Why You Need Essential Collaboration

What is collaboration overload currently preventing you from doing? At one level, it keeps you from taking the actions that would help you be more innovative and effective in your work.

Personal performance and career-defining accomplishments are almost always generated by doing two things simultaneously: One, reaching out to networks broadly for help early in the life cycles of projects; it is critical to engage others at the moment when we are busiest and our thinking is most nebulous. Two, we must create enthusiasm and draw others to our work and ideas. As we will see in chapter 7, the single biggest predictor of high performance is the ability to generate energy and engagement in networks.

Which behaviors fall away when we are collaboratively overloaded? You got it. The ones I just spelled out: reaching broadly into the network for early-stage problem solving and being an energizer. Like a python, collaboration overload constricts our ability to innovate, execute, and achieve scale through networks.

But about one in ten of my interviewees revealed that they were working and living very differently than their peers—much more on their own terms than by society’s and the workplace’s definition of success. Their investments in connections enabled them to see different ways of integrating work and life, to take courageous action in pursuit of living differently, and to find greater satisfaction, purpose, and resilience in what they did. The benefits to themselves, their families, their friends, and their organizations were enormous.

Finding Time to Make a Big Difference

If your career is on a roll, it may be hard to picture how you could think and perform any better than you already do, so let me show you a few details of the work and life of one of those one in ten, the exceptionally effective collaborators I encountered. See how well you compare with her.

I met Anja when she had been at a global company for two years, in a job that was all about change and innovation. She had come to this job from the Netherlands, where she had cofounded and then sold a startup. Now she was part of a team focused on how people collaborate and the implications for technology.

Early in her transition to the new job, new company, and new country, Anja realized she needed to build her internal network quickly. She identified knowledgeable people who could help her, not just in her own unit but in diverse areas of the organization.

She began to recognize that the company was missing innovation and revenue opportunities because the consulting function and customer-facing technical support didn’t collaborate much or communicate well. If an engineer solved a customer’s technical problem, for example, there was no simple way for that solution to be captured, communicated, and reused by the consulting function—or by anyone else in the company. A great deal of potentially useful intellectual capital was locked up within the separate functions.

Anja discovered that everyone knew about this problem and had known about it for so long that they weren’t trying to fix it. It was just an accepted fact. But Anja saw this as an opportunity. She wanted to remedy the situation and possibly go a step further by having the company package and sell some of the impressive solutions and knowledge that the two functions were generating.

Anja was already fully engaged in her own work. But she did not operate the way Scott did—she did not strive to become the indispensable helpmate for every colleague or team she worked with, and she did not seek to become the pivot point for every decision. As a consequence, she was not overloaded with collaboration, and she was able to take the time to persuade her network—as one among equals—to think in fresh ways about the knowledge-capture problem. This informal team, meeting first at lunchtimes and then on a more formal and regular basis, soon came up with an idea to apply artificial intelligence to the challenge. That would require expertise that the small network didn’t possess. Anja said:

Remote work is encouraged here, and I love remote work. I get a lot of stuff done that way. But projects developed in isolation, projects that don’t get socialized with the larger organization, tend to fail. I’ve learned that I need to take time to establish personal relationships with people and teams in other parts of the company who can help us. That means having personal connections—really getting to know people.

So to make this idea happen, I needed to build and leverage an internal network. The way to start is to have coffee or a meal with people and become friends with them, but we’re in a separate city; we’re not very exposed to the rest of the organization. We are not tied into any groups or business units. We are our own island.

I saw that an internal company conference was coming up, and I knew I needed to go, because it would give me valuable chances to meet and socialize with people who would be able to help with the project. There’s not always budget to travel to meet people in person, but I insisted.

Building a Network

Anja got the money for the trip and went to the conference. Her English was less than perfect, but she used that shortcoming to her advantage: she found that people were often willing to chat with her if she said she didn’t understand the nuances of what was being discussed and needed someone to explain the terminology.

“I met people, I went to dinner with people, and I made new friends,” she said. “At the same time, I found out what other people were working on and offered to help with their projects.” Her offers created further connections and further cooperation: “They returned the favor and have been really helpful. They’ve driven the effort to get my project productized.”

“In fact,” she added, “the only reason that we’ve been able to pull this product off is that I went to that conference. I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. It helped so much that I knew this or that person, or that I had dinner with this or that colleague. The conference gave us the connections to do this work.”

Anja was masterful at wielding influence without real authority, a capability that was entwined with her capacity to energize people and to establish a baseline of trust with an influential network. She created two forms of trust that our research over decades shows to be critically important. Socializing built “benevolence-based trust,” or trust that you have others’ interests in mind, not just your own. Her detailed discussions of technology built “competence-based trust,” or trust that you know what you are talking about. “It created a sense of confidence in what we can do, that I am not just talk,” she said.

