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?


Finding yourself or creating yourself?

Photo by whiteafrican

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?


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?


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?


Why are they afraid?

Photo by Gianmaria™

I read an interesting article about teleworking in the latest edition of the Knowledge@ASB. Here is a short part of that article:

With evidence mounting for teleworking benefits, the obvious question concerns why so many managers are refusing to offer the option. “It’s fear of the unknown,” says Bevis England, director of Telework New Zealand and facilitator of the Telework Australia initiative. “Some managers are simply reluctant to change. They think ‘if it ain’t broken don’t fix it’. But the system is effectively broken. In business, we have spent about 200 years learning how to cram people into concrete and glass mausoleums, justifying the rental expenses by claiming greater productivity. Now we are experiencing a new evolution in which we must unlearn those lessons.

Management style, for those who are not used to looking after teleworkers, must also shift from process-oriented to outcome-oriented management, Ward and England agree. Once the teleworker has the tools – the training, the information and the ability to do their job – the worker must then be trusted to get that job done and judged only by the outcomes of their efforts”.

What is it that managers fear so much? Why is it hard for them to let go?

I think in part, this is rooted in our own conceptions of management and leadership as top-down activities. The thinking goes something like this: “if I am the leader that means I need to tell everybody what to do. If they are not here, I can’t tell them how to do their work. If there are not visible, they might try to do things their own way. Because it is not my way, then it must be wrong”.

Sounds kind of dumb when it is put like that, right? Well, it is.

As the last sentence in the above quote implies, it is about trust, which is slowing becoming the glue that holds organizations (replacing fear and rules).

Lynda Gratton put it wonderfully while giving a eulogy to organizational loyalty:

But whilst loyalty is dead…long live trust. Loyalty is about the future – trust is about the present. Trust is core to the relationship between the employer and employee – without it relationships become simply transactions and work is mired and slowed through continuous checks and monitoring. CEO’s may not believe their executives to be loyal in the sense that they will be with them indefinitely – but they have to believe they are trustworthy. Trust is one of the most precious organisational assets – slow to build and quick to be destroyed. The precursor to trust is fairness, justice and dignity – demonstrated in how processes operate and how people are treated when the going gets tough

Until we come to the understanding that in many areas of business, top down just doesn’t work anymore and embrace the ideas of emergence, Equifinality and trust, we would probably keep fearing the unknown and making excuses. Are these activities you are comfortable with? I know I am not.



Photo by PinkMoose

Seth Godin writes today:

If you worked on the line, we cared about your productivity, not your smile or approach to the work. You could walk in downcast, walk out defeated and get a raise if your productivity was good.

No longer.

Your attitude is now what’s on offer, it’s what you sell.

I think this is something every manager should understand. What many managers try to get out of people today is not productivity based. It is attitude based. Innovation, passion, human connection, practical wisdom. These are all things that cannot be done without attitude.

Once, we could not care less what our employees felt or how psyched they were to come to work. Those days are gone.