Maintaining Collaboration in an Economic Downturn

In a Harvard Business Review article (one with actual data) a pretty interesting but unsurprising study was done revealing that in poor economic times employees will collaborate less. It may just be the old lizard brain and self preservation kicking in, a case of Fight AND Flight. Basically, fearing job loss – people fight to look important and thus flee from more collaborative activities that dilute their personal influence. Makes evolutionary sense.

The article did well to point out correctly that the individual choice to abandon each other is exactly what will hasten the downward trend in the organization and quite possibly lead to the layoffs they fear. However, the recommendation by the author that managersshould actively manage the psychology and behavior of their workforce to avoid an erosion of cohesion and productive work behaviors in the organization.” is a typical, reactive and doomed approach that lacks any details.

As Henry Mintzberg wrote a while back (2009) in Rebuilding Companies as Communities:

Decades of short-term management, in the United States especially, have inflated the importance of CEOs and reduced others in the corporation to fungible commodities—human resources to be “downsized” at the drop of a share price.

What one does in the current system is relatively pointless. Trust is damaged at a macro level today, well beyond just the organization. Most employees are either jaded through past experiences or if younger, have seen it in friends and family member experiences. They have learned not to trust and to keep a wary eye on the Csuite. According to Mintzberg a sea change is needed if companies are going to weather future economic storms and maintain high levels of cooperation and collaboration throughout. Organizations must start today to create a different and more permanent mindset that prevails in good times and bad.

..The organization has to shed much of its individualist behavior and many of its short-term measures in favor of practices that promote trust, engagement, and spontaneous collaboration aimed at sustainability.

How is this done? For starters a new collective history needs to develop, one where in times of recession layoffs are avoided at the cost of short-term gains and executives forego exuberant salary increases. A reputation of all for one takes time and likely more than one dip in the business cycle to develop. Similarly (but different in approach) to the HBR article author, Mintzberg points not to the top or directly at the bottom but to the middle and those in management as the cornerstone for community building. It’s here he says that remnants of community often still exist. These folks typically rose through the ranks and have plenty of connection and passion for the business. They are also not so close to the work that they miss the big picture and not so far away that they can’t see how work gets done. Middle managers are a key artery in reviving community in organizations but not in a way as the first article suggested (reactionary) but more continually.

So leadership at this level must take a different form of partnership in the company if a new form of organization is to emerge; one that recognizes the importance of community over individuality to weather change.

Conversations Over Clicks

When I attended my first meeting as a member of the social media marketing committee for Vera House I learned of our team’s call to action. We were to guide the larger, influential steering committee in their effort to get the word out and create “awareness” about the White Ribbon campaign (and the march to end domestic and sexual violence).


Awareness in social tech is typically counted in clicks, likes and shares. But domestic and sexual violence are cultural blemishes not corporate brands and a product marketing approach of meaningless measures won’t do.

Let’s be honest, everyone gets moved a little when someone likes or shares their content online but this is only for a moment and then the emotion is gone at the speed of the Internet. Ask yourself, what have you “liked” or shared of someone else’s content that you actually remember? Or more importantly led you to think or behave differently? I’d argue that when you put fingers to the keyboard and type a response to engage in additional online dialog it is memorable. It’s memorable and closer to behavior change because it’s done often with careful thought and a more sustained emotional connection to the individual(s) and the content.

So rather than count vanity metrics, we aim to share to start conversations. Drawing on a mantra of mine that “knowledge doesn’t exist within us but between us, in our conversations“, we look to meaningful dialog as being much closer to behavior change than the simple, fleeting click of an icon. We know full well too that we will have far fewer conversations than likes but this is about quality and not quantity.

Over the next few months we’ll be working to help the broader White Ribbon Campaign Steering Committee find and share relevant content, add meaningful context and prompt as well as engage in dialog. We will monitor the types of conversations happening and if, through them, we see new understandings and reactions emerge we’ll feel a bit closer to deeper awareness and maybe closer to bettering society.

