A different approach to collaboration

Photo by D’Arcy Norman

In a post on HBR.org Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer investigate the relationship between collaboration and performance. They claim that not only does collaboration allows performance, but performance allows for collaboration. When people are feeling a sense of achievement and progress, they are more open to collaborate. That is why Amabile and Kramer advocate celebrating small wins, as this is a way to keep people in the team or organization energized to collaborate:

So, not only is collaboration critical to high performance, but maintaining high performance can be important to keeping collaboration going. Previously, we have talked about the importance of small wins — modest but meaningful successes along the pathway to achieving a major goal — in maintaining high performance and subjective well-being. They can also help workers maintain effective collaboration. When organizations support and celebrate small wins, employees feel like winners; the mistrust and conflict that can accompany losing will be avoided. Without those interpersonal problems, it will be much easier to achieve consistent and effective collaboration. [Emphasis added]

While I appreciate the approach of small wins and the importance of the feeling of progress for motivation and individual performance I think a focus on the effects of performance on collaboration might prove detrimental to effective collaboration.

In most business settings today, especially in knowledge work, performance is an emerging synergistic property. That means it cannot be directly predicted. It cannot be taken apart into specific check-list steps. It is uncertain and ambiguous. Innovation for example, emerges out of the interaction between team members and does not originate from the actions of one individual.

In such an environment, focusing on performance is futile. It is a classic case of Obliquity. The goal of performance can only be achieved indirectly. While this seems like semantics, it represents a different approach to collaboration. This approach doesn’t see temporal performance as an indicator for success. Instead, this approach sees continued long-term relationships as the basis of excellence. It celebrates small wins, not because they represent performance success, but because it means the process the team is engaging with is effective. In that respect it will celebrate small losses the same way, in the celebrated mythical approach of Thomas Edison – “I did not fail—I just learned 999 ways on how not to make a light bulb”.

When this approach is implemented – and there is no attempt to claim that it is easy to do so – the focus of team leaders is the relationship between people in the team. That means that the tensions produced by failure are constantly revealed and discussed even before failure occurs. Failure is an expected result and part of the process continuing of toward excellence. It is not that good performance hides tensions and allows for collaboration while everything is working. Instead, true collaboration actively and consistently attends to the undercurrents that facilitate the emergence of performance.

Reading the comments to Amabile and Kramer post suggest that their approach is resonating with many people. What does it say about organizations’ approach to collaboration? Is the dominating approach pushing us to draw the wrong conclusions and prescriptions about how to manage collaboration? I think it does.

What do you think?


Doctrinally approved solutions

Photo by unc-cfc-usfk

About a week ago I finished reading Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. I did not find it particularly novel as most of the research mentioned in it was familiar to me from other readings. However, it does  contatin some compelling anecdotal examples.

One thing that did struck me as interesting are the parts where the author describes some of the changes initiated in the U.S. army due to its initial failure in Iraq. The author describes how during the cold war the army was trained to fight the Russians in a one-off huge war where the strength of each army will tested in a predictable way. This meant that the army trained in a certain way:

One of the main ways the army did this was to require soldiers to essentially memorize checklists. In army terms, these are called “doctrinally approved solutions.” Military doctrine enables the army to manage its operations across a large organization. Because fighting the Soviet Army allowed for such a small margin of error, approved solutions detailed how to solve anticipated battlefield problems with precision and efficiency.

However, when the U.S. army reached Iraq, the “doctrinally approved solutions” (I love this term!) turned out to be irrelevant due to the ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty of fighting an insurgency in highly populated areas. So today, it turns out that training focuses on understanding the culture, the ability to study the terrain (both physical and in terms of the population) and on adaptive strategies.

In essence, from a rule based, top-down approach, making soldiers into memorizing cogs, the army had to turn into a creative machine that provides soldiers with a foundation and trusts them to use judgment and adapt to the situation in the field by connecting with local population, understanding the difficulties the specific context demands and leveraging learning and experimentation. Since the army started implementing this strategy its success in securing cities and defeating insurgents has risen tremendously.

