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Making Culture More than a Nice Word

June 6, 2012
at 4:17 am PST

At its essence, collaboration is about working together to accomplish a common goal. You can buy all of the latest and greatest tools – and yes, by the way, we have the latest and greatest – but without an organizational culture that supports collaboration, it’s a lot like giving a fish a bicycle. Or a school of fish a fleet of bicycles. Or parachutes to snakes. Or Post-It notes to squirrels.

Organizations like to talk about their collaborative cultures, but it’s often more marketingspeak than an accurate description of the work environment. Culture is one of those feel-good words that makes a business sound like less of a money-making venture and more of a community.

Compared to traditional hierarchies, truly collaborative cultures are characterized by increasing levels of interdependence between leaders and employees. It’s a lot like what Mrs. Blackburn emphasized in my kindergarten class: share, listen, play nicely together. Somewhere along the way to a paycheck, we stop eating paste and stop playing so nicely.

There are long lists of articles about leadership, even collaborative leadership. And there are long lists of articles about how to select effective employees. There are far fewer articles that bridge that gap to talk about how leaders and employees work together in a collaborative environment.

Some aspects come easily and others require sledgehammer removal of hierarchical walls, mostly on the leadership side. Some of those walls are low-quality sheet rock, while others resemble stone towers from the days of knights and knaves.

Maybe you’re in one of those towers thinking, “This works just fine. I lead, they follow.” That certainty is more likely a case of light-headedness due to the reduced oxygen at your tower’s altitude. This may come as a grand surprise, but very few employees out there say, “Limit me, give me as little information as possible, and whatever you do, don’t ask my opinion or include me in a decision.”

What if:

  • Your employees were motivated to do more than slog through the day’s to-do list?
  • You involved employees in some level of problem solving?
  • You asked for their ideas for improving efficiency of their own jobs?
  • You asked if they had ideas about new products and services for customers?

You might get some pretty good ideas, maybe even some great ones. But it’s as much about the environment you create for employees – the culture – than the information they give you. Employees who feel valued are different from employees who watch the clock and know the exact number of steps from their desks to the building exit.

So what’s the recipe? Where’s the equation? There’s a phrase with an equation at the top of Chip Conley’s website:

Creating transformation at the intersection of business + psychology.

Conley founded Joie de Vivre, the very successful boutique hotel company. Along the way he became an author. He gets this whole collaboration thing. He applies Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and human motivation to his leadership and, yes, organizational culture.

At your next staff meeting, you could ask one of those typical measurable metric questions, like “how is our performance against the quarterly goal for chicken pedicures?” But what if you asked a question like Conley asks, such as “what’s the best experience you’ve had at work in the last month?” Would your employees revolt? Or would they engage?

And what if you asked the question not just of your management team but of everyone within the organization, as if you valued all your employees, no matter their role or salary. Conley makes a point of engaging employees across the board, from hospitality staff to managers, including them in communications and strategic decision making. What’s the result? Joi de Vivre has an employee turnover rate that’s one-third the industry average in an industry where a large percentage of employees are in less-than-glamorous. It’s not about the paycheck. It’s about being part of a culture of collaboration.

So, think about it. Is culture more than a word on a slide in your organization? If it is, how do you make it real? If not, what steps can you take – no matter how small – to move in that direction?

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4 Comments.


  1. YES! In Humanize we talk a lot about collaboration. We looked to social media as our role model, and realized it went way beyond just working together on projects. Like you point out, it’s fundamentally about spreading some power–shifting it towards the periphery, creating more interdependence in the system. That makes for a more powerful system.

    If you want to shift your culture in this direction, then a few things come to mind. First, work on relationship building. I think relationship building should be a skill we teach in organizations–particularly learning how to build relationships with entire networks, rather than just other individual people. The stronger you get at relationship building, the better equipped you’ll be to collaborate.

    And anything you can do to help build your ability to include difference will also help. A culture of inclusion really facilitates collaboration. This can start with simple things like including people in your meetings who normally aren’t there. Be strategic about it, of course, but start including people other than the usual suspects.

    Awesome post.

       2 likes

    • Kim Austin

      Jamie: Thanks much for the feedback and the comment. We’re definitely in agreement! The more organizations evolve and hierarchies flatten, the more important the human factors become. It’s not just about successful management, but between teams, among groups, and direct peer-to-peer collaboration as well. Thanks! ~Kim

         0 likes

  2. June 13, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Really interesting perspective and great read.

    From a broader perspective, this post ties in nicely to Peter Drucker’s managerial idea, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    Love the part about your next staff meeting-

    If employees are engaged, feel like they contribute some sort of value, and have the capabilities to COLLABORATE- there’s no question that the organization will operate more efficiently and effectively.

    Great post.

    -Touchbase

       0 likes

    • Kim Austin

      Thanks much for the positive feedback. Now I’m trying to figure out what to serve for breakfast at that staff meeting. :-) Many thanks!

         0 likes