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?

Elad

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Doctrinally approved solutions

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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”?

Elad

Finding yourself or creating yourself?

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Warning: The post today is more philosophical then practical in nature. It represents even more fuzzy ideas than usual. Readers should proceed at their own peril.

Bill Taylor wrote a few days ago on HBR.org a post following a NYT column by David Brooks titled: “It’s Not About You”. This is the gist of Taylor’s argument:

But I’m with Brooks and his words of warning against the cult of self-fulfillment. The more executives, entrepreneurs, and talented individuals I get to know, the more convinced I become that true happiness, a genuine sense of satisfaction, comes, as Brooks suggests, not from “finding” yourself but from “losing” yourself — in a company you believe in, a cause you are prepared to fight for, a commitment to solve a problem that has defied solution.

In other words, “we” is bigger than “me” — the true measure of success is not the value you create for yourself but the values that define your work and how you lead and live.

This comes out of Brooks attack against the common advice given to graduates in commencement ceremonies to “find themselves”:

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front [Emphasis added].

I tend to agree. I think these two ideas should be examined from a wider perspective. Two expanding thoughts.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the myth of leadership. The idea that we need to wait for some external force (hero or leader) that will come and save us all is ingrained in our culture. We just need to wait for the prophecy to be fulfilled. This passivity is also ingrained in the advice above. Your passion is out there – you just need to find it! Like a treasure sitting at the bottom of the sea waiting to be found. “Find yourself” means that “you” are somewhere and it is just a matter of looking. It implies a passivity and acceptance. I prefer George Bernard Shaw’s advice:

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

And this leads to the second thought. In another wonderful HBR.org post, Justin Menkes, writes about how Management Thinking May Be Blinding Leadership:

For over a century, reductionist thinking has offered an excellent means for generating clear, concise, and evidence-based answers to important questions. It is also perfectly suited for rendering compelling statistical evidence to support these answers… Reductionism’s widespread acceptance and application has generated countless advancement around the world that have vastly improved the human condition, and it remains the foundation of the scientific method taught to all grade-schoolers as the fundamentals of “real science” today. But the study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in this method, as South African philosophy professor Paul Cilliers discussed in his 1998 book Complexity and Postmodernism. A complex system is not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components. By “cutting up” a system, the reductionist method destroys that which it is trying to understand.

The focus on “the individual” (in the wider sense of the word) has been a corner stone of western thinking for the foreseeable past. And it has led to great advancements for individuals and societies. It is time, to add to this magnificent concept another level of complexity and understanding of emergent properties. No man is an island. No real life social phenomenon occurs in vacuum. It is all about connections, interdependencies and relationships.

In this sense, calling people, as the emphasis in Brooks quote illustrate to think only about themselves, ignores the idea of emergence out interconnectedness. And this is where it correlates with Shaw’s advice. Create yourself not only means being active it also means that there must be a relationship with others. A creation, by definition, is connected to something external. It is about change in the broader sense of society. It is about a relationship with the world that creates value. It is about absorbing things from your soundings and molding it to something different, unique and special. The “you” in this process is not found but emerges from an active progression of integrating yourself with the world around you.

So, are you finding yourself alone or are you creating yourself with others?

Elad

Are you managing like an artist?

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I was watching the Israeli version of American Idol yesterday (roughly translated to “A Star Is Born”). I noticed a recurring theme. The main feedback the novice artists received is that they need to be more in touch with their feelings. To be truly themselves. The sing from within. To understand the lyrics they are singing and connect with it. When the feedback made one of the contestants cry, her coach told her – “Now, this is real, this is what I want to see on stage” (It sounds harsher than it actually was in reality).

I was watching all that and thinking – how many employees and managers are given (or giving) this advice? How many of us truly connect with who we are and what we are when we go about our craft? Does it really matter if you are a singer or a service provider? If you are a dancer or a carpenter? Shouldn’t we all aspire to produce Art?

