True collaboration is disruptive

October 2015

All change, all change
Collaboration is up there, with disruption, in the pantheon of misunderstood and overused words. We are constantly reading about this or that ‘disruptive’ company where in fact all their are doing is digitising the past and building a better way of sustaining existing industries. Similarly collaboration is lauded as the new ‘must have’ in a business when what is referred to is little more than platitudes about ‘We are one team and we work best when we work together’.

The reality is that, in the sense applicable to a digital business, in a digital, globalised world, collaboration involves the breaking down and rebuilding of companies from the inside. It means doing away with an organisational mindset that has prevailed for decades, based on hierarchies, seniority, process and order. It means blowing up silos, radical openness, embracing chaos, rethinking every touchpoint with customers (indeed rethinking who exactly is the customer) and accepting that, to misquote John Donne ‘our company is not an island’.

Why? Because we are moving from the organisational era to the networked era, and what has worked in the past will increasingly fail to work in the future. The world is becoming exponential, driven by technology, and the old structures, the old frameworks we’ve used to manage our lives and businesses cannot cope with change at this speed. When Uber owns no cars, Airbnb no hotels, Facebook no content and Alibaba no inventory, yet in all cases are worth tens of billions and generate extraordinary income per employee, you know that ‘something is up’. This is not business as usual, these are not traditional companies.

Perhaps you believe they are exceptional, oddities, corporate freaks; that is a position to hold, but one that needs tremendous faith when one understands just how come these firms have got where they are. For the truth is that they are outliers, not oddities, and the depth, richness and reach of the networked technologies they all embrace, and are built on, is now available to just about anyone.

And it is technologies that drive human behaviour, as we reprogram our lives based on what is possible, and once that genie is out of the bottle, and the whole world has a supercomputer in their pocket, the rules of the game change. And hierarchical organisations, with processes honed to perfection over years, managers skilled in the exact replication of repeatable tasks, and closed ‘need to know’ information and knowledge sharing structures will not, can not, survive in this game.

Networks need collaboration
In a hierarchical, traditionally organised company, instruction and information gets passed down from the top, filtered as it flows, to neatly defined departments, dealing with accounts, or marketing, sales, operations etc. What everyone does, and needs to do, is generally known and understood. Do this and that will happen next. The larger the company the more regimented this becomes.

This works fine when you know what everyone around you is doing, your position in the market, and how the industry you are in operates. For decades this has been how business has worked, each year iterating on what has gone before, safe in the knowledge that you’ve plenty of time to work on updates, improvements and modifications. The smart companies have even followed the advice of Ice Hockey star Wayne Gretzky who said ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.’

In the analogue age this was the key to success. But in the digital age, exponential companies are not updating the game, they are changing it, and therein lies disaster. If you were in the taxi, or music, or camera business, for instance, you saw your whole world almost disappear in a matter of a few short years. Even in the tech world itself, Microsoft, once the undisputed elephant in the room, is now but a bit player in the hottest sector, mobile phones. And Google, the king of search that everyone thought was untouchable is finding its market seeping away to the social world of Facebook.

In this type of world, if you company fits the hierarchical profile above (in the opinion of employees, not the board) you need to embrace collaboration. You need not only more brain power applied to fundamental problems, but more brain power used to the max. You need a true network of brains, each with access to the others, and the free flowing of data, knowledge, assets and resources throughout this network. And to this network you need to give overriding principles, not specific targets. Facebook had no plan to become the company it is today, there was no detailed specification. Instead Mark Zuckerberg said “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected”, and then freed and enabled his network to make it happen.

Collaboration works when openness and transparency becomes the natural order of things. When you can access what you need, when you need it and have no barriers between you and whomsoever else in your organisation you need to consult or work with. And collaboration really comes into its own when the underlying purpose of the company is understood by all, and each employee is given the space and tools to maximise their potential, through their own endeavours, with persistent and ongoing feedback and with freedom to roam across skill sets.

All of which is easier said than done, because on the face of it this freedom and lack of structure looks like chaos to many a manager. Without clear goals, and a clear and documented process to reach them, how can we possibly succeed? That though is the point. Running your company in a similar manner to the Waterfall system of software development, where objectives and specifications, in precise detail and encapsulating the whole range of desired functionality, are decided upon and fixed in advance of development commencing is, in todays world, as likely to meet with great success.

Collaboration and agility (the exact opposite of the Waterfall methodology) are blood brothers. Only an agile company can be truly collaborative. Release early, release often, and iterate, iterate, iterate. Feel your way to the solution, and roll with the punches. Don’t guess what will work, see what will work. Put your work in the hands of a customer, see what works, what doesn’t and go from there. As with software, no business is ever finished; life in perpetual beta is the way.

Making your business agile and collaborative means there are no silos. Teams will form and disband as needs must. No more marketing sits here, IT over there and operations somewhere else entirely. All your business issues involve all your capabilities, in different measures, working as one, in parallel not sequentially, Every service you provide, every product you make, every touch point you have with every stakeholder in your ecosystem can be made better, bit by bit, by a collaborative team of diverse skills and capabilities working their way from chaos to order. And back again. Over and over. You are transforming your business, not solving discrete technical problems.

True collaboration is a mindset. One of trust, openness, respect, curiosity, imagination and ambition. In reality, most companies will substitute a bit more communication for true collaboration. They though, will not be the companies the smart creatives (to use Google’s term) will want to work for. The best and brightest want to work for the best, and those will be, indeed are, great collaborators.


First published in Estates Gazette ‘The Collaborators’ special for MIPIM UK in October 2015.