I think this story has important lessons for every organization. If an organization as hierarchical as the army understands that using rules and turning people into cogs is not going to work, what does it say about modern organizations competing in highly competitive highly adaptive markets?

Yes, training people to think by providing them with the right foundation is harder than just drilling them to memorize pre-approved actions. This easiness has its price. It doesn’t work.

So, does your organization have “doctrinally approved solutions”?


You are the knight – Book review: Do the Work By Steven Pressfield

Photo by Beverly & Pack

On the field of the Self stand a knight and a dragon.

You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon.

This is how Do the Work: Overcome Resistance and get out of your own way, Steven Pressfield new book, published by the Domino Project, starts. With this short painting of an image, Pressfield tells us something we all know but fail to recognize. We are at war. Every day. With ourselves. With that voice inside our head that is trying to convince us he is reason or gut or whatever we will believe. Trying to convince us that we can’t, that we shouldn’t, that it is not worth even to try, that it is better to stay put, and be mediocre, and do only what we have to or what are told. As Pressfield puts it:

Start Before You’re Ready Don’t prepare. Begin. Remember, our enemy is not lack of preparation; it’s not the difficulty of the project or the state of the marketplace or the emptiness of our bank account. The enemy is Resistance. The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do what we know we need to do. Start before you’re ready. Good things happen when we start before we’re ready. For one thing, we show huevos. Our blood heats up. Courage begets more courage. The gods, witnessing our boldness, look on in approval.

When you read the book you feel like you should have known every word of it. The descriptions of the experiences are so familiar, so mundane, that we stooped recognizing the deception. We all believe that it is only us who are hearing the voice in our head trying to prevent us from doing. And Pressfield helps us shatter our illusion of uniqueness. Everybody hears that voice. And everybody listens to that voice from time to time. The question is not whether you have the voice or not. The voice – the resistance – is a part of being alive. The question is how often you are able to conquer it. To defeat the dragon in one battle in a never-ending war.

And this is what is so wonderful with the picture painted in the first words of the book. It reminds us that we are the knight. We are not the dragon. Because what the resistance does is convince us we are the dragoon and that it is the knight that comes to save us. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. We all know what a dragon is. We know we need to fight a dragon. We know it is a monster that needs to be over thrown. So the resistance convinces us that it is us that need to be overthrown. The resistance convinces us that our ambitions, desires, creativity and connections are all evil manifestations that need to be quelled. And until we call it for what it is we have no chance against it. The book tries to teach us that when in doubt, it is the resistance, as Pressfield says in an Interview on the Domino Project blog:

First let me say one thing. My rule of thumb is: When in doubt, it’s Resistance. When you think it might be something else, it’s not, it’s Resistance

All of us need a reminder that we are not the dragon. If you want to be reminded you are the knight, read Do the Work.


P.S. the Kindle copy of this book is free courtesy of GE. The best and most economical purchase you will ever make.

Emergence of excellence

Photo by scalespeeder

Two separate sources talked about the same issue today. Designing the conditions for success.

In planet money, the weekly podcast discussed the issue of job creation. The conclusion, job creation is not about one act of leadership. It is not necessarily about raising taxes (which could work) or lowering taxes (which could also work). It is about creating the optimal conditions in which jobs emerge.

Seth Godin discusses a different issue all together but so similar: customer service. Godin explains that it is not only about the person who actually provides the service, but actually many times, about how the environment was designed:

Too often, we blame bad service on the people who actually deliver the service. Sometimes (often) it’s not their fault. Sadly, the complaints rarely make it as far as the overpaid (or possibly overworked) executive who made the bad design decision in the first place. It’s the architecture of service that makes the phone ring and that makes customers leave.

And I ask you, as a manager, what are you doing to design an environment which enables emergence of excellence? Are you focusing on the conditions that support success? Why not?


Controlled Anarchy

Photo by Fail Blog

I have been delving into two sources of great management success stories in the last few days, trying to wrap my head around what exactly they have in common. Suddenly, I encountered the picture above and it suddenly made sense. Controlled Anarchy.

