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Why is collaboration broken?

Anyone involved in collaboration, employee well-being, or productivity will be aware that productivity problems are mounting up, more and more employees are complaining, and well-being is impacted. Employees feel overwhelmed by information, are in too many meetings, and cannot find things.

Why is this problem not addressed when it is so obvious and well-known? It is caused by some deeply ingrained ways of working that most organisations don’t seem to be able to leave behind.

Strangely enough, the problem is not very difficult to solve. This article explains how.

The problem

The overload problem has four elements that amplify each other:

1- The way we store our documents is not very structured

2- The contextual information created to align, solve problems, and communicate is fragmented. As a result, nobody has a complete overview.

3- The lack of overview is solved by more alignment, mostly meetings.

4- How we run meetings makes that many feel they are a waste of time.

Fragmentation of our documents and files

In the old days (pre-computers), when you needed to create a document, you would create it on paper. This paper would be copied and sent physically to people to inform them or to receive feedback. After some time, you’d get copies back with notes you’d need to process and create another document version. When we got computers, we didn’t innovate this process that much. We created virtual documents and sent them as attachments to everyone via email. After some time, you’ll get the documents back with comments and need to create a new version. The problem arising from the digitization of the process has led to sending the file to more people than before, and it’s easy to reply to all. Consequently, multiple documents fly around, and it is often unclear what the latest version is. This is the first part of the problem. Files are all over the place in many different versions, making it hard to find the right one, and errors occur because the wrong version is used. Technology did not solve the problem. It made it worse because the volume has exploded.

Contextual information is spread across multiple tools

Only part of the information in organizations lives in documents. A much larger part of the information, and often also a much more interesting part, lives in email boxes, chat messages, meetings, water cooler chats, phone calls, etc. We call this contextual information. It is crucial because it explains how and why things happened. The fragmentation of this information means that nobody has a complete overview of what is happening, and we create even more of this contextual information to get a grip on the situation. Overload and stress are the result. As in the first part of the problem, technology didn’t solve it; instead, it worsened by increasing the volume of information.

The alignment infarct

We’re in a situation where our main information and contextual information are fragmented and all over the place. What do we need to do? We need more alignment. And that is exactly the response we’ve had. We now need meetings for everything to ensure we’re all on the same page. Recent research from Microsoft suggests that we spend 57% of our working time aligning and only 43% creating. That is not productive.

The Covid lockdowns and the resulting remote trend have made this worse.

Unproductive meetings

Our way of working is leading to an increasing need for alignment. We have less time to get work done. One of the top complaints of employees and executives is the vast amount of time spent in meetings on unproductive activities. “Why am I in this meeting?” is a common thought.

To summarise the problem...

We mess up our documents and spread contextual information across multiple platforms, leading to a permanent state of ‘not being in the know’. Besides stress, this also leads to an increased demand for alignment, which we solve by having more meetings, which are then often badly run.

The solution

The solution to this problem requires a slight rethink but is easy to execute with your team. It has four steps.

Single source of truth

When you start working on a document, store it in the right place from the start. Don’t keep it on your computer or personal drive until it is done. Agree with your team about where you keep your files and the best folder structure to organize them. From that moment on, all the team’s files live there.

When you want people to review or read your document, you should send them the link to the file rather than an attachment. The link will bring people to the file, and they can leave comments there. Microsoft will keep the versions in check for you.

So, there will be no more confusion about which version is the correct one. There is only one file in one place, a single source of truth.

Restructuring contextual information

Teams need to agree on how they communicate and capture contextual information, so it doesn’t live in multiple places and the team has better collective awareness. The best way to structure this is by using MS Teams channel messages. Each team agrees on a structure of channels that best suits their way of working. To start, you can apply the same thinking as folder structures for files.

Within these channels one ‘Works in the Narrative’ (WIN). This means that the things a team does are seen as a narrative that evolves over time. For instance, writing a project plan behaves in this way. Someone starts to create the plan, others respond and improve the plan, and the plan is executed. The person responsible posts a message in a channel with the document. In the channel message he describes that a plan is being written. All interactions afterward will be comments on the first post. In that way, all information is in one place, and if you read from top to bottom, you know everything. On top of that, the latest version of the document is saved together with the contextual information. Click here, if you’d like to learn more about WIN (page 7).

At this stage, the team works on their documents and collects all contextual information in one place. They achieve collective awareness; everyone knows what’s going on. They will not need to have many meetings to align.

Do more asynchronously

In the paragraph on the alignment infarct, we described how we use meetings to try to regain alignment control. We’ve already taken a big step by creating collective awareness on the topics we are working on, but we can make another big step to reduce the time spent in meetings.

For that step we need to distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous work. Meetings are ‘synchronous’ work; everyone needs to be present at the same time. ‘Asynchronous’ work is the opposite. We work on the same topic, but not necessarily at the same time. The review of a document can be done in a meeting (synchronous) or it can be done WIN, where everyone reviews the document in their own time (asynchronous). The big benefit of moving work to asynchronous is that people regain control over their calendars and can concentrate and get work done. Working asynchronously also ensures we do not need to sit through meetings with irrelevant topics.

After having moved to WIN, there will likely still be many meetings as meetings have been our go to solution to get things moving for decades. We can further reduce the number of meetings by having a team go through their tasks and dividing them into synchronous and asynchronous. Only call meetings for activities that require you to be together, or to bond.

Bonus: This activity will not only help reduce meetings, but it will also help become more effective in hybrid. If people plan their synchronous work in the office and the asynchronous work at home, they are at their most effective.

Having meeting free time also greatly contributes to general well-being.

Better meetings

So, we’ve reduced the number of meetings by bringing collective awareness and by handling some of our tasks asynchronously instead of synchronously. That leaves us with the meetings that we truly need. One of the main complaints in studies is that meetings are badly run.

When people say they want better meetings, they usually mean that they want meetings where something is achieved and there is a tangible outcome. That means having an agenda, staying on topic, making sure everyone has a chance to contribute, and ending the meeting with clear action items.

If you do need a meeting, there are a few steps you can follow beforehand, to make sure it is as productive and succinct as it can get!

Going through a meeting checklist can help distinguish between just another calendar block, or a valuable session for everyone involved:

Although there is more to it, actively preparing meeting before it happens can be the leading factor to have a well-prepared and well-facilitated one.

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