The collaborative intensity of work has exploded over the past few decades. With companies transitioning to matrix-based structures, products and services becoming more complex, and team-communication tools spreading everywhere, collaboration has become the one constant of global business.

Today, practically everything you do at work is a collaboration. When you attend your morning meeting, when you confer with a direct report, when you help the new person figure out the right expert to speak with about a project, when you page through your emails, when you pause to chat with a colleague, when you move from one webinar to the next while simultaneously addressing instant messages that seem to have urgent time frames—again and again, you’re collaborating.

Even if you go off alone to labor over a contract or a project plan, you’re making changes to a piece of work that probably came to you from someone and will go to someone after you. Although you’re working solo in the moment, you’re still a link in a chain of collaboration that may have started as far away as the board of directors and may reach as far as the company’s frontline employees and clients or customers at the other end.

Collaboration is great, right? It allows companies to better serve their demanding clients. Employees can craft jobs that have greater meaning. And in general, social ties are beneficial—there’s an immense body of research proving it. People with deeper and more numerous social connections have lower rates of depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. They live longer. Research shows that even their cuts and scrapes heal more quickly.

So, we should all be reveling in our rich social work environments. We should feel energized, engaged, and happy. We have never in history been in a better place to use collaborative work to thrive and do things with meaning.

Yet today’s corporations are not happy places. Many of them are plagued by stress, burnout, loss of engagement, unexplained declines in individual performance, attrition, mental health problems, and addiction—issues that cripple companies’ never-ending quests for greater performance. We endure a volume, diversity, and velocity of collaborations that place an unprecedented tax on our time and brains. And we experience many stressful micro-interactions—caustic remarks from the new boss, cutting comments from a key account—that we rapidly forget, but these moments leave behind negative feelings that last for hours and days. We go home exhausted but with little ability to pinpoint what is causing our burnout.

Over and over, I see the collaborative stressors bleeding into people’s health, families, and communities in truly disturbing ways. People no longer have time for the interactions that replenished them—neighborhood gatherings, civic events, exercise with others, volunteering, and just being present. The impact on health and well-being makes stress more than just a concern for corporate performance. It makes this a moral issue for us all.

What’s going on? People love people, they need people, they thrive on social interactions, so why are they suffering? And what can be done to help individuals raise their performance and thrive?

A Search for Insights

I didn’t set out to answer these questions. When I began working with corporations, I was there to help with things companies usually hire consultants to assist with, like communication, decision-making, and innovation. But I soon realized I was in a combat zone. The stress, burnout, and exhaustion I could feel around me seemed much more urgent than any communication or decision issues.

It was all deeply concerning. I heard not only about frantic attempts to keep pace with work, but also of the consequences in people’s personal lives: divorces, estrangement from children, isolation from community, health problems. I remember asking someone who seemed particularly stressed whether there was something he could do to rejuvenate himself, and he answered, “Well, I might get a chance to go to church on Sunday.” That was it. Over the years, he had slowly fallen out of activities, relationships, and groups he cared about. He was down to just one thing—work.

I hated seeing what was happening to people. So, the distress and frustration I was observing became the subject of my research. Over the course of twenty years, the research, with a group of colleagues, developed many layers. The team created theories and honed ideas by conducting organizational network analyses with more than three hundred organizations, most of them household names. (See “A Note about the Research” at the end of this introduction.)

Throughout, I have been privileged to work in leadership programs, executive retreats, and off-sites with some of the top organizations in the world. The ability to work with corporate members of the consortium that I helped found (the Connected Commons), as well as through dozens of leadership-development programs that I conduct annually, has been critical in enabling me to both develop the ideas and package them in ways that have the most impact for today’s busy employees.

When I started this research two decades ago, I thought I had a pretty good sense of where the unhappiness culprits probably lay. I figured I would find the causes among such elements as always-on communication technologies, time-zone-spanning corporate initiatives, poorly planned meetings, and difficult clients, of which there seems to be an endless supply. These elements had been shown to be demotivating on their own, and I hypothesized that the combination of them may have been creating a toxic sludge that was permeating corporations.

But the findings of our research took me by surprise.

Discovering the Real Problem

The main reason for much of the unhappiness among executives, managers, and employees turns out to be not some exogenous factor like technology. Instead, paradoxically, it is collaboration itself—or, rather, the dysfunctional forms of collaboration that most of us fall into by default.

For one thing, we collaborate too much. I realize how that sounds. How can you have too much of a good thing? But what I mean by collaborating too much is that we’re too eager to jump into, or be dragged into, active collaborations that might run better without us and that burn up our valuable time and energy.