The first story was featured in a great podcast from the HBR Ideacast series. In this podcast they interviewed Jonah Keri, sports and stock market writer. Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. This is the book description from Amazon:

In The Extra 2%, financial journalist and sportswriter Jonah Keri chronicles the remarkable story of one team’s Cinderella journey from divisional doormat to World Series contender. When former Goldman Sachs colleagues Stuart Sternberg and Matthew Silverman assumed control of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2005, it looked as if they were buying the baseball equivalent of a penny stock. But the incoming regime came armed with a master plan: to leverage their skill at trading, valuation, and management to build a model twenty-first-century franchise that could compete with their bigger, stronger, richer rivals—and prevail.

In the interview Keri talks about many things that helped this amazing turnaround to happen, but a few themes emerge – trust, attendance to disciplined process, focus on hiring and open-mindedness.

At the same time, I am reading A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All by Wendy Koop, founder and president of Teach for America. The stories of the schools that actually work, the schools that are able to take children from underprivileged neighborhoods and propel them all the way to college, show similar characteristics: trust, attendance to disciplined process, focus on hiring and open-mindedness.

In both these stories, between the lines, you read about a delicate balance:

1. A high dedication to numbers balanced with a focus on the people who drive them.

2. Focus on outcomes balanced with discipline to keep on the right process when the outcomes don’t come.

3. High accountability for results balanced with amazing trust in people to find their own best way to do what needs to be done to succeed and open-mindedness to their new approaches.

The last balance of the three, which is the most important in my eyes, is why I thought about the idea of Controlled Anarchy. These two success stories (and more I encountered in the past) seem to revolve around leaders and managers creating a very wide-set of boundaries and trusting their people to succeed in these boundaries. Instead of spending time and effort on micro-managing how people do their work, they focus their efforts on hiring the best available people, giving them the support and resources they need, and trying to learn from them while holding them accountable for the outcomes they produce. In other words, these leaders allow Anarchy in Controlled boundaries.

This Anarchy has another upside. As Steven Johnson illustrates in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, mistakes, failures and noise are an important factor in innovation:

The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again. And not just wrong, but messy. A shockingly large number of transformative ideas in the annals of science can be attributed to contaminated laboratory environments…

Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.

Is there Anarchy in your organization?


Book review: Poke the Box by Seth Godin

I am an avid reader of Seth Godin’s work. Just looking at the size of his tag on this blog you understand that he has been a great inspiration for my writing. Thus, it wouldn’t be hard to conclude that I am very excited with his new project to re-define and re-shape how book publishing is done (the domino project).

One of the first titles is called: Poke the Box. In it, Godin continues his assault on the resistance that is holding us back, which he started in his wonderful book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? The main point of the book is: what would happen if we all took more initiative and just started things? More importantly: what the hell is stopping us? The book praises practical initiative taking, not just for the sake of initiating but for the sake of shipping – delivering a product or idea to the market.

I found three interesting concepts going all through the book:

1. We got the attitude toward failure all wrong. Failure has a bad rep. it is misunderstood and misused. It represents opportunity, learning and improvement. Instead we fear it and try everything in our powers to prevent it. However, not failing means not doing. Or as Godin puts it: “The more you do, the more you fail”. Our aim should be to do, so it should be to also fail. A lot.

If you fail once, and big, you don’t fail the most. The game is over, you’re a failure, you’re busted, you’re in jail. But you don’t fail the most. If you never fail, either you’re really lucky or you haven’t shipped anything. But if you succeed often enough to be given the privilege of failing next time, then you’re on the road to a series of failures. Fail, succeed, fail, fail, fail, succeed—you get the idea. Talk to any successful person. He’ll be happy to fill you in on his long string of failures.

2. Leaders are map makers. People need maps to show them where to go. Literally, in experiments done on lost people, they just walked around in circles. However, you can wait for the map to come or you can create your own map. Are as Godin says: “Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them”. When I say “leaders are map makers” I am not necessarily talking about leaders in the traditional way. I am talking about people who make things happen; who try something new; who take us to a better future by not obeying the rules, because the rule book of the future has not been written yet. They understand that they need to write it as they go along.

