What are the Key Barriers to Effective Cooperation within Organisations – and how to overcome them
Are you a director, manager or executive frustrated by unnecessary conflict and hurdles to effective cooperation in your organisation? Are you looking for inspiration to break through communication barriers? Do you simply want to create a team spirit across your organisation? If so, then you may find a few useful tips here. As our organisations become flatter and rely more and more on cooperation, new leaders are required who can inspire empowered cooperation, and who can therefore communicate at all levels.
Because of major restructurings, such as reorganisations, downsizing, mergers, joint ventures, or alliances, many organisations find that their people are not working coherently together. They are losing clients, losing key talent or failing to sustain competitive advantage, due to poor cross-functional communications, internal conflicts, misunderstandings and stress, or because of poor working relations across borders. Increasingly productivity demands require smoother operational workflow, so organisations have to work harmoniously together, only achievable through proper communication flow.
So what hampers communication flow? Here I look at some of the bottlenecks or hurdles that can cause poor collaboration. I also look at how organisations can generate greater cooperation and innovation across boundaries, and thereby raise productivity. Some of the benefits include reduced talent attrition, improved customer satisfaction and leverage from a diverse workforce. Here I explore:
- 10 communication pitfalls in pan-organisational cooperation
- 5 solutions: competencies or virtues to be promoted
- An overview of international communication
Here are 10 pitfalls that hamper pan-organisational cooperation. They are by no means exhaustive.
It should be self evident that "non-communication" is the biggest barrier to communication and cooperation, yet it continues to be the single most important cause of distress in organisations. Non-communication includes not disseminating relevant information or feedback needed for people to do their jobs properly. It also includes not communicating matters like where the organisation is going, how it is doing, mission and goals. Ironically non-communication tends to happen the most intensely at exactly those times when communication is critical, e.g. in times of crisis or uncertainty.
An axiom of communication science is that it is impossible not to communicate! Choosing not to speak to someone is still communication – you are 'saying' you do not want to be associated with him or her now. Silence is very much a part of communication. Unfortunately, managers often do not communicate when there is uncertainty, or sometimes when information is deemed too sensitive or confidential. By choosing not to say anything, however, they are actually communicating on a different level, and it is this that can cause so much distress. Some say, "No news is good news". Others say, "No news is bad news". This depends on one's perspective and attitude (is a glass half full or half empty?), and it also depends on which side of the fence one stands.
In organisations managers tend to put substantial effort into communicating well to those they have to report to, i.e. upwards to their directors or ultimately their shareholders. Communication down the line can take a lower priority or is sometimes neglected. Employees, and even customers, are not infrequently forgotten or ignored, or only given a paltry glance, even though they are the lifeblood of the organisation. This can have dire consequences, often alienating key talent or customers.
Non-communication or poor communication can create anxiety, worry, fear, tension, stress and illness. It creates schism and often separates people from each other. In extreme cases people become indifferent or belligerent, creating internal conflict. People start viewing their work colleagues as competition, or even as enemies. Suddenly co-workers are "fighting" each other within the organisation, rather than "fighting" the real external competition.
It is somewhat ironic that in the age of the "knowledge worker" people are increasingly engaged in impeding communication rather than letting it flow, often out of fear from 'internal competition'. This includes repressing emotions - to inspire collaboration communication must embrace more than the mere factual. Rather than focussing on 'internal competition' a better approach is one using "internal customers". Viewing everyone in the organisation, whether up, down or across, as "internal customers" automatically reframes one's perception (now one has to treat them with respect) and contributes to better communication, or at least avoids the trap of non-communication.
2) The power of language
It is easy to underestimate the power of language, or miss the devastating effect its misuse can have on morale and cooperative ambience. This may seem paradoxical, since language only represents 7% of what we communicate (the rest being non-verbal) and an even smaller proportion of our sub-conscious mind (which thinks in images). Nevertheless, it is often the negative aspect of language used, emphasised by tonality, which can have a damaging effect on an organisation by undermining teamwork.
Inappropriate language can strongly shade meaning, often inadvertently and subliminally. Some words, for instance, can impair communication, such as "always" ("you always do it this way ..."), "never" ("you never tell us ..."). It sends signals, which can affect a person's or a team's confidence and attitude. No one (except those in a detached Zen-like state) is immune to the effects that negative or moralising language can have. Inappropriate language can also be potentially devastating in multi-cultural settings.