I also realize that “we collaborate too much” goes against the grain of most organizations. The knowledge economy is built on the implicit assumption that ideas and decisions need to be thrashed out in the presence of the crowd. The aura of importance around terms such as “transparency,” “visibility,” and “crowdsourcing” is an indicator of the high value placed on participation. Need an idea? Brainstorm it. Considering a new initiative? Hold a “hackathon.” Information needs to flow freely, we often hear. Silos need to be dismantled. In many companies, management has become an unending series of conference calls.

But the reality is that we’re all flooded with unproductive collaboration, and we’re drowning. A drowning person is in a state of panic. A drowning person is overwhelmed and out of control and therefore incapable of thinking through many of the things that need to be considered, such as strategies for long-term well-being and success. Moreover, a person who is drowning in unproductive collaboration can’t take many of the actions that companies need their managers and employees to take. If you’re like most people in today’s fast-moving companies, you have a big stack of should-dos that you never get to.

Your inability—and your colleagues’ inability—to drill through should-dos is highly consequential. Companies need critical masses of people to take time to plan for the future, to help others, to analyze trends, to rethink internal processes. Dysfunctional collaboration prevents all that. The system dictates your every move, and you’re doomed to follow.

This book will show you how to rethink beliefs, structures, and behaviors and to adopt new patterns of interacting in which you collaborate more efficiently and effectively. Are you a first-line manager? A manager of managers? A senior executive? Then this book is for you.

Or maybe you are an individual contributor, managing only yourself and your own performance. This book is for you too: as an individual contributor, you should learn to conquer collaboration overload so that you can embark on a satisfying career trajectory. Whatever your position, by reducing your collaboration overload, you can reclaim 18 percent to 24 percent of your time, or about one full day per week.

Discovering Essential Collaboration

I will also show how to invest your newfound time in ways that can boost your performance and help you fulfill your potential while improving your overall well-being. The well-being factor is crucial. I want you to thrive not only in your work but also as a physically and mentally healthy individual, family member, friend, and participant in positive social networks. Work performance means very little without well-being.

Specifically, there are three relational strategies that can magnify your impact at work and make you much happier in your career and life. Those strategies are:

  • Tapping broad networks early in the life of each new project while simultaneously investing in longer-time-horizon relationships for efficiency and innovation (which is much more counter-conventional than it may sound)
  • Becoming an energizer to stimulate a flow of great ideas and great people toward you
  • Engaging in targeted collaborative renewal activities to build greater physical and mental well-being

Collectively I call these strategies—both for reducing dysfunction and building impact—essential collaboration, a term that encompasses the importance of working together as well as the need to reduce collaboration to its essentials.

I’ve seen many firms make concerted efforts to foster networking. They knock down office walls, create walkways to route people through others’ work areas, sponsor employee clubs and activities, encourage group lunches, and implement online collaboration platforms. These initiatives, however, are based on the belief that when it comes to networks, bigger is simply better. That belief is unfounded and counterproductive. Often, bigger networks just provide more ways to get overloaded with collaboration.

I make this point to executives when they talk about restructurings, technology implementations, or cultural initiatives that ramp up the collaborative demands on employees. I ask them, “By a show of hands, who in this room wants another email, meeting, or phone call in your lives?” Of course, no hand goes up. After thinking about it this way, managers are often a little sheepish about their plans for indiscriminately foisting these new demands on others.

Time and again, executives acknowledge to me that in fact there’s very little understanding in their companies—or in the corporate world as a whole—of what effective collaboration should look like. Think about that: companies consume 85 percent or more of their employees’ time in collaborative activities and have no idea what impact this time has on corporate performance, individual productivity, or—perhaps most disturbing—employee well-being.

This is amazing, given the millions invested in measuring and understanding other dimensions of work life. Companies create cost-allocation and budgeting processes that are so detailed and complex they would befuddle Einstein, and they routinely insist on tracking employees’ expenses to two decimal places. But measure the impact of collaboration? It rarely happens.

Even though we all collaborate incessantly from the moment we open our inboxes each morning to the moment we put down our phones and roll over to go to sleep, most corporations have no one in the executive hierarchy who is knowledgeable about collaborative best practices. To be sure, there are people who can throw technology at collaborative problems. Or consultants who can pontificate on the next best structure to promote agile collaboration. But these and other people are always shooting blindly, looking to simply increase the volume and speed of collaboration without truly understanding which aspects of connectivity impact performance and well-being. As far as collaboration goes, no one is in charge. We are all swimming in this stuff, but without the right measurements, we can’t see it.

