Get Reworked Podcast: Collaboration Overload Is Crushing Innovation at Your Company
Before COVID pushed many workers into remote work, collaboration consumed as much as 85% of people's work time. In the post-pandemic world it's gone even higher, adding five to eight hours to the average work week. We're collaborating more, which is a good thing, but we've entered overload territory.
In this episode of Get Reworked, we talk to Rob Cross, professor of global leadership at Babson College and author of "Beyond Collaboration Overload," about what that means and how companies can make sure they're collaborating in the right ways. Especially as companies ponder their return-to-office strategy, understanding internal networks and identifying who your organizational super collaborators are is critically important.
"They're in my mind the really big flight risks that a lot of the organizations are using the network analytics to understand," Rob said, "because if you force them back what you're doing is not just losing a person, you're losing that network too. And so the impact is quite, quite significant."
Highlights of the conversation include:
- How Zoom fatigue is different from collaboration overload.
- How to drive better innovation from collaboration.
- The role of purpose and intention in building effective collaboration.
- How to build high quality relationships in remote and hybrid work.
- Who should take ownership of collaboration inside the organization.
Plus, co-hosts Siobhan Fagan and Mike Prokopeak talk to Rob about how actor Kevin Bacon is a model for the kind of networked connections we should be aiming for in our organizations, and pluses and minuses of New Year's resolutions. Listen in for more.
Have a suggestion, comment or topic for a future episode? Drop us a line at [email protected].
- Rob Cross on LinkedIn
- Rob's book: "Beyond Collaboration Overload"
- Rob's website: robcross.org
- Connected Commons
- Reworked article: Is It Time for an Organizational Network Analysis
- Harvard Business Review article: Collaborative Overload
Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Rob Cross: We know that most innovations that have happened in all of human history is not somebody sitting by themselves with a blinding insight. It's combining a couple of different perspectives or a couple of different capabilities in ways that enable us to see something differently. And that's what we're seeing fall off pretty significantly. But it doesn't have to be, right. There are ways that we can be intentional about cultivating those kinds of interactions. We just have to be proactive and not fall into the reactive posture that the pre- pandemic kind of world let us live.
Siobhan Fagan: You just heard from Rob Cross. Rob is a professor of global leadership at Babson College in Massachusetts. He also recently published the book "Beyond Collaboration Overload."
Mike Prokopeak: He is also the cofounder and director of the Connected Commons, which is a consortium of over 100 leading organizations that are researching network science and practice. And I think he's got a lot to say about the collaboration topic. Are you ready, Siobhan?
Siobhan: I am Mike.
Mike: Alright, let's Get Reworked.
The Difference Between Zoom Fatigue and Collaboration Overload
Mike: Welcome to the podcast, Rob.
Rob: Oh, it's so good to be here. Thank you so much.
Mike: I want to start with the topic of your book which is collaboration overload. I want to start actually by talking about Zoom fatigue because it feels to me like it's something that people feel perhaps a little bit more pointedly, a little bit more viscerally, than they might feel collaboration overload. Zoom fatigue being this idea that we're on video meetings. We're on all of these meetings that sort of make us feel physically fatigued in many cases, mentally and physically fatigued. Now, when you think about collaboration overload is there a difference in your mind between what we're coming to know as Zoom fatigue and collaboration overload?
Rob: It's a great question. And I think so. When I got interested in the collaboration overload ideas, it's a product of work I've been doing in my consortium for close to two decades now where we're mapping patterns of collaboration and understanding who's interacting with whom and large groups, you know, 10,20 50,000 people. And what concerned me about the collaborative footprint of the work is that it is risen over the past decade at least 50% for most kinds of work, the amount of time that people are spending in a full spectrum of collaborative activities. So that includes certainly, the WebExes or the Zooms or other things like that. It also includes the amount of time you're spending on email, the amount of time you're on their Slack channel or instant messaging, or the amount of time you're on your phone, the amount of time you're doing maybe a gratitude application or other things.
And what I found is that the overall spectrum of the kinds of collaborations that were involved in pre pandemic consumed about 85% of most people's week and post pandemic has gone up five to eight hours. And it's a product of both the volume of these collaborative demands across these applications and these modalities, but also of the switching costs, the diversity of them and having to move across sometimes six, seven different applications in organizations to be successful. So, to me, the idea of collaboration overload is broader than just that one modality though clearly recognizing the physical demands of Zoom fatigue, that in particular, I'd love to comment on in a minute to that, how bad that's gotten through the pandemic and why I think in certain ways.
Mike: Yeah, it's like Zoom fatigue is kind of the entry point for some people into what has been happening, and is increased already, in many ways. One background question before we dive a little bit deeper into this is, collaboration is broadly a very good thing. You have acknowledge this in your writing and your work. It's kind of been the center point of a lot of your work. But we veered off a precipice so to speak when it comes to collaboration, and perhaps fueled by the pandemic and what that's done in our new remote work situation. So can you talk about that transition? What has happened in the last year and a half, two years, when it comes to collaboration?