I used to write a monthly column to the student newspaper during my undergrad years. I did a well enough job and the editor almost always published my columns with some alterations. One day I saw a number of student behaviors that really upset me. I sat down and wrote an entire column in an hour. I sent it to the editor. She wrote back to me after a few minutes. “Wow! I can almost feel the anger in your words! I am publishing it as is in the front page, in addition to your usual column in the back of the paper. Send me more stuff like that”. The day it was published I was terrified. How will people react? I actually wrote something against my the dominating culture. Some of my best friends were behaving in ways that were covered in my column. I got only positive reviews. I can’t really say that I changed the world, but it felt so good to truly say what I felt like!

A few days ago I finished reading The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. As I understand it, Brooks tried to write a book that glorifies feelings and the unconscious. Not just gut feelings (like some think Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is about, which I am not sure it is) but of truly connecting with the wonderful creatures we are and making the most out the social relationships that are all around us, relationships that are based mainly on emotions. Brooks writes at the end of the book, after thanking his wife Sarah, that he may write about emotions and feelings, but that’s not because he is actually good at expressing them. It is because he is naturally bad at them.

I think there is a lesson there for all of us. Our culture tends to view emotions and feelings in a derogatory way. In the best cases, it something for artists. Not for professionals in other fields. I think this is because putting our true-selves into whatever we do is hard. Popular culture has a tendency to support the path of least resistance. The other path, which is much tougher to thread through comes with tremendous rewards. We can spot the singer who sings from the heart immediately because it resonates in our own social being. I think this is true for every profession and for every business. I am not surprised that Howard Schultz called his book: Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time

And for all you managers out there, my question to you: are you managing people like you manage artists – by pushing them to connect with their true feelings? Or are you producing more mindless, soulless cogs?

Elad

Next action: ask why?

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In the last few weeks to different perspectives have mashed up into one coherent thought in my head. I guess it is s continuation of my latest focus on the issue of balance. On one side, I find the idea of outcome focus as discussed by Anita Woolley to be very compelling. Here is a quick reminder from one of my posts on this subject:

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

On the other hand, in the last few weeks I have been listening to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. One of the main concepts Allen introduces in his book is the question: “what is the next action?” Allen advocates for a focus on the concrete tangible doable action. Here is a short description of this concept:

… Next Actions concept says that if you have an abstract item on your to-do list (replace tires on car), you’ll never do it because every time you look at it, you’ll glaze the in-between steps. But you do have to think about what to do in order to do it. So why not think about it now? By thinking about it now and writing it down as a Next Action (the Next Action I can take to bring this project to completion), I can do that Next Action automatically the next time I see it instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do. (Call tire shop for prices.) With a to-do list you have to make a decision on the next action for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Actions list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose which Next Action to do now.

While on a first glance these two concepts seem like opposites they are actually complementary. The relationship between them is quite fascinating when you think about it. You can’t actually properly think about how (or next action) until you understand that what (outcome focus). If what Woolley claims is correct, in teams, a preliminary focus on the process (the how) can be detrimental for future performance. At the same time, in order to be free to really contemplate the big whys in you projects, goals and life, you need to free your mind by focusing only on what you can do. What is great is that I actually found myself creating next actions that read: Think about why X…  at beginning of projects. A doable action that is focused on the desired outcome.

I love the balance between these two concepts and I try to incorporate habits based on them into my routine. So, when do you focus on next action and when do you focus on the desired outcome or purpose?

Elad

The never ending struggle for motivation

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I just finished reading the epic fantasy novel The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie. It is an amazing book by one of the best epic fantasy authors I know today. I am amazed by how many great quotes from this book I accumulated in my Kindle clippings file. I wanted to share one with you as I believe it resonates with the internal struggle each of us has every day:

Another stretch of silence, then Shivers turned to look at him. ‘You’re a decent man, aren’t you, Craw? Folk say so. Say you’re a straight edge. How d’you stick at it?’

Craw didn’t feel like he’d stuck at it too well at all. ‘Just try to do the right thing, I reckon. That’s all.’

‘Why? I tried it. Couldn’t make it root. Couldn’t see the profit in it.’

‘There’s your problem. Anything good I done, and the dead know there ain’t much, I done for its own sake. Got to do it because you want to.’

‘It ain’t no kind o’ sacrifice if you want to do it, though, is it? How does doing what you want make you a fucking hero? That’s just what I do.’

