The Dark Side of Collaboration

All the best heroes have a Dark Side; Batman, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes. And so does collaboration.

But having a dark side doesn’t turn our heroes into arch-villains. No, it makes them more heroic. They save the day in the end despite the call of the Dark Side.

Collaboration also has a Dark Side. Paradoxically, the Dark Side of collaboration is that it can harm productivity. So let’s look at collaboration’s dark side and see if we can equip all you everyday-heroes to deal with it!

Collaboration is slowing down business

Recent research shows that in many cases, collaboration is slowing down decision-making. And slower decisions mean slower business. It’s happening at all levels;

  • IT projects take, on average, 10% longer to deliver than they did 5 or 6 years ago
  • It takes around 50% longer to hire an employee than 5 years ago
  • Procurement / sales cycles have increased 22% in the last 5 years

So what’s been going on in the last 5–10 years that might explain this? Tom Monahan, the CEO of CEB (the company that did much of the research) reckons that factors include the increase in size of corporations, de-layering of management and the misuse of collaboration tools.

Now, we mortals are not going to do anything to make companies smaller, but we can deal with the other two causes.

The missing managers and bad collaboration

These two factors are linked. Post 2008, most companies have become more “efficient”. In other words, they’ve downsized and eliminated layers of management. Now in many ways, this might be beneficial — I’m not qualified to say — but one side-effect is that the worker-bees have had to rely on their peers to support decision-making. This has slowed decisions down and, I suspect, reduced accountability.

And these delays cost big money. That 10-ish% slow-down in project delivery translates into about a month of delay. For a moderately complex IT project, that translates into a direct cost of around $43,000.

Late projects are bad enough, but delays in decision-making also leads to failure. A study by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants found that 72% of respondents admitted to having at least one failed strategic initiative due to slow decisions.

At the same time, online collaboration tools like Slack and Yammer have emerged to allow us to collaborate, to follow people, to persist conversations, to leverage the wisdom of the crowd… Yet much of this collaboration is about passing information around rather than real, structured decision-making.

Releasing collaboration’s inner hero — beneficial collaboration

Right about now, you’ll probably be thinking, “Right, let’s throw out all that collaborative nonsense and centralize all decision-making!” Well that would, to put it mildly, be counter-productive.

Teams typically generate far more / better ideas than individuals. When they’re working well, teams evaluate more “angles” of a decision. Team members bring different skills and perspectives to solve problems. They make a decision stronger. Collaboration on a decision increases buy-in to that decision which, in turn, leads to better execution of the decision. Good collaboration is a very positive thing. So how do we get more of it?

Well, research from Bain & Co. shows that the key is decision-making culture. Make sure that your “collaboration” has a point, that you know what you’re trying to achieve through collaboration. Getting your organization to collaborate in a structured way on key decisions (project prioritization, procurement, what government policy would have the biggest impact, which site to shut, where to build your new airport) is, according to Bain, the strongest predictor of success in times of change… and the times, they are a-changing!

So what does “structure” look like?

First of all, you need to have a culture of clear decision accountability. This fundamentally comes down to having clearly defined decision roles. Who is the decision maker? Who has to approve the decision? Who has to be informed? Who gives input? This means that everyone knows their role and can be efficient in that role, adding to the team’s knowledge and creativity, but not slowing things down (learn more from Bain). Where possible, start meetings with a statement of the decisions that will be made and with a review of decision roles increases certainty — make it clear what is expected.

Second, a structured collaborative decision-making process will both increases decision quality and increases buy-in. One of the most widely used methodologies to structure decisions is the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP).The AHP has a simple way of setting out and evaluating the criteria (goals and drivers) of your decision, one that builds deeper understanding and buy-in with stakeholders. This kind of structure not only harnesses the power of your team’s knowledge and creativity to make better decisions — the good side of collaboration — but also helps reduce the intrinsic decision-making biases that all humans carry around with us. It stops your team spending endless hours going around in circles or “positioning for power” and keeps them focused on the goals, drivers and on the decision itself.

Prioritization unlocks superpowers in all of us

There’s one more tip that can transform the way you collaborate, and it can be summarized in one word: prioritize.

In a collaborative world, you need a shared understanding of priorities. With this shared understanding, your team becomes far more productive. You stop doing things that add little or no value (but that might seem important to you) and you start finding ways your initiatives can multiply the effects of your colleagues.

But most teams never clearly set out, or struggle to build, a common picture of priorities. Again, collaborative decision-making tools like AHP can help you build understanding and agreement about your priorities and their relative importance which, in turn, empowers your team to align their daily work with what’s important.

So, don’t let the Dark Side win. Collaboration should be a super-hero and with these few simple techniques, you too can put your underpants on the outside and be a superhero too!

Learn more

We’ve created this ultimate guide to project prioritization for you.

This is the place to get the basics of how to do project prioritization properly and of how it can support strategic project selection. It includes a discussion on different methods and techniques for prioritizing projects and gives some guidelines on how to pick a balanced portfolio of projects.