Organically Emerging Team Power — an Effect of the Corona Crisis?

I wonder whether this period will just be a big parenthesis in history. When the crisis is over, will we return to our habitual ways of working and being together, or will we maintain the new collaborative behaviors we learned? My intent is rather to make this the beginning of a new chapter.
Oliver Kozak, Continuous Improvement Leader, the European Commission, Brussels

We are many who oscillate between worry and hope right now. Will we, as individuals, as organizations, as a society, as a world, learn from, and make lasting changes inspired by the crisis we are now experiencing, or will we revert back to old behaviors?

From one day to the next, many teams are forced into virtual collaboration. Without thought-out plans, change strategies or skills development efforts. We just do it. We make mistakes and try again. How can we learn from what is now happening organically, without plans and strategies? And how can we facilitate that the good stuff we’re now doing prevails?

I hear engineering teams in IKEA say that they get more done, and feel less stressed. They see the goal more clearly because there’s less distracting “noise”. Management teams in Health & Care are involving more perspectives in their decision-making. School Leaders experience their on-line meetings as more effective, they make decisions more swiftly. Less energy tends to be spent on unproductive organizational politics.

Change in the European Commission

Oliver, you have extensive experience in helping organizations to introduce a culture of continuous improvement. The way I know you, you are a tireless agent of change, who is energized by truly challenging challenges — and meaning. You want to make a difference in our world. In our conversations over the years, you have described your organization as hierarchical, with a strong culture, reluctant to implement more horizontal ways of collaborating. Is that a correct description of you and your context?

“Yes, I guess that’s pretty accurate. I want what I do to matter to the larger society. And yes, our organization is not very prone to change. Of the many things I have tried during my five years in the EU Commission, facilitating process improvements has proven to have more impact on the culture than more traditional OD interventions, such as leadership, and team development. So, I’ve decided to focus on improving enabling structures and processes first, bringing change to people’s behavior in a more subtle way.”

Could you describe a bit more, how is resistance to change visible where you work?

“Well, despite persistent work, we have not yet succeeded in deploying the latest practices for organic team-collaboration. There are pioneering teams, but these are all pockets of innovation. It’s not surprising. Looking at official organograms; the top-down hierarchical nature is very figural to me. Due to the political nature, the space is rarely safe to share openly, and to work “out loud”. In my work, implementing self-managing teams — which I strongly believe in — often feels like pushing water uphill.

Another good example is a transition we made a few months ago. We went from private offices to a collaborative open office space, but it brought only small benefits. Somehow, we managed to maintain the silo-like communication patterns of individual offices.”

What’s emerging right now

“During the past month, since we started working from home, we have a 15-minute check-in call every morning. It wasn’t in our culture before to meet with the whole team every day, share challenges[KO1] , and ask for support, this is very new. Last week, we even took it one step further.[KO2] A different team member facilitates the check-in every morning, bringing a different flavor to the conversation. A few of us are role modelling this, and the others learn on the go.

And it’s already bringing positive results! We pick up needed changes much quicker. It’s like an informal agile way of working. These daily meetings are not even mandatory, but the vast majority attend anyway. Maybe because they feel lonely, but also because they see that they are useful, productive, and fun. Despite the hard work and big issues we need to solve in our daily work, we laugh a lot in these conference calls.”

That’s exciting to hear. I know you believe strongly in enabling structures, processes and tools. Of the structures and tools your team has created, are any of them now being used, or utilized to a greater extent, in ways that improve collaboration and use of resources?

“Yes, some tools that we got in place — in strong headwinds — are suddenly used by everybody, when there’s no other choice. It’s partly tools for virtual collaboration. But in addition, a simple thing like doing job interviews on Skype was not in our process, instead people travelled across the globe for a couple of hours of interviewing. Now, all interviews must be done via an audio or video call — there is no other way. Welcome to the future!”

In addition to new meeting structures and tools, what do you see happening on a more interpersonal level?

“We are starting to show up more as whole human beings. We are more open, positive, and personal, sharing more. Which feels vulnerable in an organization like ours, where career paths and politics make us want to look good and appear strong. We need to show that we have the situation under control, which of course we must, as the main governmental organization in Europe. As a citizen, I want my government to be stable, decisive, and in control.

Today, just the fact that we need to connect from our home environments, everyone’s private life and perhaps imperfections, are right there around them. A child crawls up on a colleague’s lap, a messy bookshelf in someone’s background, a teenager slams a door … We are all vulnerable, we are in the midst of an uncertainty that we all share. Even if we don’t talk about it, we know it. It’s also exciting to see how we dare to experiment a bit more, in this vulnerability, make decisions without belts and braces.

