When you consider monumental achievements in which people have come together in an unprecedented way, one common thread is that it didn’t happen because they were paid to come together. It happened because something was at stake.
If you look at recent revolutions in the streets of various countries, for instance, that’s what happened. You also see it with disasters where people not only contribute financially, but actually put themselves in harm’s way – that’s how much it matters to them.
It’s a human phenomenon: that people will jump in when they see that the need is great and the purpose is compelling. You could even say what they’re doing is inherently unreasonable. After all, these individuals are willing to take a risk, to invest with their time and energy, for something they believe is worthwhile. There may be the promise of some return, but the return is an outcome that is valuable without necessarily being financial.
This is the case whether you’re talking about a political uprising, people helping after a flood or earthquake, or individuals facing a moment of truth in a business context. For example, we worked with a company during a restructuring that followed a very public financial crisis. The head of the organization was able to inspire such a dramatic collaboration that in less than a year, people had shifted from doing almost anything to protect their jobs to volunteering for review committees which could decide that their own jobs – or those of their friends and colleagues – would be declared redundant. Their efforts were part of the heavy lifting required for huge new business wins, including a 20% reduction in operational expenses and a 40% reduction in channel redundancies.
What brought these people together in such an unusual way was a shared commitment to a bigger possibility – to an achievement never done before.
In another story of collaboration, multinational energy companies were encountering great difficulties in a remote location, each working to deliver first oil under tremendous pressures. In a bold move, the longtime competitors agreed to form an alliance, and against many odds, succeeded under budget and ahead of schedule. The feat required collaboration that none of the participants had experienced before, and their success set a new industry standard. In interviews we conducted later with alliance partners, almost to a person, interviewees cited it as one of their more profound professional experiences.
Collaboration can be at play whether someone is risking their life, job, or reputation, or going above and beyond in another way. For example, we have seen teams work countless nights and weekends until a critical objective is achieved, and not because the boss said “We’re going to have to work nights and weekends.” In these instances, people are naturally willing to go the extra mile, not because they’re being paid, but because what they’re going the extra mile for seems worth it to them. They have a passion and a sense of purpose that transcends convention.
You can’t really purchase that from people. And it’s a very unique thing to experience. When people have been in a collaborative venture, afterwards, they can’t stop talking about it: how great the team was, how amazing the people were, and how special it was that they dealt with it together. They would recreate it if they could. But then they may notice the next time around, it doesn’t have that dynamic; it’s not the same.
Why? This kind of true collaboration in a business context is rare. Most business cultures aren’t designed for collaboration, but survival. Collaboration calls for a higher order of commitment. That is why you have to figure out how to create an environment of collaboration. And that’s another blog altogether.