The Camel Case
A Camel Is a Horse Designed by Committee
There is a German phrase that says 'zu viele Köche verderben den Brei' which basically means 'too many cooks spoil the broth'. The subtitle is an alternative translation that I like much more. Why? Well, because it is not negatively connoted, but actually a funny image. Beyond that, it's another metaphor I'd like to pick-up to show that being open to new things, collaboration, and a community can make a great difference.
I already mentioned that I talked to Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt (Google) about one of my observations; the fact that many want to protect their own ideas. Protecting from the impact of others, whether positive or negative. It is much more about the fact that on the one hand, the ownership of the idea is getting slightly lost and on the other hand, results might differ from the original idea. Very much as the literal translation of the saying implies. But wouldn't it be brilliant to end up with a camel equipped with a water reservoir instead of a horse, even if that's not what you wanted? At least sometimes?
The Prevailing Circumstances
Before we delve more deeply into the topic, I would like to make clear that the saying is quite justified and there is definitely a ‘too much’. This is also a reason why I’m going with the camel metaphor and not the literal translation. I would like to present a slightly different perspective and to highlight the positive aspects.
Especially in large corporations which have already been on their feet for some time, the mindset is still competitive and the culture is 'me vs. them'. Although innovations can emerge from epic lightbulb moments of an individual, collaboration opens up a new spectrum of opportunities. Therefore, it is not 'either-or', but innovation & collaboration go hand-in-hand. But why are mainly dinosaur companies fighting against collaboration? Well, in these companies hierarchies are more important than relationships, there are numerous restrictive structures and the venues don't promote unintentional meetings; silos and lone fighters are born.
Have you ever wondered why certain animals prefer to live in swarms, herds and packs? Simply because it offers new possibilities. I don’t know if it’s known in other countries, but as children, we used to play a game in which everyone added their own sentence clockwise to an initial sentence so that in the end a story was created to which everyone has contributed. It may sound meaningless, but for us, the results were kinda funny. In addition, I would like to add the booming open source culture to the discussion without further comments; think about it.
The Heroic Story
By the way, it is not only the above-mentioned that achieve more through a higher number of participants. Just think of all the superhero movies like 'The Avengers' or 'The Guardians of the Galaxy'; groups of people with different origins and skills. Pretty convincing, right? Consider collaboration as a cross-departmental joint venture that is more agile and faster than traditional joint ventures. Involving different characters and shaping your own superhero team is not only opening up silos, as we will see below.
The fact that everyone is different in terms of character traits, skills and background leads to a diverse team which members have their own thoughts and ideas that drive the product to grow. Thus, collaboration increases the chance that associations between ideas are discovered and forged. This also helps with unsuccessful attempts, as everyone can discover a personal additional value, either for this project or their own ideas. As a result of this as well as the faster and shorter feedback loops, the project becomes more resilient. In case of success, further steps usually follow, such as internal presentations and advertising. Having a larger social circle at this stage, where each member feels connected to the project, is of great value and simplifies the process.
But how do you promote cross-departmental collaboration from a company perspective? Covering all aspects is almost impossible and not the purpose of this article. Rather, I would like to cherry-pick a few which are based on the contrary points mentioned in the context of dinosaurs.
Who doesn't know the discussion about open office concepts? I have personally experienced many forms — open, closed and mixed offices — and prefer definitely the hybrid one. Hideaways, whether for a team or individuals, are important for focus and efficiency. However, I also love open spaces with beanbags, small hubs and the like. My former Brandwatch colleagues can confirm that I was predominantly not at my desk. Okay, I didn't have a real team due to my master thesis but what I loved about these open spaces was that there were unintentional conversations. So I got in touch with different people, who often shared their opinions about my prototype or talked about their current daily & side projects. It was super interesting, exciting and communicative. This freedom and random gatherings are like fertile soil for collaboration.
Apart from this and the fact that employees also need a certain level of freedom, communication and the flow of information are also essential aspects. Therefore, it is obviously an advantage to have an overview of current projects. For this purpose, an asynchronous channel such as a wiki or similar is a good choice, since such information should be available to everyone anytime. An additional direct channel, such as regular meetings, allows not only to present ideas personally but above all to express the passion and inspire others.
As soon as a project team is in place, it is important that each and every idea has the same value. Similar to the Knights of the Round Table, where there is no leader. Work and communicate at the same level so that appreciation and the fact that everyone is important is shown clearly.
Obviously, this requires some time as well as the appreciation of colleagues' ideas and thoughts. The concept of rivalry must be put aside and the working environment must be seen as a trusted network, as everyone is working towards a common vision. The next time you want to design a horse, just try it out. Approach colleagues, share your idea with them and appreciate their knowledge & experience. Ask them if they would like to help develop the idea further. It broadens the horizons of all people involved extremely and the camel isn't the end of it. Take the initiative and set a good example for the rest of the company.