Friday, July 20, 2007

Another weird thing about business culture that I still haven’t completely adjusted to

is how business people always seem to be defending—nervously or aggressively--the boundaries of their responsibilities. People who are particularly aggressive with this behavior are usually called “territorial,” in the full imperialistic sense of the term.

At first I thought this was just a pathology of the place I was working, but when I started perusing the business literature it started to look pretty pervasive, almost the dominant problem of business culture. Take a look at at almost any business mag and you’ll see all kinds of advice on how to help employees understand the value of shared responsibility.

It’s weird, to me, because in my old life, the goal was to give away as much work as possible so you could do what you really wanted: which was to hang out and drink espressos in cafés with cute waitresses or research obscure topics in musty libraries. Avoid committee work like the plague, get student help grading papers, go on sabbatical and hope it’s all taken care of when you get back.

Of course, turf battles aren't limited to business. They seem pretty endemic to any organization. If you google “turf battles," you’ll see that “turf battles” are identified as the source of any number of failures to get something done in law enforcement, the scientific community, government.

It’s of special concern to me now since I just signed up with a company which has built an entire business model around successful collaboration across strategic and creative services. Like anything worth doing, it's not easy: generating enough conference-call posturing to fill the script of a David Mamet play.

“Is that really a best practice?”
“Depends on what you consider a best practice.”
“Are you suggesting I’m not familiar with best practices?”

But the truth is, it’s an issue for anyone involved in brand or account planning or any kind of strategic function since, by definition, you are in a collaborative role. You are put in the position to give direction to people who generally aren't super-eager to take it, for instance—just for instance—creative directors.

I looked over a couple sets of rules on-line but they weren't very useful or convincing. (“Show how sharing information can lead to job security.” Not sure about that one.) I only have one rule, at least for managers: don’t take credit for anything. Really, anything. Chances are you only half-deserve it. And better still: you tend to get credit anyway. Double the credit. Credit for getting it done and credit for having the good judgment to hire the person who got it done. And your staff tends to appreciate it, which pays all kinds of dividends in loyalty and good work. It’s kind of an artificially simple principle—call it strategic humility—but it's remarkably rare.


Paul Soldera said...

The funniest thing about that Artificially Simple premise - Strategic Humility - is that Strategic Egotism (its polar opposite) is generally thought to get you further in life. And in my experience, much more widely practiced.

Where did we go wrong as a species?

timmy said...

It seems that collaboration and a willingness to listen to others' opinions is seen as a weakness in the business world, not the strength that it is.

In my opinion, the best work comes out of a group effort. No one can see a problem from all angles. And a sound solution covers all the bases.

On some level, this idea of Strategic Egotism is very similar to Communism in Soviet Russia. The ideals of the system are displaced by the forceful actions of a few individuals. We know how that turned out.

Imagine what we could do if we all shared more and ate some humble pie.

sk said...

Thanks for the response. I totally agree. But it still seems strange that collaboration is held in such high-value but is so little practiced. Or so poorly practiced.

diannedruyff said...

Collaboration is something that most business folk think sounds great, and is an powerful word to brandish, particularly when wooing new clients. In fact, it is the very last thing most of them want to DO. God forbid credit is peppered about evenly and liberally! It takes an emotionally mature bunch to make collaboration REALLY work, and folks like this are woefully hard to find. Sob...