If you want a great race car, you build it for speed. If you want great teams, you build them for collaboration. To get you started I will expand on the list that MIT research scientist Peter Gloor calls the “genetic code” of collaboration: learning networks, ethical principles, trust and self-organization, knowledge sharing, and transparency. All of what I describe here applies to building remarkable teams as well as building a remarkable culture in your organization.
The 5 building blocks of collaboration
1) Create a Learning Environment –
This is quite challenging as it either never feels like there is enough time to dedicate to learning or it feels like an unproductive use of available resources. But, do not underestimate the value of continued individual and team learning. When human learning slows down, people tend to lose creative and problem solving capacity. In team development, research has shown that individual learning works best when accompanied by team learning.
Some examples of shared team learning are:
Regular seminars and guest lecturers: Bring in experts and professors on various topics related to the history, science, or culture of your industry as well as sociologists, anthropologists, and technologists who work in peripherally related fields.
Cross-disciplinary training: On a regular basis have members of different departments lead instructional discussions on their particular specialty. So the designer teaches everyone about UX/AI, the coders teach about their development methodology, the project managers teach about agile protocols, and the sales people describe what it is like in the field.
Cross-cultural stimulus: Whatever field you are in, once-a-month take your team on an educational/cultural outing to do or see something that has nothing to do with thier work. E.g. take a team of developers to tour an abattoir, take the human resource team to a museum exhibit on ancient Egypt, or take legal on an outing to a flower show. It is important to make it a regular outing, and to really explore intriguing, albeit unrelated subjects as a group. The benefit of this kind of team activity, is the opening of one’s mind, and shared creative stimulus, which fosters innovation.
Show and tell: one morning a week, have team members or co-workers bring in an example of counter-culture that they have unearthed. Examples could come from art, comics, film, music, architecture, economics (weird black markets), music, media, etc… Creating opportunities for team members to communicate and share both creatively and intellectually improves team communications and fosters innovation.
These are just a few examples. You can explore and experiment with many other ways to create a learning environment. The key is to develop determination and commitment for the process.
2) Make Virtue an Organizing Principle –
It is essential to build in a framework of virtuous and ethical principles. My work and research has identified two categories of virtuous principles: 1) emotional capacity and 2) interactive capacity:
Emotional Capacity involves:
- Empathy – the ability to feel what others feel
- Openness – willingness to explore and to change
- Emotional availability – capacity to share and express
- Fortitude – tolerance for stress, uncertainty, or chaos
- Emotional control – successful anger and/or frustration management
- Humility – acceptance of criticism and/or direction
- Consideration – social awareness, compunction, compassion, inclination for kindness
- Curiosity – inclination to learn
- Zest – enthusiasm for life, work, learning…
Interactive capacity includes:
- Mutualism – ability to see your success in the success of others
- Perspective – ability to see or sense the big picture, long-term thinking
- Self-sacrificing – willingness to give personal gain for the gain of others
- Rational capacity – ability to set aside emotional agendas
- Cooperation – willingness to collaborate
- Systems intelligence – sensing the big picture and how things connect
- Benevolence – depth of commitment to not cause pain or suffering
- Integrity – ability to inspire/engender trust and loyalty
Similar to creating a learning environment, building an organization that not only supports virtuous principles but also causes them, requires you to invest heavily in leadership. Your dedication to creating a remarkable environment is crucial.
One of the most obvious steps toward creating a virtue-inducing environment is to look at your own level of emotional and interactive capacity. You (and your co-founders) should evaluate yourself using the above list of seventeen principles. Obviously, your behavior is one of the most important influences on your teams and your culture. An honest self-evaluation will tell you where you have to increase your emotional and interactive skills.
