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?


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: 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.


“It’s not going to work”

Photo by Bob N Renee

I remember, more than 13 years ago, at the beginning of my military service in the Israeli army. I was serving as an instructor in a school preparing soldiers for their service in the Air Force. A few months into my service I was attending a party for one of the other instructor who was about the leave after finishing her time in service. Her commander was talking about her, praising her, and he said something that for some reason I still remember. “I knew”, he told us, “that when she said in a meeting – something is not going to work – that she was right and our attempt was doomed to fail”. He continued “She had this ability to look at a suggestion and identify its weaknesses”.

For years this is a quality I desired. I wanted to be able to identify when things are not going to work. I wanted my peers and commander (or boss or supervisor) to say the same things about me. God knows I spent a lot of meetings saying things like: “this is not going to work” or “we tried that already, that’s not a good idea”.

Lately, I changed my mind. It’s not that I don’t think it is helpful to be able to point out weakness in plans. It is. I, however, came to the conclusion, that being pessimistic and critical might be OK, but if we really want innovative ideas that will change things, we need to build on each other’s ideas instead of shooting them down.

A few days ago a peer I am managing a project with sent me an idea. My first reaction when I read the idea was: “this is never going to work”. And I started writing an email detailing my opinion. And then I stopped.  I thought about all the research I have done in the last few months about cooperation and innovation. I deleted my original message and wrote: “sounds interesting. How did you think to develop this?”. I am still not sure it going to work. We set up a meeting next week to further discuss. But you know what? Yesterday I had an idea building on that original idea that I think might make it work. And isn’t that what cooperation is all about – synergy?

So, what are you doing in order to build on ideas? How are you making sure ideas are not just shot down, but are developed cooperatively?


The challenge of diversity and innovation – a different way to approach motivation

Photo by Sanj@y

Last week (yes I know, who writes about things that happened last week anymore, right?) John Kotter wrote an interesting post on HBR.org titled: What a Physicist Taught Me About Leading Change. In it, Kotter describe the importance of diversity for developing new ideas:

Whenever you get people with diverse backgrounds looking at the same thing you can come up with ideas that might not have developed otherwise. That is hardly news. But I’ve learned in studying large-scale change that if the people are very different, in relevant ways, and want to work together (not appointed to be on one more task force), the possibilities are great.

I emphasized the words “and want to work together” in the quote because it touches the heart of the challenge of managers today that have to deliver innovation if they want their companies to survive.  As Kotter says, some types of innovation will only develop out of diversity. These are usually the game changing, radical innovations. And if we want to keep delivering them, we need to keep at putting together diverse teams.

But here lies the challenge. Diversity is hard. More than that, innovation is hard. Innovation out of diversity requires learning that is difficult, because it involves heading right on into areas you are not familiar with along with someone who doesn’t really speak your language or gets you. And in order to that, you have to be truly motivated. A kind of motivation that can only emerge and cannot be mandated.

Our management structures, unfortunately, are not built to support this kind of motivation. This is a kind of motivation that will not come out of mechanisms of control or rules, but only out of autonomy, mastery and especially, purpose. That is the real challenge of diversity. It demands a change in our leadership mindset.

So, how do you make sure your diverse group wants to work together?



Experts and novices

Photo by Mai Le

Seth Godin has fascinating short post out today. He describes his own interpretation of The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. His conclusions:

1. Don’t talk to all your employees, all your users or all your prospects the same way, because they’re not the same.

2. If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail.

I love point number one because I extensively write about it myself (for a summary, see here). The notion of equality must be banished from places it is not needed at. As Godin hints – in the area of marketing – and of course, in the area of managing people. If treat everybody the same we get cogs in a machine. The answer should be found in the idea of Equifinality. There are a lot of ways to reach success.  If we treat everybody according to their uniqueness we create variety which is beneficial. In the past, management practices were built on mechanisms of control that were intended to deal with heterogeneity. Today, this heterogeneity is need ingredient in the creation of innovation. We don’t need to control it, we need to embrace it.

But point number two is not less powerful. As I mention in my no more rules presentation, the use of rules and lose of judgment and practical wisdom is a short-run gamble for productivity. In the long run, only self-thinking, experts how develop practical wisdom through trial and error could produce tangible innovative, human connecting results. When you treat somebody like a novice, you are sacrificing his or her future ability because you prevent him from developing the qualities you need the most.



Experimenting just for the sake of experimenting

Photo by jurvetson

Chris Trimble wrote a very interesting piece on HBR.org the other day with the surprising title: On the Differences Between Innovation and Cooking Chili. Here is short part of it:

Anyone can run an experiment — just go try something and see what happens. That’s how I approach chili. Over time, I suspect that my judgment about what works and what doesn’t is probably getting better. And for family meals, that is good enough. If I do something disastrous, the family can temporarily survive on mac and cheese.

But you should demand much more from the innovators in your company, because their experiments will cost more and they take longer.

Trimble than goes on to claim that innovators should be clear, in advance, exactly what experiment they are going to run and on the outset have answers to questions like “What do they expect will happen and why?” and “What are the assumptions that support their predictions?”. He then goes on to talk about how innovators should actually learn from this experimentation approach.

All sounds well and good and I actually agree with most of what Trimble writes on learning after (and during) the experiments. But the claim that all innovators should be clear, in advance, about what is the experiment and what kind of results they expect, to me, seems to be missing at least part of the point. While there is a place for calculated assumptions based experiment I think a point should also be made for experimenting just for the sake of experimenting.

Parts of innovation are in essence, delving into the unknown. There is a difference between incremental innovation, where your experiment is marginal and partly predictable and radical innovation, where you come up with something so different, no one has actually though about before. If you can predict what will happen, you are not really innovating in the radical sense of the word. And for radical innovation to occur, part of the process is experimenting without understanding exactly what is going to happen.

Think about new products and services. My fear is that just by making ourselves think about what we expect to happen we confine ourselves to our current knowledge. If we think a new product is not going to work or that there will not be demand for a new service, we will be less inclined to waste time and money to try it out. But we don’t really know what is going to work. People themselves don’t always know what they want. Some products and services succeed even though everybody thought it is a terrible idea and that it wouldn’t work.

While the framework Trimble suggest is valid, I just want to offer this one suggestion. Leave room for experimenting for the sake of experimenting; for trying something that we are sure is not going to work or that we are totally unable to predict its outcomes. Let’s see what happens.