Businesses may need to heed a warning from management coaches that over collaboration could reverse the productivity gains the likes of Teams, Webex and Zoom have brought to organisations of all sizes.
In 2010 psychologist Ian Price published ‘The Activity Illusion’ which highlighted how some managers misused email, and especially the CC and reply all functions, to create an impression of busyness and importance, but at the same time drove down productivity and created additional negative results with staff feeling they had to respond immediately to show an equal level of commitment. It was a process that helped give the leading mobile email tool an unfortunate nickname, the ‘Crackberry’.
Today many businesses adopt progressive management practices designed to optimize individual productivity and creativity by creating a clear vision, clear direction and tools that promote staff at each level taking ownership of their area of responsibility, Traction* being a popular current example. Simon Sinek regularly blogs on this subject, books like The One Minute Manager and Gung Ho use a simple narative to explain the benefits of empowerment and I still remember a fantastic management course delivered by Simon Goodison of Smarter Not Harder, who helped me break a well-intended but destructive habit of ‘helpful dependence’.
Helpful dependence basically meant I placed myself at the centre of the team and tried to answer any questions they brought to me. I was great at it and the team appreciated my support. However, as time went on the number of questions went up and the time committed to helping them in their tasks impacted more and more on the time I needed for mine. Days got longer and productivity fell across the board. Simply by reversing the questions, getting them to create the answers and developing their confidence to the point where they felt they rarely needed to check things with me, productivity grew and my time became my own.
When the solution was presented by Simon it seemed so obvious. I had been a football player and a coach so I new the principle of team development was about creating a system that everyone believed in and then guiding things from the side lines. But like most things, helpful dependence is a habit you have to constantly resist as it has many ways of reestablishing itself.
The latest technology revolution is now proving to be fertile ground for this management mistake to dominate some businesses either accidently or, in the case of those happiest when micromanaging, by design. Zoom, Webex and Teams have made meeting easy, removed travel and opened up the weekly schedule of many more sessions, sessions that your teams would normally have held without you. By simply attending you change the dynamic, people seek your opinion more, they avoid countering it and even the brave think twice before arguing that they have a better solution. Before you know it, your department or business is working at the pace and capacity of one person and all through the misuse of some really cool tools.
Ian Price says of the pandemic-imposed boom in remote working: “Of course, technology has brought with it benefits that will endure post-pandemic but as with all waves of communication innovation in history, we are experiencing over-immersion. Just last week a client complained that all his people were in back-to-back Zoom meetings all day and not getting any work done. A quick water-cooler conversation between two people in the office has become a one-hour Zoom meeting for 12 people. Some of this explained by our need for human connection and the fear of missing out.”
The real power that Teams, Zoom and Webex brings to a manager is the power for their people to get together and work the plan more easily. Recording the meetings and dipping in is also a massive benefit but only if you use the content wisely. Don’t correct everything, don’t impose your view on everything. Reflect on what is being developed and ask yourself, have I given the team a clear vision, have they understood the brief.
Simon Goodison and his team at Smarter Not Harder have worked with over 500 businesses in the past 12 months as they navigate the challenges presented by lockdown and the explosion of these collaboration tools. He commented “It is critical to enable teams to collaborate and communicate effectively with their line manager and with one another. However, the easier that becomes the more danger there is for managers to get over involved – which is unhelpful for the productivity and performance of the team and also for the manager. Already most people have found their commute time is swallowed up with back-to-back meetings and very often their breaks are too. Many are then finding they need to work into their evenings/weekend to ‘do the work’ they have committed to. Everyone needs to find a balance of collaboration/we time as well as concentration/me time.”
Technology might make meetings easy but it doesn’t make them always right! If it helps you better at creating the plan that others can buy into and follow, it has earned the fee you pay for it. If it puts you at the heart of everything, stop using it!