The dangers of groupthink

Is collaboration good in itself, or only insofar as it helps individuals?

I’m reading Quiet by Susan Cain, a fascinating look at the differences between introverts and extroverts.

The chapter on collaboration at work is particularly interesting. Basically it says that the new trend for almost enforced collaboration and team working not only pushes people into unproductive meetings and open plan spaces but also gives advantages to the outgoing and quick thinker rather than the more considered, slower thinker.

But even more importantly it says that the trend toward collaborative team working ignores the crucial role of introspection in creating new ideas. The ‘dangers of groupthink’ as she puts it. Cain cites countless inventors, scientists, engineers and artists who may have benefited from conversations with people but ultimately made a breakthrough only by putting in hard work on their own. Innovation, effectively, is often a solitary pursuit.

To me this draws attention to a distinction that is often elided in all the talk about collaboration at work.

– On the one hand there is the idea of collaboration as a way of drawing out the wisdom of the crowds; the idea that collaboration is more creative and effective than working alone because it allows new and different ideas to develop, people to spark off one another, etc. This is the view that teams are good in themselves.

– On the other is the idea that collaboration is a means to boost individual creativity and effectiveness; giving them the financial security to pursue their ideas, or creating a framework where people can give their own input into an organisation while being rewarded equitably. This is the view that team working is a good insofar as it supports the individuals within them. 

It’s the latter understanding of collaboration that seems most valuable – and the one that organisations tend to use.

Of course, there are some senses in which collaboration has broader value – it fosters greater cohesion, helps people understand one another or an organisation’s goals, among other things – and so the aim should not be to subordinate all collaboration to individual ends but to recognise what you are trying to achieve through collaboration rather than simply defaulting to it.

But what Cain draws attention to is that collaboration is not so much of value in itself but only when it aids individuals in generating ideas and things of value.

Workshops and artists

A review of The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, 2008

Richard Sennett’s ‘The Craftsman’ is not a management or business book in any conventional sense. It reflects on the history, sociology and philosophy of what a craftsman is. It doesn’t claim that it can revolutionise your business, or offer easy solutions.

But it does provide a thought provoking argument about the importance of teams and co-operation in the workplace.

Sennett begins by pointing out, through detailed analysis, that a functioning workshop is a place where a team works together under the leadership of experienced masters who pass on their skills and knowledge, developed over time, to their apprentices.

And this, of course, applies as much to medieval goldsmiths as to nurses or computer programmers – working units where teams specialising in an area work closely and learn together.

Sennett then goes on to look at some of the benefits of workshops, drawing them out through an analysis of the difference between the lone artist and the craftsman in the workshop.

Sennett says that the two are distinguished by three things:

– By agency: the work of the lone artist is guided by that one person’s ideas and drive, whereas the workshop is guided by the acquired history, skills and knowledge developed by the master and shared collaboratively with the team.

– By time: artists have a flash of inspiration, it’s intuitive, not tested, whereas workshops craft products that have been developed and passed down over hundreds of years, doing the work slowly and carefully.

– By autonomy, but surprisingly so: the lone, original artist has less autonomy, is more dependent on the whims and fancies of funders and customers and so is more vulnerable than craftsman who are working in a tried and tested area, with others who together can share ideas.

The individual artist has historically, and is today, elevated above more common place crafts. Craft is viewed as unoriginal, somehow less valuable than art. And in the modern workplace the sudden bursts of creativity of an individual are celebrated above team crafted products.

But what is clear from Sennett’s analysis is that the more durable framework for a sustainable business is the workshop, where the workers work together, develop common and enduring skills in similar areas, rather than competing on who can be the best and most successful, creative individual. Let’s look at the distinguishing features again:

– Agency: in a workshop, it’s the team as a whole through close working and engagement which develops ideas or products, rather than one or two people, meaning that it’s better tested, understood and supported than those developed by a striving, competitive executive or individual.

– Time: new ideas or products or strategies are developed based on experience, testing what works, not a sudden burst of inspiration by an individual aiming for a bonus

– Autonomy: members of the team have a sense of control over their part of the work, stability and confidence that they will have employment in the future and so feel a much bigger commitment to the organisation than a group of individuals competing against one another for promotion or demotion.

We sometimes hear in management theory and business that individual competition rather than collaboration most effectively motivates people to work well.

