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?


Safety and exploration

Photo by eyeliam

I am currently reading the wonderful book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. In it, Brooks discusses the work of John Bowlby:

He theorized that what kids need most are safety and exploration. They need to feel loved by those who care for them, but they also need to go out into the world and to take care of themselves. Bowlby argued that these two needs, while sometimes in conflict, are also connected. The more secure a person feels at home, the more likely he or she is to venture out boldly to explore new things. Or as Bowlby himself put it, “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” [Emphases added]

When I read this paragraph it immediately made me think of management practices. The need to create a safe environment where people can re-group, reflect and improve on one side.  The need to allow people to venture into unknown territories and attempt novel approaches without fear of retaliation one the other side.

Bob Sutton emphasizes how managers should act as human shields:

The best bosses are committed to letting their workers work—whether on creative tasks such as inventing new products or on routine things such as assembling computers, making McDonald’s burgers, or flying planes. They take pride in being human shields, absorbing or deflecting heat from inside and outside the company, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks, and battling idiots and slights that make life harder than necessary on their people.

At the same time he points out that great bosses believe in making it safe for people to take risky actions and “fail forward,” by developing a “forgive and remember culture”.

I usually don’t like to think of managerial relationships as parental relationships as these induce an automatic bias towards hierarchy and… well, paternalism. However, as Brooks points out based on Bowlby work, the parental duty includes an important balance between creating safety, cohesion, rules, order and most importantly love and allowing the child to venture into unknown territories that enable growth. I think it might be beneficial for managers to think in these terms of safety and exploration when designing work environments.

How are you creating safety and exploration for your employees?


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

Photo by ozmafan

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?


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.

We are all Heroes

Dave Meslin gives a great talk about apathy at TED. This is what he says about heros [starts at 3:43]:

Look at these 10 movies [Matrix * Harry Potter * Golden Compass * Pokemon * Power Rangers * Sailor Moon * Lion, Witch & Wardrobe * Alice in Wonderland * The Neverending Story * The Golden Child]. What do they have in common? Anyone? They all have heroes who were chosen. Someone came up to them and said, “You’re the chosen one. There’s a prophesy. You have to save the world.” And then someone goes off and saves the world because they’ve been told to, with a few people tagging along. This helps me understand why a lot of people have trouble seeing themselves as leaders. Because it sends all the wrong messages about what leadership is about. A heroic effort is a collective effort, number one. Number two, it’s imperfect; it’s not very glamorous; and it doesn’t suddenly start and suddenly end. It’s an ongoing process your whole life. But most importantly, it’s voluntary. It’s voluntary. As long as we’re teaching our kids that heroism starts when someone scratches a mark on your forehead, or someone tells you that you’re part of a prophecy, they’re missing the most important characteristic of leadership, which is that it comes from within. It’s about following your own dreams — uninvited, uninvited — and then working with others to make those dreams come true.

This is what I wrote a few weeks ago:

We have a bias towards the need of a forceful – somehow holy and external – leader who will show us what needs to be done and take us to a better place… these myths about the importance of the single leader stand in contrast to the needs of many modern organizations. In contemporary knowledge-based, dynamic and complex team environments, both the cognitive and the behavioral capabilities of the wider workforce are needed to achieve optimal effectiveness and competitiveness. While some may be drawn to the idea of a larger-than-life, charismatic, all-knowing leader who can inspire and single-handedly positively transform work systems and the employees who work in them, the realities and challenges of contemporary organizational life require an alternative view of leadership.

Leadership is not about hierarchy. It is not about being told what to do. It is about making a change. It is about creating a different future. It is about not accepting the status quo.

Some perform leadership by relating with other people, creating environments where they can excel and be creative. I call that management. But that is not the only way to be a leader. A leader is somebody who speaks up and says “You’re hurting us, this is wrong”. A leader is somebody who creates Art – something new and wonderful that touches us, each in our own way. A leader is someone who changes the world by performing one small meaningful intervention at time.

Most importantly – leaders are not other people. Leaders are all of us. If we choose to be one. Like many things it would probably not be easy, but that why it’s worth it. I decided not to keep waiting for the hero or the prophecy. I decided I am already a Hero. How about you?


What is your team’s creed?

I was watching Stanley McChrystal’s TED talk the other day. He gives an interesting perspective of leadership and learning the deal with the challenges of modern management in a very hierarchical style organization like the army. This is one issue he discusses:

And you have to watch and take care of each other. I probably learned the most about relationships. I learned they are the sinew which hold the force together. I grew up much of my career in the Ranger regiment. And every morning in the Ranger regiment, every Ranger — and there are more than 2,000 of them — says a six-stanza Ranger creed. You may know one line of it, it says, “I’ll never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.” And it’s not a mindless mantra, and it’s not a poem. It’s a promise. Every Ranger promises every other Ranger no matter what happens, no matter what it costs me, if you need me, I’m coming.

When we talk about culture and the norms of the team that are a part of that culture we always need to consider how these norms are maintained. What is your team’s creed? What do you stand for and do you talk about it every day? What do you actively encourage – not as a blind command coming from above – but by a passionate belief emerging from below?


The culture and processes of learning from failure

Photo by Luc Galoppin

Joshua Gans writes in HBR.org:

The idea is that one innovator’s failure yields important information as to where to experiment next. That is, failure brings with it learning. Specifically, without information on failure, it is easy to believe that continued success is based on skill rather than luck. As game theorists Drew Fudenberg and David Levine showed, your false beliefs, left unchallenged, can be self-confirming. Of course, having more experiments, and failed experiments at that, will provide a necessary ingredient for that task. But it isn’t sufficient. Someone needs to learn about the failure and then learn from it … When it is the same person who fails and tries again, that path is easy. But it’s really very hard to learn from someone else’s experience of failure. Indeed, for all we know, we already have plenty of failure. We just haven’t learned enough from it.

Learning from failure, like learning in general, and especially in organizational settings is dependent on two factors:

1. Processes and habits – as Gans points out – of people don’t know about it, they can’t learn from it. although it seems like a waste of time in the present moment, stopping everything else to make sure everybody knows about failure will allow a team to reap benefits in the long fun. And as long as the team is already learning about the failure, it should also take active steps to learn from the failure. Setting out reflection time is just as important as passing the information around. The task of the system (and its manager) is to transform data and information into knowledge and wisdom in a way that allows intuition and practical wisdom to play out.

2. Culture – it is in vague lately to say that we are negatively biased towards failure. HBR have been focusing on this issue in the last few weeks. I guess it is true. But awareness in not enough. In order to change the attitude and behaviors of people and gain from the benefits of failure, there is a need to create a culture that embraces positive failures and leads then through a process of learning. This means focusing on the right norms and more importantly, maintaining them.

Is the culture in your team supportive of failure? What are the active steps you are taking in order to make failures into learning opportunities?