Anja was able to disengage from the daily march and give serious time and thought to solving a significant problem. This is what the most successful people do: stop and think creatively, even in crunch times.

A year later, the new technology she designed launched internally, with mechanisms in place to “seek feedback to refine it and explore the ways it can be used,” she said. “We have been working with teams and showing people how to use it and get them to try different things.” The project is expected to launch to customers next year.

The moral of the story is that essential collaboration isn’t just something nice to have. It’s a must-have. Companies’ performance and very survival depend on it.

The benefits for Anja herself were far-reaching. She got promoted, for one thing. But the intangibles were even more important. Her reputation grew, and a number of promising new projects came her way. These were opportunities that her peers weren’t getting. She also realized that with her enhanced reputation and status, she got more comfortable in her own skin. She became less fearful of what others thought of her and more authentic in who she was.

In the hundreds of companies I work with, I rarely see essential collaboration like Anja’s on display. In most organizations, the honest response to “Why hasn’t your company been able to come up with breakthrough innovations?” would be “Well, ideally we’d like to be able to stop focusing on the distractions of the everyday and take stock of how the competitive context is changing and initiate a response, and we’d hope that the company’s employees would be able to mobilize effectively, but we’re all awfully busy right now …”

Anja is well aware of what assets she brought to the project and how she did what she did. Crucial, she said, was her personal authenticity, which others find highly energizing. She believes in being “transparent, open, and genuine, and not wearing a fake, corporate mask.” She is not afraid to laugh at herself or ask questions that reveal a lack of knowledge. She will easily share something personal or be vulnerable with others: “It’s a big productivity killer to not feel authentic … People who can’t bring their whole person to work don’t reach out; they don’t feel safe; they hold back.”

Effective collaboration—especially for innovation—builds on that openness and authenticity. On Anja’s team, people are comfortable working together, being vulnerable, and taking risks. She never hesitates to ask for help or give feedback on other projects. “If we all keep to ourselves or don’t want to show what we are working on until it is 100 percent done, then we are never creating great innovation … If you feel like you are stupid or it is not safe to speak your mind, it creates a culture where people don’t ask for help or offer help.”

Anja demonstrates what it means to engage people with what they are passionate about so they come to work fired up each day. Just as important is Anja’s awareness of when to pull back from interactions and collaboration to create time and space to think: “When I have a week of back-to-back meetings, you can be sure there is not one creative thought that flows through my head!” So she sets aside large blocks of time that aren’t dedicated to any specific work, knowing she’s in an environment where “it is OK to take two hours to have coffee and sit on the rooftop terrace to think.”

What Anja did for herself and her company gives you a sense of what you could do, what you could be, and what your company could be. Her actions suggest how vast your own performance headroom is if you are more proactive in your collaborative work.

But to become an essential collaborator, you must be able to overcome the factors that keep you focused on the distractions of the everyday—factors such as ego, reactivity, inertia, defensiveness, and fear—so that you can initiate innovative responses and mobilize people effectively, while also taking care of yourself.

Essential Collaboration Yields Well-Being in Demanding Times

Anja not only succeeded at work, but also felt good about her life, her health, and her connections to friends and family. Compare that to collaboratively overloaded Scott, on the verge of divorce and increasingly unhealthy. Well-being is inextricably linked to essential collaboration.

Insidiously, collaboration overload not only blocks you from making business choices clearly and creatively, it also prevents you from living a well-aligned life. In my interviews, I defined well-being not as fleeting happiness in the moment but rather as a sense that life is good and fulfilling. If you are experiencing well-being, you feel you’re in a stretch of your life when you are moving in a direction that is aligned with your priorities and values.

While existing models of well-being acknowledge the value of relationships, that’s as far as they go. They don’t show how relationships enable physical health, growth, resilience, and a sense of purpose.

I take a different approach. Throughout my research, I have delved deeply into well-being’s relational drivers. I do this because I know that if you’re trapped in the echo chamber of collaboration overload, you’re not going to be able to take in a flat statement saying you need to cultivate connections—you’re just not going to be able to hear it or take it to heart. You will absorb this idea only if you truly understand the relational drivers of well-being.

Consider Dave. He worked for a series of startups after college, then accepted a senior software-development role at one of the world’s most admired organizations. It was an exciting career move, and it made sense financially. “It was a big amount of money each year in bonus and stock options,” he said. But the job took him out of the city where he, his wife, and his children had grown up and where they had family, long-standing friends, and myriad other connections to the community. Work quickly took over his life, and he became distanced from his family and community. “Almost overnight, I was pulled from coaching baseball for my son, being at recitals with my daughter, and spending time with close friends and family,” he said. “What is weird is that it changed who I was. I knew this was not how I wanted to live, and quite frankly we didn’t need the money. But the money was there and people all around me focused so much on it that I couldn’t walk away.”

