Rod Collins tells Dawna that executives are at a tipping point where to maintain any kind of agility requires replacing command and control with facilitating, enabling and supporting performance. But what does this mean to the average executive?
Rod Collins is the former Chief Operating Executive of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee program, which provides health insurance for about 4 ½ million federal employees and their family members in the United States. Today he is a speaker and consultant working with Optimity Advisors a colleague in the change innovation community.
Rod, if we think of the business environment as the hero’s journey for today, in our day-to-day world, we are not really paying a whole lot of attention to sea levels rising and massive change brewing. What does all this mean for executives? What is the tipping point for executive awareness?
The tipping point today is the sudden emergence of a capacity for mass collaboration, which has been created by the Internet. It has dramatic implications for executives today. Mass collaboration represents the greatest leap in efficiency of work since the mass production catapulted the industrial age. It’s interesting that you reference the hero’s journey because much of management over the last hundred years under the traditional hierarchical framework has really been focused on the ‘manager is hero’ and ‘manager is star performer’, where we bring forth the best and the brightest to the top of the organizations. Collaboration is going to change all that. Leaders going forward will be counterproductive if they continue in the hero model. The capacity for mass collaboration means that knowledge workers can self-organize, and the role of the executive is going to shift from being the boss or the individual hero, if you will, to being a facilitator of processes whereby organizations have quick access to the collective knowledge of both their workers and their customers and are able to execute on this collective knowledge quickly. The focus of work as I indicated is going to be self-organization rather than hierarchical organization. Knowledge workers can organize themselves. What they need are those 2-3 bits of information or critical factors around which to organize. And that becomes the role of the leader to call those out from the collective knowledge and make sure that the knowledge workers have awareness of those so they can effectively self-organize their work. So as you can see, that’s a very dramatically different role for the leader going forward.
If I am an executive, it means I’m going to have to see myself completely differently in terms of my self-perception and how I define myself in my role. What’s that going to do for executives? How are they going to see that, deal with that, respond to it?
I think it is going to first make them very anxious because they’re used to being the ‘boss’; directing activities. In mass collaboration, the role of the leader becomes more important than ever before. In the world of mass collaboration, one of the things executives in any industry are recognizing is that the pace of change keeps accelerating day by day. There’s no sense that that’s ever going back. With accelerating change, the leader’s role is to access the collective knowledge of the knowledge workers as fast as possible so that organizations can manage at the pace of change. Through different ways leadership is executed, for instance, by structuring meetings differently within organizations, leaders will be able to gather knowledge workers together, quickly access that collective knowledge, and then base both strategy and execution on that knowledge. It will enable organizations to move faster and smarter than their competition.
Let me give you a practical example that I think most people are familiar with. Until 1998, Yahoo was the leading search engine and no one at that time would consider they would ever use an alternative. Yahoo was based on the old management model of employing editorial experts who would decide what pages would pop up when you went to the search. Along comes Google, and in a very short period of time, they took over the lead as the search engine. What they were able to do was put a process in place whereby the customers actually decided what would come up first in the search. They were able to effectively use the collective knowledge of all of their customers and they were able to do it faster and smarter than Yahoo did, and quickly took over the market. Analogously, those executives who were able to quickly access through improved meeting processes the collective knowledge of their workers are going to work faster and smarter than the competition which is using the old traditional models.
As an executive I might be thinking: “What does this all mean to me? Does that mean I have to retool myself? Does it mean I’m going to have to examine how much of my self-image and identity is based on controlling others? Or am I deepening my existing skills? What shifts do I have to make internally in my own inner world to wrap my mind around this challenge?”
It’s going to require a significant retooling of executives. First, the focus of strategy is going to have to shift from central planning to collective learning. Right now, the world is changing so fast, we really can’t plan in any meaningful way past the immediate horizon. So if collective learning is going to be the basis for strategy going forward, it means that the planning or the strategy work, if you will, is going to be much more iterative than in the past. What executives need to be able to facilitate processes among both the managers and the workers to call out their knowledge and to aggregate it in ways that organizations don’t do today. It is possible to do that.
When I was with Blue Cross Blue Shield, we had a process that was called work-throughs. In a 2-day very innovative meeting format, we were able to tap the collective knowledge of the group. It worked incredibly fast. While leading those types of meetings – and as you mentioned before, I was the chief operating executive of the program – I never expressed my own opinions while facilitating meetings. I didn’t give any sense of direction. My role was to facilitate and bring together the knowledge of the 40 or 50 people gathered in the room. And over time, I came to recognize and truly believe that nobody is smarter than everybody. And I felt much more comfortable bringing forward the collective intelligence of 40 or 50 people through these types of processes than to bring my own thinking forward. The process led to improved business success.
The other retooling that needs to be done is that the focus of execution shifts from hierarchical organizational control to self-organization fueled by shared understanding.