But what’s clear from Richard Sennett’s analysis is that the successful, sustainable business provides, to some extent, a structure to engage and involve teams, enabling them to spend time learning and developing tested products, rather than a structure where individual creativity, inspiration and action is rewarded.

The examples he cites are Japanese factories, but you might also mention Gore, Nokia, John Lewis, Google . . . The examples of the importance of the craftsman and workshops to business success are everywhere and growing.

Three lessons in collaboration from The Apprentice

There’s been some interesting criticisms of the BBC’s The Apprentice over the last couple of weeks.

The Business Secretary said it is a bad example of business, whilst social enterprise bodies have begun a campaign for a ‘social apprentice’ because, rightly it seems, The Apprentice misrepresents what inspires people into business today.

But, for all its lack of reality, watching The Apprentice I’m struck by how much it tells us about the role of collaboration, teams and trust in business.

Here are three lessons, though there’ll be more.

– The project managers that are most successful show ‘collaborative leadership’ skills – they listen to their team members, give people roles they are best at, devolve responsibility and make the decisions when others don’t or can’t.

– The teams that are the most successful listen closely to what the customers want, give them what they ask for and a little bit more, and keep checking they are continuing to give it to them. They take the time to engage with the customer.

– The candidates that are most successful combine independence and co-operation in equal measure. They are willing and able to take responsibility, plan and get stuff done; but they also build a strong and positive relationship with others.

Of course, the boardroom is never collaborative and the fact that every business they set up is a one-off means that they don’t need to build the relationship or trust with suppliers or customers that a real business would. It’s reality TV after all.

But, by looking at what makes for success on The Apprentice you can see why collaboration, teamwork and trust are central to doing business.

Otaku, purple cows, remarkable businesses

A review of Purple Cow: transform your business by being remarkable, by Seth Godin, 2003

I’ve just finished re-reading Purple Cow by Seth Godin. It’s a classic business book that has helped shift the way that business thinking and practice has developed over the last decade to focus on niches, entrepreneurialism, focusing on products, brand ambassadors and spreading ideas

He begins the book with the insight that marketing has fundamentally moved away from the ‘TV Industrial Complex’, where big companies made ‘average products for average people’ because they got economies of scale through mass production and mass advertising.

Marketing, he says, is no longer about spending lots of money on advertising, it’s about providing for a niche market and creating for them a remarkable product or service that stands out from the crowd – a purple cow in the midst of normal cows.

Like Seth’s blog and other books, Purple Cow brims with great stories, anecdotes, ideas and business advice that would cost a fortune.

There’s an element of repetition about it – Purple Cow is one big idea illustrated through various examples, and if you read Seth’s other work then the explanations about why the world of marketing has changed will seem familiar.

But that’s a minor criticism. Purple Cow is a remarkable book.

Here are the four big things to take away, I think:

1. There’s no point in selling a product or idea to everyone – most of them aren’t listening. You need to focus on getting early adopters and innovators to take it on, people who like new exciting different things. They – if they’re impressed – will pass it on to others who like new things and gradually it will catch on. It’s through early adopters and those he calls ‘sneezers’ – well networked and vocal early adopters – that you get ideas to spread.

So, start with people interested in your products who are well networked and collaborate with them, give them a sense of involvement and ownership of a great product; if you impress and engage them they will spread the idea.

2. Micro-enterprises and small businesses can flourish by developing a product for niche markets. Seth gives examples like the world’s loudest car speakers and sci – fi conventions. These products have devotees because people feel passionate, borderline obsessive, about them – what Seth says the Japanese call ‘otaku’.

It’s a point made earlier in Chris Anderson’s Long Tail, who talks about the technology that enables businesses to find niche markets; Seth focuses on people not technology and explains why people are motivated to find a niche product and what businesses must do if they want to tap into these niches or ‘tribes’.

3. A remarkable business is one that creates something that a niche or tribe of people want and then engages with them rather than sells to them.

It’s an obvious but very hard thing to do. Businesses get distracted – by saving money, by avoiding risk, by creating something of wider appeal. And once you’ve done that you’ve lost it.

The lesson is to engage, collaborate, talk, support and be part of the niche – and create something they want rather than something you want them to want.