Dave’s story was a familiar one throughout my interviews. Often people have stark moments that wake them up to what they care about. For Dave, it came one morning when his wife gently shook his shoulder as he was sleeping. “I need you to get up and get dressed,” she said. “There is a life coach coming to our home in fifteen minutes.” This was a shock, but it had the desired effect. The coach, along with a series of discussions with a pastor, helped Dave reaffirm what mattered, and he began reinvesting in the activities and connections that had made him who he was.

In a short span of time, he left the organization and returned to the city he loved in a role that, by society’s definition, was lower status, but that he has found twice as rewarding. He has never looked back: “This was a really dark stretch that I still reflect on with curiosity, to be honest. I had lived my life a certain way for a long time, had great friends, family, deep investments in a community I loved, and work that was rewarding and challenging. But then I got absorbed into the new company’s ethos and perpetual focus on money, and I was trapped almost overnight.”

The vast majority of people who successfully reinvent themselves do so by situating an activity in a set of relationships—in other words, they don’t just do a solo activity, they do something that involves other people. Ideally, people maintain investments in two or three groups outside of work. For some, this means joining a running club (not just getting on a treadmill). For others, it means creating joint accountability to eat in a healthier fashion at work. For others, it means an intellectual pursuit like being part of a book club. And for still others, it means becoming part of a group in a religious or community organization.

Regardless of the approach to adding dimensionality to life, it is instilling the activity in a set of relationships that is key to the well-being benefits of essential collaboration. Dave focused on coaching baseball for his son, tapping a skill and passion he had developed in high school. And he joined an informal running group in his community and reengaged in a softball league. It took little time to reclaim his fitness and skills as well as to build friendships. Those first steps led to other things that brought him back to who he was when he was happiest.

Dave reflected on why the relationships mattered in each of these life anchors. “It’s the accountability that matters, for sure,” he said. “As an example, if I wasn’t out there with my son, I would let him, the team, and the parents down. But it is way beyond that. You end up interacting with people from very different walks of life and learning how they are living. This opens your eyes to what’s important and gets you out of your little bubble.”

Dave’s insight is a critical one that is too often overlooked. People who persist in adding dimensionality to their lives are not just getting rid of a negative, like an addiction or excess weight. Rather they are transforming through the interactions in those relationships. Connections like these can potentially expose you to people who share a similar interest in health, music, religion, or a specific intellectual pursuit. But they often come into the activity from richly varied backgrounds and so expose you to very different values and ways of thinking about what is worth doing in life.

These are authentic connections—you end up being vulnerable in ways that are different from what happens with your work persona. And you are present for others when they do the same. Connections like these are integral to essential collaboration, which—looking back to my definition in the introduction—is about not just tapping broad networks and becoming an energizer, but also engaging in collaborative renewal activities to build greater physical and mental well-being.

The dimensionality created by these outside-of-work groups impacts professional success on multiple levels. First, people consistently describe benefiting from the ideas and perspectives that these groups bring, particularly on tough personnel issues or thorny organizational problems. Second, people who do this well tend to be more physically healthy and operating with a degree of energy in their work that others feed off of. And finally, people with this form of dimensionality tend not to get caught up in and stressed out by the minutiae that exist in every organization. The dimensionality allows people to show up as more present and less stressed; they tend to be less reactive and less political over time. And, as a result, they turn out to be people whom others want to follow or involve in their projects.

A consumer-products executive said she decided to take action after an annual physical at which her doctor put her on blood-pressure medicine and told her she had crossed the weight threshold for obesity. She dusted off a bicycle that had sat unused for almost twenty-five years as work had taken over. “The first ride was pure hell,” she laughed. “I didn’t go more than ten miles. Every part of my body hurt and I could barely move the next day.”

The next morning, she mentioned her physical misery to a colleague who happened to know someone else who was trying to get in shape. They began biking together with a third wayward soul, initially two mornings a week and once over the weekend. This slowly progressed as they began to set pace and distance goals and then joined a club that organized more-strenuous rides. Even through a cold winter, they maintained their rides “together” through a virtual platform: “Oddly, I felt just as close to the people—and maybe even more so—sweating in my basement by myself as we rode the courses and griped and joked. We all missed the scenery but discovered we could talk a little more when not having to ride single file.”

By the next year, she had entered and completed her first hundred-mile ride for charity and had set her sights on even more grueling rides with this new group of friends. When I spoke with her, biking and this community had become an important part of her life and identity, and she had even traveled with her spouse and new group of friends to vacations that were entirely organized around biking treks.

