The Hidden Cost of Collaboration

cost of collaborationAn article on the HBR written by Paul Ellingstad and Charmian Love called Is Collaboration the New Greenwashing? makes some good points about collaboration and the importance of 'walking the walk', rather than 'talking the talk'.

The authors start by highlighting the importance of the human element of collaboration.

From the article:

Who are the players you want to work with? What does each bring to the table? Why would each player be motivated to work with the others? Figuring this out upfront is critical. The next hurdle is figuring out how people are going to work together in practice, including which tools and resources you have available to facilitate the process.

One response to the points above is that commercial interests and remuneration account for people's motivation whilst various communication tools determine how everyone will work together in practice.

Whilst this is reasonable, I think that an important piece is missing from this equation, namely how to determine team dynamics and group relationships amongst everyone who is collaborating. Although this is arguably inferred in the section above, it's by no means clear and explicit - there's nothing directly actionable.

The Gap between Technological and Relational Tools

This inference is easy to spot when contrasted with the author's own writing on technological (as opposed to relational) tools. The certainty, predictability and ease at which the value of technological tools are recognised couldn't be more apparent:

We often take the enabling role of technology for granted when collaborating on complex, systems-level problem solving. Technology has improved communication flows with "anyone anywhere"; made processes exponentially more efficient; enabled resilient feedback loops; and improved our decision-making through rapid synthesis of large amounts of complex data.

The implication that technological tools have helped solve numerous problems is clear. Communication, processes, efficiency and decision making are all sighted and quite rightly - good collaboration aids all of these elements and more besides. What's hard to avoid however is the contrast between the benefits realised from technological tools on the one hand and the 'hurdle of how people are going to work together in practice' on the other.

The Hidden Cost of Collaboration

This difference in how the human and relational side of collaboration compares to the technological and procedural cannot be understated. In practice, the best laid collaborative strategies can suffer setbacks and delays as a result of the 'relational hurdle'. This 'Tension in Collaboration' has been covered on the Four Groups blog in the past and the authors themselves recognise the challenges that go with this:

A rule of thumb to keep in mind: If it feels uncomfortable, overwhelming and challenging, you're probably on the right track. If it were easy, these models of collaboration would have been done before.

Clearly, the human side of collaboration is difficult and carries with it certain costs. Recent research by Rob Cross in the MIT Sloan Management Review places a figure on these challenges. Two of the findings:

  • At Monsanto, the employees who interacted with the least efficient project managers and organizational leaders spent five times more time preparing for and engaging in those collaborations than did employees who interacted with the most efficient project managers and organizational leads.
  • Monsanto managers, according to the article, concluded that if they could help just 20 of their less-efficient project managers and leaders become average in collaborative efficiency, the approximately 400 individuals who routinely interacted with those project managers and leaders would save up to 1500 hours a week, collectively. [i.e. each individual would save 3.75 hours a week]

When it comes to the cost of collaboration, or more precisely, the cost of collaboration inefficiencies, the data above suggests that 10% of the working week is lost due to inefficient collaboration (based on the average US worker working 37.2 hours a week over a 48 week year). While these figures are taken from a single company, it would be interesting to know how they compared to other firms.


If we assume that the hidden cost of collaboration amounts to 10% of people's working week, then this suggests significant improvements in performance and engagement can be realised through better collaboration. Equally, the 10% figure isn't too far out of line given that other research suggests that 10 - 40% of people's performance is based on the quality of their relationships (previously).

Thinking more broadly, greater availability of tools and techniques that do help us overcome the human hurdles of collaboration and that complement existing technological tools can only be a good thing.

Image credit: malc32

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