Beyond your own comportment, much can be done to induce virtuous behaviors. You begin with a sincere and explicit commitment to the betterment of all stakeholders. This means partners, investors, employees, customers and the greater community. You must have an attitude of, “Everybody wins or the game’s not worth playing.” Even competitors can win in this scenario, because, you set the standards. One way this will affect the competition for the better, is that you will attract the better employees who can bring you better and more customers. The competition then has to come up to your standards or drop out. (This is a bit simplified and is not always the case, but is a pattern we can expect to see increase in the future).
3 steps to building virtue into your organization:
Introducing and executing this commitment to virtue requires you to adopt a consistent, three-stage process of, 1) establishing standards, 2) reviewing standards, and 3) making adjustments accordingly. Here is how it could look:
i. Establish clear descriptions of the type of behavior you expect from everyone. Avoid vague or general expression, such as, “politeness or “integrity”. You should list specific behavior such as:
- Listening attentively,
- Asking questions that show curiosity and attention,
- Being grateful for each chance to explain and clarify your expectations,
- Expressing a willingness to learn,
- Discussing persons who are not present as if they were,
- Looking for opportunities to advance the interests of others-through support, acknowledgement, training, etc…
These are just suggestions to help you to generate your own list of desired behaviors.
ii. Review how well your organization lives up to the established principles. Do reviews:
- Regularly (once a month),
- Collectively (involving everyone), and
- Rigorously (with honesty and diligence).
You may find it necessary to bring in professional facilitation if you are running into excessive resistance or acrimony. But, when you succeed at this step, you will have created a significant shift in your organization’s psychology. You will have created a culture conducive to collaboration, greater employee engagement and enhanced productivity.
iii. Adjust the established principles as insights from the review process indicated. This is a responsive process and not about setting hard and fast rules. Establish objectives and use these to assess and improve individual and group behavior in a continuous way.
3) Build On a Foundation of Trust and Self-Organization –
I will be discussing self-organization more explicitly in part 3. So, here, let’s focus on the importance of trust, which is a direct result of yours and your organization’s integrity. If you fail to create an atmosphere of trust you will fail to instill self-organization. Poor organizational trust is also an indicator of lower cooperation, productivity, and sales (Davis, Mayer, & Schoorman, 1995; Davis et al., 2000).
Trust has received attention from social scientists for decades. Like wise men exploring the elephant, each different scientific field describes a different aspect of the animal. Sociologists (Luhman, Gambetta, Barber, Giddens, Sztompka, et al) are concerned with the position and role of trust in social systems and this sociological perspective has brought important insight into the nature of trust within a system and the differing ways to measure trust among the participants in the system. A quick summary might be: trust is the strengthening and weakening glue of an organization.
Psychologists (Erikson, Deutsch, Worchel et al) focus on trust as an interpersonal experience. In general, psychology explores a range of trust issues: starting from child development studies and continuing to the effect of organizational justice (DeConick, J. B., 2010), and even looking into the impact of facial features (DeBruine, Lisa, 2002). Think of the psychology of trust as: the individual and organizational factors that foster or diminish trust.
Economics and game theory also provide valuable insight into the study of trust (cf. Nash Equilibrium, Pareto Principle). In economics, trust is a mechanism of efficiency. The more trust that exists between players, the more efficiently the system, market, or organization will work. Basically, trust produces efficiency.
My own work brings together all these disciplines together in a management 3.0 model based on:
- The importance of trust as a precipitator of self-organization
- The importance of your own emotional state (which affects how others perceive you) for encouraging trust
- The importance of your organization’s rules and culture in fostering trust
A brief road map for increasing trust in your organization might include:
- Analyzing and adjusting your own attitudes and emotions towards others; if you don’t already have it, you must develop a deeply respectful and caring concern for the welfare of others (this applies to all partners and organizational leaders who must also adopt this position).
- Finding the right balance between bureaucratic controls (agency) and laissez-faire or staff-latitude (stewardship). To create trust you must give trust. This means you are willing to make allowances for mistakes. You must provide both the boundaries and the support for this.
