Improving the Rhythm of Your Collaboration

Alternating between always-on connectivity and heads-down focus is essential for problem-solving.

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Count-offs at the beginning of musical performances, whether verbal (“One, two…”) or symbolic (with a baton or a snap), are a fixture of live collaboration for musicians. Conductors use them to establish tempo and feel, and to provide guidance on how to interpret the written rhythms — the patterns of sound and silence — that the ensemble is about to play.

Similarly, in the workplace, leaders help set the beat for their organizations’ and teams’ collaborative efforts. For at least a century, they have done this largely by planning working-group meetings, huddles, one-on-ones, milestone reports, steering committee readouts, end-of-shift handoffs, and so on. Through 30-, 60-, and 90-minute calendar meetings scheduled weeks in advance to prevent conflicts and at odd times to accommodate global team members, they have established the patterns of active interaction (“sound”) and individual work (“silence”) that form the rhythms of their employees’ collaboration.

But such rhythms have gotten much more complex and less controlled in recent years. Organizations now have a treasure chest of digital tools for collaboration — Slack, Teams/Skype, Chatter, Yammer, Jive, Zoom, Webex, Klaxoon — that they didn’t have before. (The global collaboration software market was $8 billion in 2018 and is projected to double to $16 billion by 2025.1) Add to that email, texting, and messaging, along with the meetings that haven’t gone away, and the math is telling: Research shows that executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours per week in meetings (up from less than 10 hours 50 years ago),2 while McKinsey estimates the average knowledge worker spends 65% of the workday collaborating and communicating with others (including 28% of the day on email).3 So collaboration has gone omnichannel. You can see why orchestrating all of this has become such a challenge.

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1. Grand View Research, Team Collaboration Software Market Analysis Report, 2018.

2. L.A. Perlow, C.N. Hadley, and E. Eun, “Stop the Meeting Madness,” Harvard Business Review 95, no. 4 (July-August 2017): 62-69.

3. M. Chui, J. Manyika, J. Bughin, et al., The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies (New York: McKinsey Global Institute, 2012), 46.

4. K. Sutcliffe and M. Barton, “Contextualized Engagement as Resilience-in-Action: A Study in Adventure Racing” (paper presented at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois, July 2018). Also see P. Ercolano, “‘Resilience-in-Action’ Is Key to Team Success, Whether in Backwoods or Business,” Johns Hopkins University, Aug. 8, 2017.

5. F. Englmaier, S. Grimm, D. Schindler, et al., “The Effect of Incentives in Non-Routine Analytical Team Tasks — Evidence From a Field Experiment,” working paper no. 6903, CESifo, Munich, Germany, Feb. 21, 2018.

6. It’s somewhat surprising that more research hasn’t been done on the social element of problem-solving, given that scholars are increasingly discrediting the notion of the solo genius. See, for instance, K. Clark, “Myth of the Genius Solitary Scientist Is Dangerous,” Nov. 20, 2017.

7. B. Uzzi, “Social Structure and Competition in Interfirm Networks: The Paradox of Embeddedness,” Administrative Science Quarterly 42, no. 1 (1997): 35-67; R.S. Burt, “Structural Holes and Good Ideas,” American Journal of Sociology 110, no. 2 (2004): 349-399; R. Cross and J.N. Cummings, “Tie and Network Correlates of Individual Performance in Knowledge-Intensive Work,” Academy of Management Journal 47, no. 6 (2004): 928-937; and D. Lazer and A. Friedman, “The Network Structure of Exploration and Exploitation,” Administrative Science Quarterly 52, no. 4 (2007): 667-694.

8. J. Shore, E. Bernstein, and D. Lazer, “Facts and Figuring: An Experimental Investigation of Network Structure and Performance in Information and Solution Spaces,” Organization Science 26, no. 5 (2015): 1432-1446.

9. E. Bernstein, J. Shore, and D. Lazer, “How Intermittent Breaks in Interaction Improve Collective Intelligence,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 35 (2018): 8734-8739.

10. W. Mason and D.J. Watts, “Collaborative Learning in Networks,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 3 (2012): 764-769; J. Lorenz, H. Rauhut, F. Schweitzer, et al., “How Social Influence Can Undermine the Wisdom of Crowd Effect,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 22 (2011): 9020-9025; and P.B. Paulus, V.L. Putman, K.L. Dugosh, et al., “Social and Cognitive Influences in Group Brainstorming: Predicting Production Gains and Losses,” European Review of Social Psychology 12, no. 1 (2002): 299-325.

11. K.J. Boudreau, N. Lacetera, and K.R. Lakhani, “Incentives and Problem Uncertainty in Innovation Contests: An Empirical Analysis,” Management Science 57, no. 5 (2011): 843-863; and L. Hong and S.E. Page, “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101, no. 46 (2004): 16385-16389.

12. For instance, R. Cross and P. Gray, “Where Has the Time Gone? Addressing Collaboration Overload in a Networked Economy,” California Management Review 56, no. 1 (2013): 50-66; R. Cross, R. Rebele, and A. Grant, “Collaborative Overload,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 1 (January-February 2016): 74-79; and R. Cross, S. Taylor, and D. Zehner, “Collaboration Without Burnout,” Harvard Business Review 96, no. 4 (July-August 2018): 134-137. For a different manifestation of the same issue, see T.L. Stanko and C.M. Beckman, “Watching You Watching Me: Boundary Control and Capturing Attention in the Context of Ubiquitous Technology Use,” Academy of Management Journal 58, no. 3 (2014): 712-738.

13. At BCG, each consultant was required to have one scheduled night off per week, and productivity improved. See L.A. Perlow and J.L. Porter, “Making Time Off Predictable — and Required,” Harvard Business Review 87, no. 10 (October 2009): 102-109.

14. L.A. Perlow, “The Time Famine: Toward a Sociology of Work Time,” Administrative Science Quarterly 44, no. 1 (1999): 57-81.

15. S. Ghosh and A. Wu, “Iterative Coordination in Organizational Search,” working paper, Harvard Business School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 2019.

16. H. Ibarra and M. Hansen, “Are You a Collaborative Leader?” Harvard Business Review 89, nos. 7-8 (July-August 2011): 68-74.

17. R. Singer, “Hand Over Responsibility,” chap. 9 in Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work That Matters, accessed July 15, 2019.

18. P. Leonardi and N. Contractor, “Better People Analytics,” Harvard Business Review 96, no. 6 (November-December 2018): 70-81.

19. L.A. Perlow, Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

20. See, for instance, C. Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (London: Hachette, 2016); and N. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010).

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Comment (1)
Jeff Shuman
A very interesting article. What I liked was the concept of rhythm -- in 1998 I published a book, The Rhythm of Business: The Key to Building and Running Successful Companies, Butterworth Heinemann. There are however, two points I want to make. 1) Clearly, one's rhythm isn't fixed -- it must iterate over time in keeping with the dynamic environment in which it operates. 2) If you're in a silent phase while other people in the "on" phase are trying to collaborate with you to get information from you to do what they are trying to do, they'd have to wait for you to "turn back on" to get the info the need, thus delaying their ability to move forward.

Jeff Shuman, PhD
The Rhythm of Business, Inc.