Why do I have to cooperate?

September 23, 2011

Somebody recently asked me: “Why do we have to cooperate? I know my job. If I do my job and everybody else does his, we will be fine. The people I work with every day know what to do. I don’t get it why I need to be communicating with those other guys.”

Today’s organizations are complex systems that require continuous, responsive coordination to be effective. Work is much less repetitive than before. Job roles and work instructions can never be complete descriptions of what needs to be done. Work is not separate actions but connected tasks. It is all about links. Who needs to connect can never be fully  planned in advance. Interdependence is contextual, situational. In order to be successful, the constantly changing people forming the organization have to be able to connect effortlessly.

The days when we could just do our own thing are over.

When it comes to understanding the organizations in which we work, most of us understand best our own jobs and the work groups we have been part of. As a result from individual, reductionist scorecards, most people are ignorant of the larger network in which they work. When problems arise, this unawareness of how things affect one another often leads to short sighted and suboptimal solutions. Issues are resolved in favor of just one point of view.

When the circle of involvement is larger many changes occur. When people see where they fit in the bigger picture they are able to see the interdependencies and are able to respond much, much faster to changing conditions. Our research shows that transparent processes are more than four times faster than corresponding processes where people just see their own part.

Any one person or any one function cannot meet today’s challenges alone. We need a community of people who willingly participate and provide their insights to address the increasingly interdependent issues. Cooperation is necessary because one person no longer has the answer. Answers reside in the interaction, between all of us.

The challenge today is engagement. Widening the circle of involvement means expanding who gets to participate. It is about inviting and including relevant, new and different voices.

The unfortunate misunderstanding is that engaging people requires managers to let go. As managers contemplate to widen the circle of involvement they sometimes believe that it means to have less ability to provide input based on their knowledge and experience. Paradoxically, engaging more people requires more from managers than the current management paradigm. Instead of being responsible for identifying both the problem and the solution, they are now responsible for identifying the problem and identifying the people whose voices need to be heard. Who else needs to be here? How do I invite people who do not report to me? How do I invite people from outside our organization?

Success today is increasingly a result from skillful management of participation: who are included and who are not, who are excluded.

Another misunderstanding is that productivity will suffer if larger numbers of people are involved. The new social platforms and interaction technologies have dramatically reduced the cost of participation. Temporal communities can be formed to solve a problem or to tackle an opportunity easier, cheaper and faster than ever before – if people are invited and if people want to engage.

We all have the experience of teams discussing among themselves about what is working and not working. People often degenerate into blaming the parties that are not present. “If only the other group would get their act together!” This kind of thinking never produces learning, responsiveness and agility. Bringing more people into the conversation is essential. When you widen the circle of participation, you widen the solution space.

“If there are enough eyeballs, all problems are shallow” as Linus Torvalds put it

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More on the subject: Lessons from wikipedia. A HBR blog post by Gartner.

4 Responses to “Why do I have to cooperate?”

  1. Tim Wieringa Says:

    great article, I totally agree. I even would go a bit further and say: organisations are complex; activities are complex. For some time in middle of the previous century, managers tried to ignore this fact and establish perfect processes. Today, we slowly start to acknowledge the fact, that our work environment is complex, interdependent and constantly changing; we need to work together to create a transparency what is changing and how we can best adopt to new situations.
    Plus, it’s just more fun and we don’t feel like a small wheel in a large machine ;-)


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  4. Jude Whittle Says:

    I like the article.

    When the circle of involvement is larger many changes occur. When people see where they fit in the bigger picture they are able to see the interdependencies and are able to respond much, much faster to changing conditions. Our research shows that transparent processes are more than four times faster than corresponding processes where people just see their own part.

    “If there are enough eyeballs, all problems are shallow”

    I agree


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