I just read a fascinating article on human evolution by scientist Matthew Ridley. The article centers on the question of whether human evolution has stopped. I have no definitive answer except to say that we have all come upon folks where we sense the more proper question is “Did human evolution ever begin?”
In any case, Dr. Ridley tells us that when people think about this question, what they are really asking is “Has brain size stopped increasing?” While not offering a precise answer, Dr. Ridley opines that in fact our brains are slightly smaller than they were 20,000 years ago. Concerned that we’ll conclude that Einstein’s brainpower couldn’t have compared to Fred Flintstone’s, Dr. Ridley hastens to add that “We ceased relying upon individual brain power tens of thousands of years ago. Our civilization now gets all of its inventive and creative power from linking into networks. Our future depends on being clever not individually but collectively” (emphasis added).
I am not competent to challenge Dr. Ridley’s conclusion, but I see many forward thinkers, people like Steve Jobs who is credited with supplying a huge dose of the creativity that distinguishes Apple products from all others. Other examples abound. Having stipulated that, I nonetheless think Dr. Ridley is onto something. His view of how we progress by “linking” creative ideas is an important one. If rigorously adopted and effectively practiced, linking into networks would have as profound an effect on the overall success of most any company as does encouraging individual creators like Steve Jobs.
As a neighborhood of people, every organization has a head start in linking creative ideas. Why is that? Our neural wiring makes humans intensely social beings—well, except for one of my reclusive relatives who made Hank Thoreau look like a social butterfly. But even given mankind’s natural social disposition, it’s still not that easy to create a cooperative culture.
One way to get there, though, is to reverse-engineer the problem. First, find a project in which a designated team can score a high-visibility win. Second, not only advertise the result but provide a post mortem on what the team did, focusing on how a cooperative attitude by all involved allowed the team to succeed. And in doing this advertising, leaders must be specific, detailing by name what each team member brought to the team’s efforts and how any other mode of action would not have worked as well in reaching the goal. The result is that before the next initiative of that type begins, everyone in the organization wants to contribute in the same focused and energetic way as the winners did. Everyone there wants by nature to cooperate in achieving the next success.
Now you are on your way to creating a culture of creativity, synergized by linking people into powerful teams that are already seen as being good and success-seeking. As professor Clayton Christensen notes, you then create a culture where people “embrace priorities and follow procedures by instinct and assumption rather than by explicit decision….” Management doesn’t feel it needs to revert to the use of “‘power tools’—coercion, threats, punishment, and so on.” And has anyone ever seen such tools used effectively.
In my experience, one of the best ways to start linking people to winning strategies is to have a pervasive practice of sharing “best practices.” The key to having such a program work is to make its care and feeding a definitive goal of operational management. Focusing on best practices works because coworkers quickly come to realize how it makes the life of every worker easier–what is more appealing and efficient than removing the burden of having to recreate that which already exists in another corridor of the business? Thus, paying attention to what is working well in one area of your business, then instituting the same processes and actions in another department really pays off.
Such a culture of cooperation, on the other hand, need not suppress Voltaire’s individualist dictum that, “We must all cultivate our own garden.” In this way, the leader will never be suppressing any coworkers who exhibit the individual gifts of people like Steve Jobs. Indeed, no one should ever abandon or give over to another his or her own personal desire for and responsibility of setting, monitoring, and attaining personal goals.
Here’s the problem, though: for leaders, negotiating the dynamic between team-centered achievements and personal triumphs is a little tricky.
I for one believe that “the star system” has a place in every organization. Outstanding performers need to receive deserved commendation as well as material and emotional compensation. Every championship sports team has one or more superstars, but the really great coach makes certain that after any win, he or she lauds truly superior individual efforts while at the same time explicitly noting that the indispensable ingredient in their victory was the cooperative effort of the team as a whole. That’s why everyone–equipment manager included, gets a Super Bowl ring.
“At the same time,” then, are the tricky keywords for leaders to focus on when laying the groundwork for a cooperative and successful organization. Paying the proper amount of attention to the outstanding, easy cooperation of work teams, yet also paying the same amount of encouraging attention to the “stars” is a tricky leadership effort, by all accounts. It’s something akin to juggling in the air at once several complementary yet competing aspects of a large organization.
But that’s what must be done. And it can be done if leaders are aware of its absolute necessity, how it works, and what to look for in organizations when team cooperation and star-power are humming along smoothly, in sync, for the good of everyone and everything in the place. This creative, enjoyable type of success, this organizational vitality begins with a leader’s awareness that he or she must do two things at the same time—that’s all! And it’s sufficient.