Maybe we are training some new muscle groups. We are learning to be in control, AND be vulnerable at the same time. It’s not easy. As a Gestalt trained organizational consultant, I teach the organization to replace EITHER OR with AND. Deliver the political agenda AND collaborate at the same time.”

Making positive changes last

“As a change agent, my experience of our organization, is that it’s inert, hierarchical and rather fixed in its culture. It’s an organization that conforms to its role in society: to bring stability, resources and coordination in this ever-changing world. A point of stability to rely on. If we, in the European Commission, would change our mind easily, or come and go into existence like start-ups do, there would be nobody to lean on in society. Quitting simply isn’t an option for a government organization, so we are much more careful, and reflective, about what we do next. But sometimes, this stable nature doesn’t serve us. Many colleagues want it to be more flexible, embrace change faster, and adapt.

I wonder whether this period will just be a big parenthesis in history. When the crisis is over, will we return to our habitual ways of working and being together, or will we maintain the new collaborative behaviors we learned? My intent is rather to make this the beginning of a new chapter.”

I’m happy to hear that your intent is to make this the beginning of something new. I do think it’s possible, even in the most solid, and stable cultures. And like you often say about the EU, conservatism has its place. Maybe reluctance to change is part of what keeps us together as a European Union, which many of us really appreciate right now. But that’s a topic for a whole other conversation. What do you think is needed to create a real learning experience, to create new paths in our collective team-brains?

“Actually, what I do think will help us create a lasting impact on our culture is something, which on the surface seems simple; the deployment of Microsoft Teams, Wiki platforms, Webex conference calls, Twitter, Yammer, that are part of a new, more horizontal process. In a newsfeed of a team-space, all communication and access to information is horizontal — everything is accessible for everyone in the team. The option to exercise power by including or excluding someone in a group email, simply isn’t there anymore. Everybody sees the chat stream. In a very hierarchical organization like ours, that’s quite revolutionary. Of course, one can tweak it, but the default is inclusive, horizontal, and collaborative.

Software, processes and tools last, good managers come and go. I have seen it happen many times: We work with an enthusiastic leader to implement a collaborative culture, delegate decision making, empower colleagues. Then, when s/he is replaced, the new leader reverts the changes: Back to micro-controlling and no decision power in the team. In the end, very little remains from the collaborative culture. Software doesn’t replace passionate collaborators, but it can certainly help sustain collaborative behaviors over time.”

Seizing opportunities

“There are so many things already happening. Our team has emerged as change agents, we need to seize this sudden opportunity! My colleagues decided to use the deployment of the collaborative tool MS365, as an opportunity for organizational development. We don’t just install the software, we teach people to collaborate in new ways. And we organize workshops to extract the learnings of teleworking, reviewing what of the new habits can become “the official way”.

I’ve also chosen to support key project leaders, internal consultants, and other official and unofficial change agents. This is a unique window of opportunity for them, and for the organization. By supporting the supporters, there’s a ripple effect.

A final example of an initiative to help us learn right now. A colleague and I organized a retrospective discussion on Friday for our team, to review the week on a team level. It went really well! If proven useful, it will become an ongoing activity.”

Personally, I find myself noticing rigid patterns of thought that I need to let go of, sort of un-learn. Stuff that’s standing in the way of new, more productive ways of learning and collaborating. What do you do, personally, to seize the opportunity for yourself?

“I use this strange time to see what’s possible now, that we wouldn’t do otherwise. I asked a colleague to team up with me to improve our working habits. We’ve set up a collaborative space for working transparently — it’s so much faster and easier. In the morning, we share our daily goals, and the following morning we give each other feedback. We review the week together, experiment with Do-It-Days and other techniques. I find that my output is almost three times greater, with much less effort and stress. I learn a lot about myself, and I’m having so much fun.

This is a unique opportunity for organizational change, for promoting collaboration, starting self-managing team practices. Suddenly, things that were slow and faced huge resistance, can happen fast, and get implemented easily. And as I concluded with one of my colleagues, “this way of working in a crisis feels like the new normal”. “

Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is certain; the world is changing, and we are changing with it. Teams seem to be powering up. That’s very encouraging. Personally, I want to contribute to making this period a steppingstone for more productive, healthy, meaningful and fun ways to work together.

In this 3 minute video Ricardo Semler, one of the pioneers on self-organization and self-management, shares some thoughts on what we can learn about work from these times.

For almost daily tips on how you can navigate these challenging times I highly recommend The Ready’s Podcast.

For more thoughts on how we can create Excitement & Growth in our workplaces, visit my blog.

I’m committed to support leaders and future activists in their efforts to evolve Healthy, Happy, Humane and Effective Organisations.