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February 22, 2022

The Four Imperatives of Radical Collaboration

By Matt K. Parker
The Four Imperatives of Radical Collaboration

In this adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations by Matt K. Parker, we explore the four imperatives of radical collaboration.


Today, the world of work is haunted by disengagement, mistrust, and meaninglessness. It is plagued with the attendant economic consequences of low productivity, performance, and innovation. The source of this plague is widely known yet rarely addressed, and its image is softened and compartmentalized through a number of modern-day corporate euphemisms, including “bureaucracy,” “Taylorism,” “scientific management,” and “command and control.” But lurking behind all of these names is the thing itself: the dominator hierarchy, a term first introduced by world-renowned social scientist Dr. Riane Eisler in her landmark work The Chalice and the Blade.

Within a dominator hierarchy, people are ranked and ordered, while power and resources are distributed unequally and concentrated at the top. Through a system of domination and coercion, dominator hierarchies structurally elevate the judgements of the dominators—e.g., the bosses, managers, directors, “leaders,” etc.—while structurally depriving the dominated of security, autonomy, fairness, esteem, trust, and belongingness. 

It is this structure that is on the verge of being globally disrupted (as seen through the “Great Resignation“) by an altogether new form of business known as radical collaboration.

What is Radical Collaboration

As a way of working, radical collaboration leverages the passions, interests, and intrinsic motivations of the participants while grounding collaboration in the freely made commitments between peers. It has been pioneered over the past few decades by a rapidly expanding global cohort of corporations—some of which, like the appliance manufacturer Haier, the tomato processor Morning Star, and the home health-care nonprofit Buurtzorg, have come to rapidly dominate their industries.

By structuring themselves around the principle of linking rather than ranking, radically collaborative organizations favor networks of dynamic, self-managing teams. And by grounding themselves in partnership and equality, they feature a fluid approach to leadership dependent on context and granted by trust. Taken together, these facets of radical collaboration paint a striking alternative to the traditional corporate model—one that is as compelling for the individuals fortunate enough to belong to them as it is problematic for the traditional corporations unfortunate enough to compete with them.

That’s because radically collaborative organizations are high performing, almost without exception, as illustrated by global research studies like the HOW Report. As a class, radically collaborative organizations achieve higher year-over-year revenue growth, capture increasingly larger swaths of market share, and enjoy higher levels of customer satisfaction than their hierarchical peers. By unburdening themselves of inertial bureaucracies and by supercharging innovation through high levels of trust and autonomy, they are rapidly disrupting practically every industry around the globe.

Traditional, hierarchical organizations can no longer rest on top-down planning or command-and-control directives. In order to survive, they must begin to understand, emulate, and adapt the business theory and practices that radically collaborative organizations are utilizing to not only meet the moment but to leapfrog ahead of it.

Of course, knowing what needs to be done is only half the challenge. A traditional organization that sets its sights on radical collaboration is still left with the question: How does a company become radically collaborative?

The answer lies in four conceptual imperatives:

  • team autonomy
  • managerial devolution
  • deficiency gratification
  • candid vulnerability

The Four Imperatives of Radical Collaboration

These imperatives are vital, preemptory, and essential for any business to seize on the opportunity for sustainable and substantial change offered by the disruption we are living in now.

But there’s a catch: although the imperatives are rich and deep, they are also interdependent and can sometimes defy attempts at a clear delineation. But a rudimentary understanding of all of the imperatives will help us gain a deeper understanding of any particular imperative. In this post, we’ll survey all four imperatives and introduce the radically collaborative organizations and practices. For a deeper understanding, consult A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations by Matt K. Parker.

Imperative #1: Team Autonomy

Autonomy is the human need for “control over one’s environment”—to feel like we “have choice within any given situation,” which in turn is strongly linked to individual and organizational success. As Dr. Dan Radecki, the neuroscientist and coauthor of Psychological Safety: The Key to Happy, High-Performing People and Teams, states: “We know from neuroscience research that people are more likely to succeed when they buy into an idea. When people reach their own insights and conclusions, solve their own problems, or come up with their own ideas  .  .  .  they are far more likely to own and implement solutions.” 

This helps explain why radically collaborative organizations succeed where dominator hierarchies fail. Through a paradigm of domination and coercion, dominator hierarchies structurally deprive employees of autonomy, which in turn contributes to organizational woes like disengagement, mistrust, and meaninglessness.

