There once was a time when my kids thought I knew everything. I did not try to dissuade them from this idea. My wife however has never for an instant thought this way. In any event there came a time when my kids entered a stage of life where they no longer believed that I knew everything. I think there was a question in their minds as to whether or not I knew anything, let alone everything. This time in their lives was what is commonly referred to as being a “teenager”.
Fortunately they began to grow out of this stage. Curiously as they got a little older they also grudgingly began to admit that maybe, possibly I did know something. While they would never again believe that I knew everything, they would concede that since I may have “been there and done that” I could be relied on to provide them input when they had a question, and maybe at least I knew something. They were then free to either utilize or disregard the input I provided them. Surprisingly for them, and my wife apparently, my input proved to be relatively valid and they actually used it to their benefit more often than not.
They had learned to collaborate.
They had learned that despite the fact that they no longer believed that I either knew everything or knew nothing, they were interested in my input on their topic of interest. The most important thing that they had learned was that they didn’t know everything either. No one does. This is a lesson that I hope stays with them throughout their lives.
I find it interesting that not everyone seems to believe in collaboration. This may be as a result of the genesis of the word itself which has resulted in two somewhat conflicting definitions for it – one with a positive connotation and one with a decidedly negative one:
noun: collaboration; plural noun: collaborations
1. The action of working with someone to produce or create something.
“He wrote on art and architecture in collaboration with John Betjeman”
o Something produced or created by collaboration.
“His recent opera was a collaboration with Lessing”
2. Traitorous cooperation with an enemy.
“He faces charges of collaboration”
“The action of working with someone to produce or create something”. I have often said that I don’t have all the good ideas. I have also often said that my wife whole heartedly agrees with this statement. I think I have some good ones, but I don’t have all of them. This fact also applies to business.
As leaders we may be expected to have experience and judgment based on our “been there done that” past. We shouldn’t be expected to have all the ideas required to run a business. As leaders we should be expected to use our experience and judgment to recognize and act on the good ideas of others. This is where that collaboration thing comes in.
Leaders must work with their teams, not expect their teams to just work for them. They must encourage the interchange of ideas, not expect the team to just follow orders. Leaders need to encourage and expect the challenge from their team in order “to produce or create something”.
Almost all businesses that I know of have a hierarchical organization structure. Simply put that means that someone is the manager and others report to him or her. In most instances the manager will be held responsible and accountable for the performance of the team. And many managers do not like to be held responsible for decisions and directions that are not their own. They seem to ascribe to that “Traitorous cooperation with the enemy” definition of collaboration.
Without a collaborative environment, only the manager will be able to make decisions and provide input. The input and value of the members of the team will be severely curtailed. The result will be a weaker overall performance which is probably the one thing the manager who is responsible for performance doesn’t want.
A good example of this poor performance hierarchical structure can be seen in the performance of Korean Airlines during the later part of the last century. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers: The Story of Success” touched on the cultural issues associated with a hierarchical structure and the catastrophic results that ensued when it was applied to flying a modern jet.
I have actually flown KAL several times in the past. I am pleased that I didn’t get a chance to read this story until well afterwards. In the past KAL had a pretty poor safety record. They’ve gotten better in recent years, but going back to the last part of the last century, they weren’t very good. Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for the period at the end of the 1990s.
Korean hierarchical culture is thought to be one of the primary causes of this issue. Korean society is very hierarchical and respectful, and a lot of the accidents have simply come down to copilots not wanting to question the decisions of captains, given that they would basically be “insulting” them. It was a cultural phenomena where the members of the team did not question the direction or decisions of the superior member of the team.
There was in fact a crash in Guam where it was recorded that the copilot actually recognized the failure that the pilot had made and still did not question or act on the information.
Think about that. Jets crashed because members of the team flying the jet wouldn’t, or couldn’t question the decisions of the captain.
Modern jets are designed to be flown by two peers that collaborate in flight. There is still a “pilot” and a “copilot” and the responsibilities accorded those relative hierarchical positions, but they work together to fly the jet. Modern jets are too complex to be flown by a single individual, but that was the cultural phenomenon for KAL. To their credit KAL have recognized this issue and taken many steps to assure that the issue is avoided. They now require a collaborative culture in the cockpit if you are to fly one of their jets.
Modern business is also reasonably complex undertaking. It is also not unreasonable to think that it would be difficult for a single individual to pilot a complex organization alone in today’s market. There are too many variables and factors impinging on an organization to expect one person to be able to know how to deal with them all.
It may sometimes be difficult for the leader of an organization to ask for input or accept suggestions from the team. It is not a sign of weakness or lack of understanding. More so it is the sign of acknowledging that the team is comprised of talented members who are knowledgeable, may be closer to the issues at hand and therefore the potential solutions that are needed.
Individuals may have ideas, but in business it is teams that create solutions. As I noted earlier, no one individual can be counted on for all the good ideas. It takes a diverse team to come up with good ideas and a leader who can and will collaborate and is willing and able to recognize those good ideas and act on them. Asking for inputs and reviews builds both a stronger team and a stronger solution, which as we noted earlier should always be the leader’s goal.
I am pleased that my kids have learned these lessons about collaboration in such a way that when they grow up they could safely be expected to fly Korean Airlines jets or lead a business organization. Now if I could just get my wife to acknowledge some of my more obviously good ideas.