You Say you Want an Evolution

On our trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota, we were delighted to find that there’s more than gold (or Mount Rushmore) in them thar hills.

There are bears.

Black bear
Black bears in South Dakota in late May

And wolves.

There are bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, bobcats and many more – peaceful herbivores and their natural predators living in apparent harmony.  Or so it would appear on the drive through the Bear Country animal park a few miles outside of Rapid City, SD.

On our tour through the park, I was struck by the behavior of the predators towards their circle of influence including their land, their neighbors – who would, in the wild, be prey – and their guests (us).  Something about all this seemed – familiar.

To Be or Not to Be – Territorial

The wolf paces his perimeter, including the apparently open gate between his land and his neighbors’, a herd of reindeer.  He has one eye on the prize, the other on us, the competition.  He can’t actually reach the reindeer because of the virtual fence under his feet that, from experience, he knows he can’t cross.  So he paces. He covets. He guards.

Timber wolf eyeing the reindeer - his prey
Timber wolf eyeing the reindeer – his prey – and us
Timber wolf guarding the gate
He’s making sure we know who owns the reindeer
Satisfied that all is well, time to rest
Satisfied that all is well, it’s time for a break

Think about these behaviors for a moment, and consider where you’ve seen them before.  Look around you – at the big wide world of commerce or work relationships where some people forget we’ve evolved.

It is true that boundaries are necessary in a civilized environment for predictability and to keep chaos at bay.

However, territorial behaviors around those boundaries limit growth, both personal and organizational.

Managers of the most successful organizations recognize that boundaries between and within job classifications, between and within departments, and between and within projects and tasks have to be understood and respected but also, at times, ignored – especially if they have a self-appointed sentry keeping close watch.

The Paradox

At first glance, it is counterintuitive that guarded, territorial behaviors prevent organizational growth.  After all, if you hoard something, doesn’t that guarantee that you will have it forever?

Well, that doesn’t work with money (stuff it under your mattress and not only will it not grow, but spending and inflation will eat at it until it’s gone) and it sure doesn’t work with other resources, especially the human kind.

In millennia past, the predator-prey model worked for us, but we’ve evolved.  A more collaborative, more open model works better now.

Just as a wolf or bear isn’t likely to attack a healthy, united herd, we’re unstoppable if we work together.

No Borders. No Walls.

Some of us have had the experience that stepping across a departmental line to lead a project or offer expertise will get you mauled in a dysfunctional organization, just as surely as stepping into a wolf or bear’s home uninvited would.

A few such experiences might make us tiptoe past the flashbacks of corporate traumas – the blame games, unwarranted credit taking, ego-driven actions, and dizzying coattail rides by colleagues and managers whose successes depended on others’ missteps or failings.  For protection, we might hide behind cubicle walls or by keeping our head down and doing just. our. own. jobs.

This doesn’t work.

We haven’t evolved this far only to regress now.  We need to draw on our collaborative strength.

In a healthy organization, cross-functional teams built on individuals’ strengths and complementary expertise instead of merely job titles or organizational hierarchies mean that project after project gets done – creatively. Successfully.  On time. Under budget.

Share expertise and ideas instead of holding them tightly to your chest and the associative interaction that results will grow bigger, stronger, brighter ideas.

No Territories. No Limits.

Empower staff to choose their projects and to collaborate with each other without interfering, but step in when they need support or guidance.

Support the best and brightest by helping them break down barriers to success —

Barriers like outdated policies or the “we always did it that ways” that stunt organizational growth and which can seem as solid as masonry walls to the staff who are trying to get work done.

Barriers like the people who spend time and energy to build silos around themselves or their allies instead of working, the people pacing territorial perimeters to keep people or bright ideas out in case that makes them look bad, the people so busy protecting themselves by hoarding information or resources while standing in the road of the rest of us trying to get the job done.

An organization without protected territories has no limits.

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