Friday, January 18, 2013

Cooperation, Retention and Commitment

That is some title. I hope this doesn’t disappoint. 

I know many people. Somewhere over a thousand or two. Not a huge number, but large enough to be continually exposed to, or at least aware of, relationships that I do not understand, or that I feel could possibly be handled better. Here begins my crusade of the day to learn how to do relationships better. 

How do we cooperate better? It is a good question. It is also a hard question. I suppose part of the reason achieving better cooperation is a hard question is the reasons for more and deeper cooperation are likely not immediately evident. For example, I was recently (or am currently?) struggling to communicate with another individual to achieve the best results on a project. I feel that I communicate in advance of deadlines and openly discuss options, while continuing to reinforce my basic views of how value can be added to the project. However, often it seems that communication is one way. Not long ago I submitted a list of proposed solutions privately and clearly according to the boundary conditions specified at the beginning of the project, and when the meeting came to reveal the solutions to a larger audience the plan was different. I was visibly and verbally upset so much that another team member even asked if it was okay to be around the two of us at that moment. Not to be dramatic, I wasn’t swearing or yelling or throwing anything, simply frustrated. Frustrated that I was brought on to this team to contribute my experience and I was privately, but the project continued in public to diverge from my contributions and the original set of boundary conditions. The other aspect of this is that on this project I clearly do not have as much ownership of the project as a number of other team members. There is something to be said for people that have more invested than me. They have more time invested than I do, yet I do have unique experience, which in my mind brings value.

Circling back to the cooperation issue, we all want the best outcome for the project. On that we are on the same page. No one is trying to sabotage the project or just sitting around collecting experience, riches or whatever each person gets out of it. We all care. The issue is that there are many roads to Rome. Of course you don’t want to get to Rome and get lost in the outskirts without seeing anything. Thus we must cooperate so that all aspects of the project excel. 

What happens when the views on the path of the project diverge so much that one is not even sure everyone is headed toward Rome? Then you have a retention problem. A team can not follow two ideals. One can not serve two masters. Unfortunately, instead of the dramatic and ambitious, “Who’s commin’ with me?” more often people just leave, quit, or give up. Retention or lack of retention comes in many forms. Positive retention, even though “loss” of a team member, could be a college student that leaves his or her family home during the school year, but still identifies with her or his family. Negative retention could be the force out of one or more members who did not want to leave. Live long enough and you will know someone who is fired, laid-off, or has immigration status revoked despite the fact that person is the kind of person most groups would love to have. Even more likely you will hear about someone that quits something because the person was, “tired of fighting.” 

It is common to read about recruitment and retention, but even saying it in that order is inappropriate. The members of the team already have history invested in the project. A new individual does not have the skin in the game that a current contributor has. Alternatively, in my experience, all too often it seems there is a conflict between recruitment and retention. Rather the choice often seems to be recruitment not retention. The best prospects for future customers or future team member contributors are current customers or current team member contributors. It is very basic, but neglected far too often. 

If the focus strays too far to the new people, what benefits are there to stay? What does commitment to the project reward a person? Perhaps I am too naive but people seem to commit to ideals, tangible possibilities, and less often to other people. As an example, thousands of people are committed to John Deere. They use Deere products because experience has shown them Deere products work, and if the product does have a problem Deere will probably fix it. That is an oversimplification of the emotions involved in brand loyalty, but a great example. The point is, Deere sells tens of thousands of machines because of the ideals of Deere that thousands of people work hard at most days every week to make true, not because of any one or even any small group of people. For very relevant examples take Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, or General Petraeus. People let us down. The Green Bay Packers and the Boston Red Sox on the other hand are larger than the individuals that keep trying to ruin their public image. Similarly, the greatest human institution of commitment, marriage, is so difficult that we only do it in pairs because more than that would be far to difficult to handle emotionally.

Perhaps that is why teams last. At any given time the perception is that movement towards Rome is happening. People leave when they feel Rome is no longer the goal or perhaps his or her goal is no longer Rome. I am still learning. I do not have the answers. But I do feel that cooperation develops better commitment which leads to better retention. The reverse is probably true too. Invest in retention and you will gain more commitment which means people will work harder for cooperation. 

I fear for the future of our society. It seems that commitment is losing traction to things that are easy. I understand that the world moves fast and things happen faster than they did 50 years ago and people need to be able to adapt to change and a new mobile operating system every year. Yet the Large Hadron Collider wasn't build in a year. Curiosity on Mars didn't happen in one fiscal year. Good things take time. There are setbacks and challenges and arguments. This is life! 

We can not continue to jump away or cut away our relationships at the first sign of difficulty. Life is gonna hurt. You will cry. You will suffer. Can you commit? Commit to something more than your meager contribution, more than a weakly defined outcome, more than the poor relationships?

This is your wake up call. Love commitment. Play for the long haul. Can we cooperate? Please? We have a decent group of people, we should work to keep them. These goals are bigger than your ego or reputation. They are certainly much greater than I. The journey will make us suffer. The path will be difficult. We will all be broken in every way. "...when I am weak, then I am strong."

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