Sunday, November 17, 2013

Engineering in the World of Collaboration Overload

On Monday start thinking about your typical workweek.  What percentage of your time do you spend on the phone, on e-mail, or in meetings (virtual and face-to-face)?  The spread of social media and collaboration technologies in the workplace, the adoption of matrix-based structures, and the proliferation of initiatives to create a "One Firm" are creating time and work problems for some engineers.  In a world of constant pressure for more interaction, it can be hard for senior engineering managers to keep employees focused on the tasks and activities that are most crucial to value creation.  Asking engineers to both increase collaboration and attend to crucial tasks can lead to overload, burnout, and decreased productivity.

Rob Cross and Peter Gray address this issue in the current issue of the California Management Review (Where Has the Time Gone?  Addressing Collaboration Overload in a Networked Economy).  The article has a list of "Best Practices" for reducing collaboration overload.  These are:

Structural Recommendations
  1. Reallocate routine decisions to less-overloaded people or embed them in policy.
  2. Make information that you are routinely asked for available through other people or on websites.
  3. Shift portions of your role to people on the fringe of the network as a developmental opportunity.
  4. Ask the people around you to focus their inquires to ensure that issues reaching you are targeted to your current expertise and position.
  5. Acquire buffers (such as administrative assistants or calendaring rules) that encourage collaboration to be focused and efficient when they meet with you.
  6. Hold periodic meetings instead of many fragmented interactions to build vision and coordination.
  7. Be clear about what will be decided and who must be present at meetings you run.
Behavioral Recommendations
  1. Avoid sending signals that you need to be in the loop.  Instead, create connections with people who can take on some decisions.
  2. Do not be too responsive or quick to help our with issues that do not require your involvement.
  3. Try not to be responsible for expertise that is less central to your success than it perhaps used to be.  Remove yourself from certain meetings and interactions or use them as a way to develop key talent.
  4. Hold people accountable for lack of execution (in as positive way as possible).
  5. Correct collaboration problems quickly, before they escalate.
  6. Make decisions when you should - even in the face of ambiguity or less than perfect information - so that you are not asking others to devote unnecessary time to studying an issue.
  7. When you make suggestions on employee's work, focus on changes that will yield significant (>25%) improvements.
  8. Co-create solutions with employees so that they take ownership and need fewer interaction with you over time.
  9. Go face-to-face for high-stakes interactions, thereby reducing the need for follow-up meetings.
  10. Switch from e-mail to direct contact early when you see signs of misunderstanding.

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