One (insert company name here) Issue 61

In a recent meeting with one of our clients, I was surprised to hear the company planned to reverse a decision that they considered to be a key business driver, integral to their future success. Moving the goal post didn’t surprise me, after all clients are not unlike designers; sometimes they change their minds especially once they truly understand the manifestation of their goals in the physical environment. What surprised me was the particular goal they chose to abandon. Like many companies we work with, they hope to act as ‘One (insert company name here)’ and now before their new space is even occupied, they’ve elected to revert back to a regionally focused approach.

When questioned why, they explained that when the company, which is both large and global, views itself as ‘one’ they lose accountability at the local level. Regions that under perform have greater opportunity and propensity to hide under a one (insert company name here) umbrella. This attitude seemed very counter intuitive, but then I thought about it in the context of Europe; to be precise I considered Greece. It would be safe to say, Greece would not win a popularity contest with other countries in the European Union at the moment. In fact, I would wager the rest of the EU would be regretting the day they made the decision to become a part of ‘One Europe’ now that countries like Greece, Portugal and Ireland are neck deep in debt.

Given Greece’s track record of borrowing too much and being unable to pay its debts it should not have taken anyone by surprise. Over the past 179 years the country has been in default 50% of the time and Greece is not likely to reverse that trend any time soon; they have an uncompetitive economy that cannot generate growth. Their labour is expensive and unlike Australia there is nothing useful for them to dig out of the ground and sell to other countries. When it comes to economic leaders, Greece isn’t one of them.

If you are drawing a parallel between those European countries and the current state of the USA, acknowledge these facts: the US is still one of the world’s most competitive economies and despite its credit rating being dropped (touch wood) they have never defaulted on their debts. You might draw a very long bow and applaud the US for a stellar demonstration of acting as one, even though they only acted this way for a brief moment and literally came to consensus at the last possible moment. Everyone with half a brain knew that not agreeing to raise the debt ceiling would have lead to cataclysmic global disaster and even the US is not that stupid or self–centered. Having a country like the US default on its debt is a wildcard (low – probability high-impact event) that smart people wouldn’t care to mess with.

Unfortunately, neither political party felt good about the compromises they had to make to spring America from the financial pickle they’re in nor the likelihood that ramifications of their choices will most likely drive the country into an even deeper, darker place than it already is. Still given the polarisation, the political landscape and difficulties associated with this particular decision; one has to hand it to Barak Obama for his ability to negotiate with various members of congress and succeed in ultimately encouraging them to behave as one. The word is they bonded over Chinese food and some not too subtle encouragement from Obama “Voters may have chosen divided government,” “but they sure didn’t vote for dysfunctional government.”

In his book about evolution “The Selfish Gene” Richard Dawkins contends people are at their core selfish and primarily motivated by self advancement, even to the detriment of others. If you buy Dawkin’s argument, the fact that the US came to any agreement is quite miraculous, it also explains why it is so hard for us to collaborate – even when we know it is for the best. Of course, no one said collaborating was supposed to be easy, in fact the word collaborate is derived from the Latin word collaborare – made up of com which means with and labore which means work; the meaning of the word is to labour together. Work is not play, as is made abundantly clear in Bruce Mau’s description in “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” where he aptly described it as being filled with conflict, friction and strife.

Most organisations believe working together as one (insert company name here) is a strategic business objective critical to their business success. Unfortunately, saying you’re ‘one’ and acting as ‘one’ can often be two different things. Despite how banally common the goal is, few organisations ever really achieve it. Part of the challenge they have in reaching collaboration nirvana is determining what will motivate their people to work together. Yochai Benkler, professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard University suggests there are seven mechanisms an organisation can employ to motivate people to collaborate, these are as follows:
1. Foster communication between team members. This is the biggest (and most experimentally-grounded) factor in getting people to cooperate.
2. Frame the business context appropriately because it plays a strong role in our motivation to cooperate. For example people are more apt to cooperate on a ‘community project ‘than a ‘Wall Street project’.
3. Create empathy and solidarity- caring about the people we work with has an enormous impact on our motivation to cooperate with them.
4. Be fair and moral. Treat people appropriately for a business context and focus on doing the ‘right thing.’
5. Reward – but not necessarily with money, find elements of fulfillment that are valued by team members.
6. Use reputation -people value their public status, so make it visible.
7. Offer diverse mechanisms to motivate people to cooperate – different people are motivated by different things.
Point seven is tricky. How can an organisation know what will motivate each of its individual members? A number of clues were offered at this year’s Enterprise 2.0 Conference held in Boston (20-23 June). Sara Roberts, one of the conference’s key note speakers, suggests each person is primarily motivated by one of the following: competition, personal achievement, exploration or socialisation. For example, she says that by ‘Game-ifying’ business initiatives an organisation can encourage participation by playing on our competitive nature. We can publicise personal goals to address our need to achieve and give people the opportunity to learn or research new things e.g. allowing them to explore. Finally, given we are social beings, being part of a community or team is a powerful motivator for many.