Radically collaborative organizations, on the other hand, achieve superior levels of employee engagement and corporate innovation at least in part because they structurally gratify the need for individual and team autonomy across six core dimensions:

  • the how (autonomy of practice),
  • the where and when (autonomy of schedule),
  • the what and who (autonomy of allocation),
  • and the role (autonomy of role).

Through autonomy of practice, radical collaborators control the how of their work. They decide how to work together as teams and what practices to collectively and individually deploy.

Through autonomy of schedule, radical collaborators control the where and the when of their work. They decide whether they’re collocated or distributed. Whether they sit in an office, on a couch at home, or on the beach. They decide whether to synchronize schedules to enable real-time collaboration practices like pair programming (in which two engineers program together on the same computer, at the same time) or whether to maximize individual autonomy by making asynchronous communication patterns the primary method of coordination and collaboration.

Through autonomy of allocation, radical collaborators control the what and the who. Instead of being allocated to teams by a managerial hierarchy, radical collaborators self-manage allocations by freely joining teams aligned to their own interests and intrinsic motivations.

Through autonomy of role, radical collaborators self-manage their own role within the organization. They decide what type of work they’re interested in, what kind of career they want to have, and what they need from the organization in order to develop any and all necessary skills.

Within this startling degree of autonomy, two clear practices have emerged among radically collaborative technology organizations. The first practice is the outcome team paradigm. Outcome teams are radically decoupled from specific codebases and instead focus on achieving an outcome by delivering specific units of end-user value, called features. In order to deliver that value, they are allowed to commit to any and all codebases they deem necessary. 

The second practice is human-centered design. Radically collaborative teams don’t just create products for users but with users, by getting out of the office and into the world to understand the lives and lived experiences of their users and by engaging users directly in the software making process.

Imperative #2: Managerial Devolution

Radically collaborative organizations are formed and maintained through the devolution of management—i.e., through the decentralization of power out of a static dominator hierarchy and into a dynamic heterarchy of self-managing teams.

Heterarchy refers to a system of organization that is ordered yet nonhierarchical. The term first emerged in the 1970s in sociological and anthropological literature in an attempt to address social structures that are not based on a hierarchical ranking and yet clearly possess order. As the anthropologist Dr. Carole Crumley explains,

Many structures, both biological and social, are not organized hierarchically. There is nothing intrinsically hierarchical about an oak tree or a symphony, yet each has undeniable structure and constitutes an orderly representation of the relations among elements. Nonetheless, few terms identify other kinds of order. Hierarchy—inasmuch as it is often a reductionist metaphor for order—has disproportionately influenced theory building in both social and natural scientific contexts.  .  .  .  Heterarchy may be defined as the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked, or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of ways.

Thus, self-managing teams are based on the concepts of partnership and equality, and they are united in the belief that leadership is contextual—that it is granted by the trust of peers and limited to the situation at hand.

In fully devolved organizations, these networks of teams collectively self-manage the organization. For example, radical collaborators dynamically take on decision-making authority through devolutionary management practices like the advice process, ad hoc leadership teams, and Holacracy®-powered governance

Radical collaborators also self-manage traditional managerial responsibilities like hiring, firing, and onboarding. They even self-manage the compensation process by rejecting coercive practices like performance evaluations and replacing them with devolved compensation methods like the fractal organizational model, the Deming pay system, and self-managed pay.

Imperative #3: Deficiency Gratification

As noted in Imperative #1: Team Autonomy, dominator hierarchies systematically deprive us of autonomy, but they also deprive us of a number of other psychological needs, like security, fairness, esteem, trust, and belongingness. The field of positive psychology refers to environments like this as “growth-inhibiting” structures because they structurally inhibit our personal growth and actualization by inducing a state of need-deficiency within us.

Radically collaborative organizations, by contrast, are referred to as deficiency gratifying environments because they repeatedly and systematically gratify our higher-level human needs. The radically collaborative organizations featured in this book accomplish this by combining an overall sociocultural paradigm of partnership and equality with interpersonal, deficiency-gratifying practices like balance scores, Holacracy-powered check-ins, peer pods, and coin ceremonies. Thanks to this arrangement, the radical collaborators within these environments can repeatedly satisfy each other’s deficiency needs for security, autonomy, fairness, esteem, trust, and belongingness.

