Team Productivity

How to Keep Collaboration from Wasting Your Team's Time

Daniel Threlfall
March 27, 2017
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In one of my prior project management roles, I experienced team collaboration that truly made a difference.

Across several countries and multiple time zones, I saw what could happen when a team focused in on a goal, charted a path to success, and executed with passion.

  • Over the course of two months, productivity rose by 320%.
  • Within one year, the business as a whole had three times as many clients.
  • We hired four contractors and fired two.
  • We implemented a team wide weekly call that kept everyone aligned in terms of weekly tasks and goals.

Both individuals and business can’t function without team collaboration. It’s what empowers organizations to build useful tools and make the world a better place.

What isn't often addressed, however, are the disadvantages of team collaboration. Unfortunately, much of what we call “collaboration” is actually a waste of time.

Is your team collaboration a waste of time?

Under the guise of “collaboration,” teams lose hundreds of work hours and thousands of dollars.

In other articles on the TeamGantt blog, we’ve pointed out the major risk of wasting time in meetings. But we can’t blame meetings alone for siphoning away our precious work hours.

One Gallup article makes the case that low trust among team members can lead to meaningless collaboration. If team members don’t trust themselves, how can it be worthwhile to have productive interaction on a project?

We tend to think that if we have a team that is “large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly educated specialists,” then collaboration happens naturally. In reality, as a Harvard Business Review discussion points out, “those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done.” points out five of the most common “dysfunctions of team collaboration,” discussed by leadership and business author Patrick Lencioni:

  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results

Clearly, collaboration can eviscerate a team’s effectiveness and produce dysfunction. The solution isn’t to eradicate collaboration, but rather to enhance it so that it works the way it should — bringing people together, focusing on goals, and achieving greater good.

Here are the three biggest ways in which team collaboration wastes time and goes off the rails. In addition to pointing out these pitfalls, I’ll provide a few suggestions for avoiding them.

Sidenote: I will not address the dynamics of team psychology, but the more tactical and technological issues of collaboration.

Collaboration is always “on.” As a result, individual contribution suffers.

Most of the technologies that support collaboration are constantly turned on.

For example, I recently chased down an aggressive deadline for a looming project on a Tuesday morning. I carved out one hour (a nail biting time frame) to finalize the project and deliver it to my client.

As I settled in to polish off the project, a Slack notification popped up on my phone...and then on my computer. Ding! Ding!

Enter Objectivius Shinium Syndromus. (Shiny Object Syndrome)

Like the wisp of steam rising from my freshly brewed coffee, all the concentration powers that I had summoned forth to work on The Looming Project vanished.

Slack had my attention. Or at least the person on the other end of the Slack discussion had my attention (all because I had not disabled my Slack notifications).

Oftentimes, our desire for collaboration is actually a distraction.

When teams insist on always being in collaboration mode — responding to emails, IMs, slack notifications, or chats — it can destroy individual contribution.

If you’ve ever been frustrated because you can’t seem to work on your “own stuff” (i.e., work stuff that requires your input), or if you feel guilty for not responding to an IM or email right away, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Always-on “collaboration” is a massive waste of time because it robs team members of the time needed to work individually.

Here are some suggestions to fix this problem:

  • Make it clear to your team that they can (and should) turn off notifications, shut down email, etc., for a set number of hours per workday for the purpose of working on their own projects.
  • Confine periods of “collaboration” to in-person meetings (if you manage an in-person team).
  • Instead of an instant message-based collaboration tool (Jabber, Slack, etc.) try a tool that limits this functionality (e.g., TeamGantt).

Collaboration can devolve into just “hanging out”

Some collaboration tools are nothing more than another place to hang out online.

It makes sense, of course, to have a “place to hang out online,” especially for remote teams. But there is a propensity to let our hair down too far, and use team collaboration time as shoot-the-breeze-and-hang-out-ha-ha-that-was-funny time.

Thus, because the collaboration tools is misused as a place to hang out online, many collaboration sessions run the risk of becoming a waste of time.

For example, I was on a Skype call with a teammate in England. For some reason, he wanted to chill rather than talk about the project we were supposed to focus on. (I think it must have been the end of the workday in his time zone.)

Eventually, the Skype call turned into an all-out meme fest. (I cannot deny that I shared a few memes myself.) A few memes might be okay. Maybe. But fifteen memes on a business call? A bit much.

Human nature sometimes defies all efforts to get stuff done. When there is an important task to be accomplished, a topic to be discussed, or a problem to be solved, we sometimes tend to do anything but address it.

There are methods, other than sheer force and iron-minded willpower, that may help:

  • Arrange time slots to intentionally hang out. Make these purposeful. Some teams have happy hours, pizza Fridays, or monthly parties. It’s all to enjoy one another’s company, and possibly buy back some of the true collaboration time — stuff that needs to happen during work hours.
  • Rely on the agenda. Yes, it sounds so restrictive, but meetings need agendas. Even IM chats need agendas. Sticking to an agenda prevents plenty of wasted time.

Collaboration can become highly complex

When the tools or processes used for collaboration are hard to figure out, it can lead to loss of collaboration. Team members spend so much time trying to figure out how to collaborate that they fail to collaborate at all, or do so in an ineffective way.

At my previous job, I clearly remember the day our CEO introduced a new project management software and collaboration tool.

It was shiny. It was new. It was slick.

It was extremely complicated.

No brand names shall be mentioned, but this thing flat-out confused everyone on the team.

  • The purpose of the software: Project management and team collaboration.
  • The net effect of the software: Team chaos and weeks of wasted time.

Maybe the rollout of the tool was ill-timed. Maybe the adoption by the team was less than eager. Perhaps we were all just too comfortable with our existing project management software.

Whatever the case, we got rid of the new software as how we’d throw off our necktie at the end of a workday.

When “collaboration” becomes too complicated, it stops being collaboration. Instead, it wastes everyone’s time.

Team members spend more time trying to learn to collaborate than actually collaborating. The tool becomes a liability, not an enhancement.

Here are ways to solve this problem:

  • Take an entire day to learn the new platform as a team, and two weeks to use it exclusively. I borrowed this technique from my friend who heads up a marketing team at Expedia. He has successfully implemented several new systems and software tools by having a team-wide tutorial plus focused usage for two weeks. Usually, the team can use the tool for its intended purpose within that time.
  • Choose the simplest tools available. Many of us default to email as a de facto collaboration tool. It’s so simple! Who needs some fancy collaboration software when you can compose, type, send, boom? Though email is not a robust team collaboration tool, you can at least choose something without a massive learning curve.
  • Avoid the temptation to create a complex structure or set of rules around collaboration. Some of the best collaboration happens naturally — in the hallways, around the Keurig, or walking to the parking garage together. When you try to stuff this unwieldy human experience of collaboration into tightly-controlled boxes, you may lose the magic, serendipity, and spontaneity of the whole thing.

Most teams want to save time and improve productivity. Since team collaboration is a crucial part of this effort, it makes total sense to improve collaboration as much as possible.

As you do so, look for these pitfalls:

  • Collaboration that is always “on,” keeping team members from spending time on other necessary work.
  • Collaboration that is nothing more than social bonding time.
  • Collaboration that is extremely complicated or structured.

In short, collaboration is only as good as the technology and tools that support it. Choose wisely, collaborate strategically, and you’ll achieve your goals.

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