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I’ve just finished reading Richard Sennett’s new book Together, which is subtitled ‘The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation’. As with his last book ‘The Craftsman’, itself a dense and detailed account of how hand and brain are inextricably connected in the practice of craft, ‘Together’ commands a huge historical, social and literary vista, in this case ranging from a Lily Allen song to the court of Louis XIV via all points between. It manages to be simultaneously erudite, earthy, unsentimental and lucid.

Many of Sennett’s key themes have lodged themselves in my brain, none though as insistently as his riff on the relationship between cooperation and civility. It crystallised something that began as a personal niggle of mine and has grown into a serious professional concern.

If finishing Sennett’s book yesterday provided fertile ground for this post, the actual seedling was an email from someone I’ve not yet met but would guess is around thirty years of age. Bear with me, it’s a significant number. This morning, not for the first time in our correspondence, they opened with a warm thank-you for my quick response to their previous message. More than a courtesy, it’s a big thing for them, clearly a (pleasant) surprise. My point here is that it shouldn’t be.

Sennett characterises contemporary Western societies as generally lacking in civility – the sensitive, empathetic, ethical approach to relations and communications with the people you need to work with to get stuff done. Whilst this is clearly true, in business the degeneration is more marked, more corrosive. And this is where age is moot; if you are under thirty-five it’s likely that a graceless and instrumental form of interpersonal relations has been your default experience at work. Because of the age-profile of creative, digital and technology businesses, they’re especially prone to it – which is my alibi for airing the issue in this blog.

You could dismiss this as the perspective of an older observer, a relic from a mythically kinder more considerate era, and I’m happy to let you have that one; the likelihood is I am from a different generation to yours. But whilst you can make a case that the degeneration of civility in contemporary business is inevitable, you will not persuade me that it is desirable.

And here’s the reason. Sennett’s thesis evoked another familiar professional experience of mine;  teaching management teams how to orchestrate multi-disciplinary work. Often their attitude to the digitisation of their particular market has evolved,  from initial denial, via a reluctant admission that this indeed is starting to happen, to a present acknowledgement that it is gathering a threatening momentum. But often it’s only the raw reality of the numbers – such as the recognition that a major revenue stream is declining inexorably – that finally brings the point home, late but hopefully not too much so.

The digitisation of just about everything is driving a new business dynamic; the resurgence of the specialist. Whilst there may be composite experts who, for example, have a skill-set that includes trend-spotting, product selection, web site design, ecommerce and electronic payment systems or crowdsourced fundraising, online platform-building, social media, mobile communications and shared-value economics, they are going to be somewhat scarce. Far more likely that an online fashion store or micro-investment initiative will be put together by a team of specialists, working together.

Which brings us back to civility. Its degeneration is totally counter-intuitive to the absolute necessity of cooperation in building complex digital products. Many leaders of businesses and teams wheedle their way around this, paying lip-service to ‘integration’ whilst in practice maintaining silos and hierarchies (which have a convenient affinity for those who are over-invested in the status quo). Map out the process for delivering a product or service and they’ll agree the specialists need to be there from the get-go. Ask them what that means in practice and they’ll invariably show  them coming on three stages in from the start, reserving the early process phases for those in charge – themselves!

Sennett closely links civility to mutual respect, empathy (which he is scrupulous to distinguish from its more self-serving cousin sympathy) being deployed to acknowledge the other’s essential contribution and value. Communications that are civil and respectful oil the wheels of cooperation and help create properly synthesised multi-discipline solutions that work, a world away from the arms-length way, for example, developers are often treated (which means they don’t understand the real purpose and meaning of the thing they’re building, with predictably unsatisfactory results),  or those pitch processes where each element is farmed out and the expert contributions are cobbled together the day before the presentation, a parody of integration that is usually transparent to the audience.