Rob: I would back up even further. I would go back 10 to 15 years and the way in which a lot of the changes in organizations targeted taking hierarchy out. And that started with matrix-based designs and spans and layers initiatives and agile structures. And then it's been enhanced by all these digital technologies that connect people instantaneously. And there's a good side to that. It's reduced the decision cycles and other things, but the unintentional consequence is it has created an intensity of collaborations that are incredibly demanding to people, and that we haven't put the analytics around to really understand.
And to me, I think that's crazy, right? I mean, we can track a lunch receipt expense down to two decimal places. Yet we have no idea where people are spending 85 to 90% of their time in these interactions. And so what it means is that people are overwhelmed because we don't really have a good understanding of the work from a collaborative footprint standpoint anymore. And simply throwing tools at it is not helping us, the technologies without understanding what's driving.
And so the funny thing to me about pre pandemic is people would always complain to me about, "Gosh, I'm overloaded. I have eight one hour meetings in a given day." And then we move into the pandemic and kind of come out the other end, and somebody in there had the great idea that rather than one-hour meetings, we're going to do 30-minute meetings. So now we're overwhelmed because we don't have eight one-hour meetings, we have 16 30-minute meetings. We're exhausted in the intensity of those shorter intervals, we're switching across these interactions more, which creates a cognitive drain. And we end the day with a to-do list based on 16 meetings, not eight, right?
And so you go no, no wonder, right? People are feeling the stress and the pressure of this because we haven't really thought about what's driving this and where's the value add in the collaboration. We focus more on what tool can we throw at it. So I think that's got to be one of the big things that we see shift as we move into this really new era of world of work.
More Collaboration Is Leading to Less Innovation
Siobhan: So it sounds pretty clear that the collaboration is increasing, but are we seeing a sort of resultant increase in the quality of the results of the collaboration?
Rob: Yeah, great question. So what we're seeing through the pandemic is the connectivity within groups has tended to go up, right? So within function, within geography, within business units. What has really fallen off through the pandemic are the bridging ties going across different areas, so the connections maybe to a different capability or a different function, out into a broader ecosystem of capabilities that you integrate to serve a key client or account.
And that, to me is really troubling. So in some work, we've actually seen productivity improve through the pandemic, but what we're seeing is the fall off in these bridging ties are really important because they tend to be the critical source of innovation. And so we may not see that for 12 months, 18 month in, but the impact of losing those connections for the companies that aren't doing things that spur them, is going to be really two-fold. One is innovation. And then second is they're also really critical sources of retention, when we use our analytics to see what's predicting people that come in and stay in an organization. It's not just the within-group ties, but it's the bridging connections that tend to be the most important on that front as well.
Collaboration Is Burning Out Your Most Valuable Connections
Siobhan: So then how do we break this cycle? What actual steps can organizations take at this point to mitigate this before, I mean, we're in the middle of the Great Resignation, everyone has been discussing the war for talent for years now. What can businesses do now to sort of help out and improve the quality of the collaboration in their organization?
Rob: Yeah, I think the the resignation point is a really important one, because what we're seeing when we looked at the analytics ahead of time is that typically, what you would see as attrition models, attrition events were very much predicted by people not getting connected enough.
Now, as we went into the pandemic, we started more and more seeing it's the people that were overwhelmed in these networks, and especially through my consortia, the Connected Commons, we've been doing a lot of modeling of these networks to see how do you design your return-to-office strategy. If you're trying to bring people back and one or two day intervals, the network analytics can be super, super helpful in guiding who and where and how you try to bring these groups together to preserve the innovation benefits, the scale benefits and things like that.
But as we've done it, we've also asked people how many days a week do you want to come back to work. And what we see in the analytics is the people that are just saying, well, maybe one day a week or as needed, far more often than not they tend to be the most connected people in these networks. So they were the ones that were really spun up pre pandemic, and they've gone into the pandemic and they figured out there's a different way to live their lives. They've got two, two and a half hours back in their life.
And so they're in my mind the really big flight risks that a lot of the organizations are using the network analytics to understand because if you force them back, what you're doing is not just losing a person, you're losing that network too of some of your most connected people. And so the impact is quite quite significant. What I see the companies doing a lot of is really finding where that talent is, and then using them to then help create the return-to-office strategy in a way that's more engaging than just simply kind of saying, OK, these roles, on this day, at this amount of time, and I think that'll be really critical as we move forward.
The Importance of Intention in Designing Collaborative Work
Mike: So can you give us a picture of what those companies that are doing that successfully, who are managing their flight risks as they're working through this transition successfully? What are some of the things that they're doing?
Rob: Yeah, it's a great question. So one of the interesting things is we can use the network analytics to see what people are actually getting in the interactions, right that matter. And when you actually ask people, okay, what do you need face to face versus what do you need virtually, the things that happen over and over and over again in our analytics is people say, well, the interactions for me that are really critical from a face-to-face standpoint are the ones that create a sense of energy and purpose. And what I'm up to in this organization, ones that spur kind of innovative problem solving or innovations, and ones that spur learning and development right in my experience in work and kind of what I'm doing the ones that or find a handle from a virtual standpoint or, you know, project plans, right, or decision making interactions or just informational exchanges.
And so what we're seeing that really matters as we go to return to Office strategies, is that the companies that are really being thoughtful about this are teaching their leaders how to use that face to FaceTime more effectively, right to use it, if they get two days a week in a way that stimulating energy and purpose, innovation and problem solving and development and growth, versus defaulting just back to comfortable patterns of project management, right in a team meeting, because you can see everybody and you can see the lists on the flip charts or things like that.