- As the CEO or manager, demonstrate through your questions, actions, and policies, that you understand the interests of your staff and/or team members and that their interests are reflected in the way you make decisions.
- Model sincere patience, kindness, and understanding when you are hearing about errors and mistakes, or when investigating a problem. This will encourage organizational members to speak freely even if they are at fault.
- It is important to encourage and support even when the creative efforts of others fail. One part of fostering creativity and innovation is to accept the inevitable failures.
- Promote the importance of vulnerability by both modeling it and encouraging it through constructive contact. This means being willing to hear and consider the criticism of others. And always be conscious of the way you deliver criticism. Constructive criticism comes from a personal desire on your part to help people do their best.
- Involve stakeholders in a participatory way. This means allowing people to influence decisions to the extent that the outcome of a decision will influence them. The more the people you are interacting with feel they have influence over the outcomes of the decisions and actions in your organization that affect them, the more trust they will feel.
All of these directives require a fairly radical reassessment of organizational priorities, as well a will to change. So you must demonstrate very strong leadership.
As for trust building exercises and outdoor adventure weekends, they will provide limited or cost-ineffective value. Only a long-term commitment to maintaining a culture that fosters trust will pay off. In the context of the road map I have described above, it is possible to use “team-building” retreats as a tool in your culture of collaboration.
4) Knowledge Sharing –
In recreating your organization, the way you manage knowledge is crucial. In the past, knowledge management was given scant attention and was basically a default process that arose from other management and sales objectives. Scientific study in the last decade has made knowledge sharing a discipline in its own right.
Some of the more obvious benefits of knowledge management are:
- Sharing of valuable organizational information throughout organizational hierarchy.
- Can avoid re-inventing the wheel, reducing redundant work.
- Reduced training time for new employees
- Retention of Intellectual Property after the employee leaves if such knowledge can be codified
Additionally, you can improve the overall talent of your teams and improve more abstract capabilities such as innovative thinking and problem solving. Studies have shown that fusing talent management with knowledge management practices can help:
- Identify key knowledge workers,
- Improve knowledge creation, as well as,
- Information sharing,
- The development of knowledge competencies, and
- Knowledge retention.
For startups and smaller organizations, the importance of instituting knowledge sharing from the beginning is paramount. It is much harder to install a structurally deep process like a knowledge sharing system once an organization has ballooned in size. The time to start is now or ideally from day one.
A simple way to conceptualize an enhanced knowledge management system is to simply focus on prioritizing knowledge sharing over the knowledge itself. This does not mean that you discount the importance of acquiring knowledge in its various forms. It just means that you value the sharing of knowledge more.
The very act of constructing mechanisms and processes as well as investing time into new knowledge sharing behaviors, changes the underlying dynamics of an organization. If you mange organizational structure, technology, and expectations with conscious attention to the sharing of knowledge, a knowledge sharing environment will emerge easily. Additionally, the further you press the urgency of sharing knowledge, the more likely that a feedback loop will result. In this situation the collective awareness of the organization fuels an increasing attachment to knowledge sharing.
5) Operational Transparency –
Transparency is organizational honesty. However, because of the way it challenges the egos of founders, CEOs, and upper management, it is difficult to carry out. It takes personal courage to commit to radical transparency. I like to use the word radical because it means, going to the root of something. The value of radical transparency to your organization is manifold:
- Transparency and organizational honesty fosters trust
- Improves participation and the quality of decision making
- Fosters humility in upper management
- Improves productivity by improving morale
- Engages workers more constructively when the organization faces challenges.
Radical transparency is a management approach in which, (ideally) all decision-making occurs publicly. Daniel Goleman used the term in his book Ecological Intelligence. Radical transparency goes further than standard accountability. It requires transparent decision-making from the beginning. Accountability, on the other hand, is a process of verifying the quality of decisions or actions after the fact.
Side note: Exceptions to full transparency typically include data related to personal privacy, security, and passwords or keys necessary for access required to carry out publicly negotiated decisions. Additionally, sharing big plans prematurely is not transparency and is potentially counter-productive.