4. And perhaps the biggest learning point is that remarkable businesses do not need to be large PLCs or big businesses. In fact, Seth implies quite the opposite. Successful businesses today come in all shapes – the key is that the business focuses on a niche, it gives the most vocal early adopters ownership and involvement, and that its employees are motivated by desire for a remarkable product.

This favours a variety of ownership structures – micro- enterprises made up of passionate geeks, employee owned businesses where everyone cares, consumers with an ownership stake in a business . . .

These and other engaged, responsive and collaborative ownership models are perfectly suited to creating remarkable products for otaku driven tribes.

Collaboration on the high street

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Over the last week or so the high street has been at the centre of discussions. The closure of Jessops, closely followed by HMV and Blockbuster, has prompted soul searching about the future of the high street.

Beyond the discussions about the need for a new leisure sector focused high street, or about the kinds of businesses likely to be left on the high street in ten years (high end goods and last minute purchases says Hamish McRae at The Independent), a lot of the discussions I’ve seen or taken part in entail solutions where the high street is supported by collaboration, co-operation and networks of businesses.

I’ve not seen these ideas in one place, though, so here they are:

One suggestion I’ve seen is that employee ownership can help save the high street. With John Lewis’s sales figures so good, it’s not surprising. And there is of course strong evidence that employees who own a business are more committed to helping it perform well. But of course, engaged employees are only part of the answer – a market, competitive pricing, good consumer experience, and online commerce is essential, as John Lewis itself would be the first to say.

Pop-up shops have also emerged to fill the growing number of empty high street premises. This is a growing movement of imaginative temporary shops and exhibitions, using retail space not currently taken. The pop-up shops network has risen to prominence over the last few years, thanks in large part to the fantastic Empty Shops Network, as ideas turn to entrepreneurial action.

An idea I’ve discussed with people but not seen in the media yet is businesses on the high street getting together to save costs. This is working well already, in a way that many people don’t realise. Take Nisa, for example. Across the UK over 4,000 local shop owners are members of Nisa, a mutual, to benefit from it’s purchasing power and joint branding. And Nisa’s latest sales figures are up. There are other examples too – The Hive Network brings together local book shops, a new co-operative called Mica brings together local DIY shops. Wherever there’s common purchasing needs, this can work.

Another similar suggestion is local traders collaborating to jointly market their high street as a destination or a place to shop. In my local area (Calderdale) there is a Totally Local initiative, which has a common brand that shops can use to show their commitment to the local area and list their local suppliers. On the BBC programme Village SOS a year or so ago campaigners in Tideswell in the Peak District encouraged local shops to adopt a common brand. More radically, some areas are rewarding shoppers for shopping local and even starting their own currency, like the Brixton Pound, to keep money in the local economy.

And I’ve talked with people about community initiatives to save local shops and services – another option that’s starting to happen up and down the country. Over 300 village shops have been saved by local people investing time and money to take it over themselves. There are 12 pubs running like this. And we’ve seen toy shops, bakeries, health food shops, local stores – all have been saved through community shares schemes. We are likely to see this grow as the model is accepted.

There is of course no one solution, collaborative or otherwise. The high street is changing fast and with the rise of online and the threat of a triple dip recession, there are many ways the high street could go.

There’s no doubt, though, that the collaborative economy could be a key part of a future high street that continues to serve the shopping needs of local people.

Indiebound

Indiebound

I keep coming across Indie Bound – it’s an alliance of people committed to independent booksellers, providing independent bookshops with cost effective point of sale materials that enables them to promote their unique selling point, namely, the fact that they are a local independent bookshop.

Here’s what they say about themselves:

IndieBound is a community-oriented movement begun by the independent bookseller members of the American Booksellers Association and adopted into the UK in 2010. It brings together booksellers, readers, indie retailers, local business alliances, and anyone else with a passionate belief that healthy local economies help communities thrive. Supporting local, independent businesses means that pounds, jobs, diversity and choices stay local, creating strong, unique communities.

Here’s a bookmark I got when I bought a book from local bookshop, advertising independent book sellers week la while ago.

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With a nice quote on the back.

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It’s a great concept and a great business idea – by collaborating, sharing costs of materials and promoting a common message and identity local bookshops might be able to compete with Amazon and other online book retailers that do not have the overheads of local indies.

Independent Book Sellers Week runs from 29 June to 6 July this year, 2013.

www.indiebound.org.uk