How to Avoid Collaboration Fatigue-main

It’s nearly impossible to escape a meeting or conference call without someone touting the virtues of collaboration. After all, researchers have linked collaboration to increased innovation, and many have compellingly argued for collaboration’s role in better leadership performance. Collaboration just feels right — like a big hug or a warm puppy.

But collaboration also has an overlooked dark side.

Picture this: A complex issue is identified. A diverse, cross-functional team is assembled to solve it. Key stakeholders are gathered. Information is collected. Options are debated. Approval is sought. And then… nothing happens. So more information is gathered. More stakeholders are invited. More conference calls are logged. More debate ensues. More approval is sought. Round and round the project goes — when, where, and how somebody will decide, nobody knows.

This is a recipe for collaboration fatigue, and if consumed in large doses for prolonged periods, this potent blend of abdication, confusion, and indecision will poison your team. So the question is: How can you leverage the advantages of collaboration while limiting your exposure to the morale-sucking effects of collaboration fatigue?

You can start by answering the two questions below. If you have clear answers to these questions, there’s a good chance that a lot of your collaborative woes will subside.

What is the project’s purpose? It’s easy to assume that everyone on your team already knows the project’s purpose. “We’re here to solve the supply chain problem” or “we’re here to build a new product.” And it’s easy to assume that your team will know that its objective is to produce the highest quality solution at the lowest possible cost in the shortest amount of time. These are flawed assumptions, and they usually turn good collaboration into bad collaboration. For example, when your team inevitably has to choose between the lowest cost solution and the speed-enhancing solution for the supply chain, which objective wins? Should the new product address the needs of a premium customer segment, or be a market disruption aimed at attracting non-consumers? These decisions require a shared strategic direction, not an on-demand cost/benefit analysis.

So before you begin, make sure everyone is crystal clear about the primary strategic objective. It will help your team make hard choices going forward.

Who will make the decision? At some point, your team will have to make a decision based on the insights and research it has gathered. And although defining the project’s purpose will be a huge help in guiding the way, there’s sure to be conflicting opinions and unavoidable tradeoffs. When the time comes, who will make the call? Is it a single person, or a vote? If it’s a vote, who is the tie-breaker?

The best time to answer this question is at the beginning of the project before the pressure has mounted and the temptation to schedule just one more meeting, one more round of data collection, or one more conference call grows too strong to overcome.

To be sure, some collaboration fatigue just comes with the territory. The reason you pursue collaborative ventures in the first place is because you need to address an ambiguous, highly visible, boundary-crossing issue for which responsibility and control is spread evenly across many people. Decades of research show that these high demand/low control situations are a veritable petri dish for job stress and burnout.

But you can mitigate the fatigue even in a situation like this. The fact is collaboration also has a bright side over and above its (occasional) connection to performance. Human beings are wired to connect. It just feels good. You can leverage that positive inclination in order to produce more positive results — objectively and emotionally. All it takes is a little direction and a lot of decision making.

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