L&D Advice from Gary Vee

He’s raw, he’s real, he’s hyper, he’s crude. According to his website, Gary Vaynerchuk is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO and co-founder of VaynerMedia. I’ve been reading and listening to him for a little while now and it dawned on me that what he’s advising businesses to do could really help learning and development.

At it’s core his advice is simply be fast and be real. He is also all about quantity but with authenticity and value. He get’s social media but more importantly he gets “social”. He recognizes that the human story is compelling and the less polished the better, equating it to why TV programs like The Kardashians and Real Housewives knock it out of the park in ratings as sitcoms come and go. Finally, he is about the person over the product. Where Simon Sinek advised to start with “why”, Gary Vee starts with “You.”

For example Gary would have applauded this. I was recently looking for a newer used vehicle and engaged with a dealership a few hours from here. After a couple of emails about a vehicle I was interested in I got this from them the next morning.

Volvo C30 Tour by Wendy 

(sorry, I don’t have a video player for my theme. Can you recommend one?)

This personal video told me more about the person behind the emails. I got to look into the car and hear it’s doors shut. I learned that the back cover was a bit tricky and could see at the moment it was mentioned that the car was recently cleaned. And again, “personal.” This video was made specifically for me.

Did I buy the car? No. But that’s only because my wife and I shifted to a vehicle that was more practical for a family of four (don’t ask.). But I’ll tell you this, I remembered this video and this dealership over the other 6-7 I was poking around.

Here are some of Gary’s tips I think L&D should latch on to now.

Document don’t create. In marketing terms this means stop looking for the perfect product pitch and start sharing your process. As for L&D, they still spends a ton of time on their courses and infographics and classroom design worrying over font, image choice and color scheme while their audience goes off and figures stuff out. Maybe just put a camera or a microphone in the face of an expert and ask them compelling questions, then put it out there ASAP.

Start now. Listen, ADDIE lives. The talk of it’s death are greatly exaggerated. The analysis, design, develop are all still happening just repackaged but everyone is still doing them. Enough already. If you’re less on the compliance side of L&D, shift to the Probe-Sense-Respond model presented by Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework. This is his answer to being successful in complexity and don’t fool yourself, business is complex. Listen well, boil it down to the immediate needs and put a solution out there. If it works, scale it. If it doesn’t kill it.

Be Human. 99% of the time the highway is backed up is not because of the car accident but because everyone wants to look at the car accident. They want the emotional story to share, they are looking for the drama. If they weren’t you’d actually be going faster after a wreck! Flaws are real, mistakes happen and they are all a part of the human condition. Tell more stories, find more stories and share them, but more importantly help others to start sharing their stories without fear or the need for perfection. We have been learning through story for centuries. We are built to tell them and to dissect them. Don’t fight evolution.

Know your audience. Yea, yea I know you’re thinking this is about personas and focus groups and surveys and… No, it’s more a reminder to look at your product and really ask, “who is this for?” Are you really meeting the need of the struggling employee or are you fulfilling the wants of your manager or your own ego? The moment you utter the words “this is a cool feature…” you should punch yourself in the face. You’re selling now not solving. You’re either selling to yourself or some mid-level manager who signs your paychecks and feel good that she got her voice-over narration in your course.

Set your pride aside, stop being afraid, get real and real fast.

I’ll end with this quote from Gary. You can sub in the words L&D and learning where you see fit.

In a world where there’s an enormous amount of [social] content, if you don’t make someone stop what they are doing and create a response, you are going to lose. Whether that’s an action or an emotion, the true test of storytelling is how you feel or what you do after you consume it.

Seeing Organizational Patterns

In today’s organizations the top down, hierarchy approach is seen as the antithesis of the modern, hyper-connected world. However, efforts to shift to emphasize greater transparency and openness have often floundered (holocracy and flat management). We’re learning that the ideal form won’t always result in ideal function.

