13 February 2016 14:09:50 IST

The right synergy between 'we' and me'

Successful organisations strike a fine balance between individual goals and collaborative projects

A speaker at a seminar I attended recently spoke about demographic trends — a very interesting and, to a certain extent, intriguing subject. Every generation, having experienced new and novel influences, presents itself in a different context. In this case, the speaker talked at length about the Gen-X, the generation after the baby boomers and Gen-Y, or Millennials, the Internet generation. He then talked about the emergence of Gen-C! Gen C is the Connected Generation — people who are constantly wired to their various mobile devices.

Professionals and socially active people take pride in having a number of connections on networking websites like LinkedIn and Facebook. I heard someone mention that he had about 3,000 LinkedIn connections and 5,000 friends on Facebook!

Connectivity is also increasing as businesses become global and virtual teams are the key to organisational success. Executives like having their Google calendars blocked with conference calls, meetings, seminars, offsite events, and so on. In fact, managers and employees spend over 50 per cent of their work time on collaborative activities. People are always on the move, physically and mentally, shifting from one task to another. Extensive research indicates that the mind continues to think about the old task even as it jumps to a new one. As management thinker Peter Drucker said: You can do real work or go to meetings, but you cannot do both.

Allocating time

If one is always running, one also needs to catch up with what was not attended to while on the run. A typical executive struggles to allocate time for all that he needs to do in a day — phone calls, meetings, work planning, resourcing and, of course, e-mailing. Many important tasks could rise on the pending list and, as a result, work is carried home. It is no wonder that we hear about burnouts and stress-related illnesses. What is important is to stop and think if the activity is meaningful and result-oriented.

I have heard many colleagues say they need to attend a meeting but have no idea why they were invited as the agenda has nothing to do with their mainstream work. But in the name of collaboration, one has to honour such invites, lest he be called a non-team player.

Before networking, connectivity and collaboration take over the corporate world, management should pause to consider which of the activities constitute group work and who, among the resources, needs to collaborate on a regular basis. A willing employee is sucked into activities that are not in his key result area. As long as he is able to stretch and accommodate the extra time and effort, it is a value-add. But in the process, if his real work suffers then such collaboration is more detrimental to the organisation than useful. And the individual, who entered into collaboration to merely add to his core strengths, will soon find it has enveloped him completely. A disgruntled employee would have been unintentionally created.

Prioritising tasks

How does an organisation address this free-flow, ad hoc collaboration? In the first place, a culture of focus needs to be cultivated. No employee can veer away from the set goal. The priority is to channel energies and efforts to achieve the goals and every workday’s activities should be centred on that. For this, employees should be able to prioritise their work and filter the invites and requests that call for going beyond their scope of work.

Saying `No’ is indeed an art and now it has become a necessity. Else a willing, helpful and collaborative employee will end up being someone who confuses activities with achievements. Managers should constantly monitor distribution of work and resources. A high-pressure project can borrow more resources on a time-bound basis and, upon completion of the project, re-align resources. In other words, collaboration should be a specific need and not an encompassing culture.

At a job interview or a performance appraisal meeting, the question would be on what the individual has accomplished independently. Does he/she have the commitment and staying power to achieve what has been set as goal? Team play or collaboration may be a critical competency but, when push comes to shove, the employee alone needs to have and do what it takes to reach the mark.

The golden mean

On the professional front, a reasonable amount of collaboration is essential as many tasks call for team work — interdependence and accomplishing work together. Collaboration is good and networking is excellent; but not at the expense of completely eliminating individual contribution. There has to be a balance between achieving independently and working as a team.

There is a famous Tamil proverb which says even divine nectar in excess will turn to deadly poison. The balance, the golden mean or what Gautama the Buddha called ‘the middle path’ will ensure there is neither overload nor scarcity. Former Goldman Sachs and GE Chief Learning Officer Steve Kerr once wrote: Leaders are hoping for A (collaboration) while rewarding B (individual achievement). They must instead learn how to spot and reward people who do both.

Reflection time

Human beings need downtime and they also need time for quiet reflection. Some of the most inspiring creative things happen during the intense solitude of the creator. Modern organisations encourage open-plan offices and an open-door policy. They are excellent at breaking down barriers and creating an egalitarian organisation. Yet, individuals crave their own private space, sometimes even in an office setting.

One should not correlate employees’ collaboration with organisational unity. A cohesive organisation happens as a result of hard work, focus and prioritisation. It is to the discretion of the management how far collaboration should go and how much people should put in individually. Maintaining this balance will help an organisation achieve its goals and be successful.

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