Collaboration? What’s in it for me?

I don’t know why you play a team sport and not be concerned about making your teammates better and helping your team win games. That’s the only thing that really matters, and if you’re the best player, surely you’re going to have some effect on the game’s outcome.

Larry Brown

Having watched the finals of many sporting events I am reminded of the question of whether you desire a “team of champions” or a “champion team” and how this relates to collaboration.

One approach is to set, recognise and reward individual performance objectives with the expectation that this will lead to the achievement of overall, or collective, performance objectives.  I remember as a new member of a consulting firm celebrating the individual with the highest billable hours for the year and all wanting to be that individual perceived by all as both individually and organisationally successful.  But at what cost?  Was this reflective of overall company performance?  Did the individual help others find and complete their work?

Unfortunately, as highlighted in the 2016 HBR Article Collaborative Overload by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant, they found roughly 20% of organisational champions don’t collaborate; they achieve their individual performance objectives but fail to assist others in achieving their objectives.  But what is the alternative?

Instead, we can set, recognise and reward both individual and collective performance objectives similar to the much guarded but often described Google Page Ranking algorithm.  Here, it isn’t simply about how often the webpage is accessed, but also examines how other pages are linked to / from these pages.  That is, a relative measure of the usefulness of this page in the eyes of others.  Similarly, many sports such as rugby league and union, Australian Football League (AFL), American football, soccer, basketball, etc. don’t simply measure goals or points, but also track players assisting others in the team.  But how do we identify and reward the top collaborators in our organisation?

Given the move to virtual collaboration there are a range of tools that can identify and track those who are central to the collaborative process.  Indeed a colleague who led a blue-sky research team within a very large organisation stated they had the capability to mine the corporate email and instant messaging system to highlight who had the greatest impact both in terms of formal (e.g. senior managers, executives, subject matter experts, etc.) and informal (e.g. the locally acknowledged ‘go-to’ individual for solving problems) influencing.  So the ability exists.  The question is more whether we (1) want to know who these people are and (2) have the ability to reward them for their role in organisational success.  In many cases this may damage corporate hierarchies with some organisations (and individuals) not be ready for this.  Indeed, former Goldman Sachs and General Electric (GE) chief learning officer Steve Kerr once wrote, “leaders are hoping for A [collaboration] while rewarding B [individual achievement]”.

However, being collaborative is a double edged sword.  Just as we help others and the wider organisation achieves better performance through more innovative approaches, it leaves the helpers significantly less time for focused individual work, careful reflection and sound decision making.  The effect was dubbed Collaborative Overload by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant.

In the next part of the article, we’ll describe some practical steps of how you can address these challenges and deliver both individual and collective success.

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