In Shawn Achor’s latest book, Big Potential, he starts off with a story of lightning bugs in the mangroves of Southeast Asia. This particular variation of lightning bug (Photinus Carolinus) synchronize their flashes to increase the likelihood of finding a mate. Flashing alone, fireflies have a 3% chance of finding a mate, but by synchronizing, that probability rises to an astonishing 82%. This is a simple example of how nature understands that working together collectively and collaboratively leads to greater combined success of the group and the individual. This same phenomenon can enhance individual performance in organizations through collaboration that drives mutual success leading to personal growth.
By the way, in nature, this also causes a spectacular sight when the entire forest lights up at the same time with the lightening bug synchronization.
While, in this instance, nature figured out that collaboration produces better results than competition, it is counter intuitive to our beliefs or how we are raised that this could be possible for humans. We continue to believe that we need to shine above everyone else to gain the spotlight. This belief starts early in our lives and has been around for generations; however, it has been proven, through studies, that over time this obsession with being #1 has strengthened and has had a negative impact on true cooperation and ultimately both personal and organizational performance.
Companies continue to maintain “cooperation”, “collaboration” and “team work” in their corporate values slides; however, establish measurements that are counter to these statements. For instance, it is very common for a challenge to be created along the lines of “the first team to achieve $100M in revenue receives a special bonus”. On the surface, this may seem like friendly competition to drive both teams to strive harder to reach the $100M target. But what if by cooperating the teams could have achieved $200M more quickly or even $250M by identifying additional synergies?
Throughout my career, I have seen examples on both sides of this equation – individualism undermining potential success and true collaboration driving greater success. While maybe not flashing in 100% synchronization as the Southeast Asia lightning bugs, the teams operate toward common success and support the value of team strength.
In one instance, I was lucky enough to be part of an organization that grew revenues 7X in 4 years. Additionally, we went from operating at a loss to significant operating margins. While there were many reasons for this growth – great people, strong market and a leading product, other regions had many of these same elements, but lacked the level of collaboration that we created in our region. While the corporate culture was more cut throat, we were lucky enough to be a remote region and isolated from that divisive atmosphere. We knew that we wanted to deliver the highest corporate results, what we often referred to as “big bags of cash” to corporate (in the form of operating margin), and we had our style to drive that success. Being in the Americas region and part of a UK based company, we were considered “cowboys”.
Our team was built with diverse core capabilities that could operate in unison to continue to deliver sustainable successful weeks, months and quarters. 4 key elements of the culture we built were –
- Respect – the foundational core value that everything else layered on was respect. We listened to each other’s inputs, exchanged ideas and accepted constructive advice for improvement. Once organizations lose respect within their teams, the core will begin to crumble and put it in a downward spiral.
- Commitment – each member of the team was committed to achieving our greater purpose and ended up with seeing significant opportunities for their personal growth. The team also experienced personal joy of collaborating.
- Team Results – by setting a collective team target, made up of a combination of the individual goals with clear responsibilities, the team worked together. Even if an individual focused solely on achieving their personal targets, they may achieve that particular goal, but wouldn’t be specifically recognized until the collective target was achieved.
- Accountability – as we worked toward the team targets/goals, there was a level of holding each other accountable as well as ourselves individually. Based on having a core value of respect, this was managed in a professional manner, but the reality was that everyone wanted to perform to support the team.
As you build out the culture of your company and team, remember the phenomenal increase in success that the lightning bugs in the mangroves of Southeast Asia achieved by collaborating and operating in unison. I know you will see significant results.