Compassionate Collaboration May be the New Rugged Individualism


Some years back I signed on as a guest speaker on the Vistage circuit. If you don’t know anything about Vistage, it is a worldwide organization made up of CEO’s from smaller sized businesses who meet regularly to advance their business acumen and work with each other on the multitude of thorny issues of owning a business. A requirement of membership is a willingness to be transparent with the other members of your group about what goes on in our business.

The transparency requirement is a really big deal. Small business owners are notorious for being loners. This fact alone may be a significant contributor to the reasonably high failure rate experienced in the small business sector. *

     * Depending on whom you ask the rate of failure for new business runs anywhere from 35-50%  in the first five years after opening 

Let me be clear that this is not a Vistage commercial. However, the fact that this organization has been around for over 50 years, continues to grow, and that it has many imitators makes its principles and practices worthy of examination by those of us who toil in the gardens of the larger organizations.

  • Surely there are circumstances within larger corporate environments that allow for the application of the successful practices from the realm of the smaller enterprise.

Most of us are familiar with the inefficiencies and seemingly built-in, counterproductive aspects of large organization operating models. “Silos” , a term used with a decidedly negative connotation immediately comes to mind. Consider these words from David Rock, himself a corporate coach…

   “…Trust cannot be assumed or mandated, nor can empathy or even goodwill be compelled.
       These qualities develop only when people’s brains start to recognize former strangers as friends. This requires time and social interaction.”
‘Your Brain at Work’

Hundreds of articles and books have been written on what to do about the limiting effects of silos and many attack the traditional organizational hierarchy as the primary antagonist. After looking at David Rock’s work for some months, recently reading a lengthy article by Jonah Lehrer  in the New Yorker‘Groupthink: The Science of the Team Effort’  and another much less lengthy piece by Daniel Pink titled ‘Employees Are Faster and More Creative When Solving Other People’s Problems’ I am now of the mind that we have been looking in the wrong place the try to solve the problem.

Maybe the issue has never been the hierarchy, or at least not totally? Maybe, as can be inferred from David Rock’s work, hierarchy has been a convenient foil for the inherent mistrust our brains experience when presented with occasions to meet or work with people who are "strange" to us. 

What if by not understanding this basic human trait we have failed to sufficiently evolve organizational design to match the types of information flows our organizations need now. Think back…our organizational models were created when almost all product or service design work could be done by a limited number of people requiring larger numbers of people for production purposes only. For those times the simple hierarchy sufficed and to some extent protected us from each other. Today it is often difficult to distinguish design from production as so much of both kinds of work are done simultaneously and in real time.

Interject into this new set of circumstances the creatures we are as described by David Rock and we can see at least some of why the stalemates continually occur.

Recently I have been experimenting in larger organizations with a design for intentional collaboration on day to day issues based on my observations of small business owners working together willingly and compassionately to resolve each other’s issues. This experimental design is intended to counteract the unintentionally limiting consequences of simple hierarchy. In a pilot for this design in a company that offers high technology products and services I have assembled three groups of mid-level managers who are clearly interdependent and we are employing a version of the small business owner collaborative model that has proven so effective.

The initial pilots are designed for six months. Managers were selected to work in groups of nine to twelve based on their observed level of collaborative need for each other. The managers were then allowed to examine their placement and self-adjust into other groups if it made more sense to them. These groups which I am calling “collaboratives” are meeting once each month for four hours for the six month pilot. During the sessions we are covering various elements of basic management development for about two hours and then, more importantly we are having the entire group work together for about two hours to address a real time problem one of the group members is facing.

As David Rock might anticipate, even though these people work alongside each other and have for some time, we are off to something of a slow start when it comes to opening up to colleagues about the challenges they are stuck with.

What I am hoping for are some outcomes that resemble those described in the article by Jonah Lehrer that took place in Building 20 at MIT back in the day, though perhaps not as dramatic. Already after two sessions the small groups are meeting unassigned on their own initiative.

We’ll soon see for sure but almost anything beats the need to live with the limitations experienced by managers hiding behind hierarchy, posing as rugged individuals when they may well be just timid weenies!

  •  Would you be willing to allow your reports to meet regularly with their collaborators in other departments and simply take action as they see it is needed?  




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