There's a ton of nuance like that, that we see the more successful organizations as they're designing these return-to-office strategies really thinking carefully about how do we intentionally cultivate the kinds of connections that are going to matter for us from an innovation engagement, you know, productivity standpoint, versus leading with the tools. When we lead with the tools, we get into that problem I just described of moving from one-hour meetings to 30-minute meetings, and the more effective places I'm seeing they're more intentional about the nature of the connectivity and designing things that way.
Building High Quality Remote Working Relationships
Siobhan: So Rob, I'm listening to you talk about the connectivity between these groups and what in many cases went missing while we went remotely and in some cases became overwhelming. And I'm just curious if you saw a difference between the connections and the demands on people's time becoming more transactional, when working from a remote point of view versus when you're in person, and you're actually doing more to build the cultural and the community connections that help build the innovation.
Rob: What we've definitely seen is that remote workers are pretty effective when they think they know what they need to know, right? There's some question on that. Sometimes we're kind of pursuing things that these serendipitous encounters help us discover that we could look at it differently. But generally speaking, people are pretty effective at getting the information they need to solve their problems at work. Where we see the fall downs in these networks, both pre pandemic and situations where people have gone remote, almost always are around the interactions that generate innovation.
And the interactions that create personal support are kind of people you turn to when you've just had a bad moment, or you need to reset a little bit, and interactions that enable people to feel a broader sense of purpose. That what they're up to matters. And we've mapped that for quite some time the work we're doing and well being today really understanding how is kind of the sets of connections around you affecting that. We know that getting that sense of purpose and engagement through connections with others is really, really high as a contributor of people's engagement scores.
So you know, what we're seeing again is that you have to be intentional, and you can do it in different ways. One of the stories I love coming out of this, everybody is bemoaning, oh my gosh, our innovation is faltering because we don't have the water cooler moments. If I could have $1 for the amount of times I heard we have a water cooler moment when none of us have actually had that moment ... in forever. But they mean that the serendipitous exchange.
One of my favorite stories in here was an investment banker, very kind of gruff, Italian, heavy accent. And he ran a group of about 30 that going into the pandemic, he was saying to me, Rob, I just started panicking because I couldn't see my people, right, it was up like worrying about it. And somehow his wife convinced him to start doing this thing called the Friday Rose, where he sent this email out and one Friday afternoon that's close to the end of the day. And he sent it to this group of I think it was 30. And the rose, the stem of the Rose was here's what I learned this week, right? Here's the thing that I kind of learned. The bud the flower was, here's the really cool thing that happened that I want to share with others. And then the thorn was here's the thing, I messed up. I wish I'd done a little bit differently.
And so you got to be on the interview with me when we were talking about this because he said, Rob, I hit the go button, and I could feel people laughing at me. And and he said, No, no, no, you have to do it too. And so over the course of the next hour, he cajoled people into doing their Friday Rose and copying back on everybody. And he said, within about two or three weeks, it just became a norm that people did without grumbling about it, but that it introduced more serendipitous encounters than when they were face to face, right?
That simple structure of people saying, "Oh, wow, they're working on that or she's doing this." And so it manufactured serendipity, manufactured the water cooler moment for them. And he said the Rose idea he felt bred more authenticity in the exchanges, or trust, if you will, then he had seen when they were face to face, and just allowing the physical structure to dictate who was interacting with whom, or time right tenure to kind of build the relationships. So I think it's at that level that we're going to have to migrate towards to truly be successful in this as we again kind of target what we're actually trying to accomplish in both developing the kind of connection and the kind of collaboration in that going forward.
Mike: I like what you're saying, Rob, in the sense that I hear, and we've had this conversation a number of times on the podcast, about purpose and connection being kind of like the superpower that organizations have. It's what fuels the tools. Like the tools can do great things, but if you don't have that purpose and connection behind them, if you're not very intentional about how you use them, that it's just not going to be quite as effective. And I think that's kind of what I'm hearing from you here is that this is, again, the thing that organizations really should focus much more time and energy on than they perhaps have, or are thinking about planning.
Rob: Right. And to me, what I would add to that is there's a tremendous body of work out there in from great people, like Aaron Hearst is a close colleague of mine or you could point to Simon Sinek or others that really are talking about purpose as embedded in the nature of the work. And I would add to that that purpose is also very heavily embedded in the quality of the connections that people have.
And we can see four specific kinds of connections at work that tend to stimulate a greater sense of purpose and engagement in your work. And then for ways that people connect outside of work, that also, you know, in certain points when work isn't engaging, they might lean back into to just get this sense of purpose in their life. And I would say 50% of how we experienced that is not the nature of the work. You know, I've been in places that do truly noble stuff, and you've got people that are just arguing over why am I not getting the bigger budget, you know what I mean? They've just robbed the purpose out of the, the possibility, and I've seen the reverse, where the work itself is not all that inspiring and meaningful. But the quality of the interactions that they're having around it, the intentionality of what they've done in the interactions creates this truly amazing team or culture, and in some pretty spectacular ways.