It’s important to note that this wellspring of deficiency gratification isn’t just a boon for individual well-being and fulfillment; it also feeds into a foundation of collective trust, with powerful downstream consequences for organizational efficacy. For example, according to the HOW Report, high levels of trust lead radically collaborative organizations to exhibit thirty-two times the risk-taking, eleven times the innovation, and six times the business performance over their traditional hierarchical competitors.

A number of twentieth-century psychologists, including the positive psychologist Abraham Maslow and the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, hypothesized that the dichotomy between individual well-being and corporate profit was false.

For example, in their paper “Active Listening,” Carl Rogers and Richard Farson state,

The things that are best for the individual are best for the company. This is a conviction of ours, based on our experience in psychology and education .  .  .  . We find that putting the group first, at the expense of the individual, besides being an uncomfortable individual experience, does not unify the group. In fact, it tends to make the group less a group. The members become anxious and suspicious.8

Also, in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Abraham Maslow says,

Eupsychian conditions of work are often good not only for personal fulfillment, but also for the health and prosperity of the organization, as well as for the quantity and quality of the products or services turned out by the organization. The problem of management (in any organization or society) can then be approached in a new way: how to set up social conditions in any organization so that the goals of the individual merge with the goals of the organization.

Thanks to empirical studies like the HOW Report, we now know that these researchers were right. We don’t have to choose between the well-being of individuals and the success of corporations. The former is, in fact, a multiplier of the latter.

Imperative #4: Candid Vulnerability

While dominator hierarchies are ensnared in a quagmire of defensive reasoning—in which people hide and defend their underlying assumptions and beliefs from others in an attempt to maintain unilateral control—radically collaborative organizations sparkle with openness and transparency. That’s because radically collaborative organizations are sustained by a culture of candid vulnerability, or as it is more formally known in sociology, Model II: Productive Reasoning.

Radical collaborators candidly share their underlying thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and assumptions, thereby making their thought processes vulnerable to collective examination, critique, and even invalidation. This, in turn, feeds into an overall organizational culture of learning and collaborative innovation. By helping people separate their ideas from their egos, candid vulnerability enables the collective evolution of ideas.

The radically collaborative pioneers featured in this book have created or adopted a bevy of techniques in order to help their members cocreate a culture of candid vulnerability. From “thinking versus saying” two-column exercises that uncover defensive reasoning to practices like balance scores and Holacracy-powered check-ins for increasing psychological success (all discussed further in Chapter 5), our pioneers have created the conditions for the spontaneous emergence of candid vulnerability within their organizations at large.

Conclusion

These four imperatives of radical collaboration were derived from the practices and experiences of a number of radically collaborative organizations, like the industry giants Haier, Morning Star, and Buurtzorg. Some of these organizations had the privilege of starting with radically collaborative principles and structures. Others have gone through a process of managerial devolution and radically collaborative transformation.

Regardless of where they started, or how far they’ve come, their experiences cross-cut a significant range of industries and organizational sizes, forming a rich tableau for us to explore and dissect in the pages of A Radical Enterprise. These companies come from different industries, range in size significantly, and began their radically collaborative transformations at different points in time in their development. These organizations have pioneered a bevy of radically collaborative practices.

Taken together, the four imperatives of radical collaboration leverage the passions, interests, and intrinsic motivations of an organization and its people, while grounding collaboration in the freely-made commitments between peers. Although it may be tempting to cherry-pick the imperatives for your organization, it’s important to remember that for an organization to enjoy long-term success with radical collaboration, it must embrace all four imperatives.

For example, team autonomy would likely end in chaos or frustration without simultaneously embracing managerial devolution. Similarly, candid vulnerability will never take root in an organization that does not first establish a community of trust and safety through a paradigm of interpersonal deficiency gratification. Engagement, growth, innovation, and performance are not the result of any particular imperative but rather the complex interplay between all of the imperatives. Thus, in A Radical Enterprise, we’ll dive into each conceptual imperative in turn to elucidate both the theory and practice behind it, and we’ll also deepen our understanding of their interdependencies along the way.


Continue reading in A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations by Matt K. Parker.


 

- About The Authors
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Matt K. Parker

Matt K. Parker is a writer, speaker, researcher, and third-generation programmer. Over the last two decades, he's played a variety of roles in the software industry, including developer, manager, director, and global head of engineering. He has specialized in hyper-iterative software practices for the last decade, and is currently researching the experience of radically collaborative software makers. He lives in a small village in Connecticut with his wife and three children. You can contact him by visiting mattkparker.com.

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