Finding the right blend to motivate a whole team is not an easy task and inspiring people to work together requires the skills of a talented ‘collaborative leader’. This term applies to people who have the ability to engage others, inspire them and encourage them to work toward a common goal. Beyond simply motivating others, collaborative leaders play the role of connector, bringing together people within and also outside of the organisation. This is what Beth Comstock; the chief marketing officer of GE did when she shared what she learned about the company with internal managers via her ‘Blackberry Beth’ blog. The blog goes to thousands of sales, marketing and technology leaders so effectively closes the connectivity gap between internal people and those in the outside world.

Research shows connecting people with different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures and generations produces better business results. One of the mistakes companies make is attracting people with different views or perspective, only to stifle their creativity by micromanaging or forcing them to follow homogenous processes. In doing this research I discovered companies that spend a fortune on interpreters at their annual meetings simply to allow executives, who are not native English speakers, to deliver presentations in their native tongue. The result is those who are less articulate in English are not handicapped, barriers are broken down and the company looks a heck of a lot more attractive to potential talent who may not speak perfect English.

Great collaboration starts at the very top of the organisation, the boss sets the tone. Sometimes collaboration is accepted at the middle or bottom ranks, but sabotaged by political games and turf battles that occur in the upper echelons. A famous example is Microsoft who apparently had a viable tablet computer that could have given Apple a run for their money. The project became collateral damage in a turf battle between divisions in the company. Sometimes it is best to remind ourselves where the real war is being fought; all too often we waste precious energy focusing on internal battles. By the time we have a run at the external competition, we’re exhausted.

We look to leaders for examples of how to behave, but in the case of leadership teams they often don’t operate as teams, so are perhaps are not the ones to mimic. A leadership team consists of the CEO and his or her direct reports and those leaders may be so concerned with their own team’s short term performance, they lose sight of company goals. Psychologists explain that when performance goals dominate, people expend considerable energy convincing others that they have unique skills such as intelligence, leadership abilities or being a great thinker, as opposed to really evolving or innovating. When a team is motivated by learning, as opposed to performing, their focus is on developing attributes which will benefit the company in the long run. Performance goals lead to a focus on tasks, team members will gravitate to what will make them look good, as opposed to what will help them grow and the company to evolve.

The down side of collaboration is a bit like red wine; a little makes life look wonderful and rosy, too much gives you a headache. We can all appreciate the reverse effect of situations were there is too much collaboration: endless meetings, debating ideas, covering old ground and yack yack yacking till we’re blue in the face, never reaching a consensus. This is the down side of collaboration and once again is where the ‘collaborative leader’ can help by calling an end to the debate. A strong collaborative leader has the ability to direct teams and maintain agility by forming and disbanding the team as required.

Collaboration is most definitely the flavor of the decade, it is a powerful business enabler and with downsising, outsourcing and the increase of the virtual organisations businesses will want to get the most out of their people by tapping into their collective power. The good news is there is evidence of human predisposition to cooperate! Still those who aspire to be one (insert company name here) will need to pay close attention to motivating and training people to shift their focus between long and short term goals, remembering both are important to the company’s success.

One trick I’ve discovered to keep sight of long term goals, while focusing on individual or short term goals is to do what my eye doctor advised. She suggests wearing a contact lens in the right eye suitable to see clearly into the distance, in the left wear a lens to see up close with complete accuracy. Simultaneously you can perceive the world from both near and far, it’s quite a special thing and harkens back to university days, where good eyesight went hand and hand with the occasional urge to throw up. Then it was due to drinking grain alcohol in slushy fruit drinks, now it is from wearing two different strength contacts. At the end of the day it’s a small price to pay for altered perception.

Sources:

Ibarra, Herminia and Hansen, Morten T. Are You a Collaborative Leader? Harvard Business Review, July 4, 2011

Kahan, Seth. Revolution At Work, Fast Company Blog, May 12, 2011

Krugman, Paul. The President Surrenders, The New York Times, July 31, 2011

Lavenda, David. Social Business Leaders Speak Up: 9 Suggestions for Enterprise 2.0; Fast Company Blog, June 10, 2011

Lavenda, David. Why Do We Cooperate? Some Evolutionary Thoughts About What Motivates Us. Fast Company Blog, June 24, 2011

Zakaria, Fareed. The Post-American World: Release 2.0, W.W Norton & Co. 2011

Zakaria, Fareed. Debt Woes Could America Go the Way of Greece, Time Magazine, June 30, 2011

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