If you have ever worked in a large organization, you know how complex it can be. Organizations have been created as systems, where we, hopefully, built an internal structure that reflects our shared purpose.

Imagine someone waking up one morning with an idea of connecting people around the world online. She shares her idea with other like-minded souls who become her co-founders. Together, they spend hours, days, months and years bringing this new platform into the world. And in our imagined story, the product takes off and 10 years later is valued at over $30 billion. And that is exactly the new metric that her company needs to pay attention to because now, they are a public company, where there is no room for failure but a constant demand for positive quarterly earning reports. There is not only external scrutiny and shareholder expectations, but there is a responsibility to feed the families of 8,000 employees around the world who work for her successor.

The simple purpose and idea she gave birth to may have now transformed into a vision, mission, strategy and execution roadmap that is neatly presented in a slide deck, which is the standard communication practice of a successful company. There may even be t-shirts for employees to adorn and feel the pride of being part of such a great company.

And yet, the organization has increasing complexity in the execution realm because it created departments to execute different aspects of the strategy with a leader at the helm of each area. Now, each area has to have team building events to work closer together to understand their role in delivering on the goals. Growth is good, but it also has downsides.

In the 21st century, we are still using antiquated management practices

In most organizations today, the organization’s strategy gets lost in translation and the “strategy” becomes associated with the leader of the department or organization. The conversation becomes how we will execute “Paul’s,” “Sue’s,” or “Jeff’s” plan. When someone internally is asked what their role is, they will most likely share “I am a program manager in XYZ department” and I report into Paul through Scott and Padma.

And when the organization has a re-organization, which is inevitable as we are mostly leading with structure instead of shared purpose, there will be a shuffling of the chairs on the deck and new names will be inserted. And while there is a number of organizations experimenting with new forms of self-management, most will fail if they are led by how the organization is structured. Structure does not help when there is no shared purpose. In some cases, there are organizations today that are over exposing their customers to how they are organized internally. As customers, when we hear more about how the company is introducing new models of how they work inside the organization, we have a big problem. Customers don’t really care.

Missed opportunities count

This week I went to an event at a Silicon Valley company that shall remain nameless to learn more about them. It was kicked off with a keynote that overviewed the organization’s vision, mission, products and services, and was then followed by a panel from key departments across the organization. But it started with the presenter, who for me was representing the company culture,  joking and saying “I am going to share with you why our company should be a $1,000 stock” and told us why $30 billion was not acceptable. He then proceeded to share his slides, which he said he only spent five minutes pulling together because he is busy.

Did he not realize that almost every single person in the room who came to learn about his company is a customer or prospective customer? I am sure there were people who were salivating and wondering how they can join this company and share in that stock price. But for me, it was so disappointing. It was the creation of a “them and us” mentality so far away from the purpose of what their product actually does. And the presentation would have been great internally but for someone who is a customer, I wanted to learn more about their vision and the benefits to me to see how and if I can integrate what they offer into my own business model. I want to have conversations with companies who treat me like a customer and not a shareholder. I left in the middle of the panel when each expert was asked why the stock should grow. I hope for their sake it does.

Earlier in the week, I was on a call with a non-profit from Ghana. They found me on an online platform that connects people and wanted to talk about an event they run for youth and women in the fall. We had a great conversation where I provided them some ideas of how they can create homegrown solutions, including using this platform as a way to connect the youth and women in a new way. Having worked globally, I am a big believer that they should create local solutions and focus on bringing the ‘inside-out’ instead of the ‘outside-in.’ The platform could be perfect for what they want to accomplish.

But instead of having a deep dive on what’s possible, the talk I attended was about how to grow their business. It was a very revealing look into a typical Silicon Valley company. There is a ton of passion about the brand and yet, there is also a strong disconnect that would be pretty easy to address.

Bringing the inside out in the 21st century

The opportunity that was missed was simply seeing everyone in the room as a customer and looking at ways to co-create with us. Wouldn’t that drive the stock price? Isn’t it time to have a new enterprise collaboration strategy that brings the outside in and at the same time, the inside out? We have enough fragmentation and not enough connection.

The organizations that are built for the 21st century have conscious leaders who drive shared purpose through collaboration and communities. They are bringing the walls down when it comes to collaboration. They are creating simple language and re-organizing around purpose rather than function. They understand the importance of leaders who manage projects rather than adults.

I purposefully don’t share who I think is “the best” because it is in essence an antiquated practice to think that we can look at certain organizations as our new heroes and try to replicate them. I recently conducted empathy sessions for a Working Out Loud workshop I run and what I heard from people is a need for rules and an understanding of who is doing it. Through the conversations, we uncovered that each person is different and that we need a collaboration strategy that works for their unique style and culture. As I like to say in my keynote talks, cookie cutters only work when we are baking cookies and we want them all to be perfectly aligned. Outside of the kitchen, we need to do the hard work, understand our culture and collaborate with purpose. We need to see every interaction with customers as an opportunity to collaborate and use the 21st century methodology of having meaningful conversations.

Some questions to think about:

  • Are leaders in your organization leading with purpose or structure? We need both but we also need shared purpose, which jumps off the slide deck and into the heart of every person working with the organization.
  • Is your organization’s purpose clear to everyone in the organization? We need people to have a clear line of sight between their contributions and the success of the company that goes beyond the mighty dollar.
  • Is everyone clear on who your customer is and who your product or service is serving? Never lose sight of bringing the inside out and speaking the language of your customer. It’s an opportunity to co-create in new ways.
  • Are your people hyper connected in communities? Relationships are the key new currency in the 21st century and the organizations that know how to build the foundation will thrive. Experiences are more valuable than ever.
  • Are you leading with business common sense or more and more change initiatives? Change happens every day so make sure you are not asking the same people to sponsor your initiatives but are clearly addressing the key business issues as they arise. Change is constant. We need to bring back common sense in how we integrate new programs into the business rather than making them a program.

What does collaboration mean to you in the 21st century?

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