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I’m a People-Centric Collaborator

November 14, 2011
at 2:19 pm PST

Although Cisco identifies me with a five-digit employee number, an eight-character username, and a rather generic HR-devised job title shared by 467 other people, I really prefer to be acknowledged as a human rather than as a database entry.

True, my badge is oh-so-personalized with my name and photo, but I apparently looked alarmingly like I could be Harry Potter’s sister when the photo was taken more than eleven years ago. (Or so says a co-worker. I think it was the rather round eyeglass frames…) All that badge tells you is my name – and possibly that I might be good at wizardy stuff.

The concept of people-centric collaboration and corporate cultures is definitely an area of focus for me. I’ve worked in technology companies for more years than I have fingers (ok, and toes) and although my employers have appreciated my individual skills, they haven’t always given me the opportunity to be a person or encouraged collaboration.

Granted, individual person-ness isn’t always critical in some roles. Creativity wasn’t high on the priority list when my summer job was counting fruit roll on a manufacturing line on Breakfast of Champions Way in scenic Lodi, California. But for those full-time folks on the line, General Mills was already experimenting with having employee teams to manage themselves and try to identify new ideas to increase productivity.

Sometimes it seems cube life isn’t particularly conducive to the whole human thing, but Cisco’s company culture does in fact recognize me as an individual – not just a checklist of skills, performance ratings, and other data points. I may share that job title with all sorts of people, but my job description is unique. I am a person with a specific role, individual skills, and professional and personal interests. My goals are tailored to my role, not a generic standard. And even better, the team on which I work doesn’t ask me to check my personality at the door.

All of this culture stuff is critical when it comes to business collaboration. You can’t just walk into a company quarterly meeting and say, “Ye shall now go forth and collaborate! It is spoken. Make it so.” And yes, I did sit in an all-hands meeting at a previous company where the newly anointed chief marketing officer barked to 500+ employees: “This is the direction the train is heading. If the train is turning left, you’re turning left. If you don’t want to turn left, jump off.” I’m all for common goals and clear direction, but ouch!

Jesse Stanchak of SmartBlog on Social Media recently interviewed Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, co-authors of a book called “Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.”

Grant and Notter make the point that companies are created with rules, roles, policies, department boundaries, points of interaction, processes. All very specific stuff designed to control an organization much like you would a machine. But people don’t really work like gears and pistons and other engine parts.

Companies are finding there’s more value in letting people be people – they’re happier, more productive, more creative, and all of those things that benefit both the company and the employees. But it’s tricky to make the shift.

According to Grant and Notter, “Human organizations still have departments, policies and plans, but they are created and managed in a different way, based on more human principles — for example, being open and decentralized, trustworthy and authentic, generative and collaborative, courageous in the face of risks.”

I’m on board with them. All of those words tie in to what motivates me, as an individual, to collaborate for a common benefit. But I can’t self-motivate myself from point A to point B. The culture in which I work needs to support collaboration – in essence, making it safe for me to do it.

If you want me to collaborate, set up a culture that is:

  • Open and Decentralized: Show me the big picture, make things transparent, and give me access to other people and collaboration tools, within and beyond my immediate team.
  • Trustworthy and Authentic: When you tell me something, make sure it’s honest, valid, and backed by fact. And make sure I know it’s all of those things. Don’t tell me what you think will get me to do what you want. (That trick works with my eight-year-old – not so much with me.)
  • Generative and Collaborative: Give me goals, parameters, and a blank page, then let me work with others to create something that delivers. Help us work together. Let me use my specific skills and find others to take advantage of theirs.
  • Courageous: Let me – and other individuals and teams — fail and learn from our failures. Give us the opportunity to take chances without fear of retribution (or unemployment). I can’t be creative in an environment of fear.

I’m going to add Acknowledging and Rewarding to my personal list. Reward teams for working together, even when we don’t solve world hunger. Make it crystal clear the organization values collaboration over competition. It’s not about me doing 62% of the team’s work and getting a gold star and a cookie. It’s about what we accomplished together. Depending on the project, people will have varying roles. The person I consulted for 35 minutes on a technology question may have provided the idea that set everything else in motion.

Notter and Grant have created “Humanize Worksheets” and online quizzes to help you identify where your organization is on the path to humanizing. Check them out. How open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous is your organization today? What steps could move you further toward the world of people-centric being?

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2 Comments.


  1. I think it’s easier for small companies to be more “humanizing”, as you get to know very well your colleagues and employers, and this makes the work environment more friendly.

    It’s funny, that at one point big companies took pride in their cubicals, and now they want to remove this aspect and make everything more user-firendly ( :) ) I salute this initiative, and trust that this should be followed by every big company that wants to keep their staff productive.

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  2. You make wonderful points. Seems so easy, yet so few are really good at it. One should also remember that much which needs to be accomplished does not require collaboration…… best done alone. Yet the knowledge gained and lessons learned from the task are of value to others……so need to be shared…..which in turn is a very important component of collaboration!!!

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