Thursday, June 4, 2009

Maximizing Our Result – Collaboration vs Ego

In my 25+ years in business I have been blessed with so many wonderful projects to participate in.

That is not to say, however, that every project that I participated in was a success.  Some were total, dismal, embarrassing failures.  As with most of us who are human, I had my part to play in the successes and failures and as most of us will admit, the greatest lessons come from the latter.

Of course, there are libraries of books that discuss “the secret of a successful project”.  There are great books on leadership, strategy, team building, processes and methodologies.  There is so much stuff on the market these days, we could spend the rest of our lives devoted to learning how to create the perfect project but never find the time to actually be involved with a project because we are too busy learning.

Over the last couple of years, I have been invited to participate in or make observation on a large number of significant-scale projects, projects on a national or international scale that hope to achieve large scale impact in a number of areas.

These projects have an interesting life cycle that I found myself musing upon this morning. 

All of the projects start with phenomenal fanfare.   The world has been waiting for us for years and we have arrived.  So we believe and shout to anyone who will listen.

The projects are staffed with enthusiastic people but not necessarily with the right blend of gifts, talents, strengths and knowledge to carry the project.  It’s kind of like the 100 meter sprinter who decides he or she will run up the side of Mount Everest.  Ahhhh – the power of enthusiasm.  Not every project can be accomplished just because WE BELIEVE.

Generous amounts of capital are infused into these projects by public and private organizations who share the enthusiasm that they too have an opportunity to change the world.  Often times they have no idea what they are investing in but they find the enthusiasm to be contagious and so common sense due diligence is circumvented.

Measures of success, critical success factors and measurable objectives are defined vaguely or intentionally left out.  After all, who needs this type of stuff when you know that the world needs what you offer and your enthusiasm and willpower can overcome any obstacle?

Execution and strategy details are not important.  The commonly offered explanation for this is that it will slow down our momentum.

For some, the details would reveal that the emperor is not wearing any clothing.  That wouldn’t be a good thing, would it?

And so the project begins.  The Big Bang has occurred, the universe that the project exists in has been created and the world waits with bated breath for a phenomenal result.  That is what our ego tells us.

Along the way, many, MANY meetings are scheduled and tons of reports and presentations are created.  The reason?  Nothing shows productivity like a lot of activity.  Who needs traction when we have tons of action?  Action implies results and results can be used to draw in additional capital if nothing else.

What about the ultimate objective?  It has kind of faded away in a haze of ego and obfuscation.  That’s ok claims our ego – we can reconstitute the objective and make corrections towards the goals at any time.

So everything is all set – the project to change the world is on its way.

It is at this point that, in my observation, project leaders and team members make a critical choice that determines how successful the project will really be, regardless of what the owners think (or hope) their impact will be.

At this point in a project, the project team has a choice to make regarding how they will maximize their result.

Do we choose to maximize our contribution and result using collaboration or do we choose to maximize our individual recognition using ego?.

Approximately 80% (Pareto rules again) of the projects I have observed come to the incorrect conclusion that every other attempt has failed or will fail because the people who are running those projects don’t have what it takes – knowledge, passion, skills, leadership abilities or some other ingredient that somehow we have a monopoly on.

Having made this decision, that 80% proceeds to reinvent the wheel, thereby condemning themselves to repeat many of the mistakes that their peers and predecessors have already made.  Oftentimes, they repeat the ultimate mistake – abject failure with no positive impact or results.

Remember the bread recipe rule that I quoted from the brilliant Gerald Weinberg in an earlier blog?

If we take the same ingredients, the same recipe and the same baker, we will always produce the same bread. 

Their ego believes that they will bake a better loaf even as they bake one identical to the disaster that others have baked.

As this happens, their ego, not willing to accept responsibility for failure, then begins to find a rational explanation for the failure.  Reasons like “so and so didn’t do their job right, the economic situation we are in today caused our capital or markets to dry up, my best person left when I needed them the most, the government passed legislation that derailed us, etc”.

