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How radical collaboration drives enterprises

Real Conversations podcast | S5 E20 | October 26, 2023


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 decades, and is currently researching the experience of radically collaborative software makers.

Collaboration is the name of the game for many enterprises but to be truly collaborative requires a step change in thinking. Matt K. Parker, author of ‘A Radical Enterprise’, has done his research and discusses what it really means.

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity.


Michael Hainsworth: Matt Parker is a third-generation programmer who knows first-hand what it’s like to work under the thumb of a boss. The author of ‘A Radical Enterprise’ says that companies that rethink collaboration, empower employees with autonomy, and foster a culture of trust are always more successful. A radical enterprise requires both structural and cultural changes and the involvement and buy-in of leadership. He opens his book by pointing out that the world of work is haunted by disengagement, mistrust, and meaninglessness. But how did we get here?

Matt Parker: This is an interesting question. It has a long history. The reality is we have arrived at where we are today because about a hundred years ago, there was the birth of something called scientific management, and this was really an attempt to try and look at the industrial process by which we made products a hundred years ago and figure out how can we optimize it. How can we make it more efficient and more productive? The answer that they arrived at back then was we do that to the extent that we dehumanize, we turn people into machines, we turn them into cogs, and that we optimize them as if they were part of some vast biological machine.

That mentality was maybe to some extent successful at achieving the pure financial outcome, although even that is in question today based on everything we've learned about human beings and what makes them really excel at work, but it is an unmitigated disaster when you take that mentality into the world of knowledge work, right. Knowledge work is fundamentally about being able to create something that there is no existing schema for or pattern for. It's about synthesizing information and doing something with it that is, to a large extent, novel, right. You're always standing on the shoulder of giants, absolutely in knowledge work, but you are still incrementally building on top of it, and you can't make that a human cog and a machine-type process. And yet we took that management concept, carried it over into the world of knowledge work, and we limited people's creativity.

We limit people's meaningful decision-making powers and knowledge work, and that leads to people feeling really disengaged, right. You start with an industry that should be doing something creative, and you keep people from being as creative as they could be or keep people from making meaningful decisions in pursuit of something, and it turns out you get massive amounts of disengagement, right. Gallup today estimates... in fact every year over the past decade, they've estimated above 80% of workers around the world are disengaged, many of them passively disengaged, many of them actively disengaged, toxically disengaged, and it leads to over $8 trillion in lost money and revenue potential every year, right. This is a significant portion of gross sort of worldwide GDP that is lost simply due to the way we treat each other as human beings.

MH: It's remarkable that here we are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, applying Second Industrial Revolution tactics towards that knowledge worker. And as your book points out, this leads to low productivity performance and innovation weakness as well. It doesn't seem, though, to be a new phenomenon. I think back to the film Office Space and that came out in 1999.

(Movie clip, “Office Space”, 1999)

Peter: And here’s something else, Bob. I have 8 different bosses right now.

Bob: I beg your pardon?

Peter: Eight bosses.

Bob: Eight?

Peter: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have 8 different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled. That and the fear of losing my job. But y’know, Bob, that will make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

MP: Yeah. No, we've had this wrong for a long time, right. No sooner had computers become something that companies started to buy than companies began to apply their existing management process to the people that worked with those computers. My grandfather was one of the first people on the planet to have the privilege of programming computers. He was among one of those first companies out there, a large insurance company that said, "Hey, we could automate a lot of manual accounting if we bought one of these amazing computing machines, but we need people to figure out how to program it."

So the problem was they never realized in the beginning that this is a fundamentally different thing that working with a computer, building software about starting with a blank screen, starting with a machine that is a general purpose machine that can do anything almost, and then creating something with that, right. It is fundamentally creative, but if you carry into the workplace in which people are doing that kind of work, an outdated concept of management that is all about proscribing and prescribing what people do and how they do it, you limit the ultimate outcome that you're going to get out of this drastically to the tunes of trillions of dollars now every year. It's just a disaster.

MH: So then how would you define a radical enterprise?

MP: If everything I just said sounds pretty down, the good news is actually a lot of people all over the world a lot of companies all over the world have realized that taking scientific management and applying it to creative knowledge work is wrong, and then we had to fundamentally rethink what it means to do work on a daily basis to collaborate with others.

how we go about doing it, to enable all of the promise and benefit that we should be getting from knowledge work radically collaborative companies are, ultimately, it's an umbrella term that I use for the companies that have radically rethought what it means to collaborate, right. Technically speaking, people thought that what workers did inside an industrially optimized factory was collaboration because, technically, you do have multiple people working together to produce an outcome, right.