Feelings and undertones expressed in language can be contagious and self-propagating. Disparaging language, for instance, creates overall mistrust, affecting moods and attitude. However insignificant it may have seemed to the speaker, it is what the listener often focuses on and this can then become self-fulfilling. 'Speakers' are often unaware of the effect they have depending on the language they use.
Language is not simply a code for communication, but rather it is a form of thinking. Language determines how we perceive the world around us. It shapes our perception of the world and our reality. In organisations it shapes how the organisation and its issues are viewed. Even if this does not happen on a conscious level the language used directs and determines where an organisation is going.
While this may seem an obvious statement to make, it is important for organisations to be careful about language used. We need to pay attention to our own language, making sure we do not send out negative or otherwise inappropriate signals affecting others. It is important for managers to pay attention to how language is shaping their organisation, and to intervene where it is not conducive to an empowering attitude. It may not be possible to ban certain language; what can be done, however, is examine the root causes that fostered the inappropriate language, and then tackle those issues. Language can operate as a good barometer within an organisation. It is a determining factor as to how well cooperation and communication is flowing.
Organisations with a multi-culturally rich and diverse workforce, or operating in the international arena, face many challenges – different currencies, different accounting practices, different legal systems, different political environments, different software parameters and so on. One of the most difficult areas organisations face, however, is people management. When people of diverse cultural backgrounds work together, there are many human issues that need addressing: different languages, different values and belief systems, different business practices, different behaviours and expectations and different "rules of the game". Managers and staff working across cultures need additional skills to handle this diversity.
Such diversity, though subtle, can have a profound impact on an organisation's communication and cooperation flow. Depending on how well they are managed, cross-cultural issues can either encourage an environment of openness and respect or one of shutting oneself off and conflict. Cultural issues can have a more profound effect than language, though people are rarely aware of "culture" as such. Only by being out of water is it that a fish starts to "comprehend" and appreciate water. Culture includes things like:
As people increasingly work in multi-cultural environments, they have to work with colleagues of fundamentally different worldviews, values and beliefs. While many organisations have "diversity" programmes in place, many of these are defensive, concerned with policy and legal compliance (e.g. equal opportunity), and rarely adequately help individuals, managers or teams within the organisation actually deal with diverse values and behaviours. What are required are competencies enabling individuals and teams to manage misunderstandings and stress pragmatically and empower them to work together cohesively and productively. And when conflicts do arise apply tools to assist resolve them.
There are many practical hands-on workshops to help people from diverse cultures communicate across borders, whether face to face, by telephone, letter or by email, and deal with the variety of ways people work. Unless such differences are properly understood, misunderstandings occur easily, often leading to very costly corporate errors. Intercultural workshops look at different facets of communication (including non-verbal, space & time and language) and explore the multiple modes of establishing common ground and strategies in order to ultimately improve international relationships and create better productivity. Unless globalisation "reverses" itself, organisations that do not have communication and culture programmes centrally as part of their management development will find it increasingly difficult to cope with the demands of the next millennium.
4) Double Binds
Double binds are situations or communication exchanges that people enact which pose choices or dilemmas that, whichever way one goes or whichever option one chooses, one loses out - in short no-win situations. These situations are often experienced as the little dilemmas one faces during the day, and can include, for instance, whether to compromise one's opinions or ethical values in order not lose out on chances for promotion. The key feature of double binds, however, is that they are callous devices people create (consciously or unconsciously) to control others, by 'framing' them into no-win situations in the first place.
People play games with others, often power games. A double bind is a technique which puts people down and hence serves those seeking power well. They control people by creating a condescending dependency while at the same time appearing supportive, friendly and caring – they are called "double binds," because their "victim" does not know whether to love or hate the manipulator. Double binds stifle organisations. As a rule of thumb, the more authoritarian an organisational culture is, the more prevalent power games and double binds tend to be, though they are not necessarily used consciously. More open liberal organisations, on the other hand, tend to focus on issues and problems, e.g. to satisfy customers, rather than on internal power games. However, in times of uncertainty organisations easily become inward looking and fall into power game traps.
Double binds can express themselves in all sorts of ways, though they are often not clear to spot. The symptoms, on the other hand, are much clearer: lack of consensus, poor communication, insincerity, miscommunication, no consultation, hidden agendas, polemics, displeasure of communicating and very often cynicism. They can also create an air of bickering, rumours, suspicions, backstabbing or even belligerence, all of which are harmful to the smooth cooperation of an organisation.
