Managing your productivity in a collaborative climate

By Elisabeth Goodman, 14th July 2018

Collaboration_HBR JulyAug2018
Harvard Business Review, July-August 2018, pp134-137

Collaborative working is on the rise – at the cost of individual productivity

Speaking from experience

This will not be news to people who are continuously wrestling against the demands of their e-mails, meetings, phone calls and interruptions from colleagues.

Matrix working, multi-tasking on projects and interacting with colleagues, customers and suppliers across time-zones is very much the model for many of the people that we work with at RiverRhee.

The consequence is that people struggle to find time for their ‘own work’: to focus single-mindedly on tasks that need to get done, to read and reflect, to make good decisions, to do their strategic thinking, to be at their most creative if they do this best on their own.

The statistics

Rob Cross et al in “Collaboration without burnout”, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2018 (pp.134-137) have some statistics for us.  According to the Connected Commons, the demand for collaborative interactions such as those described above has increased by 50% in the last 10 years; and most managers spend at least 85% of their time doing them.

It doesn’t have to be like this

“Collaborative overload” (as defined in a 2016 HBR article by one of the co-authors) is not inevitable.  We can readjust our individual mindsets, habits and the expectations that our colleagues have of us, so as to enable us to achieve a healthy approach towards collaborative working and individual productivity.

How mindsets affect “collaborative overload” vs collaborative efficiency

Not being able to, or not wanting to say “no”

We already know that some people find it harder to say “no” than others.  It can feel unhelpful or even selfish to refuse requests from others.

Another mindset that can make it difficult for us to say “no” is where doing more gives us a sense of achievement, of credibility, of being a top performer, or of being at the centre of things.

The consequences of not saying “no”

The consequences of all of this behaviour on ones workload, priorities, stress levels and ultimate productivity can be very damaging.

In fact, taking everything on that we are asked (or that we offer ) to do may not only be damaging ourselves, but could also damage others in terms of lost opportunities for their learning and development.

It could also be damaging the organisation in that the right people (ourselves included) may not in fact be doing the right jobs.

What’s different about efficient collaborators

According to Rob Cross et al, efficient collaborators make an informed choice about what they do and don’t do.  This is aligned to their areas of expertise, and to where they can add the most value in the organisation.

Efficient collaborators’ self-worth comes from their ability to focus on what matters, and from helping others to learn, develop and gain visibility and recognition for what they do.

Tips for achieving a healthy approach towards collaboration and individual productivity

Find your “north star” objectives

In our RiverRhee course and module on managing your time, we’ve taken Stephen R. Covey’s  second “habit” of “beginning with the end in mind”, and Brian Tracy’s recommendation (in Eat that Frog) to focus on the unique contribution that you can make.

Begin with the end in mind
Extract from RiverRhee’s course and module on managing your time

If you can define the unique contribution that you can make to your organisation’s goals then, according to Rob Cross et al, this “north star” can guide you in your collaboration with others.

It will help you to have meaningful discussions with your managers and colleagues about where your areas of focus should be, and what would be best delegated or left to others.

Protect your productive time

Finding your “north star” will also help you to decide, and clarify to others which meetings, discussions and decisions you should be involved in, and which ones you are not the best use of your time and expertise.

You can also block out time in your calendar for your ‘own work’ and protect it in the same way that others would protect a meeting.

Influence collaborative working practices

Rob Cross et al remind us that we can encourage good working practices amongst our colleagues for the use of email such as:

  • clear and concise formats for communication
  • avoiding the use of “cc” and “reply to all”
  • using collaborative working tools (such as Google docs) for complex discussions or work
  • switching to face-to-face or phone conversations when the email thread is starting to get too complicated

And we can influence efficient use of time in the meetings that we do attend by such practices as ensuring that:

  • there is an agenda and that it is circulated in advance
  • the right people are in the meeting
  • decisions and actions are documented and circulated after the meeting

Use your network effectively

According to Rob Cross et al, focusing on the quality of interactions rather than on the quantity of relationships, will have a beneficial impact on collaborative working.

They suggest that in high quality interactions, there is a sense of purpose and energy in the discussion.  Both parties are aware of each other’s goals, there is trust, and a mutual desire to support each other, and a respect for each other’s time.

This approach can be applied to all discussions that take place with members of a manager’s network: peers, direct reports (in one-on-ones) and higher managers!


Discussions about time and productivity management traditionally focus on what the individual can do to better manage their time.

Rob Cross et al’s article provides a useful perspective on how the context for that is so inter-twined with the current culture of collaborative working.

Their suggestions are valuable additions and reinforcements of concepts that other authors such as Stephen R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), Brian Tracy  (Eat that Frog) and Graham Allcott (Productivity Ninja) have to offer us.


About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  

Click here for information on RiverRhee’s training, workshops and coaching for managers and teams

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Leave a Comment