What does it take to lead agile, high-functioning teams that collaborate effectively? That’s the question Rob Cross has been exploring with his research group.
Cross, a professor at Babson College, explained how to identify collaborative dysfunction — and then improve it — as a guest at MIT Sloan Management Review’s recent Work/22 virtual symposium on the challenges leaders can expect to face in the year ahead.
Collaboration increasingly happens through networks, and these networks have startling characteristics when you look at them closely. Hierarchies have collapsed thanks to employees’ instantaneous access to one another. Many people live in a state of collaborative intensity. Cross said that 3% to 5% of people tend to account for 20% to 30% of value-added collaborations — and these are the people who really matter in any collaborative mix. But they are dramatically overwhelmed, and they sometimes create pinch points that slow down work and impede their own ability to get work done and be innovative.
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Organizations need to reduce the collaborative overload on these frequent collaborators, and they need to find more of them.
Are those people replicable? They are, but with some caveats. Cross’s research found that it takes most people about three to five years to enter an organization and replicate the connectivity of a high performer. That involves developing the bridging relationships and reputational capital trust that will distinguish them and help them innovate differently.
However, Cross’s research also found that 10% of the population manage to become high performers not in three to five years but in about nine to 12 months. How can organizations foster that type of agility in order to “slingshot people into productive positions,” as Cross puts it? How can analytics be used to see the sets of connections that need to happen and facilitate those connections?
A number of factors come into play, including rapidly integrating newcomers; engaging remote workers; shaping ecosystems in which teams reside; facilitating collaboration across silos where necessary; discouraging cliques that diminish alignment; reducing collaborative overload on the key players; and identifying and rewarding effective collaborators.
Put another way: Manage the center, manage the edge, minimize silos, build agility, and minimize insularity.
Managing the collaborative process better matters because people are burned out.