Double binds have been more prevalent in the West, as values of success are based more on individual achievement rather than on collective attainment. The double bind mentality often emanates from the top, where managers view their positions individually as positions of power, with a focus upward, striving for the next level. It is not infrequent for organisations to take bad decisions purely for political reason - internal politics is a clear syndrome. The clearest contrast to this type of "political" organisation can be found in network marketing organisations, where the cards are turned upside down – those "higher up" can only succeed through their team, and hence there is a sense of open mutual support up, down and across.
Where there is internal politicking, games and double binds, then cooperation and communication is hampered. Usually the more oppressive an organisation is, the more internal competition and the less cooperation there is. For modern organisations to flourish and compete with their Asian or other newer counterparts, they need to move away from an inner focus to an outward outlook, such as concentrating on customers and other stakeholders. By the same token employees should have a sense of empowerment, for the organisation to be able to progress - double binds and power games are counter-productive to this.
5) Verbal Output
Issues with verbal output, whether oral or in writing, are related to double binds and the power of language mentioned earlier. However, there are a few further verbal issues, which need to be mentioned. Existing in their own right, they are simply summarised here:
Speaking using evaluative words or being judgmental is often the biggest premature killer of great ideas (or what could have been great ideas). Negative judgments immediately sentence ideas or people to relegation, and the most destructive aspect of this is that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. They shatter enthusiasm and confidence. Evaluative statements can be lethal, unless they are used appropriately and with proper purpose. So can threats and ultimata. Key words to watch out for are: "because" and "unless".
Complaining and wining often translate into rumours and gossip, which can be damaging. Gossip is famously about people talking about others in their absence, often without foundation. "Les absents ont toujour torts" (those absent are always wrong) creates new realities, which are counterproductive. The key issue about rumours is that they focus on (absent) people, and not on the problems or issues that need to be tackled. Organisations should always put efforts in place to block the proliferation of rumours.
Another pitfall to watch out for is written communication, especially where face-to-face meetings are possible. The killer memo (that well intentioned memo which is subconsciously so derogative that it drives you up the wall) has proliferated in many organisations in the past, often with demoralising effects – nowadays it has been replaced by the "killer email". While written communication can be highly efficient, the subliminal and sometimes derogative undertones can irritate, and typically the time required to undo the damage can make this quite counterproductive. Written words are static, stripped of life, whereas spoken words are alive (as in the intonation) and moreover allow feedback response, making oral exchanges dynamic. Written words are set in stone, making written memos inflexible and impersonal, whereas in oral communication unintentional issues can be dealt with right there and then.
Accountability is usually revered, for what seems to be obvious reasons: people have to be held responsible for their actions and be accountable to their commitments. No doubt the basic principle of accountability is logical and good in intention. However, I would like to suggest that the culture of accountability could actually also have nasty side effects, especially when treated threateningly. This suggestion is possibly contentious, as society seems to be calling for more and more accountability. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into any great detail – this needs to be done in a separate study. All I ask at this stage is for you to think twice and not automatically take accountability for granted.
Because accountability searches for those to blame, it automatically puts people in a defensive position, and this is a negative frame of mind from the outset. The lengths people will go to defend themselves from attack is amazing. People will hide real issues and create fabrications simply to protect themselves. Excuses and retroactive rationalisations are, however, counterproductive, as they induce people to lie not just to others but worse to themselves, creating self-delusion. In the extreme it encourages people to conceal information from others and "sex up" their fabrications to look good – colloquially often called "bullshit". Unfortunately, the more supposed accountability there is, the more bullshit there is too.
Journalism in particular has preponderance for searching for those accountable, because it makes good news. As a form of check this is plausible, but it ultimately encourages a culture of defence and lies. The main problem with accountability is that the focus is on blame and people, not on problems or issues. I am not saying accountability should be abandoned, but what I am suggesting is to look out for its potential negative effects and view it with a grain of salt. Focus more on tackling problems and issues, rather than attacking people.
This is a similar issue to that of a litigious society – the more litigious a community becomes, the more time and effort people take to cover and protect themselves, rather than actively dealing with the issues they are supposed to be dealing with in the first place. This phenomenon may explain the reluctance of many Orientals to build in more accountability into their systems, focussing instead more on face-saving and tackling issues collectively – no doubt they have understood that blaming and accountability stifles teamwork, communication and cooperation.
