The Corner Office

The Real Cost of Collaboration

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Collaboration is a buzzword that we hear a lot. To some extent, we all know why it’s important: More eyes on a project can lead to more ideas, better troubleshooting, etc. And while collaboration is all well and good, it’s important to consider the real, operational costs of bringing everyone together.

Take, for example, a story from an organization I recently worked with. This was a company spread across several states, working some elements of their operations collectively with back shop support and other measures driven entirely by local conditions. Each unit’s GM was encouraged to seek opportunity, build the business and ultimately drive profitability for their specific unit. The shared aspects of the group included the usual systems, accounting and much of the development group.

Trying to keep locally-driven needs balanced with the investments of centrally driven programs was the usual tightrope act. To further this cause, they held monthly, all-hands meetings that had key executives, a collection of managers, and a smattering of other individuals all the way down the corporate ladder. And in some sense, they were great. They brought everyone together to clearly articulate business goals and get everyone on the same page. A benefit was keeping everyone aware of resources available to them, and sharing ideas between units often yielded a win elsewhere.

To see how much this monthly meeting cost, I tallied up the time of the meeting and the salaries of the people there. I included the time it takes to switch tasks: wrapping up assignments, walking to the meeting room on the next floor, the time it takes to transition back into a regular workflow, etc.

The total? $8,413 every month. For some, maybe that meeting was worth that much. But I suspect if everyone had realized the dollar value of that time, there would have been some sweeping changes. Because for companies operating like this, sweeping changes are exactly what they need.

Throughout the pandemic, we have consistently seen that personal productivity tends to increase when people can work at home, uninterrupted. Of course, collaboration hasn’t lost its value. People need to talk and work together; it’s where some of the best ideas come from, after all. But at the same time, personal productivity is crucial, even at the highest levels of management.

So how do you harness sky-high personal productivity while still fostering an environment that uses collaboration to the fullest?

First, evaluate what your meetings are costing you. And don’t just include meeting time—even now, there’s a transition cost to meetings. Factor in the time spent preparing for the meeting, the 10 minutes spent catching up the person who comes unprepared, all of it. Then weigh that against the real value of your collaboration.

Can you find ways to allocate new, productive ideas directly to units or people and then let them run with it further than you may have in the past? Are there ways to push elements you might have kicked around in group sessions down to very small teams, or even individuals—let them work it—and then bring just actionable, profitable projects back to the “whole” for blessings?

As we are presented with the probability of our current work conditions sticking around for a while, could you go farther by dismantling some of our operational silos, creating different cross-department teams with objectives—ones that may end up in dismantling the traditional silos, which all seem to require meetings?

Many times in this column you have heard me challenge you to “reach down” and get inputs from your front-line team. This could be another opportunity to seek their thoughts. In the end, the real work—the productive work, the income-producing work—gets done on the front line. What types of collaborative ventures would work for them, where are you wasting their time—or the time of their boss (or their boss’ boss) by rolling changes they didn't need or want downhill to them?

Give your company a license to reevaluate your weekly rhythm, and try to measure the impact of everything you do. Asking your team to do that does not directly tie in to generating a dollar of profit. Then, shake it up and try.

This is not intended as a tirade against meetings. Rather, this is a challenge to every CEO, director and leader to challenge the status quo. The pandemic has created an avalanche of downsides both professionally and personally, but it has also created an opportunity where none of the old rules have to be followed. Take this chance to radically re-evaluate what you’ve taken for granted, and enact the changes that you would have been afraid to make two years ago.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at doug@silverwind.biz.

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