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From Tocqueville to Software Design. Part 1 : How to influence corporate culture towards better collaboration.

October 31, 2017

“It is just chaos”


I recently came across an ex-colleague, he was close to depression because of his frustration at work. When I asked him why he felt that way, it was very difficult for him to explain: his boss was not terrible, he was well payed, he worked hard but not very long hours. After a pause he concluded: “but you see, it is just chaos …”. “What kind of chaos?” I asked. “Well, it is not that we have a lot of hard choices to make, the issue is that every little decision we make, every little step we do, has to go through the eyes of many different people, coming from different teams, with different objectives and targets, often incompatible”, he paused again “the real issue is that we all go in different directions, no one cares about each other, no one cares about the company,” he paused again “no one cares….”



The famous (and expensive) “company culture”


To hear this from one of his employees is one of the biggest fears of any CEO. Not because he cares about this specific employee (although he should) but because he knows how dangerous this is for the performance of the organization he is leading. Every manager knows that: “a good team is 50% good skills and 50% good spirit”. And by good spirit we don’t mean only “motivation” or the too often quoted “leadership”, but collaboration, trust, empathy, risk taking, no fear of failure. When we talk about organization of 5000 plus people, this good spirit is called company culture.


A great corporate culture can make companies more innovative, more performant, and ultimately more profitable. This is why companies spend a lot of time, effort and money to influence it. But what do they do mostly? 1) They invest in nice canteens and ping pong tables. 2) They pay consulting companies to define what their “values” are and then they repeat them over and over again, in leadership speeches, teambuilding events, results review, seminaries… over and over again, like a “magic formula”, hoping for results. Does it work? You know the answer, and if you don’t, you can ask my friend.


A possible inspiration: the raise of the culture of democracy


In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat, whose parents narrowly escaped the guillotine during the French revolution, started a nine months journey to go study prisons in America. Four years later he will publish “Democracy in America”, which analyses the raise of democracy and its impact on American society. It is a masterpiece, very complex in its of love and fear for democracy, and moreover it is beautifully written. I will not try to summarize it here (although I recommend reading it). But there is one point that particularly caught my attention: the importance of the “township”.


A township is a unit of local government, which can oversee entities as diverse as local libraries, senior citizen services, youth services, disabled citizen services, emergency assistance, and even cemetery services. It is an informal assembly, open to all citizens of the county.


Tocqueville considered this kind of decentralized governance as the foundation of the feeling of democracy, more than federal institutions and even more than the constitution. Not only because citizens were allowed to vote and ultimately directly manage directly local affairs (this was a nice collateral effect), but because by forcing people to work together and to understand each other, it created a sense of community and empathy: the acceptance and search of a greater good. It pushed citizens to care as much about the well-being of their family as about the well-being of their community.


If we take this last sentence and change “citizens” by “employees”, “family” by “team”, “well-being” by “performance” and “community” by “company”, we obtain the following: “a township can push employees to care as much about the performance of their team as about the performance of their company”.


“Les libertés locales qui font qu’un grand nombre de citoyens mettent du prix à l’affection de leurs voisins et de leurs proches, ramènent (…) sans cesse les hommes les uns vers les autres – en dépit des instincts qui les séparent – et les forcent à s’entraider”



The 3 requirements of a “corporate township”


1.     It is about work, real work. Making a group painting about what should be the future of the company during a so called “team building” event does not count. What about taking one day every month to actually think and influence the future of a specific service for example?


2.     It is transversal. It should generate encounters and exchanges that would not happen in normal daily business life. The head of marketing talking with an intern from customer service in front of the IT guys about the future of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system is a good example.


3.     It has an impact. As mentioned before, the primary purpose of these forums is to build a sense of community and a culture of empathy and collaboration in the organization. Still, it is fundamental for the outcome of the township to have an impact on the company direction, even if minimal. Firstly, it will engage people in participating in the township in the first place rather than considering it as “BS”. Secondly, it will bring valuable insights that will improve the company direction. If we take the example above, the customer service intern might have interesting perspectives to share with the marketing VP on what customers expect.


In the end decisions are always taken by the leadership team, but giving each employee the chance to influence them will 1) improve the quality of the decision-making process, 2) increase their sense of responsibility and their understanding of the organization, 3) make them care about the future of the company.


Next week we will try to explore how software and communications systems can help building another kind of corporate township, decentralized, ad-hoc and unstructured




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