Are collaborative organizations immune to Covid-19?

26 March 2020 | Coronavirus

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

That’s it. We have truly entered a world that requires that we function differently. We might ask ourselves “how long will it last?”. The fact is that it has a huge impact, right now, and we need to adapt. COVID-19’s sanitary and containment measures have significant consequences on our daily lives, from private and professional standpoints.

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A VUCA world at its peak

Within the enterprise, it has massive consequences. So far, leaders have been busy with implementing health and safety measures, anticipating operational scenarios in the event of unavailability of workers and substantial drop in activities. Several others have closed their offices and their sites. Some – if not most of them – are still trying to organize remote work in an efficient and coordinated manner. Concerns range from availability of computing material for remote work to dealing with a sense of belonging and responsibility with as many remote offices as they are employees. Other leaders are already taking this opportunity to reinvent their organization. Our Volatile Uncertain Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world is at its peak. Agility, leadership and resilience are being put to the test.

Much has been written about self-management and collaborative organizations. But how do they respond to crisis in general, and in particular to COVID-19?

Are they better equipped than others? Let’s have a closer look.

Fluidity of interactions

In times of crisis such as COVID-19, more than as usual, communication must go fast because as soon as the send button is hit, the information we convey already needs to be updated. Messages have to be clear and targeted so that behaviors of all collaborators are aligned with management expectations.

In a collaborative organization, usually, transparent information flows smoothly, at the right time and between the right people. These organizations have opened up the silos and are able to move information up and down diligently. A culture of “outspokenness” lives in the collective system and employees dare to tell each other what they have on their mind.

The Buurtzorg case

When Buurtzorg1, a well-known social enterprise providing home services in the Netherlands, faced an economic crisis in 2010, her CEO Jos de Blok wrote an internal blog and shared the threats openly. He wrote about the two options he was seeing: either stopping the growth or having the nurses commit to increasing productivity. Nurses opted for the second option and, in a matter of a day or two, a solution to the problematic cash situation was found and the insurance companies disbursed the withheld funds.

When leaders dare to open up, it creates a framework wherein which people feel safe to speak openly, and it gives the opportunity to the organisation, as a whole, to respond to a situation in a smarter way.

Collaborative organizations adopt practices that allow people to raise and resolve tensions and to quickly make coordinated decisions for continuous improvement of a sustainable business.

Resistance to stress

Most of these organizations have set up personal development paths for their people that allow each person to find their ikigai2. As a result, people have a job in line with their aspirations. It has been widely proven that enjoying one’s work contributes to well-being in general, and to reducing stress in particular.

This morning, we are in the midst of the crisis. A meeting was taking place in a large Belgian organization providing services to entrepreneurs and businesses, which turned to collaborative governance 12 months ago. The team experienced an uplifting and efficient meeting with about 14 people connected remotely. What made this possible?

Subtle facilitation, a clear meeting process structure, and a space for people to authentically ventilate their minds and feelings. People were present, focused and to the point, without being speedy. This strikes me that in such stressful times, people and processes can help create creative spaces for authentic efficiency.

The permanent attention to the development of each individual is fueling a stand we expect from each contributor: to act as a responsible and whole being. Coming from a ground of vulnerability opens up a space to reconnect to the other and to oneself. The quality of the relationship is multiplied by a factor 10 and the team connects to the neuronal paths that enable focus and creativity that are critical in moments of crisis.

Leadership is distributed

The case of Ebola outbreak in Liberia

During the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014-2015, a distributed leadership approach replaced the old hierarchies. The original hierarchical approach was not able to take on the crisis leadership tasks. Little decision was made at the top and there was no structure to facilitate communications nor decision making at lower levels of the system. This resulted in allowing the outbreak to escalate, which created the context for a distributed leadership approach, that involved strategically engaging stakeholders, including community leaders and international stakeholders, and communicating intensively. Flat hierarchies and targeted teams with specific themes, defined authorities and responsibilities also improved trust and relations. About 4 months later, sufficient systems were in place throughout Liberia to support a national campaign to reduce Ebola incidence to zero. These changes were critical to the turnaround of the outbreak in the country.

NER Group, in Spain, is a community of local companies totalling 1,300 employees. Their solidarity agreement to move employees to other firms during crisis periods guarantees job security for other staff. Obviously, community member organizations work as autonomous entities, managing their own business, being accountable for their profit and loss. Since this community agreement is in place, no organization has ever laid off people for economic reasons.

In practice, distributing leadership finds everyone in the organization having a higher level of autonomy and responsibility. Coordination is made between these intrapreneurs, with the help of processes (such as meeting processes that empowers collective intelligence) and practices (such as the advice process, that makes sure the wider wisdom of the organization is captured in the decision making).

A culture of purpose

Naturally, extreme and threatening situations such as the Covid-19 have the power to shift our sense of purpose. Our priorities are being revisited. We tend to primarily think about safety, health and family. One of the executive directors I spoke to last week told me: “We have lost 20% capacity; a few people are infected or are taking care of infected family members, others send us a medical certificate because the company is slow enabling remote work”.

