The collective is not always the answer

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Summary : one of the assumption on which many enterprise projects rely is that the collective is better than the sum of the individuals that composes it. This have been proven being right many times. But is it that simple ? In systems that struggle at jointing people and groups, in which people have more and more difficulties to see to see what is their contribution to a global purpose and what this purpose is, there are three obvious risks. The first is to built an organizations in which the collective makes no sense. The second is to use the collective to avoid facing individual issues, a way to blame others for one’s lacks. The third, on the enterprise side, is to believe that the social or 2.0 orgnanization will be the remedy for irrelevant processus no one dares changing.

 

More ideas can be found in ten heads than in a single one. 100 people are stronger than ten. Crowds are wiser than individuals. We are more efficient when we act together as a living organism than as a sum of individuals. As many facts and assumptions that make organizations think about 2.0 or social approaches of work. With some “magic words” raised as remedies to all diseases : “communities”, “network”, “ties”, “together”.

But do these approaches come without shortcomings ?

Implementing those approaches and the tools that support them often aim at improving collective dynamics through more efficient interactions between resources, bewteen those who have something to do and those who can help them to do better and faster. Gathering and exchanging seem to be the cornerstones of these approaches. But :

• Interacting is not producing : conversations, exchanges are preparatory to action but, in the end, there’s still one person that has to deliver something, make a decision, act. People co-innovate, co-design but action is still an individual issue. One may mention co-writing something with solutions like Google Docs as an exception. But, with a closer look, it appears that someone always have to “clean up” the document, align styles and ideas. Doing so helps a lot a the beginning but anyone who once had to do this cleaning job on a document written by 4 or 10 people can tell it’s like hell. The more basic unit of work, the task, is and will remain an individual issue if we adopt an execution driven point of view.

• many organizations trie to use the collective as a remedy for individual discipline, accountability, professionalism issues. If one does not behave as a professional when managing his tasks, its workload, gathering everyone won’t solve the problem. Things may even get worse because of unproductive interactions that won’t improve anything, no one having done the preparatory work needed to make group discussions productive.

• the focus is put where there problem isn’t, avoiding to tackle what’s core, and accountability moves from individuals to the group. “If I don’t do that, the community will”. SInce everybody thinks the same, the collective does not do anything. Remember that a community is nothing more than a gathering of individuals who may have their own priorities and agendas. When the community does something, it only means that one or some of its members have individually decided to move forward. So we thank the community while, in many cases, only one of its members should be thanked. Communities don’t move forward if, at least, one member does not decide to.

• but organizations are doing the same mistakes. “If we bring employees to communities, if we make them more social, they’ll make up for our crappy processes without us having to work on that”. On the contrary, these dynamics need strong processes to give people reasons and time to move toward the collective.

In short, the collective needs high individual performance to work. It can reinforce individual performance but can’t replace a minimum everyone should do on his own.

Is this going against the belief that social helps ordinary people to do extraordinary things ? Not really. Only a reminder that says that the collective won’t move forward if individuals don’t. This is not a matter of ordinary people or not but of professionalism, seriousness in individual work. Extraordinary things can be made by ordinary people…provided they don’t act with mediocrity (what can also happen to extraordinary people…) or without accountability.

This reminds me of a couple of things :

• Claude Onesta (coach of the french handball team, world, european and olympic champions in a row, famous for his coaching and leadership skills), interviewed about collective excellence, saying “The collective ? Don’t make me laugh ! First, it’s 7 guys at their top, mastering their job and game systems, who know what to do and can do it perfectly. Then comes the collective. But with 7 average players or 7 very good but not concerned ones, the collective won’t make you win any medal”.

• One day, while we were discussing this issue, someone told me :”can a collectively efficient system work without a good management by objective at the individual level ?”. An idea that contradicts the one according to which too much individual measurement kills collaboration ? No. It’s all in the way it’s balanced, in order the collective is seen as a response to individual needs and not as a shelter or a burden.

It’s all about how people understand their role in a wider and global mechanism and the way they contribute to it, as well as the way the mechanism can also help them to move forward. This is a very vague concept for lots of employees are lost in their own organisation, not understanding the sense or the impact of what’s expected from them and seeing the collective as a burden or an easy way to hide, but not a way to move forward.

That’s clearly and HR and organizational challenge. Enterprises need to make sense of work, joint the “I” and the “we” while not falling in the trap of thinking that social will replace individual accountability and fix outdated processes that need more flexibility to be efficient and manageable.