I have a confession. After twenty plus years writing about and consulting on collaboration and knowledge sharing I’ve discovered that most of what I thought I knew was wrong. Even though I’ve been moderately successful, I feel like a fraud. Oh sure, I can tell you how to create a community of practice or knowledge network, how to incent people to collaborate, share knowledge and play well together, and how to structure and manage collaborative teams. I’m even somewhat of an expert on how to handle really smart people with big egos who think everyone around them is an idiot.

Sadly, what I can’t do, or at least haven’t accomplished thus far, is successfully taking a group of individual contributors and turning them into a collaborative team. I realized, late in the game, that most of my successes involved helping those who were naturally inclined to collaborate do so more effectively. Any time spent trying to entice or incent someone who didn’t want to collaborate into doing so only produced minimal results.

Which led me to a couple of conclusions and lots of questions. The first conclusion was, in order for collaboration to work, it had to be natural or happen organically. Any effort to try to manufacture or mandate it was destined to fail. Which begged the question – are we humans naturally inclined to cooperate and work together? If the answer is yes, then OK, we have a chance for making this work. If the answer is no, then maybe I ought to think about focusing my attention elsewhere.

Of course, like so many things related to people, the answer to the “are people naturally collaborative?” question is messy. The science up until the late 90s suggested that humans were inherently selfish, but in the last decade or two we’ve seen evidence to the contrary.

Are we biologically wired to collaborate?

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published a landmark book called The Selfish Gene, the premise of which was that we are born selfish and things like generosity and altruism needed to be taught. Taught? Really? Can you really teach generosity? Anyway, that view prevailed for several decades but started to change in the early 2000s when biologists began to provide examples of cooperation, rather than competition, as a predominant evolutionary principle. It appeared the selfish gene had now morphed into an unselfish gene.

The same thing happened in other fields. Up until the 90s, the way we thought about people and designed systems was based on a fundamental belief that people were inherently selfish, driven only by self-interest and needed to be controlled and managed, lest they do damage to themselves and the larger organization. Essentially, we developed elaborate systems to incent, monitor and punish people into doing the right thing. Here’s how Yochai Benkler describes it in the HBR article The Unselfish Gene.

For decades, economists, politicians, legislators, executives, and engineers have built systems and organizations around incentives, rewards, and punishments to get people to achieve public, corporate, and community goals. If you want employees to work harder, incorporate pay for performance and monitor their results more closely. If you want executives to do what’s right for shareholders, pay them in stock. If you want doctors to look after patients better, threaten them with malpractice suits.

That was the prevailing view for decades, but then we started to see some cracks in that logic. The financial meltdown in 2008 proved that the systems and structures in place no longer worked the way they were supposed to. On the flip side, we also started to see examples of cooperation over competition with things like Wikipedia, Yelp, open source software, farming commons and community policing. The evidence suggested that perhaps we had it wrong, and maybe people were naturally cooperative and collaborative.

Research referenced in The Unselfish Gene shows that in a given population, about 30% of people will behave selfishly, 50% will behave cooperatively and 20% will sometimes choose cooperation and sometimes choose self-interest. That’s the opposite of what we’ve come to believe and suggests we might be better served by basing the design of systems and processes on a belief in natural collaboration, rather than trying to optimize the selfish 30%.

Anyone designing a cooperative system—be it an organizational process, a legal regime, or a technical platform—and optimizing it for only 30% of the population leaves on the table massive amounts of human potential. Moreover, such systems have to rely on monitoring, rewards, and punishments; their efficiency is limited by information-gathering techniques. Systems that harness intrinsic motivations and self-directed cooperative behavior don’t need to limit themselves to knowledge of what people will do. Every participant becomes his or her own monitor, bringing insight and initiative to the task—whether or not someone is monitoring behavior.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Old systems based on the notion of self-interest rely on monitoring, rewards and punishments, and their efficiency is limited by information-gathering techniques. Systems based on intrinsic motivation and self-directed cooperative behavior don’t need all that overhead. Each person becomes their own incenter and monitor. Imagine the money, time and energy you’d save if you no longer needed to cajole, incent, manage and measure. Even more profound – its not clear that all that overhead was producing the desired results anyway. Perhaps if we focused on organic collaboration, we’d save money and increase results!

Old systems, structures and incentives no longer work

I think we’ve been approaching collaboration in the workplace all wrong. Smart, well meaning people, including me, have been operating under the misguided belief that if we put the right incentives and practices in place we could turn a group of individual contributors into a team of collaborators. We put the practices and systems in place, set up the measures and incentives, and called it good. Only thing was it didn’t work. Or it worked a little bit, just enough to make us believe we were on the right path. But it only worked for people who are easily swayed by incentives, people who need a rule to follow or a box to check. But just because they checked the box and did what we asked them to do doesn’t mean they were good collaborators.