This is when having a job we are aligned with becomes crucial. Finding meaning at work is part of balanced life, which is a precondition to make a sound judgment about what’s important and what’s not – or less – important. It is also necessary to keep our levels of engagement.

Collaborative organizations are driven by purpose. Purpose is infused everywhere, in each role in the organization, in each practice. When a facilitator asks in a meeting, after a colleague requests an action from another colleague, “Does it make sense in your role?”, this is purpose taking shape in behaviors.

Finding purpose at work is important to keep focus and energy invested in professional activities. Having a clear sense of purpose at all levels of the organization provides insight about the contribution of all, which is essential for the involvement of all. It also guides us in setting priorities, which is a powerful practice to stay effective.

A few months ago, a friend of mine was having a hard time finding purpose in what she was doing at work. She just moved to a new job and her work consisted of preparing dashboards, updating them, doing them over again, trying to fit the unclear expectations of the executive management. I saw this woman depleting her energy in about 8 weeks. She started to lose her inner natural joy. Fortunately, the situation did not last and her smile was back very soon.

Purpose is about getting our attention for motives that are higher than ourselves. That is why collaborative organizations put a high priority on social projects, and for the good of the employees. It is common sense. It is part of our humanity; and leaders of collaborative organizations praise the human factor. This brings these organizations to deeply care for their employees, their families, and to take actions in line with a sense of shared sacrifice.

FAVI is a French metal manufacturer with ~500 employees. Jean-François Zorbist, the former CEO, was used to go around the shop floor and to ask workers for advice before making any critical decision. In 1990, as the Gulf War broke out, the orders collapsed and Zorbist was facing a dilemma: firing temp workers or cutting salaries by 25%. Surprisingly, permanent workers decided unanimously to reduce their work and their salary, in order to keep the temporary ones.

In 2019, the University of Michigan carried out studies showing that having a purpose in life stimulates your health. Dr. Rozanski, professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai who was not involved in this research states “We all have basic psychological needs… The need for meaning and purpose is the deepest driver of well-being there is”.

When your employees have a strong body and mind, your company becomes more resilient.

From purpose to accountability

In collaborative organizations, each person fills in one or – more often – multiple roles. The clarification of the roles and responsibilities of each employee allows all to contribute to shared purpose and objectives. The alignment and engagement it creates is key to the success of an organization.

“Social distance makes it more difficult to manage teams when responsibilities are unclear. Alignment and engagement become crucial when having to coordinate work across remote individuals working from home”.

When the expectations are permanently clear, the content of interactions can focus on “what needs to be done” rather than on “who does what”. This clarity on the governance greatly supports autonomy, as no one has to deal with the implicit requirement for permission present in more traditional structures. With clear roles and responsibilities, you continually have the answer to “what is my contribution to the objectives, the vision and the purpose of the organization?”.

Sensemaking is a key element of leadership. In collaborative organizations, this element is taken over by the collective community of collaborators, supported by specific structures, tools and processes.

Decisions’ centre of gravity shifts to the field

In collaborative organizations, field teams are able to make decisions without having to go up the hierarchy for approvals. When the above elements are secured, i.e. when clear roles and responsibilities exist, this leads to faster and more relevant decisions.

Collaborative organizations seem to do pretty well during crisis. Their agility and coherence enable them to respond quickly and adapt in order to ensure their sustainability.

The case of Semco

Semco is a Brazilian company known for its radical way of organizing. When the CEO of Semco Partners found the company in crisis, workers were encouraged to take on several roles. This gave the company the capacity of making collective decisions that engage everyone, as well as the know-how to make suggestions on improving the business. Decisions resulted in 65% reduction in inventory, reduction of product delivery times and a product defect rate that decreased to less than 1%. Social climate improved, revenues and profitability aligned with company ambitions.

The sooner you deal with the urgent matters, the sooner you can focus on the post crisis period. Will there be a return to normality while the world is becoming more and more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous? Many thought leaders are announcing a disruption, a “before the crisis”, and an “after the crisis”. The world will not be the same. What if this world is becoming more collaborative? In all circumstances, there must be a time for deep and strategic thinking to respond to the opportunities the new context is creating and perhaps, to reinvent ourselves and our businesses.

In the meantime, remote teams need to be organized. Having an evolutive governance made of clear roles and responsibilities is of paramount importance for business continuity. This is about moving the organization cursor from chaos towards ongoing mastery. This has two supreme benefits: keeping calm in an uncertain environment, and building resilience.

Having said that, you don’t have to be a collaborative organization to work on remote work optimization. Book a 60 minutes strategic call to enable remote collaboration in your company.


1 For more information about the company, visit https://www.buurtzorg.com

2 The term ikigai compounds two Japanese words: iki (生き) meaning “life; alive” and kai (甲斐) meaning “(an) effect; (a) result; (a) fruit; (a) worth; (a) use; (a) benefit; (no, little) avail” to arrive at “a reason for being alive; what makes life worth living; a raison d’etre”. More info here : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikigai

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