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Collaborative Overload & Culture in La La Land

A weekly post in which I share (some of) the most thought-provoking content I came across this week(ish), which I am too lazy to write full blog posts about.

Another week has flown by and it’s April, which means I survived another winter! March left with a last blast of snow here in Toronto, but it was a beautiful day today. And shower season is upon us (the wedding variety), which always means lots of great time with family (but far too much food).

No shortage of great reading to be had, so here are a few picks:


Just Culture in La La Land – Steven Shorrock, Humanistic Systems

What an unexpected gem this post is! Steven Shorrock writes about human factors, systems, and safety through the lens of humanistic, systems and design thinking, and here he dissects this year’s Oscars presenters’ snafu to illustrate the differences between Sidney Dekker’s definitions of Retributive and Restorative Just Cultures.

“According to Dekker, retributive justice asks who was responsible, and sets an example where those responsible have crossed the line. Restorative asks what is responsible, then changes what led up to the incident, and meets the needs of those involved.

It is clear that our broader culture is deeply committed to the idea of retributive justice, and our organizations, thinly walled vessels holding in their own microcosms of that larger culture, are similarly inclined. This has significant consequences on both levels.

“It is partly because we are so willing to blame others for their mistakes that we are so keen to conceal our own. We anticipate, with remarkable clarity, how people will react, how they will point the finger, how little time they will take to put themselves in the tough, high-pressure situation in which the error occurred. The net effect is simple: it obliterates openness and spawns cover-ups. It destroys the vital information we need in order to learn.”

As Shorrock reminds us, failure is an excellent opportunity for learning, if we can withhold our knee jerk urge to blame long enough to reflect and explore. He quotes Mathew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking:

Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be.

It’s easy to imagine the considerable advantage an organization might achieve if it were capable of fostering an environment largely devoid of personal blame. I find it interesting to imagine the individual mindset change this would require, to help team members ‘deprogram’ themselves as they are ushered in from a society where everything is someone’s fault.

Beyond simply cultivating the empathy required to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes before jumping to assign them blame, it seems that we might also need to better appreciate the level of chaos inherent in the world (see next item). To believe that every mistake is preventable is to believe that we can individually control outcomes to a degree that is probably more than a little delusional.

 If we want to learn and improve outcomes in organisations and society, the choice is clear: focus on human needs and on improving the system.”


Scientific Concepts We All Ought to Know – Farham Street

Hmmm, Farnam Street two weeks in a row…and a post about entropy. I’m probably stretching the notion that this one is HR related, but bear with me.

Shane Parrish’s excellent site continues to churn out brain food, including this post which cherry picks a few scientist’s answers to‘s annual one meaningful question (in this case “What Scientific Term or Concept Ought To Be More Known?“)

Steven Pinker’s answer, about The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Entropy) is an enthused description of the universe’s ‘inherent tendency toward disorder’…it’s the sort of thing that might fill you with awe, or convince you to go back to bed without bothering to take your coat off, depending on your mood while reading it.

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy never decreases…Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there.”

Do you see where I’m going with this yet? Organizations are not typically truly isolated systems, but anyone who has worked for a larger and mature organization might feel glimmer’s of uneasy recognition reading this.  And then there’s this:

“Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.”

Over the years I have found myself speaking to recent grads or people a year or two into their first professional role and hearing some variety of disbelief or confusion over the amount of things happening in their organizations that just don’t make sense. Whether it’s substandard practices that seem to have developed out of the balancing of many tensions and agendas, poor communication, or stifling bureaucracy, it’s easy to assume that established companies and senior leaders have things all figured out, until you get into the building.

For some this is incredibly frustrating, particularly if those same organizations and leaders insist that no, they do have it figured out thankyouverymuch. Others learn to take it in stride and even come to excel at navigating the imperfect complexities of these systems. And there are those that seek to improve or perfect the way we organize ourselves at work, whether in existing organizations or by swearing off corporate life to start their own.

I guess my point is that I think it gets a lot easier to be any one of these people if we can acknowledge that we’re all just trying to carve out some order from the chaos. That the natural order of things isn’t to find yourself in a harmonious utopia of industrious and like-minded folks eager to collaborate with you (and who always remember to refill the coffee if they take the last cup). And while we are not entitled to this ideal experience, we should struggle to create it, recognizing that even getting closer is an accomplishment.

I’m not suggesting we lower the bar, or resign ourselves to “slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there”, only that we might put our aspirations for ourselves and the organizations that we’re part of into broader context.


Collaboration Overload Is a Symptom of a Deeper Organizational Problem – Michael Mankins, Harvard Business Review

Collaborative overload is a term I first came across last year (here, in a post also well worth a read) but it highlighted a nagging concern that I’d had for some time. The (well placed) focus on driving collaboration in organizations had, for me anyway, lacked any nuanced take on what constituted good collaboration. Surely not all collaboration is equally valuable? And if it isn’t, then how do we assess the costs of collaboration against its value? Interesting but difficult questions.

This article asserts deeper causes for organizations that are experiencing collaboration overload (experiencing costs of collaboration that are not providing sufficient return to make them worthwhile).

“Collaboration overload is almost always a symptom of some deeper organizational pathology and rarely an ailment that can be treated effectively on its own. Attempts to liberate unproductive time by employing new tools (for example, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Box) or imposing new guidelines and meeting disciplines will prove fruitless unless steps are taken to deal with the underlying organizational illness.”

Mankins notes a few potential diagnoses of collaboration overload, including organizational complexity (hello entropy, my old friend…), and a “collaboration for collaboration’s sake” culture.

This last one is especially interesting. Symptoms include defaulting to face-to-face meetings as a primary means of communicating, and a lack of accountability and follow-through from leaders to effectively cascade information to relevant team members.

The cure? Mankins suggests several possibilities, including simplifying the organization’s operating model, and aligning its activities to reduce unnecessary interactions, among others.

I wonder if simply introducing the concept of collaboration overload and providing team members with a common language and reference point to evaluate the value of their collaborative interactions would help. At Actionable we encourage team members to skip meetings if they don’t feel that they need to be there to do their work, or contribute to the project or decisions under discussion. Naturally this requires that we have good meeting practices, like sharing the purpose of calls/meetings in advance and regularly reviewing the purpose and value of meetings that see lower attendance (this recently led us to blow up our weekly project lead call and establish four monthly, optional ‘Hot Topics’ calls for discussion and information exchange related to key business activities).

Do you experience collaboration overload? What does it look like in your organization? On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being a preposterous stunt) how much of a stretch was the entropy part in this week’s post? Comment at me!

Image credit: Chen YiChun via

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