunities to shift processes or nominate alternative go-to people to reduce the collaborative time burden.
  4. Bring in a coach, team member, or significant other if you’re having trouble identifying opportunities to let go of routine activities. Often, we become blind to these opportunities.

Proactively shape others’ expectations of your role

This may sound like the practice of sculpting your work, which was discussed earlier, but it’s different. This is about shaping expectations. Across all industries, top performers are well aware that a request from a colleague or leader can suddenly launch a vast amount of collaborative churn.

Top collaborators rarely view requests as locked-in work that they or their teams must accomplish. Instead, they clarify and shape expectations to give themselves or their teams greater space to function effectively, on reasonable time scales, and to apply their best capabilities. The challenge is to shift your mindset from seeing work as a list of responsibilities imposed by others, with no input from you, and begin proactively understanding and shaping the expectations around the requests coming to you.

First, identify who is driving your work, or your team’s work. Maybe it’s just your boss, but there may be other constituencies involved, such as customers or other kinds of stakeholders. Then, where possible, set up meetings with these individuals or with representatives of these groups. Discuss their objectives and their understanding of their problems.

Clarity will help, especially when you’re dealing with requests that come down through a faceless chain of command. One manufacturing leader described a scenario in which a big and urgent request came from a senior vice president’s chief of staff. She had the presence of mind to ask the SVP to clarify the ask and found that the true need “was actually a much smaller request. The chief of staff either didn’t get quite as much info as I did or didn’t provide me with the context the SVP provided about what it might be used for.”

Another manager, a consumer-products leader, has learned to always ask questions about the ultimate use and desired impact of the work her team is being asked to do. For example, her CEO made a sweeping decree that for the company’s foray into the India market, it would need a set of new, locally focused brands. Foreseeing extensive churn in the form of design efforts and management structures, the manager asked the CEO how much would really be gained—would it be worth the effort? He was annoyed at first, but he assigned someone to quantify the potential advantage of localized but unfamiliar brands over foreign but familiar brands. The estimate showed there would be little advantage, so the initiative was scrapped.

“Probing in this way for a minute or two sometimes might catch the leader off guard or be a little frustrating at first,” the manager said. “But over the years, I have probably saved ten person-years of unnecessary work by reframing what my teams deliver, and in what time frame, through a couple of probing questions. But you have to catch this in that small window when they are asking.”

If you’re a leader, be transparent about your—or your team’s—goals, capabilities, and interests. At the same time, be forthright about the volume of demands you are already facing. Often, leaders and other stakeholders make requests without understanding the time demands of the work. If you are a team leader meeting demands from multiple stakeholders, put the names of the stakeholders on a whiteboard; then, in columns under each one, write the initiatives you are working on for that person or group, in the order of prioritization that you feel is appropriate. Describe the threshold level of initiatives your team can support.

Now that your stakeholders know your or your team’s goals, capabilities, interests, and workload, ask them to clarify their priorities in light of these factors. Urge them to discuss their true needs. Look for opportunities to reframe their requests so that you can simultaneously meet the needs of two or more parties. A face-to-face or virtual meeting is the preferred way to create this kind of alignment, but if you do not have that luxury, simple polling technologies can be effective.

Come to a collective agreement on work that is most critical to accomplish and that falls within your aims, capabilities, and interests or those of your team. Talk about alternative ways you—or, if you are a team leader, your team—could deliver results. Discuss how you could provide an outcome of even greater value than you are providing now.

Position your involvement in collaborative work to ensure you add unique value

This means finding tasks, projects, and initiatives where you and you alone can have a significant impact because of your abilities and interests. Audrey, a manager at a women’s clothing retailer, had become exasperated that customers weren’t responding well to her company’s efforts to build a strong online presence. Audrey’s job was to manage a number of physical stores in the Southeast, but previously she had spent a year in a graduate marketing program. Though academia was not for her and she never did get her PhD, she had learned quite a bit from a leading researcher in the area of online customer-relationship management. Now she could see that her company was failing to grasp a basic reality of CRM, that customers want their clothing retailers to meet their emotional needs, such as to be listened to and treated with respect.