Mike: Alright, you brought up the four types of connections. And I want to get into that because there's a much deeper level of research and work that you've done leading up to this moment and to this book you've been talking about, so I want to get into that. But before we do, I just want to take a quick break and play a little game that Siobhan and I like to play with our guests, which is called underrated/overrated. So we'll give you a topic, you tell us whether you think the topic is underrated or overrated. Are you willing to play along with us?
Underrated/Overrated with Rob Cross
Rob: I'm ready to go. Let's do it.
Mike: Alright, Siobhan, you might find this interesting since we've recently been talking about Nicolas Cage on a podcast. So we're gonna bring in another venerable movie star. So Rob, the first topic for you is Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The idea that Kevin Bacon is just this incredible super networker within the entertainment industry. Do you believe that idea is underrated or overrated?
Rob: I'm going to say it's underrated because what we see is that Kevin and his position in the movie universe is statistically, it's the second biggest predictor of a high performer in organization. So people that get in that position that he is in the movie universe, it's a huge predictor of their performance. The reason I'm a little bit cautious on it is I'm not going to say Kevin's a great actor. I'll let you all make the call on that. But the pattern that he gets into is a really important one to reflect on as you build your own personal connectivity in life.
Siobhan: That's going to be for our spin-off podcast, Rob. that's going to be our opinions on 80s actors. So next up, we have the concept of weak ties. And we've been hearing a lot about how these weak ties that we potentially weren't aware of previously have been kind of disappearing or not as present in our lives when we're working from home. Do you think weak ties are underrated or overrated,
Rob: I'm going to go under again, because they're generally the ones that break us out of our thought bubbles. Generally speaking, we know that most innovations that have happened in all of human history is not somebody sitting by themselves, the binding insight, it's combining a couple of different perspectives or a couple of different capabilities in ways that enable us to see something differently. And that's what we're seeing fall off pretty significantly. But it doesn't have to be right there are ways that we can be intentional about cultivating those kinds of interactions. We just have to be proactive and not fall into the reactive posture, right that the pre pandemic kind of world let us live.
Siobhan: Can I ask I actually am going to throw in a follow up question which Mike I'm not sure if we're allowed to and underrated overrated?
So I'm curious if you see that's where people outside an organization could meet that purpose. I think of the bonds that I've created on Twitter with people who I've never met face to face, but I have these great knowledge exchanges there. And I know some find it assessable. But I find it very helpful. What would that be a case where weak ties can be developed?
Rob: Huge to me. Yeah, absolutely. And the number of times that I would be in these really deep interviews on how are people creating resilience in their life not as a product of their internal grit but as a product of how they fall back on connections, and all sorts of little devices. Like people jump on a chat line with 10 other people that they just make a joke about the absurdity of the situation and they feel better in 10 seconds, right? And all sorts of different ways that they kind of leverage the external connections especially when for whatever reason they don't have the same control of their work to kind of lead into more meaningful things.
My huge takeaway in all of this as I look at both the high performers, and then my next book is really around the people that are experiencing just higher states of well being, is that they really leverage the small moments better. It's not the big things. It's that they get greater impact from the small moments. And I think that's one of the really powerful things that the technology is a way it can create that connection at work, and bridge you into different things that create a sense of happiness a little bit differently today.
Mike: Alright, back to following the rules of the game.
Siobhan: Sorry, my, sorry.
Mike: The idea of asynchronous work. As we've worked more remotely and virtually we've seen new vocabulary becoming part of the way we talk to one another. So a lot of times people say, hey, let's take this async, meaning, let's not have a meeting about this. Let's work separately off of this at different times in different places. There's a more efficient way to collaborate. Now, that's kind of a pendulum swing. It's swinging into it stronger part of the way we work. Do you feel like this idea of asynchronous work is underrated or overrated as an answer to a lot of this?
Rob: I'm gonna go overrated if it's used too much, like that's the most hedging answer ever. Right? But what I worry about of course is when we try to solve everything in a group, and if there are certain things that should be carved off. And so that would be a plug for underrated, of course. But what I worry about with the overrated is all the analytics we're seeing is that people are working earlier into the morning and deeper into the night than they ever have before. And a lot of it has to do with we've tried to jam so many collaborations and expanded the size of the teams and the number of interactions we have to have because leaders don't understand the collaborative footprint of the work anymore. And that has resulted in taking strategies like this to just get something done in an interaction, but it's putting work on people's plates at 10, 11, 12 o'clock at night. And that worries me, right? If I look at kind of the pandemic of stress that we're experiencing, and burnout and other things like that, that worries me from that standpoint.
Siobhan: So the next step we have is creating a culture of collaboration. It's something that businesses seem to have all embraced in the last decade or so do you think that concept is underrated or overrated?
Rob: I would say underrated in terms of people's understanding of what it's going to take. I think too often we're doing things where we make decisions, for example, all the delayering things I was describing earlier that have happened, where people are just looking at the formal structure and saying, OK, just took two layers out, increase the span of control, we should have more collaboration. And yet they've unintentionally created other problems, where say 3 to 5% of their people are swamped with 20 to 35% of the collaborative demands. So they have different kinds of impediments to how collaboration is going to deliver the results that they want. So I say underrated from the sense of it's hugely critical to our company's ability to compete. But it's also less understood than I think it needs to be as we move forward from an analytic and time consumption standpoint.