7) Poor Listening
As a general rule we are poor listeners! Probably we have never been taught to listen actively. Generally we tend to be more interested in what we have 'to say' than listening to what others are saying. Yet for cooperation to flourish and communication to flow listening is a vital skill. There are various traps:
One trap is ignoring others, or worse, pretending to be listening while actually ignoring them. This is an area that organisations in particular have to pay attention to – generally they do not listen to what their members have to say. As a result resignation or cynicism sets in easily. Pretending is worse because people exist in relation to each other and when organisations only pretend to be listening, it has a demoralising effect. Many organisations spend large amounts of money on motivational events – this can be counter-productive and a waste of resources, however, if the most important aspect of motivation is ignored: being listened to! Without genuine listening motivational events are an empty farce, a hidden shrug-off – 'fabulous' hyped up events, the effects of which are completely gone within a week. Motivation and inspiration ultimately comes from feeling valued, and this is where the emphasis should be.
Many organisations are also very good at not listening to their customers. Customer issues are increasingly "dealt with" by friendly call centre agents outside the country. This produces plenty of polite and friendly customer care letters apologising and telling us how much they value our custom; yet in many cases the issue that prompted the initial contact does not get addressed (receiving polite letters is nice, but it is not really what I was after). Call centres are increasingly becoming a way for organisations to perfect, in a polite way, what they were already good at doing – not listening, or just pretending to listen to customers.
Another form of poor listening is controlling while listening – in order words leading the speaker to the listener's desired reality or perspective, often through authoritarian gestures, sighs or looks. The net effect is the listener controlling what the speaker is saying, e.g. by making things appear irrelevant. This is sometimes unintentional, as in the case of a senior manager, for instance, where his mere presence and charisma causes speakers to say only certain things or behave in particular ways.
Imposing one's own interpretation onto what the speaker is saying is another form of poor listening. In other words, projecting one's own ideas rather than listening to what is really being said. This often happens in meetings, partly due to our argumentative approach to discussion: how many times have you caught yourself, while "listening" to a speaker, internally preparing what you are about to say or object to, rather than fully listening to what is really being said, and without fully grasping what is being said in its own right. This fundamentally filters out diverse ideas and leaves you only with what you want to hear.
Communication is not about the amount of talk there is! Indeed our organisations already have a lot of talk, in a lot of meetings and memos. But is anyone really listening? Communication is about genuine exchange. Poor listening does not engender that kind of exchange, and makes cooperation difficult.
8) Organising Principles
The Renaissance period is the last period in European civilisation, which viewed the world holistically. Thereafter we began to specialise, especially after the Sorbonne separated arts from science. This has no doubt helped to promote detailed research and the development of science as a whole, without which we would not have technology, as we know it today. In management too this has led to division of labour, departmentalisation, compartmentalisation, divisions of professions and a number of other rifts. While this has been very necessary to promote progress, it has also created an imbalance.
In the West we tend to be left-brain oriented, veering on the side of analysis and linear thinking. Imbalance, however, creates fragmentation, disorientation and lack of coordination. Unless this is counterbalanced by cooperation across borders and communication beyond divisions, then organisations will find it difficult to innovate and thereby maintain a competitive advantage. Innovation and creativity of ideas are more right-brain, requiring combination and synthesis rather than division and analysis. Cooperation across divisions is not just about people communicating, but also about bridging gaps in our thinking and creativity.
Our organisational frameworks tend to be highly structured and rigid by definition. Everyone has a definite place and purpose within the organisation, clearly delineated in detailed job descriptions and departmental systems. In extreme cases the organising principles are universalistic and captured in legal terms. This approach can be said to be digital. It is extremely efficient and productive as long as the structure is aligned well to external reality (e.g. marketing conditions). Problems arise, however, when the external reality changes. Because the structure is rigid, it cannot adapt easily to changing conditions. And the people within the structure cannot adapt either, because they are operating within the demarcations, e.g. in job descriptions. This produces the typical 'passing the buck' syndrome (oh this isn't my job, ... well, it's not mine either, ...), which to the outsider appears as a sense of total irresponsibility.