There was a second group it worked for and that’s the natural collaborators, people who would collaborate regardless of whether they were required to or directed to do so. They collaborated because they’re simply wired that way. They enjoy it. They’re internally incented. We claim this group as a success of the system, but in fact, we may have diminished or impeded what they would have done naturally without the system and controls. The system forces natural collaborators to collaborate a certain way, which may or may not be in sync with how they typically work. I remember years ago trying to get people to capture their rich collaborative conversations in some sort of online format so that other people could benefit. It never worked. They’d write up something and share it online or attempt an online discussion but it never really had the richness and the give and take the real discussion had. Overtime I think my attempt to structure had a negative effect, resulting in fewer discussions because people felt like they were obligated to capture it and share it online.

Stop trying to orchestrate collaboration and let it happen naturally

I think we are far better served by not trying to structure collaboration, but instead letting it happen naturally. I call this organic collaboration. Here’s my definition. Organic collaboration is collaboration that happens naturally, without the structures, incentives and cajoling you pay consultants like me to help you do. People collaborate because they want to, because it makes them feel good, because it’s how they prefer to work. If it doesn’t work for them, they don’t have to. They are not required to collaborate or thought less of if they choose to do things on their own. If collaboration becomes part of the culture, it does so because it works, not because it’s mandated. People are always paying attention to what works. When they look around and see which people and which groups are most successful, having the most fun and having the biggest impact, and see it’s the collaborative ones, they’ll be drawn to those groups and naturally take on that behavior.

But not everyone. And that’s OK. Another of my big ahas in this process is that not everyone wants to collaborate and that’s OK. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are selfish or competitive, it may mean they’d simply rather work on their own. Let it be OK for them to do so. Don’t design the system around these people, but don’t exclude them either. If you let the culture organically evolve into one that is predominantly collaborative, chances are people who aren’t collaborative will find someplace else that feels like a better fit.

Learning-focused organizations are more collaborative than performance-focused organizations

It’s true, some people are more naturally cooperative than others, but that doesn’t mean environmental factors can’t influence behaviors. People can and do change. If you look beneath the covers of organizations where cooperation is not the norm and individual contributors reign supreme, you’re likely to find a strong focus on performance rather than a focus on learning. I’m not casting aspersions on performance-driven cultures, just noting that learning cultures tend to more collaborative.

In a performance-driven culture, it’s all about getting things done, quickly and cost-effectively. The focus is now, versus longer term and there isn’t a lot of incentive for taking it slow and inviting in other perspectives and opinions. Performance-driven cultures are typically black and white, heavy on structure and standards and reward people for staying on script. If there’s a script you’re supposed to follow, you aren’t inclined to talk to other people about how things should be done or look for a better way.

In a performance-driven culture, you can’t afford to make mistakes and if you do, you don’t share them, you bury them. When mistakes are made, there is a tendency to look for someone or something to blame it on, to focus on replacing the error-causing part or person, rather than trying to understand the bigger picture and all the different people and organizational dynamics at play. Mistakes and variances are seen as something to be chastised for and avoided rather than something to use for learning and innovation.

In a performance-driven culture, experts and leaders are clearly defined by title and rank. There are clear paths for how to achieve expert status or become a leader and those without the title are rarely included in problem solving or identifying the best way forward. People quickly learn that in order to have a voice they need a title or rank. Their focus then is on promotion rather than collaboration.

According to Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, the New Psychology of Success, people are driven to do tasks by either performance goals or learning goals. When performance goals dominate, people are motivated to show others how smart or accomplished they are. Each task is a challenge to their self-image and each setback becomes a personal threat. They tend to only focus on things they’re good at. Those who are motivated by learning goals take more chances, risk failure and view mistakes as a chance to learn. They’re more likely to explore opportunities to work with and learn from other people. It stands to reason that shifting goals from performance goals to learning goals can help people not only learn and grow individually, but also helps foster collaboration.

Secure, happy people are more likely to collaborate

Another thing I’ve learned about people and collaboration is that people who feel safe, secure and valued are more likely to be collaborative. Think Maslow. You need to meet the lower level psychological needs first. People need to feel good about themselves and their individual abilities and contributions before being able to participate as part of a group. For most of us, our identity is tied to our work. We are what we do and what we produce. It’s difficult to suddenly shift that identify from an “I” to a “We”. We fear losing ourselves and our value as individuals. We fear losing control.

Organizations that celebrate diversity, provide support for the whole person and focus on the strengths and gifts of each individual create an atmosphere that is more conducive to collaboration. It seems counterintuitive, perhaps, but the best way to strengthen the “We” is to strengthen each person’s “I”.

6 things I learned about collaboration that changed everything

I know I’ve thrown a lot a you here, so here’s a summary.

  1. Some people are naturally collaborative (50%), others are naturally competitive (30%). Some of us are both (20%), depending on the context.
  2. Most of the systems and structures (in corporations, governments and elsewhere) are based on the erroneous belief that all/most people are naturally competitive and need to be cajoled, incented and punished into doing the right thing.
  3. You can’t mandate or orchestrate collaboration. You can try, but it costs a lot and the results are iffy. The better approach is to let collaboration happen naturally, organically.
  4. We are better served by creating a culture that focuses on and supports people who are naturally collaborative, but does not exclude or force those who aren’t to participate.
  5. Learning-focused cultures are more collaborative than performance-focused cultures. Collaboration is a natural byproduct of a focus on learning.
  6. People who feel good about themselves and their individual strengths and contributions are more likely to collaborate.