Two weeks ago, Steve Ballmer unveiled a new reorganisation plan for Microsoft with an emphasis on unity and efficiency. His plans mirror that of top executives like Tim Cook and Marissa Mayer who have introduced changes in terms of culture, personnel and structure to encourage teamwork. These leaders understand that to be competitive today, means having a more collaborative workforce. Here in Asia, unity is a desired trait, as it is the most preferred core value whenever we ask management and staff to think about essential values for success. While unity is preferred, few have a strategy and structure to encourage collaboration to profit from it.
Everyday we can see the consequences of disunity. When political systems are not designed to encourage cooperation, poor policies emerge and parties spend more time fighting elections than governing. When an organisation is not designed for unity, lack of trust rises to the point of intolerance, people guard their turfs and take their eyes off the competition, resulting in inefficiency and loss of business opportunities.
Many people readily admit that they suffer from disunity and that their organisation might even be dysfunctional. So they try all ways and means to solve it. Some go for team-building exercises so as to build trust. Only to be disappointed when the goodwill that was felt, soon passes away due to a lack of reform and commitment. Others try to adopt motivational phrases and approaches to remind people to build unity. But very quickly, these too are forgotten because the organisational structure and process remains the same, unsupportive of collaboration.
In our work, helping Asian companies to build unity to the point of innovation is most probably the hardest thing to do. Here are 3 factors why few have a conducive environment to profit from unity:
1st Factor: Unity is seen through the lens of identity and not performance
Many Asian companies talk about unity in terms of identity. Most of the time, unity is used as a way to get people to fall in line so as to present the same message. While this is useful in ensuring consistency, it risks being seen as superficial and not effective. This causes people to be cynical over time and lose faith in the value of teamwork. You can assess this by reviewing the number of policies and practices that encourage collaboration. For example, many companies ask their employees to improve internal communication so as to learn more about each other. Yet few companies set aside time to learn about the roles of other departments and explore how people can work with each other. This is an example of taking an unrealistic approach towards building unity.
2nd Factor: No one defines the concept of unity hence limiting its impact
Most organisations feature unity in their values statement but few have actually defined it in terms of processes and practices. This makes it difficult to encourage practice since no one is sure if the company is really serious about its implementation. This is different from other values such as safety where it is normal to have a company safety officer and processes to raise the consciousness for safety. Somehow for unity, it always stays as an aspiration and seldom involves a set of commitments to ensure that it grows and take root. The other issue is, the concept of unity is different from industry-to-industry. Therefore it is critical to look at practical ways to review how unity can make a specific difference rather than hope for a general disposition to grow towards it.
3rd Factor: Unity is not seen as a means to ensure performance
Most companies do not review their processes and practices in the light of encouraging collaboration. This is a pity because it impedes the organisation’s ability to collaborate quickly and profit from it. Therefore no change will take place if people are still measured on an individual level. At the end of the day, people pay a lot of attention to the deployment of resources and this shapes behaviour. If they see that the company is rewarding collaboration consistently then they will make an effort to make it happen.
How Asian companies can design a pragmatic approach to profit from unity.
Yahoo has just posted sterling results under the leadership of Marissa Mayer. There is still a lot to do but one of the first things she did after coming onboard was to redesign organisational practices to encourage collaboration. At one point, Marissa even insisted that Yahoo staff stop working from home as nothing beats face-to-face interaction. She was criticized for being insensitive but the latest results proved that she is on the right track to encourage unity. Asian companies too should shed the old-style of unity by moving away from an identity-based approach towards a more pragmatic one. Here are 3 steps to achieve it:
1st Step: Leaders need to define the necessity for unity
It is important to do a critical review on the role of unity in business. We usually invite our clients to do a ‘moment-of-truth’ study to objectively identify if this organisational value is important to them. Here are the questions:
a) Is the value of unity necessary in the conduct of work?
b) What impact does it have on your business?
c) What happens when it is absent? Does it cause work to fail and can we afford it?
d) What business outcomes do we desire whenever it is present?
e) What are the obvious obstacles to unity and why?
f) What is a scenario that tells you that unity is being practiced in an effective way for your organisation?