Noting my recent efforts of going upstream, Jon Husband suggested I read Seeing Organization Patterns: A New Theory and Language of Organizational Design by Robert Keidel. In it Keidel frames organizations as having three distinct variables or elements: autonomy, cooperation and control (sound familiar?). He shares that this triad appears in organizational strategy, structures and it’s systems and when not in the right ratio for the work being done, dysfunction results. Keidel doesn’t imply however that perfect balance is desirable or even possible.

Effective three-variable thinking does not mean maximizing all three variables. Rather, it means emphasizing one or two variables, without neglecting any. 

– Seeing Organizational Patterns, 24

With that said, Keidel notes that organizations will struggle in any of three general ways by:

– overdoing the top priority (autonomy, cooperation or control)
– underdoing the bottom priority
– operating without priority (no strategy at all)

This cooperation/control/autonomy triad is a fascinating lens to look at our organization’s design. Keidel provides many 20th century (yes, 20th. The book was written in the mid 1990’s!) examples throughout that reveal the problems of organizations when they’ve over and under emphasized.

Underdoing and Overdoing
A good example today could be the shifting US Military.  Before 2000 the US military was designed to combat a known enemy with known objectives, a known location and known leadership. In many ways the military was built to repel the likes of Nazi Germany and the USSR. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and hierarchy and discipline took rigid forms. After conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan however the enemy was now an idea with networked leadership and without a nation-state (al Qaeda, ISIS). The military struggled in its current system, structure and strategies. The top down leadership through experience wasn’t cutting it, and the push now is to create a more responsive organization (teams of teams?) to meet the demands of defeating a dynamic, shifting enemy.

An example (which is the opposite of the military) of an organization I’ve been working with is one that has a very inclusive leadership belief. Partially the industry and partially the culture, this inclusiveness has led to a very loyal, long-term, committed workforce that places a huge emphasis on cooperation and maintaining harmony at all costs. This may sound wonderful but in reality ensuring everyone is on board and happy coupled with a lack of new blood has led to:

  • Delays in action and limited thinking as the organization struggles to surface new ideas let alone implement them.
  • New approaches met with resistances as a “that’s not the way we do it here” response is prevalent.
  • An overemphasis on saving face and meeting emotional needs prolongs the inevitable departure of under-performing employees.

What can be done? Changes to leadership, management and communication (approval process) would help decrease the highly unnecessary levels of inclusiveness and would likely result in lessening the tension that exists between cooperation and responsiveness.

Parallels to Org Learning
Throughout the book Keidel takes aim at common organizational systems such as communication, meetings, leadership, management, teaming, R&D, HR, and security. He doesn’t however address organizational learning which in my opinion underpins them all. It pretty apparent that the 70:20:10 principle fits neatly into the three elements.

Many organizations place emphasis on training (control) and not enough on social and informal learning (cooperation & autonomy). Looking at this through the Keidel’s triadic lens you would see limited innovation and likely slow responsiveness to change. Similarly, if you have an over emphasis on social and informal learning, the lens would reveal employees at risk of having too little foundational knowledge that training typically provides. New employees or employees new to critical tasks could struggle, leading to disengagement and poor performance.


Like any good org design resource, the timeless ideas in Seeing Organizational Patterns respect the uniqueness of each organization and doesn’t prescribe a single, right solution. Rather it serves to reveal where one is successful in their organization’s design so as to enhance and where one is failing, so it can be addressed.

Social Habit Loops

Here’s a common scenario in organizations struggling to increase openness and collaboration:

Aaron figures out a work around in a finance system that will save time and money. Knowing it’s value, he emails the information to his manager, Susan. Susan acknowledges Aaron’s innovation in a glowing reply. Aaron continues to use the new process but the organization gains little.

Aaron’s organizational communication system has conditioned him to act automatically and maybe unconsciously. His habit is one where when he finds relevant information, he shares it in a way that provides him a reward. This is the Habit Loop Charles Duhigg wrote of in his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business“, and I think it holds the key to helping organizations advance their efforts to be more cooperative and collaborative.

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