How to build a company – Individualism, Collectivism or Tribalism

July 15, 2011

A company like ours, like many others, is based on a shared believe, a shared purpose, a shared DNA maybe even, shared interests and a place or a platform to meet, to work together, to communicate.

When we started we thought about what we had in common, why we would want to say goodbye to well paid corporate careers  would make us happy. We came to the conclusion that all of us were URUC: Unconventional, Reliable, Uncompromising and Connected. These characteristics we thought made us fit to start something together. The first year we had only two KPIs to measure our success:

  • did we feel at least three or four times a week, when driving home, feel to unstoppable urge to grab the phone, call each other and start rambling “Did you know what I did today”. Or to ask a question, ask for help or share a name and number of someone we should talk to.
  • was the bill of our monthly “first Thursday piss-up”  higher than the month before? If we operate in a network of like-minded people, at least we should be able to get them to gather at our own bar and have a drink together. If not what kind of movement did we start.
Creating and maintaining this cohesion – not only between the professionals who joined us, but also between the larger group of people, with whom we feel we also have a lot in common, such as clients, candidates, partners takes a lot of effort and not always easy if only because, although we are connected through shared interests and ideas, we also al have different ambitions and desires. Where I found we differ most is in our horizon: Some have short terms goals and ambitions, some longer term. The shorter term, the more autonomy, the longer term the more unity. There is no need for alignment. We just focussed on what we had in common.

Recently we had a workshop about work2.0. When writing a blog about this I did some research on one of the Speakers, Willem de Jager, of the E-work Foundation. This foundation started in the ’90s as an offspring from a project of the Dutch Ministry of Transport to prevent traffic jams and gridlock. Now they are very vocal advocated of work2.0. Of course by now new drivers to implement this e-working have been added such as reductio of cost and pollution, as well as increased productivity of staff. This in itself is probably more wishful thinking than an evidence-based reality, but what surprised me was that this perceived benefit was directly linked not to collaboration or a result-focussed employer-employee relation, but to the notion of Individualism:

I have to quote de Jager: “Around seven years ago, we lived in the West with the idea that our knowledge was light-years ahead of economies in for example Southeast Asia . There was some complacency about China having an economy the size of a country like Italy. (…) Now the knowledge gap is dwindling. Within a few years, our economies are overtaken by the BRIC countries.” And here it comes: “Our strength has always resided in individualism versus collectivism, in trade and entrepreneurship.The Vikings began in 900 with discovery, we knew the Hanseatic cities, the colonial powers and so on. The industrialization of the 19th century was a trend. From then were encapsulated and enterprising people started their services in exchange for a salary. We live in 2010 still with the consequences. The current system makes business very difficult. The essence of e-working to me is freeing people from their 20th century shackles. It offers new possibilities and opportunities for entrepreneurial-minded people inside and outside organizations.”

Now I am confused: is e-working, entrepreneurship, new organizational forms such as the Network Organisations supposed to push us back to the time of the Vikings and Colonies? For me How we work is a consequence of Why we do the things we do. We believe in working together with peers, sharing knowledge, ideas, contacts, access. Most companies are organised in the same way the military is. Pyramid shaped organisations with strict lines of command, and a workforce that is, same as in the army a collective with rules and procedures, and limited room freedom. Individualism is not the answer. CEOs are usually fairly individualistic, even narcistic. Antoinette Rijsenbil has done some interesting research about this amongst S&P500 CEOs. Her conclusions: this behavior might lead to undesirable decisions, even fraud. We have all seen the modern-day pirates on Wall Street (weren’t the Vikings not in essence Pirates, too?).

Our answer is the network. The expert-network, the network-company. Still there needs to be a structure, and leadership, but these can be adapted to the crowd we want to work with.

Seth Godin calls this “Tribes”, and he has written a book about it. 

Seth Godin defines a tribe as a group of people, with a shared interest, a way to communicate, and some form of leadership. Were I used to define Leadership as “VICTIM” (Vision, Inspiration, Connection, Traction, Interest, Momentum, Success), Seth Godin states: “Everyone is now also a leader”. Or: can be, because most of us are stuck acting like managers or employees, embracing factories instead of tribes. In his terms, factories are those places or organisations that crank out a product or a service, make the output measurable, and try to reduce costs. Places where your boss tells you what to do and how to do it. In these places there are no motivated people working together, and no excited clients waiting to get in. Factories can appear safe and comfortable, especially for those climbing in the hierarchy, until (The Peter Principle) everyone ends up in a job he can’t handle. Or in Seth Godin’s words: “in every organisation everyone rises to the level at which they become paralyzed with fear.”

Management is for factories, but since you can only manage activities, not people, tribes need leadership. His thesis:

  • Everyone in an organisation is expected to lead
  • It is easier than ever to change things
  • The marketplace is rewarding organisation and individuals who change things and create remarkable products and services
  • It is engaging, thrilling, profitable and fun
  • There is a tribe of fellow employees, customer, investors, believers, hobbyist or readers waiting for you to connect them to one another
So what should  a leader do? What are we trying to accomplish: we want to transform the shared interests into goals, provide support and tools for members to connect, communicate and flourish and we try to find the levers for our tribe to grow. Our challenge – or obligation –  is to activate all existing and potential Qhubans, which include our friends, our clients, our candidates, our staff, our associates, our partners, and make sure they in turn can be the leaders they choose to be.

The Qhuba Clubhouse

Meanwhile the amount of people coming to the monthly drinks-and-snacks events (as well as our What’s Qooking events) rise month after month, so that is a good sign. Shared interests can also include an interest in food and wine, apparently. Come to think of it, if having a place to work together, to connect with the people we care about is a crucial factor, we should probably share this place, too. Anyone who feels connected to Qhuba is invited to participate in our clubhouse, and together turn it into a real network cafe. More about that shortly.