Infighting begins as egos attempt to find out who is responsible for this failure.  Morale falls as the seeds of disrespect, mistrust and intentional misleading take root.

The organization or the project is dying but ego refuses to believe it and so the fighting continues until the meltdown is complete.

Meanwhile, the other 20% are asking themselves a different question:

In order to maximize my result, a result that matters more than maximizing my recognition, what organizations, people, technology, processes or anything else exist that I can leverage such that we produce the greatest result that is possible?

When one asks this question, one acknowledges a simple fact:

Not only am I not the only game in town or the smartest person on the planet, if I go it alone and a bet is made on me versus the planet, the odds-on favorite will not be me.”

We also acknowledge something else.

Not only can someone help me maximize my dream but I can help someone maximize theirs as well.

How powerful is that?

Leveraging a collaborative collection of knowledge, skills, talents and networks, a collection of people can become a phenomenal unstoppable force when the sum of those gifts is used.

When ego steps in, we use the least common denominator of all of those gifts, a very small percentage of the overall potential.

Refusing to accept a collaborative approach produces a lot of wasted resources (effort, time and money), a lot of frustration and a lot of cynicism.  We also waste a phenomenal amount of time addressing needs on this planet that are here right now and need a solution very quickly.

A touch of ego provides us with self confidence and drive.  I am not saying that we subsume our ego such that we are living doormats.

However, we need to temper the ego such that when we observe what the other person is doing and accomplishing, perhaps we need to do it with an eye towards collaboration and not using the cynical eye of competition or envy.

Maybe if we asked the question “What does this person do that I can benefit from and what can I offer to that person to help their cause?”, perhaps we can move some solutions along a little faster and with a greater impact.

Perhaps the initial question should not be an ask but an offer. 

How can I help you?

The road to success, surrounded by friends and people passionate around a common purpose, is an emotionally powerful one that not only lives with the participants forever but creates a legacy that others can duplicate and build upon.

To follow the other path, attempting to brute force one’s way without actively seeking and accepting the help of those who can make a difference simply because our ego has convinced ourselves that no one is as capable as we are, often produces lonely, frustrating, sometimes explosive, depressing failure.

While I am an optimist who looks for the best in everyone and every situation, I will say that there are some egos out there that need a failure or two to recognize the importance of collaboration.  When the lessons have been learned, those people will be the greatest champions of collaboration.

We often hear the great clichés about leaders, teams, all for one and one for all, etc.

They are great ideas.

Many a corporate rah-rah session is filled with such drivel.

However, let’s make it such that our actions speak so loudly that we can’t hear what we are saying when it comes to collaborating for success.

If we don’t, we are wasting everybody’s time – and that is one commodity that we have a limited amount of and which no known science can ever help us recover.

As Berlioz wrote - "Time is the great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all of its students.”

We have a choice of maximized, impactful legacy or a hope of maximized recognition.  What happens if the recognition is one of greed, distrust or some other attribute we would rather not be known for?

I know which choice you would make.  Let’s make it happen instead of espousing one thing while practicing another.

A lot of people are waiting for the phenomenal results you are capable of producing.

Yours in service and servanthood.



  1. Hello Harry,

    I always enjoy reading your blog. One note on this one, though.

    You may be trying to kill the tree by picking off the fruit, when you should be going for the roots.

    One of the reasons that people in projects repeat mistakes, and use ego to drive their actions, is because they are expected to.

    I work in an environment where a person, behaving in a collaborative manner, can be easily dismissed, abused, and undercut by people who let their ego win. Managers do nothing to stop it because they, too, were rewarded for the same things.

    To change the culture of a company requires individual change, but it ALSO requires intentional and reinforced executive change and leadership. It also requires targeted dismissal of the most egregious cases.

    I agree with your premise: we should make a good choice. I would simply add: companies, and leaders need to support, and promote, and reward, the individuals who are most likely to make that choice into positions where they will be called upon to make it.


  2. Nick,

    I love this observation - thank you so much for sharing it!

