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It doesn’t take anything more than a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner to remind us that too much of a good thing can have negative consequences. In the business world, there are similar lessons to be learned, and collaboration—working with others to produce results—is a perfect example.

Collaboration_PQ2In their landmark Harvard Business Review article on collaborative overload, Babson College (MA) professor Rob Cross and colleagues affirm that collaboration can be a boon to organizational success. However, they caution, “The distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”

Cross’s research makes it easy to see that too much collaboration has the potential to become overwhelming, especially for individuals who find themselves too-frequently called upon to lend a helping hand. And it reminds us how important it is to make good decisions about whether work projects will or won’t be strengthened by collaboration.


Here's a handy tool for identifying projects appropriate for a collaborative approach. Access pdf version.

If you answer "yes" to the following questions your project is very likely to be a good candidate for collaboration.  (But even these good candidates must be evaluated within the context of your organization, its resources, its culture and its priorities.)

Having a few "no" answers doesn't rule out collaboration, but it does suggest that collaboration could make things more challenging. Other approaches might be more appropriate.

Question 1: Innovation Will the result/solution we're seeking be an innovation for our organization—a new way of doing things or an issue not addressed before? 

If your answer is yes, try collaboration. The diverse skills and perspectives a collaborative approach enables could enhance innovation and strengthen project outcomes.

Question 2: Business Impact (Anticipated returns vs. the investment of people and resources required for a collaborative approach.) Will this project significantly affect our bottom line? Will it grow revenues, save substantial costs?

If your projected results are likely to improve market performance, competitive position or other enterprise measures, then collaboration could drive a major pay-off.  

Question 3: Timeline Do we have ample time to find a solution to the problem/issue? 

In general, a short timeline can make collaboration impractical because of the logistics and decision-making time team efforts require. Ideally, for collaboration to be a good "fit", your answer to this question should be yes.

However, if a clear process/path is created to guide the group and careful adherence to timely action is enforced, a collaborative effort can still be a viable option.

Question 4: Scope Does the project require a lot of work? (This would include tasks, sub-tasks, alignment across/involvement of business functions, etc.)

Yes? Although it may seem counter-intuitive, collaboration could help by distributing tasks across the work group, lessening demand on individuals (and the potential for overload). Further, collaboration may be particularly effective when projects require participation by or potentially affect multiple business units or functions.

Question 5: Resources (Think about the people, information, and other resources necessary to facilitate a collaborative approach.) Will collaborators have unobstructed access to each other and to all information and assets required to drive results?

Whether working virtually or face-to-face, ease of access to interact with group members is a must for effective collaboration. Further, entree to information systems, data, and other supportive materials must be readily available.  Find out what virtual collaboration tools and technologies are available in your organization.

Question 6: Collaboration Skillsets Do group members have the necessary knowledge/skills to communicate effectively, work with diverse colleagues, capture and develop ideas, and create a productive team culture?

Having these skillsets in place will make things a lot easier. Experience working in a collaborative environment, refined communication capabilities, conflict management proficiency, and other people/soft skills break down barriers to collaboration and enhance positive outcomes.

Question 7: Motivation Do organizational systems and processes encourage people to collaborate?

Appropriate team-based rewards provide motivation (and recognition) for collaboration and underscore the importance of the work─incentives reinforce participants’ engagement and willingness to contribute maximum effort.

Question 8: Team Selection  Have we addressed these important components of building a successful team?

  • Is there a clear understanding of the roles needed for the project?   
  • Are special knowledge/skills required? 
  • Do team members represent diverse perspectives?

Choosing the right people to collaborate can help you avoid calling on the "go-to" select few who are likely to be overloaded. Promote inclusion and healthy collaboration by involving people who are less-frequently asked to collaborate.

Question 9: Pacing Have we established clear timelines, built in oversight for keeping things on track, and discussed how to avoid the trap of having too many meetings?

Establishing clear schedules (and setting limits for meetings) at the outset help collaborative projects stay on track. Consider 30-day to 90-day timelines for collaborations to reinforce an efficient, energetic pace. 

Question 10: Shared Objective(s) Is the desired result for the collaboration compelling and easy to understand and articulate? Will we be able to create goals for individual team members that will be as clear as the shared group goal(s)?

Sharply defining goals (individual and group) is a critical success step that must be completed before work on a collaborative project can begin. If a powerful and engaging common objective cannot be communicated, the project is not appropriate for collaboration.

LEAD NOW model

This tool for identifying projects appropriate for a collaborative approach builds on insights from Stewart Leadership, creators of the comprehensive leadership development program LEAD NOW!. 

LEAD NOW! features instruction in critical thinking, organizational savvy, work delegation, decision-making and other core capabilities for leaders.

See a free FULL preview of LEAD NOW! (eLearning or video) HERE.

For instruction on facilitating a collaborative session, we recommend:
5 Questions Every Leader Must Ask: Engaging Your Team to Achieve Any Goal