Siobhan: Could it potentially lead that push? Or that knowledge that you should be creating a culture of collaboration? Could that potentially lead to this collaboration overload that you're warning us against?
Rob: yeah. I mean, without a doubt. And I hear so many companies come to me, and they'll say we've got this one firm culture, right, or other elements, they all have different frameworks, but everybody's got it. It is one aspect of what they're trying to be. And they'll come back to me and say, our leaders aren't collaborating right across matrices or units or geographies or whatever. And they'll say, we need a trust-building workshop because they don't feel safe.
And I'll look at them and I'll say, how do you know they're just not so overwhelmed that on the margin? You know, they're working to the ends of the earth, they're probably close to not seeing their family for the fifth night in a row. And so rather than reaching out, they're going home. And most people kind of say, yeah, you may be right. Maybe we've overwhelmed them and they just don't have space for those interactions. And so I'm finding that that's a big part of the issue, especially at the kind of manager level. In most places, it's the most overwhelmed layer we see when we look at the analytics, and that if you can create space, you get a lot of those connections that you're looking for. But you've got to find ways to shift some of the demands off to be able to get there.
Siobhan: So last one in this game that I keep digging us into rabbit holes with. We're recording this in early December everybody's kind of thinking year end 2022 is looming, so underrated or overrated, New Year's resolutions.
Rob: So I'm gonna say overrated with a caveat because you can't get a straight answer out of me. But the well being work that I just finished, I just finished 200 interviews of the 20 great organizations let me interview 100 most successful women, 100 of their most successful men, and five and each obviously, and one of the things we're looking at is when you've made decisions in your life to become more healthy. What was the role of the relationships around you?
And so I believe that most of the New Year's resolutions have to do with getting more healthier, certain kinds of habits. And what the statistics show is that they're usually done by something like January 23, or whatever, maybe the second week of February, depending on which studies you look at. But the people that I studied when they described times where they persisted in these objectives, and actually got healthier and maintain that they never were doing that alone. They're almost always embedding that activity in some other group that created a greater sense of identity, a greater kind of authenticity with other people, things that kind of engage them and pulled them and kept them in those relationships.
So if your resolution is just I'm going to do this alone, and it's an informational thing, that I need to lose 10 pounds, let's say, I would say, you know, way, overrated. Very rarely works. If you're putting it in a group, and you're getting others engaged and whatever that might be, and you do it in a way that cultivates the right sets of connections around you, then I would go underrated because that tends to be what I'm seeing really works for people today.
The Role of Organizational Network Analysis
Mike: Alright, Rob. So we ended the first segment of our conversation, he talked about the different types of connections. And I mentioned that there's a whole underlying body of work that you've been doing around this topic that really has informed where you're coming at this subject of collaboration overload from, and that has to do with organizational network analysis. You've been studying this for years and we've actually written about this at Reworked and quoted you on that. What are the four types of connections in organizations? Can you kind of give us a little bit of background there?
Rob: Yeah, so we've used network analysis for some time to just be able to map patterns of collaboration and connectivity inside organizations and take a more analytical view of what's happening. And so what we're always looking at when we talk about collaborative overload, it's a combination of those people that are really consumed by the collaborative aspects of the work, but also others around them are saying, If I can't get more of this person's time, I can't hit my business goals.
And so it's a both a consumption demand factor that we're looking at. And when people pass certain thresholds, we know that they start to burn out more, the people around them start to leave more rapidly. Innovation falters, there's just a whole bunch of negative things that happen when this isn't visible. And it's a challenge because in most places if you're good at what you do, you get the next assignment or the next assignment. And people can't see a lot of times the way in which that puts people in a point of overwhelm. So that's one of the really critical things we're looking at when we look at the high performers.
Another really key thing that we're mapping is this idea of energy: Who were the people that create enthusiasm and networks? And I started this 23 years ago, and a complete surprise to me, because I didn't go looking for it, I was pushed by one of the organizations sponsoring our work to map this idea of enthusiasm or people to create energy in these networks. And you know, in that specific instance, it turned out to statistically be four times the predictor of a high performer. And that's held across well over 350 organizations we've worked with now, over 1,000 times we've run these analytics. So we're always looking at that dimension or some aspect of that dimension that's capturing the emotional experience of work, and people that are able to create that sense around them given the performance implications of it too.
Broad or Big Network: Which Is Better?
Mike: Great. So when you talk about collaboration, one of the things that you've been writing about is having a broad versus a big network and how that's more important. Broad versus big. So can you explain that distinction?
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Rob: And that's why Kevin Bacon's interesting to me, right is because he is central in the movie universe, not because of the number of films typically, but because of the number of genres. Right? So whereas most actors kind of start in one or two, Kevin's been in families, thrillers, comedies, you know, action films, you go down the ...
Mike: Tremors. I think we need to mention Tremors is one.
Rob: Yep, there we go. I don't know exactly how you categorize that. But it's those bridging ties that put him at that inflection point. And I've known for literally 23 years as we've done this that quantitatively when you set these positions up in real life networks, that that's the second biggest predictor of a high performance. Not the size of the network, but it's these bridging connections that matter. What we learned through the interviews we did, I would reach out to people and say, I want you to tell me about a career defining accomplishment. Something you did that puts you on this upwardly mobile trajectory. And I don't care what you did, right? I don't want to know how you saved the day or what you did there. But rather, what was the nature of the connections around you that made that thing work? What helped you see the possibility, what helped you scale your abilities will help you supplement skill gaps.