But that is not a meaningful sense of collaboration, especially when you think about something like knowledge work, right. Collaboration within the context of knowledge work has to fundamentally honor the fact that people need to be able to innovate together. To do that requires a whole host of powers that you simply aren't going to get out of an outdated management paradigm that you have to empower people with.

MH: It sounds like one of the key components to empowering the knowledge worker of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is autonomy.

MP: Yeah, absolutely. Autonomy is a perfect word for it. Fundamentally, it means meaningful decision-making. Autonomy is all about choice. Having a choice, right. Having the ability to make a choice in pursuit of an outcome. And when you talk about an empowered employee or an empowered role, what you're really talking about is a world in which accountabilities equal decision-making rights. It's about creating a role in which this role is accountable for achieving this outcome.

But then empowering whoever has the honor of playing that role with the ability to make decisions in pursuit of that outcome, that's the definition of empowerment that I can actually achieve what I'm going to be held accountable for achieving in the first place, right. It turns out when you rethink roles in that way, you begin to craft roles in which everybody can meaningfully make progress towards a goal. And you can craft a whole constellation of roles that meaningfully complement each other in pursuit of a goal. My own background is in software development. I've worked in great workplaces, and I've worked in terrible workplaces. I've worked in radical collaborative organizations, and I've worked in the opposite of that. And I can tell you that it is such a wonderful thing to join an organization as a software developer and do it with other people in which it's very clear what each of you are there to achieve, how your roles fit together and how all of that adds up to a meaningful ability to autonomously move forward in pursuit of an outcome.

MH: It's amazing to me because this feels like the inverse of a conversation I had to have as a parent with my preteen at one point where she was demanding more autonomy. I said, "you can have more autonomy, but with that autonomy comes responsibility." If you're going to put responsibility on the shoulders of an employee for a specific outcome, you have to give them the autonomy to be able to make the decisions themselves.

MP: Absolutely, yeah. Otherwise, you end up with disempowered roles on the one hand and unconstrained tyrants on the other, right. You have bosses who are unconstrained tyrants because they get to make decisions that they are not held accountable for, and they do not have to face the consequences and you have disempowered employees, on the other hand, who are then downstream of that tyrant. And I use these terms and I don't want anybody to feel bad.

I've been in a role in which I've been both disempowered and an unconstrained tyrant, like we are just thrust into these systems that don't make sense and lead to bad outcomes for everyone, and it hurts everybody. It is not fun actually to be an unconstrained tyrant unless you're a sociopath. Most of us hate it, right. Most of us feel terrible about it. Most of us feel stressed about it and it is not a good way to do things.

MH: It's funny because the blurb in your book reads, "The fastest growing and most competitive organizations in the world have no bureaucracies, no bosses, and no bull****." I suppose it's easy to argue that one leads to another, which then leads to the bull****. But as a CEO or anybody who's in a leadership position within an organization who's clawed their way to the top, they must shirk at the idea that there would be no boss.

MP: Yeah. I probably would've sold more books if I had phrased that differently, but I can't put it any other way, right. What has to change is this outdated notion of management, and there is no better word for that. In fact, two words. Maybe all three at the end of the day, bosses, bureaucracy, and bull****, right. Everybody... And I use bull**** in the technical sense. I think everybody who has worked inside a large corporate environment knows exactly what I mean when you say bull****, right. We've all experienced it, and it really ties back to the first two, bureaucracies and bosses.

Now, when I say these companies don't have bosses, I certainly don't mean that these companies don't have people who have the power to make decisions. They absolutely do, right. In fact, many of them do a much better job at making it clear who gets to make what kind of decision than normal companies, right. And normal companies, I think a lot of... If you went around and asked somebody, "What are you accountable for achieving and what decision-making rights do you have in pursuit of that," they would have no way of answering it. They have no idea. Neither of those are clear to most people in most traditional companies.

But in these radically collaborative companies, they realize that getting really good at answering that question, having very clear answers in which you not only know for a specific role what that is, but how that ties into a larger number of roles that together are working together in pursuit of a shared outcome is where the real magic and power of radical collaboration comes from because you don't have people stepping on each other's toes anymore.

You don't have unconstrained tyrants and disempowered employees. You don't have vague situations in which no one knows who's accountable for anything, and therefore no one does anything, right. It all becomes so much more crystal clear, and you discover that in these radically collaborative companies, now people have autonomy. They know what they're going after, and they know what they can do in pursuit of it, and they make decisions day to day based on that.

