No, You Can’t

William Wordsworth was right in his poem “The World is Too Much with Us.” We allow ungodly influences to overwhelm our pining for God. Perhaps one of the largest flaws in secular thinking in post-modernity is the idea is that we are all uniquely special, that we should all win trophies just for showing up. We are setting ourselves up for a rising narcissism in society when we try to convince children that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. To shift that notion immediately to the absurd, I may be able to become a lot of things but becoming a member of another ethnicity should be a clear example of my limitations, and that is just the beginning.

When God was creating the earth and its inhabitants, he declared that is was not good for the man to be alone. One of the reasons was the obvious limitations of capacity one person possesses. I know that, given the fragile status of my lower back, that I cannot safely lift and carry 100 pound boxes. By working with others or machinery, I may be able to accomplish the task.

But a far more important human limitation is the individual capacity for collecting, retaining, and collating knowledge. We are finite beings, living in the presence of infinity. We cannot know everything. We are also, by extrapolation, subject to our own limited wisdom. There is a famous adage that tells us that knowledge is power. But knowledge alone is powerless. It is inert. Power comes by way of wisdom. That is, power comes when we know what to do with knowledge.

As said, knowledge is inert. It requires the catalyst of wisdom to derive any value inherent in the information we have collected. One of the reasons it was good for Adam to meet Eve was that they could not only pool their collective knowledge base, but they could reason together to discern the best uses of that knowledge. That’s called collaboration.

The reason I say “No, you can’t” is because none of us exist in a vacuum and that none of us has limitless power to do whatever we decide what we want to do. We co-exist within the network of all humankind. If the Internet has proven anything, it is that we cannot even begin to organize collective human knowledge. Coupled with the shifting sands of the changing dynamics of daily events, we are sometimes fortunate to even find our car keys, let alone solve global poverty or sex trafficking.

Yet we cling to our dreams of autonomy. We want to believe that we each decide how and where we will live. We refuse to believe that we are not in control. But if we are wise, we not only should pursue an ever-increasing knowledge base, we should also pursue collaborative opportunities to make the wisest decisions possible at every turn. Perhaps the four most powerful words in the English language are not “I do not know.” Rather, I think they are “what do you think?” Probably as powerful of a question that should always be forefront is “what don’t I know?”

One underlying problem in human endeavors, and the one that likely claims the most victims in organizational failure, is ignorance. It is more likely to undermine us than the decision making process itself. We all arrive at our decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously, by pursuing what we believe will best resolve our problems or advance our current standing. Some people make really stupid decisions simply because they do not understand the power of applying wisdom to knowledge. They can draw on their own experiences, limited as they are, or they can take a big step up and draw on the experiences of others. Greater knowledge may, if one refuses the egotism of denial, lead to greater wisdom. More information coupled with humility means better decisions.

Wise organizational leaders hire consultants or recruit advisory board members with a diversity of experience. One hopes those leaders will also look at the historic behavior of those consultants or board members to make an assessment of their successes and failures and what they have gleaned from them. Have they demonstrated growing in wisdom through both the good and the bad things that have come by their decision making through time?

As a joke, I recently ask some friends what they thought would be an appropriate hourly fee if I were to begin marketing myself as a professional conversationalist. The best answer was that I would likely have to pay someone $25.00 per hour to listen to me. Joking aside, I have updated my thinking, given my marketing experience through thirty years of business management and ownership, to think I should advertise myself as a collaborationist. It is not good for anyone to be alone and especially when faced with the seriousness of daily decision making in organizational leadership.

I know that I can bring value to the organizational operations of others simply by being present, asking pointed questions, and offering alternative thoughts on what next steps might provide desirable outcomes. I do not claim to have all the answers but those with whom I spend such time have already admitted that neither do they. But we can likely come to better solutions together than they may find in isolated contemplation. We all have something to offer and that something can be developed if we understand collaboration as an intentional pursuit. We all have unique experiences and interest, and have gained some measure of unique wisdom. But all our particularities never completely coincide with the particularities of any other single person on the planet.

The first company I co-founded with a friend was a tech pursuit. I used to encourage our employees that I wanted them to spend between ten and twenty percent of their work week away from the mundane tasks of their regular job duties to allow themselves room to think creatively. I have come to the decision that this is a good place to expand my own thinking and invoke the 80/20 rule. I do not know of very many people, at least outside very routine work settings like operating a press or assembling products, who work at their work 100% of the time they are on the clock. Sometimes they just need a mental break to step away from their computers to allow their brains to go through a refresh cycle.