And you get this rich ecology of connections around people coming from a range of different areas. It's not within your group. And if you actually back down typically to the very beginning of what turned into people's, generally speaking, their career defining accomplishment usually it was a set of connections across different areas. You bumped into somebody at an elephant, saw somebody pop up on LinkedIn. And you had just enough space to kind of lean into that and ask a few questions. And it led to a network with more of these bridging ties that kind of created the possibility. So that's the importance of that, to me is that it makes us more innovative, second biggest predictor of a high performer, not a big network, but one with a greater breadth of connections that create that innovation potential.
The Opportunity for Diversity and Inclusion Inside Organizations
Siobhan: So Rob, I love that you brought up this point of all of the different genres that Kevin Bacon has been in as a predicator of the strength of his network. And I'm wondering if we could sort of extend this to some of the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that we see going on in organizations and how it's been proven that innovation is coming from having a diversity of viewpoints. Can you talk about that connection there?
Rob: Yeah, I mean, really important. You know, I've been at this for 23 years, right? 23, 24 or whatever it is. And I have to say, for at least 22 of them, I've been pushing organizations to allow me to get information on gender and ethnicity in these. And generally, I could get gender. Most times I would get blocked on ethnicity for different reasons up until George Floyd. And then we had this situation where a lot of companies were saying, we need to look at this differently. We need to apply some different work towards how we think about inclusion, actually looking at it in these networks and to boil it down. It's been a really phenomenal goldmine of results to then be able to say, OK, when we look at these populations by gender and ethnicity in these networks, for example, you don't necessarily always see one population dominating the center and everybody on the fringe. You tend to see islands of people that are kind of in part defined subculturally, and, and other dynamics.
But the really cool thing is, you then also start to be able to see these exemplars that kind of break through and get connected, and you can learn a huge amount from them. And so as an example, one of the things we know is that implicit bias is a problem with all of us, right? We all look for similarity, and kind of lean towards that. But what a lot of the studies leave you with the impression is that once you've made that initial attraction to somebody who looks like you, you never change your mind. We're kind of locked in that. And that's just not true, right? We wouldn't see what we see in networks with the intermingling of different kinds of people if that were the case. And what we learned in this is the people that really kind of break through and integrate well into networks, they are not fighting against implicit bias per se, but they're engaging in ways more rapidly to create trust and competence and benevolence-based trust. And they really pivot into the networks much more rapidly.
So to me, that's really cool because it's very, very hard to teach people not to happen, plus a bias. We all do. But what you can do is teach people and then embed that behavior, not just with that individual, but the individual in their leader to help them come around it, you know what I mean, to actually get them connected differently. So that's an area that I just could not be more excited about this. We look at ways that this kind of new way of working can shift things on that front.
Mike: Rob, that island idea that concept, it seems like a pretty rich one to me. And it really kind of got me thinking about this next phase of work that we're all talking about whether it's hybrid environments or pushing more people into remote work environments. Are we in danger of creating new islands as we move to this next phase of work that are, you know, potentially fracture lines fault lines within our organization?
Rob: I mean, I definitely think the potential exists. If we're not, again, I keep going back to this idea of being intentional in the nature of the collaborations and the ways that people are reaching out is a really critical feature of what's going to happen. Or we will see people snap back and fall back into patterns that make them more comfortable, right, or interactions that kind of preclude certain voices and encourage others, whether that's on the lines we're talking about, or just simple physical proximity, right? Do people's voices get heard in a different way just because of that. So again, I think that's one of the real challenges that we'll all face as we migrate going forward.
Who Is Responsible for Collaboration in the Organization?
Mike: So who's going to be responsible then for creating these connections as we're these networks within the organization? I mean, I'm thinking of it more from kind of your organizational hierarchy in terms like, what organizations what people should be more responsible for this?
Rob: You know, in my ideal world, let me say it this way, I would love to see there be a chief collaboration officer, chief collaboration overlap officer, where the term was not defined by EMI implementing more tools. I mean, that's part of the problem that's hit these organizations as these relatively inexpensive applications that enable collaboration have taken hold, and there's just so many of them now that people are overwhelming, but rather coming at it from an analytic standpoint first, and saying here's kind of how and where people's time is getting absorbed, and really understanding the footprint of the work differently. So we're designing in ways that don't kill people.
So I'll give you a super simple example. You know, task A and task B can look the same in most places today, right, but if task A has six people, and they all work under the same incentive structure, and in the same geography, that can be totally different than Task B, if those six people, you know, two of them work in different time zones, two that have misaligned incentives, and two under leaders that don't like each other, you know what I mean, just the simple differences with the same work can mean weeks of difference in terms of the ability to get it done. And we don't track that right now. We don't understand the collaborative footprint of it in ways that we're making work allocations and ways that we're putting, you know, three dimensions on matrices, ways we're designing roles. I think that's the real key thing that has to happen for us to create more sustainable organizations going forward.