Craw could only shrug. ‘I haven’t got the answers. Wish I did.’

Shivers turned the ring on his little finger thoughtfully round and round, red stone glistening. ‘Guess it’s just about getting through each day.’

‘Those are the times.

‘You think other times’ll be any different?’

‘We can hope.’

I think I never read such a well written portraying of the never ending debate between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

The profit or the right thing? Take the job that offers more money or the one that inspires you? Do something safe or something daring?

For some the answer is obvious. The internet is filled with authors who will tell you that you should always chose “the right thing”. I tend to agree.

And still… I find myself doubting… I find it hard to follow this advice. I know people around me find it hard to. I know that the fact that it is a hard means it is probably worth it.

And still…

The ingenuity of the quote above is that it recognizes this struggle. It recognizes that for some people the obvious answer is not that obvious. It’s about making a decision every day at a time. And it leaves us questioning what should we base our hopes upon?

How is your struggle going?

Elad

Do you have a culture of perceptions or a culture of appreciation?

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Thomas J. DeLong writes in HBR.org on the Busyness Trap:

I frequently talk to MBA students about their careers and aspirations for life. Some of these students worked on Wall Street, and when we talk, a number of them admit that the key to their success was creating the illusion of hard work. One said that he and the other associates would leave their suit coats on their chairs at the end of the work day to make it seem that they hadn’t left for the night — that they were somewhere in the building doing work — when in fact they had gone home.

“We have these little tricks of the trade to create the impression that we are absolutely committed to the organization, even when we don’t have any work,” he told me. “It’s part of managing expectations and our images.”

The trap of busyness is so much a part of corporate culture that many times it clouds our vision of what’s really going on. We expect to be busy; we don’t know what to do when we’re not. The trap of busyness causes us to move with such mindless speed that we’re like the proverbial chicken running around with his head cut off. We plunge into our emails and meetings with a manic energy that forbids reflection, deeply honest conversations, and breaks from the routine.

When I read this part of the post it reminded me of a Seinfeld episode called “The Caddy” where George got his car keys locked in his car and ended up being promoted because of it:

George: Assistant to the General Manager!! You know what that means?!? He’d could be askin’ my advice on trades! Trades, Jerry, I’m a heartbeat away!
Jerry: That’s a hell of an organization they’re running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.
George: And, it is all because of that car. You see, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in, at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then, the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He see my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil. Between the two of  them, they think I’m working an 18 hour day!
Jerry: Locking your keys in your car is the best career move you ever made.

The myths that more is better; that being active equals being effective; that productivity comes out of constant action; are all conventional wisdoms that should be rooted out of our lives. Increased attention, reflection time and actual conversations are much more effective than all this busy-work. As the comments to DeLong’s post point out, the issue is not only the busyness by itself. It is the culture that supports it. It comes from distorted incentives, hazy norms and unclear management focus.

When I read about the “coat trick” in the post I felt sorry for those people. Think about the kind of culture that creates this kind of behavior. The managers at that place created a culture where it was necessary to cheat in order to give an appearance that you are “working properly”. Sad indeed. While this is a great overstatement, I am not surprised that kind of culture brought on the indifference that led to parts of the financial crisis. When a major part of your culture is based on deceit, it shouldn’t surprise you if it migrates to all parts of your organization.

As some of the comments suggest, the culture described is due, in part, to a lack of focus on outcomes. One commenter, David Kaiser, wrote:

Ultimately, smart bosses, and smart clients don’t care about input (how hard you work and how much you sweat), they care about output (what got done, results), and if you can create a lot of value without a lot of effort, so much the better. Aren’t these the people you want to work with and work for anyway, as opposed to those who want you to prove something through “face time” and the appearance of “hard work?”

I write a lot in this blog about the balance between outcomes and process. I think this is a great example of how a focus on process can go wrong. Yes, hard work, perseverance and commitment are important. However, when you create a culture of perceptions instead of a culture of appreciation don’t be surprised if you end up with George Constanta, Lord of the Idiots, as the Assistant to the General Manager.

Does your organization have a culture of perceptions?

Elad