When the structure is no longer aligned to reality, people stop communicating and increasingly refer to the structure (or sometimes blame it: "it's the system"), be it organisational or legal – hence an increasingly litigious society. In order to deal with such situations, organisations have to restructure themselves. This is both a design issue (normally dealt strategically at the top) as well as an implementation issue. It often requires an army of change consultants to go in there and 're-programme' for the new organisational reality. The attrition from such change efforts can be quite enormous, especially at the top, and the cost can be phenomenal. This is the downside of the otherwise efficient McKinseyean organisation model (but it's good for the management consultants, keeps them busy).
An alternative can be found in Oriental management approaches, which is much less structured and rigid, and far more organic, analogue and holistic in perspective. There is a Taoist saying to the effect stating that 'it is indeed a sin not to follow a clear path to reach your goals, but it is an even greater sin not to veer from that path'. Yes, there has to be a way, a structure, but it should not be rigid, it should be easy to divert from according to changing realities. And it should be flexible enough to be able to change easily – at least that is the analogue approach.
The analogue approach cannot be described here in this short article, suffice to say there is a growing awareness in the West too for a more "humanitarian" (rather than dissecting scientific) perspective, and this aspect will increasingly play an important role in cross departmental cooperation, as change becomes quicker and quicker. The point to note here is that organisational structure and systems are the very things that can make an organisation highly efficient and productive, yet at the same time they can also become substantial stumbling blocks and hindrances in other changing situations. With the increased use of I.T., which is fundamentally digital, things are unlikely to change substantially in the near future, despite awareness for a need to change.
9) Push or Pull
What happens, for example, when a customer problem arises which is not in anyone's job description or any team's remit. Typically nothing; the customer is lead round the mill from one place to another, we have all experienced this numerous times. This may even be the case with a company with "perfectly functioning" teams. The issue here is that the particular problem is outside any team's remit. So it does not matter how wonderful and masterful the teams are, there is no team to deal with the particular problem. Organisations often completely miss such gaps. Such gaps go unnoticed or are ignored, except perhaps by the customer service call centres, which paradoxically are being relegated to other countries (customers are obviously not viewed as core to the business any more). Often it is only outsiders, like customers, who experience major gaps, but it is not for customers solve an organisation's communication problems, they just go elsewhere. To avoid this, a business's core activities should always be centred around the customer, rather than on the "core competence" (product or service) of the organisation.
There is a tendency in organisations for systems, ideas or rules to be pushed down the organisation. What this causes are bottlenecks, often because people further down the line cannot keep up (digestion can be difficult if you don't know what's coming) or can see problems or shortfalls, but there is no feedback mechanism which allows this information to flow back up to the originator. People who do attempt to raise issues, in good faith, are often branded as problem employees, black sheep or troublemakers. Most people being well aware of this don't even try (they just become cynical), and so problems continue to get pushed down the line. And the issue of non-cooperation and stagnation propagates itself.
This is a similar issue to the one about speaking, and the inability of people to listen constructively. People are intent on pushing their agendas, rather than viewing things from different perspectives. Increasingly communication breaks down, as there are inadequate feedback loops allowing modifications to be made according to various realities. This causes major communication gaps, making coordination impossible.
The push syndrome is well known in manufacturing, as it is physically visible there, where inventory accumulates and clogs up the flow. By contrast, in a pull approach the starting point is at the bottom or with the customer at the end of the line. Products/services are pulled by demand. It is not the place here to describe the pull approach, but cooperation is much easier in a pull system with feedback mechanisms. In TQC, for instance, the focus is on checking from internal customer to the next with immediate feedback, preventing defects being pushed down the line and recurring in the first place, as opposed to the end-of-line inspection approach where defects are only "spotted" after having been pushed all the way down the line.
This is why the core of an organisation's activities should be customers, and fulfilling their needs, and not the product/service, the technology, core competence or management agendas. To create pull, communication should flow in the opposite direction from work flow, starting with the customer.
10) Open or Closed systems
Related to the above is the tendency to view sections, departments, divisions and whole organisations as closed systems. A classic case is the typical lack of cooperation between sales and production especially in push systems. Managers also easily fall into the trap of developing little empires, while trying to develop good teams within the section or department. Teamwork, team building and team spirit are essential, but teams can easily become little islands in themselves, and this can sometimes become counterproductive for the organisation as a whole.