Siobhan: So for organizations that don't have that chief collaboration officer yet, how do they create that sort of organizational model, when work is becoming increasingly complex?
Rob: I would look back to the network of the units, right. So a lot of success we're having is targeting the team leads in organizations. And we've learned a tremendous amount about when we look at the more successful teams, I'm going to use that term, we could be looking at conventional kind of two pizza, a 10 person teams, or these may be groups that have migrated to 50, 60, 200 sometimes, and they're still being called teams. And what we've learned in this is that their performance is more driven today by how these groups come together and collaborate in certain patterns inside and outside than it is by following and adhering to conventional team principles. Because the groups have gotten too large, in many cases, or we're on too many of them. Right, you know, typically people, maybe staff to one team that they're formally accountable for, but then they're pulled into five, six, seven other collaborative efforts. And so what we're seeing is we know that there are very specific points in these networks that matter for leaders to manage both inside.
And surprisingly, to me, I'm finding that the most successful leaders, they're engaged in managing the ecosystem in which their team sits at a much higher level, there tend to be six kinds of interactions are having that distinguished the success of their team, well beyond stakeholder mapping, you know, that you typically see in some of these frameworks. So to me, that's the the lever to pull. We know there are certain dimensions that predict performance when you look at how they're managing collaboration in their team. And we also know there's six of these dysfunctions that teams tend to drift into if they're underperforming. And being able to give that insight back to leaders, even if you don't go do this full analytic package still enables them to make very targeted corrections to how they're working and have pretty significant impact both on performance and engagement scores.
Mike: One question, as we're getting close to wrapping this up, Rob has to do with something you mentioned a little bit earlier around well being, and that there are implications for individuals, you know, we've all been feeling kind of the stress of remote work and the pandemic and what is sort of created in our lives. And you're saying that this is actually we can address this through part of this, what you're talking about with collaboration overload? Can you talk a little bit about that? Yeah,
Rob: I would love to, I mean, this is the part that I think I've been emotionally pulled to especially over the last 200 interviews, as you start these interviews, and you know, the first 10 or 15 minutes, everybody's happy, life is good. And then you get down and you're like, Whoa, you know, everybody's struggling, right in different ways. And so I focused in these interviews really, to look and see, what's the role of connections on four positive dimensions of well being, right physical health is one I already mentioned, but also how we experience growth in and out of work, how we experience a sense of purpose and meaning in our life as a product of interactions, not just the work we're doing, but interactions in and out of work, and resilience, right. And so resilience is a great example of, we're oftentimes taught to think that we are resilient as individuals.
But if you actually talk to people about how they make it through difficult stretches in their life, if they've built the connections, they tend to be able to fall back on people in a pretty predictable ways that really can matter can make a huge difference, right? If somebody moves through a tough stretch, you know, in a way that they're bouncing back or not. But what emerged from that work, that's been the most important to me, and we write about it in chapter eight, is this idea that I call micro stressors, you know, so I would ask people, when they took really courageous action in their life, and they became more healthier, they found a sense of purpose in their life that was different. I would then back up and say, Well, what got you stuck? Right to begin with?
The most crazy thing happened the very first time I asked that, in an interview, the person couldn't answer me. You know, this very vibrant interview went from real high energy to here's what I did with my life and the big impact it's had to not really being able to pinpoint what got it stuck. And what that really led me to see there and over the course of 199 more interviews, were these ideas that stress is coming at us today, in a very different form than we've ever experienced before. You know, it's these small moments that are coming at us through relationships that are automated at a pace that we haven't experienced before, but they're things like sensing misalignment with a colleague that you know, you're gonna have to solve, seeing a team member that needs to be coached for the third time and you're worried about how do I do that and keep engagement, are getting a text from your child, you know, where you don't know if what they were grumbling about. There's just them venting for 20 seconds in there over, but you worry about it for three hours.
And so these things are coming at us through relationships, both people we don't like and people we like. And in fact, some of the biggest stressors are the people we love and care about deeply. And we get hit with 2025 30 of them through a day, go home, exhausted, fight through all of them, right, because that's what we do. But we go home exhausted, and we can't put our finger on what just happened anymore because of the highly interconnected world that we live in. And so that's really the area that we're seeing the biggest movement on right now, from the well being side is providing people with the tools that help them start to see where are these 14 microstressors happening in your life? What are the sources of them? How do you adapt them, so you're actually shaping the negative, right and in a way that really can have significant impact.
And I think that's a huge deal, the most well being initiatives. And the organizations that are part of my consortia are targeting things like mindfulness, meditation, gratitude, and all these things are great, right, undoubtedly important things to be doing today. But they also come with a limitation that they only help you persist in the system you've allowed to build around you. Right, if you don't do things that are actively cultivating and adapting the negative to reduce that influence these micro stresses or collaboration, overloaded, and lean into the positive, right, the interactions that enable health or purpose, they're all going to have a natural limitation right to what they can accomplish for you. So that's the really big picture way that we're seeing a lot of the organization's just get different purchase on looking at well being as a product of the connection and not just the activity that you're doing.