Here are some steps you can take to increase transparency in your organization and in your teams:
- Make your decisions and the reasons for such decisions available to examination and evaluation by the people influenced by those decisions. The more your decision will influence them, the more access they should have to your reasoning and background surrounding the issue.
- “Institutionalized self-critique engenders trustworthiness” (Fort, 1996). Do not be afraid to evaluate yourself and your organization publicly. For example, you could keep an edited corporate blog that stakeholders contribute to, logging your victories and your missteps. Everybody knows nothing goes perfectly. Having the humility and the honesty to share your foibles and failures will gain public goodwill and trust. It will also make your successes more meaningful when you publish them.
- Avoid hyperbole at all costs. Speak in a matter-of-fact or even in a deprecating tone. The more realistic you are, the more trust others will have in you and your organization or team.
- Ann Florini (1998), of the Brookings Institute, states, “Secrecy means deliberately hiding your actions; transparency means deliberately revealing them”, do not approach transparency as an abstract or general concept. Have a deliberate plan about how you will reveal your actions. This can include: weekly statements, monthly state of the union addresses and published logs as just a few options. Use your imagination and be deliberate.
- Create a process to check in regularly with yourself and with other partners and team leaders. This is so you can review regularly and with rigorous honesty how you are doing individually and organizationally against the big four issues of transparency (Rawlins 2006):
1. Substantive information – is the information relevant, clear, complete, correct, reliable and verifiable?
2. Participatory environment – do stakeholders feel involved? Are there efficient mechanisms for feedback? Is substantive information easily accessible? Does your knowledge management help members identify what information they will need?
3. Accountability – are you sharing information that covers more than one side of controversial issues? Do you practice full disclosure even if it might be damaging to the organization? Are you willing to admit mistakes? Are you holding your organization and your teams to standards well above industry standards?
4. Secrecy – are you allowing yourself or organizational leaders to fall into counter-productive secrecy practices? These can include: behaviors that reflect a lack of openness, lowering the bar for secrecy, sharing only part of the story, using language that obfuscates meaning, and only disclosing when required.
Overall transparency requires that leadership models it. You must exhibit the behavior you hope to inspire in others. Doing so is sometimes uncomfortable but it will make you a better, stronger, more respected leader
Summary of why transparency is so important:
In the new world of management 3.0 inspired business, the best way to achieve transparency is not to do or say anything you are not willing to share with the world. If your business intent is ethical and virtuous, then choose to live in a fishbowl. You will attract better people and keep them longer. You will always be in a better position to handle the inevitable mishaps. And, if you trust yourself to be an open book, your customers will trust you. Living out in the open may take getting use to, but once you do, you’ll wonder why you ever thought the fog of business was the way to go.
In part 3 of this article I will discuss self-organization and what we can learn from insects and cliques.
Stay tuned, comment and share!
1. Hirst, Giles; Van Knippenberg, Daan; Zhou, Jing; A cross-level perspective on employee creativity: Goal orientation, team learning behavior, and individual creativity, Academy of Management Journal, Vol 52(2), Apr 2009, 280-293.
2. “Just as perceptions about an individual’s ability, benevolence, and integrity will have an impact on how much trust the individual can garner, these perceptions also affect the extent to which an organization will be trusted” From an Integrative Model of Organizational Trust; Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis and F. David Schoorman; The Academy of Management Review; Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jul., 1995).
3. Morey, Daryl; Maybury, Mark; Thuraisingham, Bhavani (2002). Knowledge Management: Classic and Contemporary Works. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 451. ISBN 0262133849.
4. Eoin Whelan, Marian Carcary, (2011) “Integrating talent and knowledge management: where are the benefits?”, Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 15 Iss: 4, pp.675 – 687
5. Brad L. Rawlins; Measuring the relationship between organizational transparency and employee trust; Public Relations Journal Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2008