Like many people in the business community, and in the world really, I was saddened by the death of Steve Jobs late last year. As I saw pictures of the mourners laying flowers outside of Apple stores, I wondered why the passing of a man that the vast majority of us had never even met would touch so many people. And I think the answer is really quite simple… he was a genius. As a marketer, as a creator, as a businessman – Jobs was so ahead of his time that the rest of us could do little but marvel at his ability to fulfill our wants and needs, even before we knew that we had them. He was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of business leader. We all knew it and we appreciated it the same way we appreciate a star athlete, a brilliant musician or a master thespian.
Perhaps Jobs’ most amazing talent was taking numerous, disparate pieces of information and putting them together to develop an innovative business strategy. His ability to read all the signs on the horizon and determine the right response made him seem almost prescient in creating products the world would eventually devour. Unfortunately, it is hard for the rest of us to replicate Jobs’ rare talent. We cannot all be geniuses so we have to do what other mere mortals have to do to succeed – we have to collaborate with others.
The decisions Jobs faced are the same kinds of decisions that all organizations are trying to tackle. To make the best decision, all available information must be considered and assimilated to see the overall trends and the right direction as indicated by the data. However, one of the biggest challenges leaders face is that the flow of information has become too vast and too complex for one person to know and synthesize everything they need to consider. In his bestselling book Future Shock, sociologist Alvin Toffler noted, "When the individual is plunged into a fast and irregularly changing situation, or a novelty-loaded context ... his predictive accuracy plummets. He can no longer make the reasonably correct assessments on which rational behavior is dependent."
This is why what Jobs was able to do was so special and why most other leaders struggle to make good decisions in such a complex world. While we may not all have Jobs’ talent for synthesizing such vast and varied information to make strategic judgments, we can still set the right course by capitalizing on the knowledge and judgment of those around us. Individually, we may not be Steve Jobs, but collectively we can replicate his ability to gather numerous pieces of information to set the right strategic direction.
Collaborative Leadership Is The Answer
Think of an organization like the human body. As a leader, you are the brain and your team members are all the other vital organs in the body. As the brain, you certainly have a significant influence on the function of the rest of the organs, but the organs can also act without your conscious thought. While you are sleeping, your heart continues to pump blood and your lungs continue to take in oxygen simply because of unconscious signals the brain puts out. An organism as complex as the human body can run because each organ is individually doing its job without you (the brain) having to consciously tell them to do it. They also take in information and make adjustments. If you are running, your lungs seek out more oxygen. If you are nervous, your heart beats faster. Your body makes millions of decisions each day without you knowing it and that’s how this complex organism survives.
In an organization where roles are well-defined and people are encouraged to take action based on their knowledge, there can be millions of decisions made that lead to the greater outcome. But getting this kind of synergy and capturing the collective intellect, knowledge and talents of the entire organization is a challenge. When multiple people are contributing to the overall goal, trust is paramount, relationships are vital and a well-defined vision is essential. When we all know what we are trying to achieve, we can work together toward a greater outcome without having to discuss each decision we are making. If we are each playing our role well and we ensure that relevant information is passed on to the people that need to know it, we can function independently but synergistically at the same time. And that is how an organization can capture the collective wisdom and abilities of the group.
As a leader, if you want to create a collaborative work environment, focus on the following strategies:
- Surround yourself with people who have a desire to work together. Look for strong communication skills, confidence and a need to constantly learn.
- Encourage strong relationships among your team. People will communicate naturally when they actually enjoy talking to the people around them.
- Listen to others’ ideas. Your team members are more apt to think innovatively and contribute their thinking when you listen and take their suggestions to heart.
- Support creative and innovative thinking. Encourage your team members to experiment with different ways to achieve their goals.
In our complex and ever-changing world, capturing the collective wisdom of your team and motivating them to contribute their individual leadership voice is essential. One person simply cannot consider enough information, make enough decisions and drive enough innovation to tackle all the new challenges we must face. A collaborative leadership environment not only engages and motivates your team, but it also multiplies strategic decision-making, new ideas and, ultimately, growth opportunities.