Merging companies or joint ventures in particular easily become entrapped in the closed system mindset. Between 50 – 80% of mergers and acquisitions, alliances and joint ventures fail within the first five years. Yet despite this poor track record mergers continue to grow around the globe. Although most attention is initially paid to the 'deal', the finances and the strategy, in hindsight it is acknowledged that the single most important reason for failures is 'culture', i.e. the different mind-sets of the merging companies. It is virtually impossible to merge or join two closed-system cultures.
The issue is still about people, but because people cannot be managed well, it is put on the back burner. By examining cultural issues (corporate and national cultures) and by putting culture at the top of the senior management's agenda integration can in fact be managed effectively, and it is possible to achieve success in mergers. Indeed the more complex situations are, as in the merging and "opening up" of organisations, the more important communication and cooperation become. A closed system mind-set can only be counter-productive in the long run even for organisations that are not involved in mergers and joint ventures.
SOLUTIONS: VIRTUES AND COMPETENCIES
So what can be done to enhance communication and cooperation across borders? Well there are too many to list, but here are a few of the important skills, virtues or competences that may help, purely alluded to here without going into detail:
1) Emphatic Listening
Probably the most important competence to improve communication is listening. That is active or emphatic listening. By shifting the focus away from trying to get one's point across to a more receptive mode of simply listening to what others have to say, then compassion and a desire to collaborate can more easily emerge (a master alliance spirit), and to a large degree many other problems in communication also sort themselves out. It is unfortunate that while we have many educational courses and training opportunities for speaking, presenting oneself and persuading, there are very few providers who focus on listening (i.e. you can find speaking, writing and reading clubs, but not listening clubs!). And, by the same token, in Western management it is often the good speakers rather than the good listeners who are rewarded or promoted. Yet the benefits of good listening far outweigh those of good speaking. As organisations become flatter, it will be those who can listen and coordinate collective input that will succeed, rather than those who can speak brilliantly and present their egocentric case. Currently we still reward egocentrism.
Emphatic listening goes beyond mere hearing. It endeavours to put one in another's shoes and to see things from his/her perspective. Active listening skills can start with simply repeating or paraphrasing what the other has said to confirm meaning, or to understand the intention or perspective behind the words. Emphatic listening includes many meta-communicational (communication about communication) devices, which enable one to grasp things from a different point of view. There are many techniques and linguistic devices (too many to list here) that can enhance listening skills and these should be learned and practiced.
I would like to see more programmes in organisations (and in educational institutions) which focus on active listening. It is ironic that those associated with good talking, sales people, are often the most aware of the need to listen (to understand what customers really want), and good sales training normally starts with listening skills! The best sales talk will not work if you cannot listen. Listening skills should not, however, be restricted purely to sales people, but should, in my view, be applied across the board in organisations to improve internal and external communication. All should be listening to their internal customers. Proper listening is the building block of genuine cooperation. Moreover good listening is motivational, because it engenders respect and empathy. Good listeners indeed create others' brilliance and empower them. Emphatic listening is the single most important skill people should learn!
2) 'Elicitive' Speaking
Having said that, there are also good reasons for improving speaking skills. Good speaking skills can be developed from good listening, and they can also engender good listening, if done properly. The "speaking barriers" mentioned earlier tend to kill listening, while other more positive speaking attributes encourage active listening. For example, complimenting someone can be very empowering – however, it has to be done properly on the basis of evidence not as empty tag lines. These are speaking skills which can be learned, but which are actually based on being able to listen well in the first place. Eliciting, encouraging thought and input from others, and a coach's mind of motivational questions are the kind of speaking skills which modern leaders need, designed to bring out the best potential of others.
Words can be very powerful, and in the same way that some words can have very damaging or disheartening effects, others can work as very influential affirmations. Mottos, tags and other assertions conveying meaningful connotations, such as purpose and commitment, can be powerful organisational tools, though they must be backed by action. Appreciation and acknowledgement of achievements are often ignored, yet are fundamental in making people feel valued, and thereby raising morale.
Instructions should be phrased as requests or invitations rather than orders. Done in an encouraging way they can lift people beyond their own comfort zone. However they should always be backed up with an explanation of the why, otherwise people feel victimised. Good leaders are excellent at guiding people beyond their limits in such a way that they feel they did it themselves. As Confucius said: "The good leader is the one who cannot be seen".