Much as she loved managing stores—working with salespeople, talking with customers—she saw that she had a unique contribution to make, so she began writing to a marketing executive she knew, offering her insights. It took a while for the company to recognize the value of Audrey’s insights, but she eventually did get placed on the online-CRM team. This was a prime example of an individual positioning her involvement in collaborative work where she was able to add unique value.

Address one-off requests all at once

Sometimes one-off requests demand immediate responses, but often they don’t, in which case you can aggregate and address them all at once in regularly scheduled standing meetings. These meetings provide opportunities for team members to learn to turn to each other for help, rather than always seeking out the leader. Agendas should encourage participants to develop awareness of one another’s work and skills. Standing meetings can also promote collaborative efficiency by reducing or streamlining excessive one-off requests or disruptions.

It’s important not to let such meetings go off track. If you schedule a standing meeting—every two weeks, say—make sure that people speak only if they have real issues to discuss, and that if all issues are settled, the meeting ends early. Don’t meet simply to meet or talk simply to talk. Stay focused on productive use of time and promoting more-efficient collaborations.

I realize that after all the discussion of cutting out unnecessary meetings, I may sound as though I’m contradicting myself by advocating standing meetings, but what’s great about them is that after a while, you can begin to have people post issues ahead of time that they plan to raise in the standing meetings. They can post these issues to a shared space that the relevant group can see. Over time, encourage team members to collaborate directly with each other to solve problems. What many leaders find is that the week leading up to the meeting might start with ten items and end with most, if not all, solved because the team is also developing a capability for resolution. If all the issues have been resolved, you can decide to not hold the meeting, or use it for interactions that might reenergize the group.

Finding and staying true to your North Star aspirations is key to whether you get overrun by collaborative demands or chart your own path. Put another way, it is key to whether you play defense or offense.

Playing defense means taking an ad hoc approach to dealing with requests for help. You end up letting network interactions and collaborative demands define you. You get caught up in politics as you constantly try to appease people. “Playing defense sucks,” one leader said. “You are always reactive and living in fear. The only way to get out of it is to get clarity on who you are and what you want to do and start forging a path that enables you to get there.”

So far, we’ve looked at beliefs and structure as aids in helping you play offense and save yourself from collaboration overload. But on the path to essential collaboration, there’s one additional thing more-efficient collaborators do—they streamline collaborative practices. I will discuss this in the next chapter.


Imposing Structure That Can Help You Avoid Overload

We’ve looked at numerous structural approaches to relieving collaboration overload, but which ones matter to you? I’ve taken all the practices we’ve discussed in this chapter and recast them in the form of “I” statements so you can picture applying them to yourself. Imagine adopting these practices, and check the box for the one or two that you think could be most helpful in your current situation. Then ask someone who knows you well to do the same, with your tendencies in mind—what solutions does that person see as potentially having the biggest impact on you?

STRUCTURAL PRACTICES: I have clarity on the strengths I want to employ in my work, the values I want to live through my career, and the identity I want to build my life around. This clarity guides which collaborations I get involved in, what I say no to, and what I teach others to solve without me.

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Solutions you could adopt from the most-efficient collaborators

In order to engage in collaborative work in a way that will be more meaningful to you, be clear about strengths you want to deploy, values you want to live through your career, and personal aspirations that you want to build into your life. To do this, develop clarity on your North Star objectives, focusing on what you truly care about—not society’s definition of success as a certain role or promotion or way of spending your time. Maintain outside commitments to family, exercise, or community involvement that can pull you into different domains and serve as buffers to work.

STRUCTURAL PRACTICES: I proactively initiate network connections important to my professional and personal success.

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Solutions you could adopt from the most-efficient collaborators

Rather than play defense and let collaborative demands define you, play offense by being proactive in network development, focusing on spheres you should invest in for depth or complementary expertise. Start with people you know for introductions or reach out to those you don’t know with a request to explore overlaps and complementarities. Then follow up on those leads. End meetings by asking: Who else should I be speaking with, and can you connect me?