If managers believe that they are in control today, it’s an illusion.
Most of the workers are knowledge workers. They’re capable of self-organizing. And most work in organization is being self-organized anyway. It’s just not being done with the full concurrence of the managers. If the managers embrace self-organization, they put themselves into a position where they can really benefit from the tremendous power that self-organization has in terms of fueling mass collaboration especially in large organizations. The critical role for the executive is to facilitate a broad-based shared understanding amongst everyone involved in the processes. And when this is done, executives will see that shared understanding is a far more efficient, far more effective driver of consistency than control could ever think of being. When shared understanding works well, you don’t have to keep running things up and down the chain of command. People are able to act at their place of location and do it in a way that is consistent with both their fellow workers and with management. And that can really increase the speed of an organization.
From a personal standpoint as an executive, if you’ve previously defined yourself based on what you know, your shift is from needing to know all the answers to being open and receptive to hearing whatever shows up.
That’s a good description. It is quite a transformation. This was a transition that I made about 10 years ago when I became convinced that a person in control could not keep up with the pace of change. I went through the transformation and some anxiety but I got to a point where I really appreciated the value of nobody is smarter than everybody. What I felt good about personally was that I had developed the skills and the competencies to extract the collective knowledge in innovative ways typically not done in organizations. Then to see that turned into market success and competitive advantage – our organization got very smart and very fast.
At the end of the day, as I was bringing things forward to my own board, their perception of my skill as a manager increased. When I would present things, I would be very clear that it was the workers and the managers who put it together. I always wanted to make sure they had credit for it. Nevertheless, I was the person standing before the board bringing this forward and they were pleased with the results. So I think that there are different types of benefits from operating in this new way. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits, because this worked so well, is that I, as an executive, slept better at night.
Natural stress-reduction! If you are an executive who holds on to command and control or insists on not making the shift in skills and thinking, what are the consequences?
I think the consequences could be fairly fatal. We’re beginning to see first evidence of that now. You hear about a number of large organizations unable to retain younger workers, especially those who are in their 20’s. They are not lasting in traditional organizations much beyond a year or two years. I suspect some executives are assuming that at some point, they’ll ‘get real’ and come back. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that there are enough organizations who are operating under what I call the new learning collaborative model that are providing alternatives for these younger workers. Managers who insist on maintaining the old methods may find themselves at a tremendous competitive disadvantage.
With the world moving fast, command and control is simply too slow to keep up with the pace of change because the interval of time that operates within an organization in terms of running things through the usual management review is slower than the interval of time with which to market changes today.
It is really going to require executives to make the shift to the new core competencies of organizational learning and mass collaboration, and they’re going to need to make the shift from leader as boss to leader as facilitator.
It also sounds like the other personal signal you have to notify you that you’re hanging on to command and control is your stress levels rise. It’s a lot more stressful to try to hang on to something you can’t control, than it is if you just let go and share control.
That’s very true. With things moving so fast, even the smartest of individual cannot process all the change as it’s happening in real time. This is why collective learning is so critical for organizations to get very competent at because it allows them to process changes in real time. When executives begin to use the different meeting formats of the learning collaboration model as opposed to command and control, they will be astounded at the untapped intelligence that has been theirs all along and it is fully paid for.
What challenges did you face yourself in making that shift from the command and control model to the learning and collaborate model?
It took courage. The first time that you go into a meeting and don’t hold it committee style, for example, but break the room into small groups, it’s awkward. As the leader, you have to have the courage to go through the awkwardness and make a certain leap of faith, because the first several times you do this, you’re not quite sure where it’s all going to turn out. As you get more experienced, you’ll still realize you’re not quite sure where it’s all going to turn out but you get more comfortable with it because you realize that that’s part of the process of getting at the collective knowledge. So much of management is over planned and having to know everything in advance that we sometimes put a premature and artificial order on market reality situations that really just isn’t true. That type of thing has to be abandoned and that takes a certain amount of internal courage.
There’s a universal principle from cultural anthropology that ties cultures around the world called the ‘open to outcome and not attached to it’.
Exactly. That’s a very good way to put it. When I would facilitate the work -throughs I refer to – which were the vehicles we used to access the collective knowledge of our workers – sometimes I would start these meetings thinking to myself, “I haven’t a clue where we’re going to finish up and I’m dying to find out and I know it’s going to be great.” And I was never disappointed.
[This podcast was originally published May 21, 2008. The original interview is on iTunes.]
Rod Collins has been sounding board for many of my initiatives. Much thanks to Rod for his consistent support and wonderful insights.
Reading the invisible is a core competency for executives and entrepreneurs. I’ll be speaking and doing a one-day workshop at Agile People Sweden October 25,26, 2016 on decision-making, cultural health and sensory intelligence. Join us!