If there’s no clear right answer, perhaps the thing you ought to do is something new. Something new is often the right path when the world is complicated.

3. Initiative is also about voice. Godin writes: “Sure, ideas that spread, win, but ideas that don’t get spoken always fail”. Many of most obvious inventions we have today were at some point heresy. When those who thought about them voiced them all hell broke loose (just listen to this podcast to see how it still is happening today in places you wouldn’t even imagine). But if we don’t voice ideas what is the alternative? Nothing. Can we honestly say that is a better thing?

We’re trained to fit in, not to stand out, and the easiest way in the world to fit in is to never initiate. Don’t speak up. If you see something, don’t say anything. In fact, we spend most of our days waiting for permission to start”

Poke the Box is a quick fun read. While it is not ground breaking like some of Godin’s other books (Linchpin for example) it does make you think and doubt some of your previous choices. After reading Linchpin and reading Godin’s blog everyday for the last three years, I did not find a lot of new ideas in the book. That does not mean, that some of the old ideas are not important. If you don’t frequent Godin’s blog you should. And you should also buy the book. Hopefully, it will drive you to poke the box, try and ship.


Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

A few days ago I finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

As someone truly interested in creativity and innovation and their antecedents I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it gives very wide look at the development of innovation in the world around us (biological and evolutionary), sciences (from almost every imaginable field from pharmaceuticals to air-conditioning) and across different timelines (from Darwin to the invention of Twitter and Youtube). This wide ranging sample of the greatest innovation of the last 600 years gives the book a depth that support some of the interesting hypotheses it makes.

There is some kind of myth we all have in our heads in some form or another of innovation being the result of a lone genius sitting alone at his desk suddenly having this eureka moment based solely on his intellect and thinking power. In reality, while inventions due sometimes occur in this way, it is more the exception than the rule. As Johnson mentions himself in the book:

We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.


On a basic level, it is true that ideas happen inside minds, but those minds are invariably connected to external networks that shape the flow of information and inspiration out of which great ideas are fashioned

Malcolm Gladwell, makes a similar argument when he compares Michael Ventris, the decipherer of Linear B, with Andrew Wiles, the solver of Fermat’s Last Theorem, in his amazing speech at the New Yorker conference labeled: “Genius: 2012”. Gladwell explained that: “Modern problems require persistence more than they require genius and we ought to value quantity over quality when it comes to intelligence”. Gladwell claimed that he would rather have 13 smart people working on one idea than one genius. 13 smaert people represent so much more opportunities just due to quantity that they are better equipped to deal with modern day problems.

Johnson’s book takes this idea a step forward laying down the seven fundamentals that together – in different combinations and quantities – create innovation or allow creativity to spark: The Adjacent Possible, Liquid Networks, The Slow Hunch, Serendipity, Error, Expatation and Platforms.

Expanding on these concepts, the book is a song of praise to the idea of openness, connectivity and the creation of idea networks and communication channels across disciplines:

It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.

In order to create this “network” we need to actively work on creating environments that cultivate sharing, ideas, discourse, mistakes and communication. This can’t be achieved by walling and protecting ideas, only by creating open platforms:

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches that successfully fill in their blanks, may seem like an obvious truth, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas, keeping them from the kind of random, serendipitous connections that exist in dreams and in the organic compounds of life.

Johnson creates a compelling argument against the overuse of copyright and patent laws, tools that are put in place to promote innovation but many times work against it:

If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.

While the book wonderfully explains each of the seven concepts and gives a few interesting prescriptions regarding the creation of a platform that supports innovation in societies as a whole I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion regarding the implementation of the concepts in building creative environments not only on a nation-wide level but also on a personal, team or organization level. Mostly, we are left with this ending statement, which is powerful, but left me personally waiting for more:

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

Bottom line: worth a read as it might spark many interesting ideas for people working in environments where creativity is a must.