By doing this, you can build rich, noninsular networks through external connections and boundary-spanning collaborations within your organization. These connections will help you see the world differently and give you a sense of influence and power that enables you to take courageous action in saying no to collaborative requests.

STRUCTURAL PRACTICES: I block time in my calendar for more-reflective work.

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Solutions you could adopt from the most-efficient collaborators

Impose structure through your calendar to ensure that activities you get involved with—both professional and personal—pull you to your North Star objectives. Structure activities through the week with an eye to personal motivation and enthusiasm, alternating energizing with less-energizing interactions to help manage your sense of purpose and engagement.

Define priorities to guide calendar decisions and be very clear on which meetings you need to attend and which you don’t need to attend.

STRUCTURAL PRACTICES: I manage to my best rhythm of work.

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Solutions you could adopt from the most-efficient collaborators

Listen to your own rhythms. Instead of fighting with them, work with them and manage to them. Look at your daily and weekly patterns: Where are the crunch points and the reflection times, and how well do they match your surges of energy and creativity? Rearrange your schedule so you can apply your greatest vitality to the most important activities and reserve the most routine work for your least-productive times.

STRUCTURAL PRACTICES: I sculpt my work to align with my North Star objectives.

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Solutions you could adopt from the most-efficient collaborators

Shape the work to match your capabilities, interests, and goals—or, if you’re a leader, those of your team. Engage in conversations with team members to find out about their goals and aspirations.

Align the work with what you or your team members can do best and are most motivated to do. Use one-on-one meetings to create semiannual development goals for each team member and then craft each person’s work around their goals.

STRUCTURAL PRACTICES: I periodically review my calendar and email to define information requests that I am involved in and that could be reallocated to less-overloaded people, posted to a website, or more efficiently addressed with a revised process or policy.

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Solutions you could adopt from the most-efficient collaborators

Periodically reflecting on demands and shifting those that you do not add value to—or that do not add value to you—is critical to collaborative efficiency over time. Look through your calendar for routine or recurring activities that you can shift to others as developmental opportunities—or those that can be halted altogether or made far more efficient by altering a process or decision threshold.

Reflect carefully on the nature of decisions you are getting pulled into. Identify four to five opportunities to shift processes or nominate alternative people on routine decisions.

STRUCTURAL PRACTICES: I proactively shape others’ expectations of my role.

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Solutions you could adopt from the most-efficient collaborators

This may sound similar to “I sculpt my work to align with my North Star objectives,” above, but it’s not about shaping work, it’s about shaping expectations. If you know it’s going to take you a while to meet a leader’s request, proactively manage what is expected of you. Be transparent on what your level of engagement in issues and discussions will be and clarify that a nonresponse from you doesn’t signal disengagement or lack of appreciation.

Set up meetings to clarify response times needed and prioritization guidelines. Demonstrate that you want people to solve problems collaboratively around you rather than come to you for approval or face time. Use informal recognition in meetings and group communications to celebrate this kind of problem solving. Look for opportunities to distribute collaborations in the network in a way that might stop demands from coming to you.

STRUCTURAL PRACTICES: I position my involvement in collaborative work where I add unique value.

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Solutions you could adopt from the most-efficient collaborators

Think of the work and network simultaneously. Invest time to become aware of expertise in your network so that you can broaden the way you conceptualize solutions. Envision projects as activities you map onto people in your network. Enroll people in activities by knowing their aspirations. Step out of the way, or engage only where you have unique value to contribute.

Engage others in co-creation of solutions early so that they can begin building collaborative relationships that help you step out of the middle of the work.

STRUCTURAL PRACTICES: I address one-off requests all at once.

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Solutions you could adopt from the most-efficient collaborators

Standing meetings can promote collaborative efficiency by reducing or streamlining excessive one-off requests or disruptions. Schedule periodic meetings that fit the rhythm of work. Structure meetings so that the opening is focused on priorities and directional issues that ensure alignment of the team around core goals and objectives. Remind people of the “why.” Conclude by having team members share one succinct win and one succinct challenge.

Employ a collaborative tool for the team to post issues and challenges to cover in the standing meeting. Then use meeting time to focus on what needs to be discussed—not update information that people can read.

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