The dark side of collaboration and how to fight back

Multiple minds rarely think alike, yet joint decisions must be forged. This, of course, is both the curse and the magic of collaboration.

In the late ’90s, I watched a friend start a highly successful technology company. Until she hired employees, headquarters was the kitchen of her Boston apartment.

One day she apprised me of a big business decision. With a flash of humor and smile, she reported “yes, well, my head of sales talked to my head of operations this morning – and they decided we should just go for it!” (The meeting location? Her morning shower, undoubtedly.)

Single operator start-ups may be under-resourced, but they’re rarely accused of inefficiency. Harnessing the power of 2 or 2,000 minds brings immense benefits, but also adds drag to the system. Multiple minds rarely think alike, yet joint decisions must be forged. This, of course, is both the curse and the magic of collaboration.

Companies with elaborate financial management rarely have well-defined rules for use of employee time, which is arguably their most precious and scarce resource. Take Jim, for example. Jim needs to come up with a solid business explanation and signature to buy a new $300 software subscription. But he regularly calls meetings that chew up $600 or more of his colleagues’ time. No questions asked.

“At many companies people now spend about 80% of their time in meetings or answering colleagues’ requests” according to Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant in “Collaborative Overload” (Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2016). They found that time spent in collaborative activities has jumped by 50% or more in the last two decades. Respondents to a 2015 Atlassian survey reported attending an average of 62 meetings a month, half of which they deemed unproductive. Bain & Company researchers conclude that “most companies have an opportunity to liberate at least 20% of their collective hours by bringing greater discipline to time management.”

In an era where Teamwork reigns supreme, it’s tough to admit there can be too much of a good thing. But some companies are starting to fight back. Lenovo, a Chinese computer-maker, allows its staff to end meetings that have gone off-track. Intuit offers workers a regular quota of clutter-free time. Intel has imposed a ban on meetings “without a clear purpose.” A manufacturer studied by Bain saved 200 jobs’ worth of human capital costs by trimming most of their meetings to 30 minutes and 7 or fewer attendees.

Admittedly, meetings and memos are here to stay. A certain number of them are essential in this era of organizational complexity. But if “meeting overload” has sapped the productivity or spirit of you or your team, take remedial action. Your team will be grateful.

Here are some of the best tactics to consider:

1) Make it culturally OK to “just say no” when invited to meetings. People rarely challenge invitations. They don’t want to offend the party calling the meeting. They don’t want to be deemed unenthusiastic or labeled “a poor team player.” But they’re often pretty savvy about where their time is best spent.

2) Require advance agendas. Anyone setting up a meeting must share a written agenda — including meeting goals — in advance. Which helps invitees thoughtfully challenge their invitations (see #1 above). Even more importantly, agendas help keep meetings briskly on-track once they’ve begun.

3) Establish the “Law of Two Feet,” as they call it at Open Space Technology. If someone arrives at a meeting, then finds they’re neither contributing nor learning, their job is to stand up, exit the room, and go somewhere where one of those two things will happen.

4) Focus meetings on collaborative brainstorming or problem-solving. Instead of using big chunks of meeting to simply relay a set of facts, ask that meeting initiators distribute information or data in advance for attendees to skim. Save precious meeting time for interactive discussions.

5) Consider replacing certain meetings with written updates if they’ve deteriorated into equivalents of “news sharing” where little back-and-forth conversation happens anyway.

6) Challenge your teams to test shorter meeting times. Pick a “pilot month” where you ask your group to limit as many meetings as possible to 15-30 minutes. Solicit feedback afterwards. Do people like and benefit from the shorter meetings?

7) Hold “stand up” meetings, a proven meeting shortener. If they’re good enough for the Queen of England and her Privy Council, they may be good enough for you and your team.

The former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, once said: “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment, you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with the time of his fellow managers.”

Not all work groups suffer from meeting overload. But given the trend toward larger, longer, and more numerous gatherings and our (well deserved) fondness for Collaboration — we recommend you take the pulse of your organization on this topic.

Then remind colleagues that great teamwork often involves a divide-and-conquer mentality; not everything can or should be done together. Give people enough time and space to get their individual work done. This can pay huge dividends in group productivity, not to mention employee satisfaction, creativity, engagement, and loyalty.

Kirstin Lynde|is the founder and principal at Catalyze Associates, a firm dedicated to intensive, immersive, and metrics-based leadership development and coaching programs