Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Collaborative overload - pleasures and dangers

The more you build your professional network, share ideas and resources and participate in projects the more work you get. Networking enhances your reputation and more people ask you for help, invite you to join new projects, collaborate in exciting new initiatives or speak at conferences. The spin-offs keep coming making you feel respected and part of a larger context. This is exactly what I have experience over the last few years and it has lead me into new areas, meeting lots of interesting and talented colleagues from all over the world. I have benefitted immensely from sharing, networking and collaborating, both professionally and personally.

However there is a downside to this and that is raised in an interesting article in Harvard Business Review with the simple title, Collaborative overload. Highly collaborative people get drawn into so many peripheral activities that they are often unable to focus on their primary work and as a result they become ineffective from their employers' point of view despite being highly effective in all they activities they are involved in. The more you collaborate and help others the more work you get.

In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation.

Good collaborators become highly sought after and find themselves involved in ever more projects, meetings and groups both inside and outside the organisation, inevitably spilling over into evenings and weekends. This can of course lead to stress and even burn-out. We all enjoy helping others and are often flattered when colleagues respect our expertise. Sharing a few links or quick words of encouragement are easy but the real time drain is when you have to provide hands-on assistance. Many people become unofficial help desks in their department, solving acute problems that really should be solved by others. For example many educational technologists get trapped into "putting out fires" rather than really adding value to their institutions use of technology. The article recommends managers to help their top collaborators be more selective and avoid the trap of being everyone's problem-solver.

Collaboration is indeed the answer to many of today’s most pressing business challenges. But more isn’t always better. Leaders must learn to recognize, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work, or their teams and top talent will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply.

However, this advice applies to collaboration in large companies where employees' time management and activities are monitored and analysed in a way that is completely alien to universities or schools. The education sector is full of volunteer work that takes place under the radar with teacher networks, unofficial projects and suchlike and once you get involved here the boundaries between work and leisure completely dissolve. I have devoted enormous amounts of my free time to stimulating projects and collaboration that have developed me professionally but which often lead to even more spin-offs. Today I belong to many groups and networks and have loyalties towards them that are completely outside the scope of my work. The difficult part is being able to see when all the collaboration becomes a permanent feature that prevents you from focusing on your most important duties. I try to keep a balance but I see the dangers of collaboration overload. How about you?


  1. I think it becomes even harder without long term or permanent contracts - how can you say no when next semester you may have no contract? There is also a big downside with not being paid for much of the collaboration or work. Even in companies this can be a problem - for those with children there is a dilemma as not taking part may mean time with children, but no job. Taking part means money but reduced family life. Another risk is the dependency when you help build a house of cards that will collapse when you leave, but while you are there it functions.

  2. "But more isn’t always better"
    We even say "Less is more" :-)
    I totally agree with the main idea of this post.
    The main explanation is related to our personality:
    - laser-focused people reach quicker their goal;
    - conversely, curious, generalist or "scanner" profiles (like me) tend to scatter themselves to different projects, and so lose time to achieve at 100%... when they achieve at 100%.

    In our society with so many opportunities, being able to remain focused on a very specific task is a very high quality.

  3. Thanks for the comments! I must admit to being like you Nicocasel - too unfocused and restless to be really productive.