MH: So if I am in a position of authority within a large organization, and maybe I recognize that there's this problem with the boss versus leader mentality, and it kind of reminds me of that meme where it's split in two. In one half, it's titled boss, and it's the guy on top of the block with a whip, whipping the people pulling the block forward, and the leader is the one who's at the front of the line of the people pulling the block forward. How do you give employees agency but prevent a gatekeeper mentality?

MP: Yeah, okay. Well, this is a great question, right. Gatekeepers and related phenomena are very common in all kinds of companies. And the real problem is that it is tied to the fact that it, like many other sort of unfortunate things we see going on in companies, is ultimately related to the fact that companies are filled with these things called human beings, which are inherently imperfect, that can be selfish, that can make bad decisions, that can do things that maybe they shouldn't do but do anyways, right. No company is immune from creating situations that are toxic or less than ideal, radically collaborative companies too.

But there's a big difference between doing that sort of accidentally because of certain flaws and foibles in human nature and doing that structurally, creating a structure that reproduces gatekeepers and reproduces unconstrained tyrants and reproduces disempowerment day after day after day after day. So many companies aren't just accidentally seeing these things happen. They are structurally making them happen. They don't realize it. They don't think about it that way, and mostly because they're mired in an old way of thinking about management.

But if they were able to sort of change their paradigm and their perspective and look at it from maybe the side, they would be able to see like, "Oh, this thing we're doing, these gatekeepers, these unconstrained tyrants and everything else, they exist because we created them and our structure reproduces them day over day. We have to change fundamentally the structure of this company to make it radically collaborative." That's not the end of the story. My book actually also makes clear that it's not just structure. It's also culture and people, right. These things work together, and you're not going to get anywhere with just one side of it.

MH: That reminds me of one of the largest companies in Canada, which had at one point hired a new CEO from the other side of the world who had a very radical collaborative approach to things, and one of the first things he did was get rid of everybody's office, and he was all sort of a group-think environment.

And you had these managers who had clawed their way to the middle so they could have an office and be the boss and were furious that these perks that they had earned over the course of their career within the organization were taken away, and everybody had to  [Canadian term for hot desking] suddenly the knives came out and within two years that new CEO was gone. How do you turn a corporate culture around like that to turn it into a radical enterprise?

MP: Yeah, that's a great cautionary tale. It's not the only one, obviously. There are many more that we could point at. Zappos is another really interesting one here in the States, right. Tony Hsieh had a lot of great ideas about how to create a radically collaborative company, but he made the same mistake that the CEO you just mentioned, which is he inflicted it.

You can't force autonomy. It is a fundamental contradiction in terms, right. It is an oxymoron. These two things don't actually go together, right. And if you come in saying, "I have the answer, and I'm going to fix everything for you," you are in just yet another way doing what has always been done to these employees, doing things to them, not with them, and that is not a winning formula for success, for transformation at all, right. It fundamentally misunderstands how human beings work, and how our psychology works.

We are going to resist change no matter what if we feel like we are being changed. If we feel like we are part of that change, if we feel like we are making change, we don't resist it. We go all in on it because we're the ones meaningfully making decisions in pursuit of some change. But if change is happening to us and it's outside of our control, it doesn't actually matter if it's in our best interests, we'll reject it. Because, once again, we're just these flawed, goofy creatures, and we can't accept that kind of help fundamentally.

MH: Does creating a radical enterprise have to come from the top down?

MP: It's a good question. For starters, I think we can say, no, there are examples of companies that transformed, and that did not begin with the CEO or some other executive, right., a very large online retailer in Europe, is a great example of a company that transformed not because the leadership made it happen or spearheaded it. That being said, there are two sides to any transformation story. It's a structure and culture at the same time, and you're not going to make it to the finish line without both.

And the reality is if you were starting from a traditional corporate structure and you were trying to migrate to a radical collaborative corporate structure, you were probably never going to get there unless the leadership of your company is on board and making that happen because you fundamentally won't have the decision making rights to affect one side of that equation. That doesn't mean that you should feel like it's a total lost cause or that there's nothing you can do because there's something else that we all have the power to do.

We all have the power to decide how we treat the people around us, and radical collaboration is absolutely just as much about that as it is about how you design roles and how you piece them together into an organization that can sense and respond. It is about how you create a world in which people can innovate together and collaborate together on a foundation of mutual trust and respect. You can treat and create other people with that foundation no matter what kind of company you're in, and I know that for a fact.

