Collaborative Overload: How HBR’s Collaboration Advice Applies to Volunteer Management
Collaborative Overload, written by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant, discusses the hidden costs of one of the country’s most significant workplace macro-trends: collaboration. The article addresses collaboration inefficiencies among paid staff. However, it also provides useful insight into effective volunteer management. Collaborative overload is as great a risk to volunteer retention as it is to employee retention. This article summarizes Collaborative Overload’s major points and discusses how they can be applied to volunteer management in order to retain exceptional volunteers.
The State of Collaboration
Over the past few decades, organizations have placed increased importance on collaboration. This emphasis is justified, as collaboration has the potential to generate stronger results. At the same time, the authors of this article argue that inefficient collaboration is increasingly common and bears significant hidden cost.
In many organizations, managers and employees spend as much as 80% of their time in meetings or responding to requests from other team members by email, phone, or other follow-up activity. Unfortunately, that time isn’t always productive.
Often, a few valued collaborators drive most of the team’s performance. The authors’ research indicates that 20% to 35% of the value-added collaborations are driven by 3% to 5% of employees. This suggests that some team members may be spending time in meetings that could be more productively allocated elsewhere.
- Informational resources are knowledge and skills that can be shared, often very quickly and efficiency, but are retained by the contributor.
- Social resources are the individual’s network, awareness or access to networks that can help move projects forward. Like informational resources, contributors can share social resources and still retain them.
- Personal resources are the individual’s own time and energy. Unlike informational and social resources, personal resources are limited. Unfortunately, exceptional collaborators are generally known for their willingness to pitch in, and personal resources are often the default request.
The Impact of Inefficient Collaboration
The authors recognize a number of costs associated with collaborative inefficiency.
First, when team members spend 80% of their time in meetings and responding to requests for information, they are left with a very small amount of time to complete important solo work. As a result, employees work longer hours or bring solo assignments home to complete. This has a tendency to discourage and burn out employees.
Second, exceptional collaborators are often both respected and exceptionally busy. As a result, team members may wait to make decisions until they have weighed in. This can cause them to become operational bottlenecks.
Third, exceptional collaborators often become so busy that they are no longer as effective, either personally or as a team member. As a result, when the number of people requesting informational, social and personal resources exceeds a certain level, it becomes a strong predictor of dissatisfaction, disengagement, and, eventually, turnover. When valuable employees leave, they take valuable knowledge and social resources with them.
Improving Collaborative Efficiency
The authors outline two ways that employers can improve collaborative efficiency.
Streamline and Redistribute Responsibility for Collaboration
First, the organization can streamline and redistribute responsibility for collaboration. To do this, they recommend that organizations:
- Begin by understanding which employees are most at risk for collaborative overload. The list may surprise you. Often, executives can name only 50% of their exceptional collaborators.
- Teach exceptional collaborators to prioritize requests, say no to requests for resources that aren’t an appropriate match for the team’s needs, or defer the request to someone else.
- Encourage top performers to choose projects that are value-added and energizing rather than those that are labor-intensive and exhausting.
- Consider taking a two-week break from all regularly scheduled meetings in order to force employees to reconsider the value of meetings to the outcomes produced.
- Reduce the time involved in reviews and approvals by delegating responsibilities for decision-making to more junior team members. Organizations might also consider using a designated “utility player,” a team member who has no set responsibilities and simply responds to requests as they emerge.
- Leverage technology to share information, rather than asking exceptional collaborators to share information repeatedly. The authors suggest Slack, Salesforce.com’s Chatter, Syndio and VoloMetrix.
- Rethink your physical space. By co-locating highly interdependent employees, they can have impromptu discussions rather than scheduling more time-consuming meetings.
Reward Effective Collaboration
Second, organizations should reward effective collaboration. To do this, the authors suggest that organizations:
- Identify and reward people who hit their own goals – and help others’ hit theirs. Most organizations tend to recognize personal performance, but they don’t measure the times employees step in to help others reach theirs. This lack of recognition leads to frustration and burn-out among a group of exceptional collaborators that are valuable to the organization. Instead, consider the types of statistics maintained by sports teams whose evaluations of MVPs include not only the goals they’ve scored, but also the assists they’ve made.
- Keep an eye on your female team members. According to the authors, women suffer from stereotyping as communal and caring. As a result, they receive less credit for their assistance when they help, and more negative evaluations if they don’t pitch in. Because of this, they experience burn out more quickly than their male colleagues. To prevent this problem, encourage them to invest different types of resources in collaboration. In particular, encourage them to invest informational and social resources rather than defaulting to personal resources.
- Consider investing in a Chief Collaboration Officer. This position focuses on managing teamwork thoughtfully and providing the resources to do it effectively.
Implications for Non-Profit Volunteer Collaboration
Clearly, this article has direct implications for non-profits who employee paid staff members. However, it also contains important lessons from a volunteer management perspective.