3) Out of the Box
In order for an organisation to thrive, both formally in terms of its customers and markets, as well as internally in terms of its employees feeling cherished and able to contribute to the development of the organisation, a positive spirit of innovation and creativity should pervade its various arms. Creativity is not about art, but about ideas and problem solving. Yet it is surprising how often and in how many organisations good ideas and creativity are ignored or simply squelched, often viewed as 'unproductive'. Job descriptions do not typically ask people to think. Yet creative thinking should be at the forefront of skills an organisation should promote.
Creativity should be promoted in an out-of-box way: It is not only important for people to generate and implement new ideas, but these should also be tested out by those who created them. Most importantly this requires organisations to give leeway to their employees to experiment. For example, allow employees to leave work and "become" a customer, and to experience the rigmaroles customers may sometimes be put through by their organisation, often quite inadvertently. Once employees "see" what their organisation looks like from the outside, from a customer's point of view, they will be the first to "put things right".
When it comes to creativity and innovation, there is a great deal available (though not sufficiently made use of), from the work of Gustav De Bono, lateral thinking and the 6 Hats, to analogue problem solving and brainpower building techniques (e.g. Renaissance project). An interesting approach which is emerging is Open Space Technology, simply because it allows a large number of people to participate very actively, freely and creatively in issues that really concern them without preconceived outcome. Open Space is used quite extensively in communities world-wide, it is a pity that it has not found a more common place within organisations yet.
Rather than relying on external change agents, organisations would benefit greatly from adopting their own flexibility and adaptability skills. This can be both organisationally, taking a more analogue approach, as well as individually, through creative participation. With the pace of change happening in the world, there is no doubt that it is those organisations and those people who become flexible and adaptable that will survive in the long run.
Flexibility and adaptability are crucial skills. Those able to multi-task also tend to be more flexible and adaptable. In the West this is often viewed as a female virtue, in line with receptivity, and it is certainly true that organisations would gain a great deal from more "feminine adaptability" at the top. However, I do also think this is a cultural rather than sexual trait. The male dominated working world of Japan, for instance, is highly multi-tasked oriented, and organisationally very adaptive. Indeed it is one of the reasons Orientals have reservations about adopting a universalistic legalistic approach to business, preferring instead to be more situational ("case by case"), organic and flexible. Whatever the case may be, flexibility and adaptability are crucial skills for the future.
Western management is obsessed with 'change management'. In the Orient change, i.e. the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, happens relatively quickly and smoothly – witness the speed and nimbleness, for instance, with which Japanese introduce new products and updates. The difference lies in the organising principles applied. The Eastern approach is more analogue, the West more digital and solid, requiring constant change programmes. Contrast the solid but rigid stone buildings of the West with the more flexible bamboo structures in the East. Or the 'big step' approach to innovation in the West to the incremental Kaizen approach in the East.
5) Holistic Approach
There is a need in organisations to reconsider specialisation and move to a more coordinated holistic approach. More communication between left and right brain activities are required. More people need to be involved in understanding the whole, seeing the forest rather than just the trees. This is often seen as the prerogative of senior management, yet they are too preoccupied with deals and making ends meet, being accountable to their shareholders as they are. Moreover they never had the opportunity to work through the whole before they got to their positions. If more people were coordinated, more cooperation and growth could ensue. Have people rotate around different jobs, for them to experience how the different parts make up the whole, rather than being stuck in tunnel vision specialisations.
The whole is more than the sum of its parts, simply because the parts above are independent, whereas in the whole they are interdependent and combine with other parts in one special synergistic ways. A mosaic is more than the sum of its stones – the combination of colours creates a new reality, the image. An organisation has life and character of its own, which cannot be measured simply as the sum of its people and assets – it is powered by the network of relationships within it. The more these relationships can be enriched and enhanced, the more enthusiasm and innovation can be garnered. Enthusiasm does not happen on its own, it requires the contagion of several people. The more cross-relationships can be fertilized, the greater the innovative power of the organisation.
The future requires organisations to take a holistic approach to everything they do. The best starting point is to view things from customers' perspectives. Every department should consider how what they are doing contributes to the well being of the customers, their ultimate patrons, and also what they can do to improve this. Starting from the vantage of the customer engenders a pan-organisational customer care focus, which by nature requires people to cooperate and communicate. Specialisations by themselves, stuck in a narcissistic world of their own, tend to ignore customers ("that's not my area", "not my problem", ...). On the other hand, if a customer orientation is taken, specialisations can start contributing to satisfying their customers' needs. A customer-oriented holistic approach is the best way, in my view, to generate cooperation and communication across borders.