“The group really has changed it all,” she said. “Even when I am training indoors, I am thinking about riding with them or comparing notes with them. Biking is unique, because you pull for other people at the front of a pace line. The draft really matters, and there are days when I feel stronger and pull for the group, and days when they are stronger and help get me home. They see me when I am at my physical worst and struggling on all levels, when I am breaking down, and when I fail. And I see them too. It’s that connection that matters. That’s what keeps me going.”

The relational activities that are a key part of essential collaboration don’t have to be physical in nature. People describe adding dimensionality in their lives in many different ways. But whether or not these activities are physical, they pull you into being a different, more effective, and broader version of yourself. They give you greater stability in who you are so that you can more confidently draw lines to make sure you are doing what is important. One leader told me, “It is all these interactions—a sister who just came out of the closet, my small group at church, the parents of my kids’ friends who all live life so differently, my over-fifty soccer club, an incredible diversity around me—that helps me continually anchor in who I am, who I want to be, and who I am not.”

Dave and his entire family took a mission trip with his church, and it became a positive, life-changing experience. His career was none the worse for it. “It is amazing how work adapts to life if you are clear on, and stick to, what matters,” he said.

As Dave’s story suggests, it is not only the individual who changes. When you leave the echo chamber, family and friends change too, responding to your greater commitment to them by being more involved, inclusive, and engaged with you. If overload has taken over your emotions, your sense of self rises and falls with your experience at work, and those around you can feel that. But once you leave the echo chamber, relatives and friends come to see that you’re more interested in them than before, so they open up to you more. They see that their invitations are less likely to get the brush-off, so they reach out more. They experience you as new and better company, so they spend more time with you. The interviewees who escaped collaboration overload told of their amazement at how much richer their relationships became. They hadn’t realized how much potential had been locked up in those relationships, and how that potential had been squashed for years by collaboration overload.

This is not to say that everyone is quick to recognize—or is even able to recognize—the connection between relational activities and well-being. I’ve talked to plenty of people who never figured out how much potential is in their relationships or how that potential gets squashed by overload. These people say, in essence, that life is work. Period. And although they lament how hard things are, they say they would do it all over again.

Taking this attitude serves to protect their identity and how they have chosen to live. But what’s really going on here, I believe, is that they have no clue what could have been. They have never veered off to explore new dimensions of themselves.

How Successful People Cultivate Essential Collaboration

I am constantly bombarded by journalists who ask—sometimes demand—that I tell them the one principle that will solve collaboration overload. But there is no single best route to attaining collaborative efficiency.

Instead, I view successful collaboration as being part of an infinite loop as reflected in figure 2-1. The first critical decision you need to make is to play offense by actively addressing collaboration overload in three ways, shown on the left-hand side of the loop:

  • Challenge beliefs about yourself and your role
  • Impose structure that helps shield you from unnecessary collaborative demands
  • Alter behaviors to streamline collaboration practices


The infinite loop


Engaging in persistent small actions in these three domains can help you reclaim 18 percent to 24 percent of your collaborative time.

The goal is to find the few practices that work for you. So, in chapters 3 through 5, I will help you clarify and take action on one or two items in each domain.

Once you’ve done that, you can reinvest your regained time in a way that contributes to your overall performance and well-being. This involves three steps as well:

  • Mobilizing a broad network of connections for innovation and the ability to scale your work
  • Creating energy and engagement in your networks so that opportunities and talent flow to you
  • Finding renewal through personal connections that increase your physical and mental well-being

Ultimately the path yields greater performance and reputation, which in turn helps you engage in even-higher-value collaborations and so further improve your performance and well-being. I will explore the right-hand side of the loop in chapters 6 through 8.

You will see that each side of the loop reinforces the other. If you are more efficient, you are better able to tap networks for performance and well-being. And if you are accomplishing things of greater substance and showing up at work differently, you are better able to push back on collaboration overload.

I hope you also come to recognize the dynamic nature of the loop: this is not a onetime fix but rather a process that more-successful people engage in daily, weekly, and monthly. It takes time and discipline to regularly traverse the loop, to be sure. But it is worth the effort. If you don’t take action on your behalf, who will? Most organizations do little to help people buy back time or avoid collaboration overload. Most organizations don’t know how to provide this kind of help. When it comes to collaboration, the focus is always on more, more, more. Despite the increased collaborative intensity of work today—and the clear recognition that stress is at an all-time high—in all my journeys, I have yet to come across a chief collaboration overload officer in any organization.

This is a task that falls to us. But it is not insurmountable, and it carries enormous rewards. Let’s take a look.

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