How many times have you volunteered for a non-profit, only to find yourself burned out and frustrated at the end of your term? Frankly, I’ve found this is true more often than it is not.
As I read this article, I realized that I’m experiencing the same burn-out and turnover issues that employees experience in a paid position.
Most volunteer positions require an investment of substantial personal resources (time and energy). Sometimes, this is appropriate. For example, I volunteer as a Girl Scout troop leader. I know the position is very time-intensive. However, serving as a Girl Scout leader meets my volunteer needs as an energizing activity. Even though it’s time consuming work, I don’t burn out.
On the other hand, non-profits often request my service on strategic planning committees and/or boards that are beginning a strategic planning process. I’m a good choice for that role, since I facilitate planning processes for a living. While I’m happy to provide the informational, and sometimes social, resources the organization needs, these positions are often accompanied by extremely heavy investments of personal resources. I spend countless hours in meetings, and often volunteer time to conduct market research, analyze data, or provide other time-intensive services to ensure the planning process is successful. While I love to be able to lend my expertise and connections to benefit non-profits, the labor intensive extra work and time spent in meetings often doesn’t energize or excite me.
That’s when I burn out.
How Non-Profits Can Retain Strong Collaborators
As I read the recommendations the authors made in Collaborative Overload, I was struck that the same advice can be applied to non-profits who want to avoid losing valuable volunteer collaborators. Here are my take-aways relative to volunteer management:
Match Resources to Needs
- When you are building a planning committee, make it a team of equals. Don’t add unnecessary team members to the mix, building the numbers simply for the sake of having a larger committee. Instead, identify required resources and match volunteers with opportunities based on their interests and resources.
- Prioritize your requests of volunteers. Like employers, non-profits tend to default to asking volunteers for personal resources. Before asking, consider whether time is what you actually need for them to contribute.
- Recruit for supporting roles. While it is difficult to find exceptional performers, sometimes you don’t need a someone with deep informational or social resources to complete a particular task. Consider asking a volunteer with more personal resources to take on a more time-intensive role on a committee, thereby freeing up the time of individuals with more informational and less personal resources to share. This can actually be a benefit to a less experienced contributor, as he or she will learn as they participate in the process. Written job descriptions can be particularly useful in this approach.
- If a volunteer declines a role, ask them for a referral. People with deep informational and social resources often know others in the same position. This is a meaningful way to contribute without extensive personal resource cost.
Rethink Meetings as Usual
- Plan, then schedule. From committee meetings to board meetings, almost every volunteer attends meetings they feel misuse their time. In fact, it sometimes feels as if someone created the meeting schedule before considering what the point of each meeting would be. When launching a new committee, consider the tasks to be accomplished, who needs to be involved and in what way, and the type of collaboration that will most efficiently meet the goal. Once that is done, you’re ready to get out the calendar.
- Leverage technologies to get the most out of meeting time. Don’t make your volunteers drive to a common location when a conference call could work just as effectively. This is a waste of volunteers’ personal resources.
- If you have paid staff, don’t delegate their decision-making authority to volunteers or board members. Giving paid staff the opportunity – and responsibility – to make decisions that are appropriate to their skill level reduces the burden on volunteer leaders and improves staff satisfaction.
- For boards, take advantage of consent agendas. A consent agenda is a single item on the board’s agenda that encompasses lots of smaller items that would typically absorb member time but require little input. This might include meeting minutes, reports from staff members or the ED/CEO, and even financials. These documents are provided to the board in advance, then approved without discussion in one sweeping motion. They save board time, freeing collaboration time for items that actually require collaboration.
Encourage and Reward Effective Collaboration
- Recognize exceptional performers. Organizations often recognize volunteers equally for the hours they invest. Everyone who volunteers for the board receives a plaque and recognition at the annual meeting, for example. However, this approach risks overlooking volunteers who contribute informational and social resources, or who are present but less productive during their volunteer hours. While many volunteers don’t want or need public recognition for their service, many other do. Almost everyone appreciates being recognized for exceptional contributions to team success. As the authors point out in their article, it’s important to recognize assists as well as goals.
- Leverage technology to share information. Many organizations rely on a small cadre of volunteers to mentally house a huge volume of organization history and information. This is particularly true of all-volunteer organizations. This is dangerous for several reasons. These volunteers invest disproportionate amounts of time responding to the same question. They generally also serve on larger numbers of committees, leaving them at higher risk of burn-out. Most importantly, if they leave the organization, their knowledge goes with them. To address this challenge, invest in an on-line resource bank. It can be as simple as a Dropbox account with job descriptions, historical documentation, detailed instructions for common processes, and important non-profit documents.
Looking for More?
If you have an idea you’d like to share, please leave a comment on my blog. Let’s make this blog post and the associated comments an informational resource for leaders seeking to retain strong collaborators, whether employees or volunteers!
If you would like to read the original article, Collaboration Overload, by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant, you can find it in HBR’s 10 Must Reads 2017, or as the cover story from Harvard Business Review’s January-February 2016 magazine.
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