The way we currently think of working was formed by a command and control, industrial age of process, manufacturing and efficiencies of scale. Collaboration is a different model. It depends on people, not process. It depends on outstanding communication -- because collaboration requires thinking and acting together. We are in an age where we have created technology that makes this easier, but we are still evolving our understanding of how best to do it. With this new way of work, comes a new set of critical skills.
What Needs to Change?
The industrial age catapulted us from horse-drawn carriages and agriculture to a magical time of electric lights, central heating, travel, effective medicine and consumer goods. It led to the digital age, which will (IMHO) rapidly gave way to the second enlightenment. An age where we are learning so fast that there is no meaningful difference between learning and acting. (John Seely-Brown calls this the Age of Constant Flux, and I so love it). It is an exuberant time -- even for those of us who can't possibly claim membership in Gen Y or Z.
The power of process and command and control mechanisms work well for well-defined, stable environments -- but when we're in a time where the pace of change and complexity are constantly accelerating. Those mechanisms and ideas need to be supplemented by new mechanisms that are as fluid and evolving as the context of our times.
The democratization of data and expression through social media has unlocked a fluid exchange of ideas, exploration and communication. It gives us a way to be vastly more creative -- makers of things, rather than passive observers and users. We can learn nearly as fast as we can think and act.
The dynamics behind this will change our lives -- constantly. We'll see it at home, at school and very much at work.
As a result, organizations are transforming ever rapidly from institutions where people support processes and technologies, to one where processes and technologies support people. People are, authentically now, the actual value of and infrastructure of the organization. We solve problems by bringing the right people to them at the right time. The cross-functional team is now such a fixture in our workplace that we forget that 10 years ago it was a big deal. The idea that a team is not defined by a specific organizational structure is finally so accepted a truth that it hardly stands mentioning now. We know that differing perspectives, give and take, mutual analysis and common understanding leads to better, faster learning -- which means better, faster outcomes.
Collaborative Skills, Up Close and At Scale
But as our concept of team moves from a predefined structure to a "swarm," the way we interact personally with each other, within teams, among teams and the role of management is changing in fundamental ways. New values and new skills are needed to flourish in this fluid environment.
Individuals need to learn that perfection is not what is required. What is required is commitment, self confidence, integrity, curiosity, humility and an ability to maintain perspective and learn. It's not that easy. But it is a lot more pleasant than attempting to be perfect and invulnerable. Our ability to cultivate and exercise our curiosity is radically enhanced in the digital age. Our ability to see ourselves as makers rather than passive consumers is essential to understanding the impact we can and must have on our work, our families and our communities. When you meet someone with these qualities they are the ones you want on your team.
Key Skills: Curiosity with humility.
2. Small Groups of 2 to 5 People
A well-composed team of just a few deeply committed and compatible people is a thing of true beauty. This team mutually inspires and is capable of astounding levels of productivity, insight and innovation. A small group of people can work passionately together. Or not. Evidence suggests that their effectiveness has less to do with the native intelligence of the individuals than how well they communicate with one another. This is a triumph of intimacy of mind. John Seely-brown used my now favorite phrase -- "Marinating together in the problem space." Think of the Apollo 13 ground crew, The Beatles, the Group of Seven. Keith Yamashita speaks with startling beauty on the subject he calls "Daring to be Great." He focuses on duos, but something similar holds true in these slightly larger groups. Another great article in praise of "duoships" is here.
As such, we are learning that our ability to communicate -- as much how we listen as how we contribute -- is fundamental to thriving within and as a small group. This jives with what has been called "Emotional Intelligence" as a critical business skill.
Key Skills: Listen to learn, contribute to improve.
3. Larger Teams
Mission, respect, trust, commitment. These larger teams -- organizations, divisions, sometimes among divisions -- here's where we have the most to learn as an organization. We are simply not accustomed to the levels of trust, humility, confidence and commitment it takes to operate in such groups. The small team is driven by relationships -- personal intimacy that does not scale. This is where "culture" comes in.
The culture must value respect above all. That is because when we respect each other we listen -- we don't assume we know better, we don't think "how can I make sure I'm better than he by finding his weaknesses" -- we listen. When we listen, we can learn, we can debate. We can be constructive, we can do things.
In an environment of doubt -- where we doubt the credentials of our colleagues, there is only competition. We don't share, we don't help, we don't learn very quickly. Respect leads to trust. It is essential that it be ok to be vulnerable -- to not know things. If there is no vulnerability, there is no improvement. Ever. It must be ok to show one another our imperfections so that we can work more effectively. A highly competitive environment does not allow for vulnerability at any level -- individual, team or corporate. Invulnerable beings cannot improve, cannot innovate, cannot learn.
Key Skills: Listen, question and debate respectfully, both your ideas and those of your colleagues.
4. Team to Management
The time for management by fear is passed. If you still think that "accountability" will gain you results, you are probably failing. Accountability is a last resort for screw-ups who won't commit. You want commitment. But if you want it, you need to make some changes. First, it's got to be about the goal. You must actively seek out bad news and go looking for trouble wherever it lies. Because it is out there. You can either embrace it, celebrate it, bruise yourself on it and, in so doing, achieve great things, or you can hide it and from it, leaving it there to hobble your efforts and minimize your gains.
It must be ok to discuss bad news. It must be ok to make a mistake. It must be ok to not know things. It is only by embracing, not knowing, that there is learning. If you are managing a team or a division, it is your job not to know things, and to value the courage and humility it takes for your team members to make mistakes and not to know. Because you can't be curious if you know everything, and you can't find and solve problems if you are not curious.
Key Skills: Focus on goals and opportunities, encourage commitment. Management by fear will always lose out against this approach.
This one is special. My article next month will be dedicated to this, and I'm excited about it.
Leadership is a popular topic these days. Leaders must be open, they must be listening, engaging, learning conduits and orchestrators of ideas, effort and information. It's a lot to ask. I will deal with this topic more in my next article too, but I believe that the key thing that leaders must seek to achieve is to create other leaders. Everyone in the organization must be a leader -- that is, they have a vision, a commitment and an intensity that draws others in, points them constantly at the horizon and will not let them fail.
Key Skills: Asking questions authentically -- that is, tell your team what you don't know and solicit their help.
These are different, exciting qualities that have the potential to bring people's minds authentically to the issues. Like any other skills, they require practice to be perfect. They are less about business than they are about humanity. But as businesses become more about people, they become more human, in all their imperfection and limitless potential. The best is yet to come.
Editor's Note: Additional articles on Enterprise Collaboration