I see hope in the next generation, coming through behind those brought up exclusively under neo-conservative governments and so thoroughly socialised into a credo of miltant individualism and unquestioning materialism. Mrs Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” was a rallying cry for anti-cooperation. Yet individualism now faces a massive challenge from the sheer interconnectedness of things. There are few excuses for treating  your colleagues (if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in a position where you have some, given the level of structural unemployment in ‘advanced’ economies) as mere instruments and agents in the pursuit of your own agenda.

A renewal of civility at work and in business might just help us to get things done more effectively in the way they actually to need be done now – together.

 

On reflection I think I may have jumped the gun (by no means for the first time) with my last post: urging entrepreneurs and their senior teams to learn how to plan holistically, rather than strategically. Many don’t yet do the latter.

But, just as you a growing business needs the structures and processes of the next stage now, the entrepreneur needs the thinking and planning style that will take them through a looming transition to the next phase of growth.

As a way into this topic, let me share with you a diagram from a recent presentation I made at the UK government’s  Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)

The terminology here arose out of a somewhat bleary-eyed yet energised New Year’s Eve morning I spent with NESTA’s Jon Kingsbury thrashing out our respective approaches to supporting creative businesses. I’m the first, especially when I’m running positioning or branding workshops, to cry ‘don’t wordsmith’, usually in a desperate attempt to maintain focus on the content and not the expression. It’s one of those recurring human traits; to feel much more comfortable pushing words around into near-perfect shapes than pushing the sense of something into a semblance of meaning. My only excuse for breaking the rule on the last day of last year is that: a) it took no time at all and b) we’d already generated so much flipping meaning that I am still working my way through it.

In trying to find a neat way of characterising three recurring early stages of business growth, we certainly weren’t going to attempt to reinvent ‘start-up’ and the idea of a ‘grown-up’ enterprise seemed to fit the ones that had got through the worst bit. (by the way, those indicative team sizes below the transitions are just one loose way of defining the stages – it is just as easy to mark them by ball-park turnover numbers). It was JK who coined ‘stay-up’: not only did it fit the format we’d established with the other two; it captured graphically the plate-spinning, hamster-wheeling, Groundhog-Day state of running to stay still that seems to be a dominant feature of this stage. It describes the state of the business, the implicit strategy, the focus of the leader – and probably their sleep pattern. The MD’s number one question, while they’re in it, is ‘how do I get out of it?‘ (see an earlier post: ‘The Reluctant MD‘)

Having given JK his (well-deserved) 15 minutes, I want to focus on the three transition points, those junctures where (I’m oversimplifying to the point of caricature here):

– the individual freelance or sole trader (who often mistakenly thinks they’re already a business, just because they have a limited company) begins to build a workload and team bigger than they can handle on their own

– the initial team grows beyond the point where they can all sit around one big table, in a single room, and everyone can keep up with what’s going on by earwigging, so an informal ‘mate-y’ style of team management and communications becomes less effective at getting the work out the door

– the ‘Reluctant MD’ may be reaching their limit and the organisational structure (which resembles an upright dumbbell, flat at the top and the bottom, thin in the middle) , production and business processes are creaking at the seams.

Each transition the business inevitably goes through requires a parallel transition in the mindset and management repertoire of the leader or leaders. Einstein’s “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” becomes less of a pejorative and more a statement of plain fact. The thinking, before anything else, needs to change.

It’s not easy to do that by yourself, to yourself. It’s no accident that Einstein used the active verb ‘using’; we don’t have to possess the new thinking ourselves, we just need to use it. So we could learn it, or get it from somewhere or someone else and apply it. If we express Einstein’srule in a different way, from the entrepreneur’s point of view, it might say ‘ You can’t solve problems [of negotiating one of these transitions] by being and behaving the way you did as you built towards this point.’

Each successive watershed demands the entrepreneur expands their management bandwidth, their strategic management skills. Their operational management expertise, that enables them to run the business they have right now from day to day, is good enough to maintain the status quo; it becomes seriously challenged when called upon to envision where to go beyond an endless repetition of the day to day and to then figure out how to get there.