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Lessons on Collaboration from Experts

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Slowly the rear door of the livestock trailer opened, and I saw them for the first time, all thirty of them.  Jet black, pure white, and most hues in between.  Not a shared gene among them.  My D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) colleagues would triumph at the sheer heterogeneity on display. A tumbled, jumbled collection of biodiversity—an assortment of weaned lambs ready to hang out on our empty pastures for the coming summer.   

As a very amateur shepherd, I have rarely been impressed with the intellectual prowess of my sheep.  Quite the opposite. They exhibit a remarkable capacity for exercising a stunning array of sheer stupidity.  I’ll not bore you with the details, but sheep are, well, they are just sheep, which says it all, and for the most part, mind-numbingly dumb.  Yet as soon as my new charges stepped from that trailer, they became pure poetry in motion.  A flock is a beautiful thing to watch.  All thirty, diverse beyond description, yet behaving as one.  Swerving, circling, adapting effortlessly to the new terrain, new food, new buildings.  Each lamb attending instinctively to the other.  Bound by invisible chords through which all 120 legs pivoted swirled, turned, followed, led, danced and stood still, all with breathless precision.  There is a great deal that sheep do not do well, most things really, but acting as one flock is their sheer genius.   

Like my new lambs, most businesses have been transported to an unfamiliar landscape in less than a single month-end.  An invisible virus has dumped them into a foreign land.  Supply chains, customers, distribution channels, employees and shareholders have all been upended, disoriented, energized, marginalized and overwhelmed.  We are in new terrain, and pretty well all of us have never seen its’ like before.  We are united in our confusion.  

In the strange landscape that is now, we are both profoundly isolated and yet never more together as one.  This moment is an opportunity for massive collaboration.  None of us can likely get our bearings all alone, and it humbles me to think that my motley band of lambs can teach us quite a bit.  In ‘swarm’ behaviour—a biology term—independent animals move as one, and they possess a mastery of one secret we could well emulate—they instinctively pay intense attention to what their peers are doing and then instantly adapt their behaviour accordingly.  Flocks do not turn on a dime because their members can self-reference, or “take under advisement for due consideration,” the actions of their peers.  They are hardwired to avoid coyotes, and our post-COVID markets are teeming with them. 

The wise leader of the healthy human company is even now cultivating an unprecedented awareness of the emerging business landscape.  Their “intake” channels to sense movement among their suppliers and customers, in particular, are on high alert.  A grocer client shifts his store offerings as food supply chains wobble.  A university kitchen stops feeding students and partners with charities to feed the hungry unemployed.  Competing manufacturers team up to supply PPE. A global restaurant chain sends their otherwise idle staff to help an overworked grocer. Competitive health care researchers share data on potential vaccines. Neighbours shop for each other.  New partnerships and collaborations abound. They are so prevalent that competition bureaus are worried about who is partnering with who. When we are most far apart, we are moving much closer together.  Mass collaboration is in vogue because survival is a stake.  

My sheep can lead the way and suggest by their native genius that we all… 

  1. Look intensely at our supplies, customers and employees, in particular, sensing their shifting needs and every move and act, respond, now! 
  2. Watch our peers, perhaps even competitors, for they will have thought of what we might have missed, will open doors we thought were closed, will create market space to occupy.  Sense their every move and act, respond, now!  
  3. Listen and watch, not for a mythical return to normal—this will never be the old farmyard! – but for look for the plethora of new opportunity spaces; new products + services, new customers, new skills, new forms of capital, new suppliers and above all, new collaborations 

We have heard a lot these days of the longed-for “herd immunity,” well we don’t need to wait, another form of herd immunity is available now.  It’s called collaboration, and by dialing up our capacity for cooperative behaviour, instead of our feted competitive behaviour, we might thrive in a very new land.  Imagine, even a little lamb shall lead us! 

Here at The Telosity Company our motto is to “Do Good Work”. We are passionate about helping leaders build healthy human companies. For us, Purpose comes before Profit. We need a lot of the first. There will be enough of the second. If we can help, please ask.  Find us at www.telositycompany.com.

Chris Houston writes from his farm in Moffat, Ontario, where the ordered natural world and the chaotic human world get close enough so the former can teach the latter.

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