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Walkthrough Wednesdays

Making Culture More than Just a Nice Word


At its essence, collaboration is about working together to accomplish a common goal. You can buy all of the latest and greatest tools – and yes, by the way, we have the latest and greatest – but without a an organizational culture that supports collaboration, it’s a lot like giving a fish a bicycle. Or a school of fish a fleet of bicycles. Or parachutes to snakes. Or Post-It notes to squirrels.

320px-Douglas_Squirrel wikicommons.jpg

Organizations like to talk about their collaborative cultures, but it’s often more marketingspeak than an accurate description of the work environment. Culture is one of those feel-good words that makes a business sound like less of a money-making venture and more of a community.

Compared to traditional hierarchies, truly collaborative cultures are characterized by increasing levels of interdependence between leaders and employees. It’s a lot like what Mrs. Blackburn emphasized in my kindergarten class: share, listen, play nicely together. Somewhere along the way to a paycheck, we stop eating paste and stop playing so nicely.

There are long lists of articles about leadership, even collaborative leadership. And there are long lists of articles about how to select effective employees. There are far fewer articles that bridge that gap to talk about how leaders and employees work together in a collaborative environment.

Some aspects come easily and others require sledgehammer removal of hierarchical walls, mostly on the leadership side. Some of those walls are low-quality sheet rock, while others resemble stone towers from the days of knights and knaves.

Maybe you’re in one of those towers thinking, “This works just fine. I lead, they follow.” That certainty is more likely a case of light-headedness due to the reduced oxygen at your tower’s altitude. This may come as a grand surprise, but very few employees out there say, “Limit me, give me as little information as possible, and whatever you do, don’t ask my opinion or include me in a decision.”

What if:

  • Your employees were motivated to do more than slog through the day’s to-do list?
  • You involved employees in some level of problem solving?
  • You asked for their ideas for improving efficiency of their own jobs?
  • You asked if they had ideas about new products and services for customers?

You might get some pretty good ideas, maybe even some great ones. But it’s as much about the environment you create for employees – the culture – than the information they give you. Employees who feel valued are different from employees who watch the clock and know the exact number of steps from their desks to the building exit.

So what’s the recipe? Where’s the equation? There’s a phrase with an equation at the top of Chip Conley’s website:

Creating transformation at the intersection of business + psychology.

Conley founded Joie de Vivre, the very successful boutique hotel company. Along the way he became an author. He gets this whole collaboration thing. He applies Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and human motivation to his leadership and, yes, organizational culture.

At your next staff meeting, you could ask one of those typical measurable metric questions, like “how is our performance against the quarterly goal for chicken pedicures?” But what if you asked a question like Conley asks, such as “what’s the best experience you’ve had at work in the last month?” Would your employees revolt? Or would they engage?

And what if you asked the question not just of your management team but of everyone within the organization, as if you valued all your employees, no matter their role or salary. Conley makes a point of engaging employees across the board, from hospitality staff to managers, including them in communications and strategic decision making. What’s the result? Joi de Vivre has an employee turnover rate that’s one-third the industry average in an industry where a large percentage of employees are in less-than-glamorous. It’s not about the paycheck. It’s about being part of a culture of collaboration.

So, think about it. Is culture more than a word on a slide in your organization? If it is, how do you make it real? If not, what steps can you take – no matter how small – to move in that direction?

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Great and funny read. My organization just recently deployed Cisco's WebEx connect collaboration tool and while a lot of our users immediately took to it and began using it, a good number of them have yet to sign on. This could be a reflection on how it was rolled out (very little marketing from IT and management); however, I still thought the majority of our users would dive in head first to experience the "collaborative culture" that we all like to say we want and have (I thought you hit the nail on the head about collaborative cultures).

Any Ideas how to get the user community to buy into the collaboration culture? 


Hi Charles, Thanks for the note. Your comment on the rollout with minimal marketing from IT and management are likely a significant part of the equation, especially on the management front.

Although some changes in the work environment come about through grassroots adoption, James Earl Jones can say "If you deploy it, they will come" as many times as he wants, but it doesn't mean people will adopt it. In order for me to change something in the way I go about my day, I want to know there are benefits. What's in it for me? How does it make my life easier?

In your case, with WebEx Connect, those answers might be: I can see who's available. I can use video. I can send files through IM. I can share my desktop. I can start a WebEx meeting from an IM.

And if you're setting a new standard, show by example. It brings to mind the time-worn phrase from old-school parenting: "Do as I say, not as I do." It didn't work for my parents and it doesn't work in leadership either. Especially in the realm of collaboration, it shouldn't be all about something I'm telling you to do. It should be about something we are doing together.


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