As the world increasingly globalises, organisations not only have to learn the above communication and cooperation skills, but also have to do so in an international context, where not all elements may be easy to implement. For instance listening and speaking skills can become even more difficult where different languages are spoken. And what about non-verbal connotations which have completely different meanings in other parts of the world. Non-verbal aspects are particularly difficult to master, yet 93% of all communication is non-verbal! Understanding cultures should increasingly gain a higher priority within organisations.
Globalisation places new demands on business, but it also offers opportunities for dynamic growth. Securing strong positions to keep abreast of international competition requires innovative approaches sensitive to the ever-changing business world and global customers. Without customers there is no business – the customer is king – and this is no less relevant in an international context. Internationally, however, there is a whole range of issues that also need exploring: language issues, legal issues, currency, product adaptation, shipping costs, payment and so on. The most important issue, however, is making sure overseas customers and their needs are properly understood and met. This requires awareness by all in the home company that international customer satisfaction is of prime importance. What is required is a pan-organisational international marketing approach aligning all business processes to a focus on international customers. This creates a customer awareness culture across the whole business, including the support office back at home.
To be able to understand international customers requires cross-cultural awareness. Intercultural programmes should no longer be the prerogative of expatriates and travellers, but rather concerns all, and should hence be, together with listening skills, central to any organisation's training and management development programme. In terms of 'globalisation', intercultural skills and listening skills are paramount.
As the intercultural field becomes increasingly understood and accepted, there is a tendency to think that it could replace language learning. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in educational institutions. Language learning is as important, if not more important, as before. Each language represents a view of the world. Language is not simply a substitutable code representing reality, but rather a thinking tool that allows our brain to select, perceive, classify, visualise and organise "reality", in other words with language we create our "reality" – languages are tools that do this differently. The way we see the world is partly determined by how we map the territory with our language tools. There can be no substitute for learning to view the world in multiple ways, and hence be able to think differently, than by learning other languages. Learning other languages is more than just learning another code - it is indeed learning to think, to think in different and creative ways.
The global economy requires intercultural flexibility and the ability to communicate in varying codes, and understand each other's maps. Even domestic economies require people's ability to think and be creative. This includes the ability to put oneself in someone else's shoes, and understand their perspective. How can one genuinely talk of customer service or customer care, beyond etiquette, for instance, if not by putting oneself in the customers' shoes and seeing issues from their perspective? Learning another language and to think outside one's own language, outside the box, is one way to experience multilateral forms of thinking. It is to be encouraged within organisations, not only to enable people to understand others from other cultures, but also to enhance listening skills and to develop new thinking tools, thereby increasing creativity and innovation. And make people think, period.
There is no doubt that with 'globalisation' what is required more and more is cross-border cooperation and communication. The suggestions offered in this report, however scantily glossed over, may serve to enhance this. It should include understanding and collaboration with different cultures.
From Customer Flow to Cash Flow:
It is important for organisations to communicate across gaps - gaps between teams, between departments, between organisations or between national cultures. This may involve developing synergy between seemingly unrelated matters, and forming new alliances. Accelerated learning techniques should soon become standard, allowing individuals and whole learning organisations to grow and change more rapidly. It may also mean reaching beyond one's limits, or focussing beyond given job descriptions or remits, all requiring a more interdisciplinary kind of thinking.
We need to open up systems and develop more open communication. Open space should be encouraged to allow organisations to be become interactive and even inspired, manifesting their latent potentiality. Increasingly we see that we alone are not almighty, but are part of a collective wisdom. If we let ourselves flow with the stream of life and work, we can create an abundance of flow. This enables us to cross boundaries and to develop empowering conditions for innovation, productivity and affluence.
The Oriental view is one of flow. We should increasingly consider various forms of flow too. Communication flow enables more cooperation. It also allows pole bridging to take place, expanding our network of thinking interconnectivity. This in turn improves the workflow. In a pull system communication flow and work flow move in opposite directions complementing each other. With a pan-organisational focus on customers, customer flow should grow. With increased customer flow we can indeed achieve a stronger cash flow. So this is all about the bottom line after all! Remove the bottlenecks! The Latin word for 'to flow', affluere, is indeed at the heart of affluence. Let us build international affluence on the basis of cooperation and communication flow. Let it be – let it flow!
London, 15 January, 2004 (revised)