If business leaders actually saw 80% productivity within the paid time of all employees, I suspect we would see a significant rise in global output. But what if we could find a way to help make that 80% more productive by making it more pleasurable and rewarding?

Here is my proposition. It contains both challenge and opportunity. The challenge: What if we required workers to complete their normal tasks in 80% of their work time to allow that 20% of their time could be spent on work and professional development? That 20% would be split evenly between isolated thought development (without electronic distractions including their own cell phones, their computers and social media, and incoming phone calls or co-worker disruptions) and focused collaborative discussions. In the first half, they could read industry or even job or skill-specific materials. Or, they could spend that time simply sitting with old school technology – a pen and paper. The questions to guide this time would include two concerns: what would make my job better for me (job satisfaction) and what would make my job better for the company (productivity gains)? Whether from quiet reflection or gleaning from their reading materials, notes would be taken on how their thoughts or the thoughts of others might be applied to advancing those two concerns.

The other half of this development time would be in intentional conversation with others to focus on fleshing out their thoughts. In some cases, workers would benefit from working with those with greater experience and broader knowledge in a mentoring mode. This works out because, for other employees, they could refine their own clarity and focus by helping those with less experience and knowledge . . . in a mentoring mode. Sometimes such sessions may prove most help in peer-to-peer conversations, working with those who most closely work in the same thought areas and facing similar challenges. In other cases, someone with a completely different perspective, from an entirely unrelated discipline, may be able to bring freshness to otherwise isolated “tower” thinking.

The collaborative conversations should be limited to two or three participants to allow each to bring the material from their thought development time to the table. The participant groupings should change from week to week to avoid tunnel vision and clique-ism. This is not just friends hanging out. And the last hour of the collaborative time would revert to isolation that each worker could tabulate their thoughts and ideas to pass up the management ladder . .  confidentially to someone other than the workers’ direct supervisors.

For one, this last piece would put some quality and performance control in place to ensure better outcomes than simply allowing people to hang out all afternoon without accountability. The second advantage is this would allow for candor, since direct reports would not have to fear retribution if their ideas are disagreeable to their supervisor. Employee inputs could be tabulated and passed to the heads of operations, accounting, and human resources for management accountabilities. And third, management would likely be surprised by the value of some of the operational, product, and service concerns, suggestions, and ideas that emerge from the process.

The opportunity is actually threefold for the worker with a bonus for the employer. For employees, they would be able to spend time thinking about what it is about their job they do not like and how to improve it. This will only work long term if management is serious about employee engagement and willing to work with the workers to increase job satisfaction. The benefits of employee engagement are already well known, especially in the direct value of employee retention through reduced recruitment, selection, and hiring costs and increases in productivity gained through the outputs of more experience workers; the one’s who have already learned more tricks of the trade.

Another benefit, which simply adds to employee job satisfaction, is significance. Most human beings have a strong desire to make a difference and to be recognized and rewarded for it. This is a psychological advantage for the worker but it would have a much more powerful impact if employers would agree to share the economic gains (at least 25%) of increased productivity that come about from the workers’ reflections and collaborations within a bonus system (the third benefit).

The obvious bonus for the employer is financial strength whether it comes from increasing sales or operational efficiencies gained from the workers’ suggestions.

To incorporate such a program would require strong leadership, one that is unafraid to run some risks, capable of carefully planning and implementation, and willing to challenge their employees to optimize their own potential. It may be that a single department could be set as a test case wherein performance could be measured over a six or twelve month period, kinks in execution could be worked out before broader implementation, and employee satisfaction (and therefore, things like retention) could be observed both objectively and subjectively (are income statements improving and is there more laughter in the office?).

Workers tend to appreciate increasing rewards, whether monetary or in other perks. But they thrive on the opportunities of becoming more significant in their work and expressions of their value to the organization. I have observed a multitude of organizations of every ilk – not for profit, for profit, cooperatives, educational and religious organizations. The two most common elements are that they all operate on the derivations of the same hierarchical organizational structure and they all live or die according to the quantity and quality of workers’ productive outputs.

Hierarchy is universally inevitable and can be modified only by degrees. Workers can be engaged or disengaged. The value of employee engagement is the key to success. No one can accomplish much alone. But organizations have the opportunity to tap into the collective knowledge of their entire workforce and to leverage that knowledge by releasing the collective wisdom of that same group.

Alone . . . no, you can’t. Together, we may have a chance at greatness.

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