Collaboration is broken. Here's how to fix it.

rebecca hindsRebecca Hinds
28 Juli 2023
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This article was originally published on Inc.

Collaboration at work has reached a fever pitch. Everywhere you look, there's another company or news article touting the benefits of a connected, collaborative workforce. And that's understandable—collaboration can be good for your company. But when it's not intentional—or, worse, when it's mismanaged—collaboration can actually hurt your organization

The key lies in knowing how your employees work together. In other words, you need what my colleagues and I call "collaborative intelligence."

What is collaborative intelligence?

Collaborative intelligence helps leaders understand how employees collaborate. It reveals the interconnected ways your employees work together. It can help you pinpoint how your teams can do their best work—boosting their productivity and, ultimately, your bottom line.

But it isn't easy. To achieve effective collaboration, you need to get to an elusive middle ground between too much and too little. Too much collaboration, and your workers can feel overloaded by notifications, meetings, and other bloat. Too little collaboration, and your teams become disconnected and isolated. 

The problem with collaboration.

With more distributed work, more technologies, and more complex workflows, collaboration has become more invisible than ever. As a leader, it's impossible to see all the ways your teams are working together.

Collaboration is also increasing overall. According to research led by Babson College Professor Rob Cross, employees spend 50 percent more time collaborating today than they did a decade ago. Cross' work shows that up to 35 percent of high-value collaboration within your organization comes from only 3 to 5 percent of your employees. This often means your highest performers are doing the bulk of the collaborative work, which means they are the most at risk of burning out and leaving your organization.

Of course, collaboration isn't inherently bad. Harvard's Heidi Gardner has shown that when teams work together across departments, they are able to boost customer loyalty and margins. 

The problem is that companies often reach for collaboration when they could instead lean on simpler, more cost-effective coordination efforts. 

Coordination, which involves more sequential rather than simultaneous work (think handoffs and baton passes), is simpler than collaboration. But leaders are still more interested in collaboration for shared work. That's because collaboration has a halo effect, driving leaders to believe it is synonymous with teamwork. In our recent research at The Work Innovation Lab, a think tank by Asana where I work, we found that roughly one in five leaders don't know the difference between the two terms. Do you? 

As a leader, you can't set your employees up to collaborate in effective ways if you don't know what collaboration means. 

The solution? Collaborative intelligence.

It's not enough to simply collaborate—you and your employees need to collaborate the right way. And what's right will depend on what you're trying to optimize forFor example, in our research, we've found that companies need to collaborate in different ways depending on whether they are trying to boost innovation or uplevel the customer experience. 

Collaborative intelligence can often lead to unexpected findings. For example, we recently conducted a study that looked at how Fortune 500 companies collaborate to produce great customer experiences. We found that today, customer-experience teams are 70 percent more likely to collaborate with other departments, like marketing and operations. That's even more than teams like HR or IT, which formally serve their entire companies! 

In short, collaboration is complex and often invisible. That's why a data-driven approach is so crucial. You can only improve collaboration when you understand how your company works.

Collaboration is broken—but there's a fix.

Within your company, chances are that many of your workers feel either overloaded, isolated, or a mix of both. But they probably don't tell you this. So, how do you identify where these issues are happening, and who is impacted? 

By building your own internal collaborative intelligence. Start by mapping out where collaboration is happening, through different physical and virtual spaces, and through different technologies. Information is power, especially when you're responsible for leading an organization. 

When it comes to optimizing collaboration at your company, you can't afford to just follow your instincts. Collaboration is too complex and too invisible. Collaborative intelligence offers an alternative to managing the way your teams work. Through the data and insights you discover, you can make collaboration work for you—not the other way around.

An executive’s guide to high-value collaboration

In this research-backed playbook, get insights about when to use collaboration vs. coordination (and why that distinction matters)

Get the full report
[LAB] Exec High Value Collab (image)

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