MH: There isn't a day that goes by, it seems post-pandemic, where we don't have a bank CEO saying, "Everybody has to come back to the office." How will work from home, as we push back against that idea, change the future of collaboration within a radical enterprise? Can you have a radical enterprise if there's nobody in the office?

MP: Yeah. So when I went into the research for my book, I was coming out of a radically collaborative organization that was fully co-located, and that believed actually that its ability to be radically collaborative, dependent on that co-location, dependent on everyone being able to communicate synchronously and in person face-to-face. We had a whole set of beliefs about radical collaboration was not possible unless you had that fidelity, right, that in-person fidelity and that there was no rate to recreate.

That being said, I quickly realized that I was very wrong. And we were all wrong about that when I began the research for my book because I discovered there were tons of companies out there that were radically collaborative, that were not fully co-located, and in some cases, not co-located at all, had zero offices, were 100% distributed and had always been, right. And I discovered that radical collaboration is orthogonal to whether or not you are co-located or distributed just as much as it's orthogonal to whether or not you are communicating synchronously or asynchronously in all of those contexts.

The fundamental underlying human aspects of the relationship based on both need gratification and candid vulnerability are possible in all of those contexts, and the structural side of the radical collaboration equation was also totally possible in all of those contexts, so those aren't actual barriers. That being said, if you are forced into one of those paradigms, right, if you have an unconstrained tyrant telling you, "You know what? Get your butt back in the seat eight hours a day, five days a week, three days a week," whatever it is.

Even if they say one day a week, they're undermining trust, they're increasing disengagement, and they're going to lower productivity within their company. Even if they had a really solid case for why it's better, and even if they were right, at a theoretical level, humans defeat theory every time, right. We won't care that, theoretically, it's better for us. We will resist it because you're inflicting help on us. You aren't bringing us into the process of making change together.

MH: So as we move through the 21st century and we start to redefine what it means to be a knowledge worker and to build an enterprise that is working with this concept of radical agency, candid vulnerability, taking your ethos into partnerships, what happens when a radical enterprise is working with an enterprise that isn't focused on radical collaboration?

MP: Yeah. It's actually a very similar phenomenon to any company going through its own internal transformation, right, because now you're dealing with a situation in which you are trying to transform a relationship. It just happens to be external to the company, not internal, right. So an external relationship and the transformation process that you need to go through in that respect is going to be a lot like the transformation process that you have to deal with internally, right. It's going to be part structure and part culture.

It's going to be part of how you design the relationship from a structural and contractual standpoint with another company, but that is not nearly enough. And so you, if you're on the radically collaborative side of that equation and you realize you're working with a company that you're trying to radically collaborate with, who, even if they go along with a structural notion of it aren't ready for the cultural notion of it, you have to figure out how do we bring them into that process and make them just as much a part of it as we are, right.

Otherwise, you'll just inflict help on them, and it will fail for the same reasons that it would've failed if somebody inflicted help on you. A very small example of this, by the way, and I tell in the story... sorry, in my book, A Radical Enterprise, is one of the consultancies within that book, radically collaborative consultancies works with government. And they work with people inside government who are in organizations that are not radically collaborative all the time, and there's a practice they always introduce to these companies... sorry, to these people in the government organizations to start this process, and it's called balance scores.

They start every single day with these people that they're going to be working with on the other side of the company by saying, "Here's my balance score. I'm a seven today, or I'm a three today." Now, within this radically collaborative company, that was something they were already doing every single day, and when it was a way, they were able to collaborate... sorry, calibrate with each other to start their collaboration. If you work with somebody every day that says, "I'm a seven. I'm a seven. I'm a seven." And then one day, they say to you, "I'm a two."

You know, without them saying anything else, that you are dealing with a human being who is not their normal today, and you are going to collaborate with them differently because you are a compassionate person who cares about the other person on the other side. If you're going to reach out to them and say, "Is there anything that we can push off or Is there anything I can take off your plate today? Should we shift some work around?"

The same thing they would introduce to governmental organizations, and they would find very quickly that these governmental organizations, the people that they collaborated within them would start volunteering their balance scores very quickly, right. They might be skeptical for the first couple of days, but they would get into it as well, and they would break down a fundamental barrier that normally existed that told them that you couldn't be a human at work. It turns out you can be a human at work, and if you are a human at work, better outcomes happen because of that.

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