Thursday, February 22, 2007

Collaboration gone wrong

Note: The names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent.

Not long ago, I worked for a company that made widgets. (I'm using widget in the traditional sense - to represent made-up things. How did widgets suddenly become real things?) Anyway, this widget making company was a young, nimble startup that was almost entirely staffed with ENTP over-achievers. Being smart, creative people, they were always careful to solicit input from their peers and to be very inclusive in their decision making. Logically, this meant that better decisions were made, and people could count on the support of the entire organization because decisions were reached in a very transparent way. As a small organization, they were able to do this and still be nimble and quick.

One of the drawbacks of this approach is that it doesn't scale very well. As the organization gets larger, it becomes very difficult (logistically speaking) to include everyone in the decision process who wants to be included. And, not everyone has the confidence and trust in their peers to let go of certain decisions in support of the greater good. What happens then is that the organization starts to get bogged down by it's inclusive nature.

At this point, the saying "innovate or die" comes to mind. You can continue to coddle your organization in the hopes of keeping people happy, or you can manage your way through these growing pains and encourage people to embrace their success and teach them how to help grow the organization. It is important that everyone "play their position", even if they have historically had a broader involvement in the management of the company.

Sadly, the widget making company took a while to work through these problems. Fortunately, they were able to partly address the issues through attrition and replacement in the organization. Other problems had started to occur in the organization too. Their inclusive nature meant that most of their days were spent in meetings just to make sure that everyone was on the same page and included in all decisions. This is a harder problem to solve, and can require executive mandate.

While the widget company was able to work through most of these issues, one additional artifact remained. Smart people, low levels of attrition and an overly collaborative environment was a toxic combination. The company culture became one in which everyone could say "no", and nobody could say "yes". The moral of this story? If you recognize these signs, act fast, or it's the beginning of the end.

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