Collaborative Transformation

Working 16-hour days?  Can’t trust the people working for you to make the “right” decision?  Struggling to take your company to the next level?  Maybe it’s time to re-think your corporate culture.  

Many companies start out with a culture that rewards Command and Control (C&C).  That’s because in a relatively simple business environment, C&C works very well.  As long as one person can create an end-to-end plan, and everyone executes that plan without dissent, the business will be successful.  Indeed, in any company, wherever there is a need for coordinated, effective execution of an agreed-upon plan, C&C is the way to go.  The CEO says, “Go make it happen,” and everyone does their best – and they feel great when they succeed, especially when appropriately rewarded.  But here’s the problem:  Success leads to growth, which breeds business complexity.

As illustrated, it’s easy to think about a one-person show.  When you have just one person running a business, you don’t need communication and understanding.  This person has a clear view of what they want to do, and 


there’s no reason to communicate it to anyone else.  But as soon as you go up the complexity ladder to 2 people, you need communication and understanding.  There are two methods: C&C, where one person is the boss and tells the other what to do; or you have partners, in which both have an equal say.  And as anyone who has ever had a partner or been a partner knows, partnering is more difficult.

The method you choose, either C&C or partnering, is where the two roads of corporate culture first diverge.  Both can be equally successful at this level. But as you go up the complexity scale, you reach a tipping point where C&C breaks down. To borrow for a moment from quantum physics theory, all systems tend toward chaos and take energy to maintain.  It becomes impossible for the boss to create an end-to-end plan for every organization.  At that point, it’s time to consider “collaborative transformation.”

Collaborative transformation is a management approach characterized by a set of tools that allow multidimensional, diverse organizations to come together and intuitively create a collaborative environment.  These tools enable adaptive systems, which have a number of advantages over C&C.  Adaptive systems:

  • Are resilient to changes in leadership
  • Make data-driven decisions and have realistic goals
  • Respond to problems with innovative solutions
  • Naturally align cultural values
  • Generate their own sustaining energy
  • Tend to be self-correcting
  • Make the “right” decisions without seeking approval from above.

Adaptive systems can be simple or complex.  Complex adaptive systems are required when you have very large companies, where organizations are multidimensional and free-flowing. Typically, the lines of organizational responsibility are blurred and exist within multiple organizations.

Consider, for example, a large sales organization.  The organization may break down into products and services, with subgroups aligned by geographical regions, and sub-sub-groups aligned by customer business types.

When these organizations need to work together, to prevent them from going into chaos, they need overlapping cultural values that provide common understanding.  With hundreds of people, it becomes increasingly difficult to integrate these values.  This is where C&C breaks down.  As more C&C managers are added to the mix, often with competing value-systems, more conflicts start to occur.  These conflicts permeate each organization, and it becomes harder and harder to sustain a common corporate culture. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day for C&C managers to manage this chaos.

In contrast, adaptive systems generate their own energy.  They grow on their own.  People come together when given a solvable problem; they know they will get approval; and they know they have a fair chance of success.  Decision-making is forced to the lowest point possible, to the person most qualified to make the decision because they have the necessary data and current experience.  And the decision is usually the “right” decision for the company, as well as the individual and the organization

None of this happens overnight. Collaborative transformation as a management strategy requires a lot of patience and entails a fair amount of risk. Adaptive systems, and particularly complex, multidimensional adaptive systems, can take years to implement.  You’ll have to make some hard decisions about who can thrive in an adaptive system, and who can’t.   You’ll have to rethink how to set “stretch” goals.  And you’ll have to tolerate more personal uncertainty than is comfortable in order to reach your end goal.

But if you succeed, you’ll take your company to the next level. You’ll be able to trust people to do the right thing.  And by stepping back from the C&C model, you’ll regain some work-life balance. 

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