When you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy.
Good to Great,
The ideal is as old as society: a well-coordinated group ought to be able to combine the best abilities from each member into a high-functioning enterprise.
Unfortunately, failing to make that happen is also as old as society. Solutions tend to swing between two extremes: the unquestioning hierarchy of the military, and the loving openness of a mother toward her children.
Neither works in business, and even after a century of studying the problem to try to find an effective middle ground, the pendulum continues to swing.
Humanity will probably never solve this quandary. But it might be possible to arrive at a solution that will work for you, in your business, for a sustainable period of time.
And that might be all you need to succeed.
The Pendulum Swings to Collaboration
Recently we’ve seen a swing towards the familial solution. It infiltrated business under the cloak of “collaboration.”
At first, it seemed like a great idea. Who wouldn’t want the sales team, with its real-world knowledge, to interact with research & development so as to ensure product development met demand? Wouldn’t you want engineering involved, too, to make sure the new idea would scale? And of course you’d want marketing at the table to make sure everyone contributed to the messaging that generated a prospect. And what about production? You obviously need that reality check.
Same with suppliers. And distribution. And, of course, you'd have to rope in Phyllis, the company’s first employee, to keep everyone true to the brand.
One study in the Harvard Business Review found that over the past twenty years, “the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”
You may already feel the danger in that.
You wake up one morning and find out that your company is very good at talking about producing something. But it doesn't actually produce something.
Along those lines, it’s fascinating to consider Slack, one of the most talked-about “collaboration” platforms. Believe it or not, the story of how it was produced reveals a great deal about the impact it's having on collaboration today.
That’s because Slack’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, actually set out to make a game. It was called Glitch, and the grand vision was to build it into a massively multiplayer online phenomenon. To facilitate its development, his team of programmers built a simple messaging system.
The game flopped. The messaging system became Slack. It spread like wildfire across the corporate landscape. Collaboration became easy. Free. Wild.
The pendulum swung wide away from hierarchies and sailed up into the unformed openness of familial love.
Collaboration Becomes a Cost
It’s now reaching its apogee. A recent article in the Economist called it “the collaboration curse.”
They found that it’s having its most negative impact on knowledge workers doing “deep work” – arguably the most important people in today’s economy.
A succession of studies have shown that even short interruptions will disproportionately – and significantly – increase the time required to complete a project. Worse, the finished product is of lower quality.
And it’s not just knowledge workers. One study of a Fortune 500 company found that 60% of all employees wanted to spend less time responding to collaboration requests.
But they’re caught in a double-bind. On the one hand, if they don’t collaborate, their commitment to the company may be questioned. On the other, they are evaluated on individual performance, which those collaboration requests compromise.
The study made an even more alarming discovery. They found that collaborators who were highly regarded for both quality and responsiveness actually had the lowest career engagement and satisfaction scores.
Called “helpers,” many of these people underperformed in their own work, even as they helped others succeed.
Given that this happens at the “family” end of the spectrum, it should come as no surprise that the phenomenon negatively impacts women the most.
Women are 66% more likely to assist others. But it goes underappreciated. When a man reaches out, he gets a higher rating than a woman doing the same thing.
Collaboration, as it has evolved in many businesses, is on the verge of becoming a liability where it once held promise to deliver benefits.
Not Hierarchy, But...
So where might you find the happy balance that will work for you, right now, in your business?
Obviously, the answer is not to swing the pendulum back to the military model. As you know, your best people would be gone in a matter of weeks.
But letting undirected collaboration run wild puts your best people – especially your best women – at risk. Their career satisfaction declines right along with the quality of their work.
Your solution might have something to do with letting your people put their own hierarchical control over the way they collaborate.
You might simply let them know that they are not required to collaborate right away, all the time.
Many knowledge workers have already implemented this solution independently. They simply ignore all messages for hours on end so they can protect their “deep work.” Then they collaborate in time slots that work for them.
You might take a page from Corning, one of the world’s leading glass and ceramics manufacturers. They use demanding metrics to decide which scientists will be named “Fellows,” their highest professional honor.
To become one, you have to be the first name on a patent that generates $100 million or more – meaning that you protected your “deep work.” But you also have to be a supporting author on other people’s patents, meaning you were a good collaborator.
To get your business to that sweet spot, consider this golden nugget from the HBR study:
Fully forty percent of employees want to spend more time training, coaching, and mentoring.
Perhaps that's the solution.
If “collaboration” today means endless multitasking to address disorganized, ad hoc demands, you might change it to mean structured meetings with a focused purpose.
Rather than random input about myriad topics, you might suggest it become an intentional, directed transfer of knowledge to accomplish a specific goal.
Rather than jumping around a hundred threads, you might ask your people to impose their own discipline – one that serves their deep work, their career ambitions, and your business goals.
In today's world it's that discipline, as Jim Collins says, that properly incorporates hierarchy into the openness of collaboration.