A Company of One

I may have hit a chord with the management theme last week, lots of offline feedback on that post. I’ll post on the topic again to see if I can turn a data point into a trend.

At Microsoft we have a competency called “Cross-group Collaboration” which is used to illustrate the degree to which one is successful in employing tactics like “managing without authority,” “holding others accountable,” “creating win-win situations” and all that. Even in writing that sentence I cannot help but surface some of the cynicism I have for those concepts.

The adult definitions are strikingly similar to the concepts we’re taught in pre-school:

Adult Definition

Childhood Definition

Facilitates "win-win" situations; works with others to achieve positive outcomes. Establishes working relationships with others to capitalize on ideas and resources for mutual benefit.

“When someone asks to use your things, you can't simply say, "no." Nor do you have to say, "yes". But if you decline to share, respect the other enough to either give a reason or suggest an alternative, such as "Let's take turns," "You can play with it, but only inside," or "That's my very favorite, but you can play with any of these."”

Read more: http://www.drgreene.com/qa/learning-share#ixzz111ynSn9n

This isn’t to say that I think we manage people like 3-year-olds. What I am saying that many of the competencies used in assessing our performance at work are basic life lessons in a specific context.

These principles are defined in so many places by so many people that their application takes on an artificial quality that separates the behavior from the intent. In the worst examples, these cross-group collaboration competencies are forged into instruments of career torture. Events in one’s day to day life evolve into context-free samples of how one is failing the basic rules of “don’t hit,” “be nice,” and “share your toys.”

Desire for excellent collaboration among individuals at work is not the problem. Defining attributes of successful workgroup collaboration isn’t the problem either; <recruiting commercial> Microsoft does well in defining what this looks like in our company. Microsoft spends a lot of time on Career development for employees. The model we use for career development (and the tools available for employees to use in doing it) is something you have to see to understand. If it is not unique in the industry, I’m certain that few companies can come close to matching what we use here. </recruiting commercial>

The problem arises when the definitions for Cross-group collaboration become untethered from the purpose of doing it well. This post is about the purpose of cross-group collaboration.


What is the root of collaboration in the corporate environment?

(I’m sharing my own thoughts here, but here are some obligatory resources: http://www.creativityatwork.com/CWStore/OCAWe-book.htm, http://www.ami-communities.eu/wiki/Collaboration%40Work, http://tucsoncitizen.com/wise-work/)

My mental model for the problem is as follows:

If Microsoft was a company of one, this would all be so easy. I would go ask a bunch of people what they wanted in a software package, write some code to meet their requirements, test it myself, ask them to help me test it, figure out how to package and price it, spend some time on the road selling it, and eventually get back on the treadmill and do it all over again.

Because I would always have all the data all the time, and my ability to relate business functions is dependent only on my memory, I would have little need for anything beyond a day planner and a notebook to record notes for future reference.

Because I have two young children at home, I am unable to sustain this life. I need help. Much like cell division, I need to produce more people to do the work. For each cell division capacity is increased by 2 and/or workload is halved. The largest tradeoff I consider in adding people is the degree to which work is divided into autonomous functions vs. roles where information must be shared between the parties. Where I now depend on the second person for information, I create a potential communication problem.

Unfortunately humans aren’t perfect communicators, and adding people introduces inefficiency that accumulates with each cell division. Capacity falls somewhat short of doubling with each cell division, and workload absorbs that impact. Each cell division might separate half of the existing work, but the burden that collaboration places on people adds new work. I could introduce some cute mathematics and limit equations here to illustrate the example, but the concept is simple and doesn’t require that.

At some point after a large number of cell divisions, 1,2,4,16,256, the burden of collaboration on each cell’s workload, combined with the cumulative productivity loss across all these functions requires some solution. Welcome our new “management” team; people who are put in place to reduce the efficiency drain and to reduce the net workload effect collaboration places on individual cells. They do by organizing, filtering and sharing the relevant details across different functions in the organization. This solution is a shortcut, because we’re taking a bet that we can’t make people perfect communicators, we have practical needs which force us to do something.

For those who have a pessimistic view of the role of management, take note. I’ve encountered many folks who view the role of managers as reducing vibration within a system. I see it differently. The essential role of management is to reduce the efficiency drag and workload burden inherent in organizations where the role scope is narrow and dependent on the output of others. (The role of ‘leadership’ is different, and perhaps the subject of a future post.)

This is also why “the smartest person in the room” is often the last person you’d want managing a team. People who don’t feel like they should depend on others generally won’t. They make poor facilitators of collaboration. Subject matter expertise can aid one’s ability to communicate and to close gaps, but toy sharing and subject matter expertise are different skill sets. Effective managers are ones who can facilitate productive interactions. Subject matter IQ helps, but if nobody likes working with you it won’t matter. This reminds me of an old saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, take a group.” I don’t know who said it, but it makes sense.

We are not a company of one. I believe we have more than 75k employees (estimating conservatively because I’m too lazy to look up the actual number). At a company of this size, there are many, many layers of management. We use complex systems to facilitate information sharing and the collaboration that is required to keep so many cells functioning as a unit. It is imperfect.

For all the models, systems, SharePoint, and other things we use, nothing is more important than the ability of people to connect with each other. This is why we care so much, and this is why it looms large in performance discussions. We value the ability to collaborate and to work well within our organization, regardless of how the imperative is encoded. Whether you learn it in Kindergarten or on the job, cooperation matters because it reduces drag.

Employees and managers are cogs in a functioning system; they are not independent agents acting in each other’s (presumed) best interest. Collaborating well in the corporate environment comes down to your ability to identify mutual goals, move quickly through the ‘who does what’ parts, and to use that framework to measure and communicate progress. And it requires you to be nice to your neighbor. For all the explanation, the strategy is basic and easy to employ.

Sadly, another lesson I had to learn the hard way.