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Leadership Q&A: When Collaboration Meets Hierarchy and Independence


In simpler times, collaboration was just doing your job.

Today, the work  of organizations is much more complicated.

The challenge that may be the most daunting for leaders is finding ways to develop truly collaborative teams within traditional hierarchical structures and in networked groups of independent businesses. The pull of both pushes against the other.

The pull of hierarchy is for compliance, standardization and top-down accountability.

The pull of independence is for freedom, creativity and little accountability.

Collaboration functions within both by providing for adaptability, connection  and mutual accountability.

How do you blend the first two approaches together with collaboration?

First, decide that it is important to do so. If you work in a traditional hierarchical structure, the resistance to making this kind of change is huge. Why? Because systems are inherently change resistant. Of course, this goes both ways. A hierarchical structure resists a more open, collaborative structure, and an independent group resists resists the imposition of structure upon the freedom of their relationships. No matter what system you are working in, the system is resistant to change. This resistance to change ends up meaning the structure dictates what the actual purpose of the organization is, and how the people within it are to work together.

For example, a hosiery mill that I consulted with a decade ago was organized around 17 stations in the process of making a pair of men’s dress socks. Each station worked independently of the others. As the company began to fail, the plant manager forced change upon the owners. The change created a more collaborative system by integrating the 17 steps into a more coherent process. As a result, the process which used to take 6 weeks for a finish pair of socks to be shipped was reduced to 6 days.  The resistance to change was huge, and was over come by bringing the owners together to jointly see how change would be beneficial to them and their company.

Second, understand that all systems require structure, purpose and the willingness of people to make it work. If the purpose of your group or team is not aligned fwith its structure, then the motivation for people to go beyond a minimal level of participation is not high. Within a hierarchical system, becoming more collaborative means that the system’s purpose, which is compliance, standardization and efficiency needs to be treated as a support to the team’s purpose whether it is customer service, business development or making socks. If you are working as a collaborative group of independent businesses, then the system’s purpose of providing independence must become secondary to group’s purpose of supporting a better climate for shared business development and customer service.

In other words, people and purpose come first, and then the structure. Form no longer follows function. Function is just another name for structure or system. Instead, form follows purpose.  Purpose is more than just a way to brand your business. It is the organizational expression of the shared values of the people focused on a particular desired impact. See why structure is secondary, and why so many organizations flounder when structure dictates how people will achieve the goals defined by organizational purpose.

Third, that every collaborative venture, whether within a corporate environment, or by a independent collective, requires leadership that is shared by the group or team. The challenge for a corporate team is to develop the practice of leadership by the “first among equals”, while, at the same time, recognizing that one person is the one with ultimate authority. This requires the “boss” to be a person who recognizes his or her own limitations, and is willing to adapt to a more shared leadership operation.  On the other hand, for a group where everyone is independent, the challenge is to establish real accountability. Someone needs to be the person who has final say. If this collaborative group is a business partnership, one of the partners needs to be identified as the managing partner who has authority to make decisions and resolve conflicts. This is a structure which is essential to the group’s success.

As you can see, there are competing push / pulls regardless of the structure. There is the pull of authority. The pull of independence. The push for equality and shared responsibility. And the push back of the resistance to change. The push/pull of collaboration is that it provides openness and moderation to the extreme elements of resistance. It is the secret to how any group of people working together can create a higher level of impact.

Developing collaborative teams is a key to future success, whether you work within a corporate hierarchy, or are an independent business person. The challenge is overcoming the system’s limitations that are resistant to change.

It is important, therefore, to understand that whatever system you are in, don’t let it dictate how you work together, nor what your purpose as a business or an organization should be. Instead, focus on developing a collaborative system that makes it easier to fulfill your organization’s purpose and enables people to fulfill a higher level of their potential.

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About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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