Getting a Fresh Start in Collaboration
Siobhan: So Rob, I clearly have new years on the mind. And I know that you're skeptical about the strength of New Year's resolutions. But they have established that there's sort of a thing called the fresh start effect where people see moments like New Year's, like a birthday, as an opportunity to rethink things and to start afresh. So, in that spirit, if organizations could do one thing to start the new year off on the right foot, what would you recommend?
Rob: I'm going to rephrase that I'm going to play my own rules here for a second, I'm going to say more for you. What would I do if I were you? And and what I see is, do you ever remember that there was that commencement address that said wear sunscreen, right? So one thing I know is wear sunscreen in life. And I think the one thing I've learned out of this is the people that I see that are happier and living life more on their terms, they tend to be involved in at least two and usually three groups outside of work.
And so the people that falter on that they get very uni-dimensional and work, they tend to experience the stress and vagaries of work very differently than the people that kind of maintain dimensionality. And that dimensionality can come from all sorts of things. It could be music, poetry, art, book, clubs, religion, physical activity, you know, all sorts of walks of life, we hear about it. But when I hear people that have reclaimed their life, right, they're telling me stories of you know, I hit this echo chamber moment where it turned around, I said, Where did the last five years ago, and what they did to get out of it, it usually tended to be one of two things, they either tended to be reaching back to a passion they had in high school, and using that to slingshot them into a new group, right. So it could be music, it could be tennis, it could be any number of things. Or they tended to be reaching back to connections that they were once close to, and then picking an activity that reignited that group and got dimensionality in it.
So if I were to say one thing for the person, that's what I see is creating persistence. It's not just the activity. And I love the fresh start idea. I mean, I think we all have these moments, right? Where you're saying I need to do things differently. But I would look to embedded in a set of connections. And then if I stopped cheating, and I said, What should organizations do? I would say, you know, find ways to celebrate and encourage that external dimensionality, we find that that just really tends to dramatically change the stress people experience in their work, their ability to see things innovatively their engagement. But it's not something that a lot of places create space for. Right? If they're asking for too much, they're actually kind of squelching that in different ways. So hopefully, that wasn't cheating, too.
Siobhan: No, I like that. You broke the rules. And I also it's interesting, because we hear so often from organizations saying, you know, oh, we're a family. We're just gonna, you know, spend all the time together. And I think we saw that a lot during the last two years where there was this sort of attempt to create a bigger sense of community from the workplace when people just really kind of needed those outside links to remind of the who they are as a whole person. So thank you
Rob: And celebrate it, right? I mean, there's so many places would create teams, oh my God, just the number of different interesting things these more successful leaders did. On the margin, you know, they would create space of where people were living their lives outside of COVID. You know what I mean? If people are posting pictures and talking about, I mean, there's a ton of things that are light lifts that create that space, but then they also help you connect with others as humans a little bit differently, you know, and see a different side of them. So I think there's a ton of ways to do that while still respecting whatever degree of disclosure people want to go to, and what they're up to that way.
Mike: So Rob, you've talked about quite a bit in here. And we're certainly going to link in show notes to your work. And I think there's a lot more for us to dive in with with you on this topic. And especially, I like the fact that you're already thinking about your next book, and I hope you'll be willing to come back and talk to us once that work is ready to share with the public. Hopefully, that'll be the case.
Rob: Please do please do reach out, I would love to.
Mike: Alright, so if folks want to find out more about you and your work, where would you recommend they go?
Rob: Two places really, one is my website, robcross.org, and has a tremendous amount of the research that we're putting out even the book I just mentioned, we've consolidated videos around the core ideas and online assessment and things like that. So certainly, that's a good resource. The other for me is the group that I co direct called the Connected Commons. That's a group of about 150 organizations. Now, they're just studying different ways that this network lens is being brought to different levels of issues and organizations, you know, whether it's individual performance, engagement, you know, culture, things like that. So it's a great community just to see what what others are doing with the ideas.
Mike: Well, Rob, we appreciate you joining us today.
Rob: But do me too. Thank you so much.
Wrap Up and Final Thoughts
Siobhan: I'm not sure if I'm ready for another person in the chief titles. But chief collaboration officer is a really interesting concept. What do you think, Mike?
Mike: I think only if we can call it the chief collaboration overlord of overload. I think that I'll take that chief.
Siobhan: Absolutely. I was taking so many notes that he would make up another point. And I would just be like, wait, wait, we wait, I didn't catch up with the last one. So I'm gonna have to listen to this a few times through I love that he views collaboration as something broader than just the activity of two or more people working together on document.
Mike: Yeah. And I think the overarching point for me was intention and purpose. I mean, that came up at several points during the conversation that the fact that you've really got to be intentional to find the purpose that is driving your collaboration, don't just focus on the tools and enabling the collaborations, but actually figure out why you're doing it.
Siobhan: Yeah, the intentionality is key. And I think that was a big driver behind the chief collaboration officer move. If we can build that intentionality into the organization, it would be amazing. I mean, the statistics he shares with people being able to reclaim, I think it was 18 to 24% of their time back by doing that intentional collaboration is a really strong incentive.
Mike: Well, it is my intention, Siobhan, to collaborate with you again on our next podcast.
Siobhan: I intend to do that as well, Mike, as well as find out how separated we are from Kevin Bacon.
Mike: Alright, we'll talk to you next time.
Siobhan: Bye Mike.
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