    I agree with you 100%.

    I think you and I are tackling the same issue using different language and context (but with the same ultimate desire and intention). :-)

    For an insightful read as to why we are raised to create the environment you describe, I'd like to suggest the book "The Path of Least Resistance" by Robert Fritz.

    It was recently put in my hands by an old friend and it offers incredible insight into the shift you correctly describe as being overdue. It also describes ways to instigate that shift.

    If you have read or do read it, I welcome an opportunity to dialog about ways to create the shift that is WAY overdue.

    Take care, Nick and thanks again for the sharing.


  3. A few observations:

    1. I've done IT projects for decades. I liken the problem to "everybody wants to be in show business", even if they know little or nothing about it. That provides support for misguided projects doomed to fail. Too much enthusiasm without enough experience, warning about past failures.

    2. Starting over again, believing in one's superior abilities is beguiling, because (another application of Pareto principle?) the first 80% is easy, especially if following in others footsteps. The last 20% is HARD! Many projects go great guns (better than the last guys) until they reach the finishing stages, and bog down, without achieving closure. Then the "blamestorming" begins, etc. Some even come away convinced that they were still right, despite the failure, and end up learning nothing.

    3. I agree with Nick, that ultimately it is an "executive problem", if the wrong kind of behaviour is even tolerated, let alone encouraged. Many times the executives are themselves "politicians", who were rewarded with promotions for very similar behaviour: gross ego, avoidance of responsibility, designation of blame, etc. Too sad.

    Good blog topics. Thanks for the interesting read.


  4. Hi Juhan,

    Thanks for your sharing.

    As I was reading, I found myself agreeing with almost everything. :-)

    One thing I would like to suggest is that we need to be the change we wish to see. Otherwise, we go with the flow, we learn from the ones we perceive to be executing improperly and then when it is our turn, we emulate what we have learned - either because it seems to be second nature or by then we reason that they had their turn so it is only fair I have my turn at the trough.

    So we must either have the guts to declare that the emperor is not wearing any clothing and strive for change internally ....


    Leave and find / create a place where this type of behavior is not condoned.

    If we stay and constantly feel the crush / frustration from living inside a stifling environment, we are depriving ourself of living a life of fulfillment, we fuel the system we are criticizing as we empower those who execute poorly and as I said, we will probably ultimately do the same thing (and be criticized by the generation that follows).

    For people who say "it is easy for you to say but I am trapped here and cannot leave".

    It that is the case, then those people should accept that they cannot leave, stop complaining and put their energy into making it the best that can within the constraints that surround them.

    Otherwise, they burn out, which doesn't help anyone in the end.

    Take care and create a great day, Juhan - thanks for sharing!


  5. Harry,
    I read your blog and immediately thought of Barack Obama's speech yesterday in Egypt. It was well-worth reading word for word. At one point he said, “Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.”

    He openly talked about the differences between Arabs and Westerners and sought to find commonality of purpose. He highlighted a collaborative approach that you suggest in your blog.

    I believe the paradigm shift of the future is one that you suggest, namely one of collaboration. This means starting in one-on-one relationships and extending to larger groups such as corporations, government and ultimately nations.

    Those that are connected and collaborating are the new movers and shakers of the world. Those that prefer the world of ego will ultimately lose connections and business.

    Most of us would rather be on a team where we sacrifice our ego for the sake of the team - all for one and one for all.

    Your message inspires us to create such teams and play ball!

  6. Dear Leonard,

    Thank you so much for your comments.

    I agree with you that the new paradigm of awareness and collaboration is starting to sweep over us.

    I believe that a little more motivation and encouragement needs to sweep over us before we finally get it to optimal potential.

    I agree with you that significant shifts in the world are starting to take root. I do think that a few more significant events are needed to finally convince all of us that this is truly the way to go. Our greatest growth comes from being stretched - and I think we have a significant period of stretching before us.

    Take care, Leonard and thank you for EVERYTHING you do to inspire and motivate others.