Surprisingly, even the most-efficient collaborators can’t articulate what they do differently. Their own best practices are invisible to them. In fact, I’ve found that most people aren’t consciously aware of how much they collaborate or of the extent to which collaboration contributes to or limits their success. People aren’t trained to see social capital. Yet in today’s collaboratively complex work environments, nothing is more important for us all than to become more aware of how social capital works.

In most organizations, therefore, the chances are slim to nil that you’ll get a clear understanding of how collaboration is affecting you. Nor is there much chance that your company or colleagues will help you understand these effects. So, no one is doing it for you. It’s in your hands. This is a game you need to own.

The work of the more than a hundred organizations in the Connected Commons consortium that have participated in this research is uncovering practices that will help you chart your own course, with significant payoffs. I will describe those practices, along with hopeful signs that things are beginning to change in today’s workplaces.

But first let me orient you by taking you deep into the experience of a leader I’ve studied—a leader whose story is inspiring, but also, through no fault of his own, sad and wrenching. We’ll meet him in the next chapter. Maybe you can see yourself in him.

A Note about the Research

The findings in this book come from qualitative and quantitative studies that, to the best of my knowledge, are unparalleled in their comprehensiveness and depth. Credit for this goes to the member organizations of the Connected Commons—a group of over a hundred leading organizations that have recognized the importance of this work for two decades. I am grateful to them for generously providing me with a researcher’s most precious resources—time, funding, and access. In addition, this community of organizations created a context for these ideas to flourish through a culture of co-creation and exploration, combined with a relentless push for practical results. I will always be appreciative for and humbled by what I have learned from the members and other Connected Commons cofounders through the years.

Drawing on data from more than three hundred organizations over two decades, my colleagues and I have tied empirical results of network analysis to individual measures of innovation, performance, and well-being. The predictors of high performance mentioned throughout the book have come from many rigorous organizational network analyses (ONA) in groups ranging in size from several hundred to over 45,000 (for an explanation of ONA, see chapter 7). In each case, performance metrics were separate from the network analyses and encompassed objective data, including revenue production and patent counts, and subjective measures of performance, such as HR ratings.

In addition, targeted streams of work informed different aspects of the research. For example, as collaboration overload began to reveal itself as a core problem over the past decade, many member organizations let us use network analysis to identify the most-efficient collaborators—those who provided the greatest return in networks and took the least time. Alternatively, the work described in chapter 8 tying relational measures to mental and physical well-being was sponsored by a range of financial services, life sciences, high-tech, and consumer-products organizations. Importantly, these companies provided access not just to network data but to truly meaningful measures of physical health and mental well-being.

The quantitative analyses—and the relentless push from the consortium members to create actionable insights from this work—led to a subsequent series of structured-interview research programs over the past decade. One set of sixty-minute phone interviews, for example, included a hundred women and a hundred men in Connected Commons member organizations who were identified as efficient collaborators via ONA. The interviewees covered the full spectrum of knowledge workers, from individual contributors to senior managers, and clarified practices that enabled these individuals to reclaim precious time.

The findings in chapter 6 are based on separate sets of interviews: my colleagues and I asked twenty member organizations to nominate people they considered to be their most-successful leaders, and we interviewed 160 of them (80 women and 80 men). We followed this up with interviews of 100 leaders of successful project-based initiatives. These ninety-minute phone-based interviews explored career-defining accomplishments of these people and the role that networks played in their success. Further, after exploring their career-defining successes, we probed their failures to clarify what had been missing from their networks at those times. These rich stories and practices informed our understanding of what distinguishes high performers.

The results in chapter 7 also employed ONA to identify individuals who created energy, purpose, and trust in networks, and interviews defined how these people did this. We have consistently seen that people who create energy or enthusiasm in networks are far more likely to become and remain high performers as well as to move more fluidly in and out of groups. To define the behaviors of these people, my team and I would leverage the analytics from ONA to locate and interview the energizers and those energized by them. These combined perspectives led us to a rich understanding of how these people engage in collaborations.

The well-being findings in chapter 8 are again a testament to the Connected Commons community. Members pushed me to think not just about performance as a desired outcome in organizations, but also well-being. Again, these same organizations provided me with access to a hundred very busy leaders to explore these ideas in sixty-minute phone interviews. This kind of access to successful people on soft topics is difficult to get, and I am humbled by the generosity of the members to create a context that can truly help people in these hyperconnected times.

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