The questions were designed to help leaders identify a practical role for unity and it has opened many eyes. This keeps the conversation focused on helping the organisation to leverage on the value of unity so as to shape a better future. Essentially without leadership and a cause, it is virtually impossible to set up a sustainable roadmap to enable the company to profit from collaboration.
2nd Step: Take a pragmatic approach towards building unity
After the leaders in the company have defined a role and purpose for building unity, the next step is to develop a pragmatic roadmap to make it happen. Like the desire to have a healthier life, it is important to understand that the beginning is always tough because staff will generally be cynical. However, once they see that the leaders are serious, they will eventually get in line. The 3 phases of implementing a plan for unity are as follows:
a) Phase 1 – Basic: Confidence-building for unity
- Emotional State: Fragile as cynicism is high
- Type of Communication: More top down as leaders are taking the lead with little active feedback from staff
- Type of Initiatives: Improving confidence and enhancing basic communication
- Type of Structure: Simplifying and clarifying organisational and communication processes
b) Phase 2 – Intermediate: Consolidating practices for unity
- Emotional State: Basic level of confidence as people have started to collaborate on their own
- Type of Communication: Increased quality of suggestions from staff as they have benefitted from working together
- Type of Initiatives: Exploring new opportunities
- Type of Structure: Emergence of experimental groups that go beyond traditional structures to collaborate
c) Phase 3 – Advanced: Collaborating for Innovation
- Emotional State: High level of confidence as people readily and pro-actively seek to collaborate and share ideas.
- Type of Communication: In-depth feedback as rank and file deeply understand the importance of unity and have seen its transformative effects.
- Type of Initiatives: Pro-actively reviewing and seeking new opportunities
- Type of Structure: A very adaptable network of people collaborating with one another easily. People collaborate easily across departments and are able to form small groups to innovate.
3rd Step: Link it to business success
Finally, it is important to link all initiatives that encourage unity to business success in terms of efficiency, the speed in seizing revenue opportunities, increased awareness in avoiding business risks and increased capacity for innovation. We have found that the following approach of rewards and assessments encourage the value of unity to take root:
a) Promote leaders who know how to build teams
There are many talents in this world but people who know how to build teams are usually the more exceptional ones. When you have more leaders who are promoted on the basis of building teams, you end up with a more sustainable form of value-creation.
b) Reward people who develop initiatives in a serendipitous way.
Once the interactions have improved, you will notice that people will come forward with ideas after they have discussed it with their colleagues in random moments like the pantry or after work. Some of these ideas may not have been in the strategic plan but if it makes a difference to the business, it is important to encourage them by supporting it with resources. Other staff will take notice and this encourages them to take the risk and try to collaborate more.
c) Keep reviewing and don’t punish failures
Aim to highlight any attempt at collaboration and don’t be too quick to punish failures. In the beginning, as people begin to build trust, you will notice that feedback will not be that honest. That can be one of the reasons why some projects fail to progress. But as people grow in confidence, that they can share feedback without reprisals or if they feel that the environment is supportive of collaboration, they will offer more insights and will be more willing to go the extra mile. It is important to do an annual audit to assess the level of confidence that people have in collaboration. At the end of the day, innovation is never straight-forward. So what you are doing, is to create multiple scenarios for people to interact freely, share ideas so that your chances of success increases. Once people feel that they can move around freely, speak to anyone in the organisation and work on ground-breaking ideas, then you know that your organisation is truly profiting from a healthy state of unity. One that will ensure success and longevity for years to come.
Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus, a company specializing in helping Asian firms rebrand and redesign their organisations to be more innovative through business design. Consulus has begun operations in Sri Lanka in partnership with Hummingbird International. Shiraz Latiff is the CEO/Lead Consultant of Hummingbird International, a regional knowledge house specialising in coaching, consulting & outsourcing through global partnerships & collaborations.
This article is part of a weekly column called Shaping the World where Lawrence and Shiraz share insights and ideas about building innovative Asian Brands. It is published by one of the leading dailies in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Today.