How Collaboration Can Save The Planet – And Your Business

What’s our Problem?

By the time this article is being written, it is clear: those who warned against the unsustainability of greed (getting more than one deserves) and fear (contributing less than one’s potential) are vindicated. No matter what the consultants advocate, the truth is that the old way of working is over. Now that we have damaged the planet sufficiently, and as a result hurt the population that rests upon it – is it any surprise that neither the planet nor the people can afford the ways profit is made?

The lesson is clear: No Planet, No People. No People, No Profit.

This is a mantra that needs no other proof than the current state of affairs. No matter the details of the collapse, there is a single concept that sums the situation and its possible remedy: ‘Sustainability’.

Sustainability: a Simple Definition

Everything on this planet is part of a cycle of birth death regeneration. There is a water cycle, a carbon cycle, a consumption cycle. Money, too, revolves. It is spent-earned-spent. Each cycle has a starting point and that point is ‘contribution’. It starts when Entity A chooses to contribute to the ‘Whole’/System (Entity B). Then Entity B pays it forward, until the contribution returns to Entity A in a new form. Entity B can be one person, or it can be many. For example, if I work as a guard in a TV channel, I contribute by letting in the right person (who has the potential to become a talented actor) through the door and keeping the gatecrashers out. Overtime the actor clears audition and performs in a play. The play is aired and earns the channel its income. I get my salary. This is a cycle – this is ‘Wholeness’. It is true for all systems of the entire world; the only difference is the level of complexity.

Given that the start of a cycle is at contribution; the life cycle starts at birth, the water cycle at rain, the money cycle initiates at spending, and the cycle of business starts at enterprising talent.

But there can be no continued contribution unless there is graceful reception on the other side. So in totality we can see a cycle as ‘an act of cooperation, a continued collaboration’. The giver is also a receiver – always. We receive with realization and give with choice.

Simply defined: Sustainability is “the act of elements revolving in an effortless cycle.”

A cycle is a complete loop. The very definition of unsustainability is an incomplete loop – a cycle broken by excess (accumulation) or by withholding (depletion).

The Giant Collapse of 2008

If material stuff is produced, but not recycled back into the system, we will end up with pollution: blocked drains, toxic landfills, and smoke-filled air. If there is money earned such as through big business, but not spent back such as through fair wage, we will end up with vast populations unable to afford business any longer – and at a tipping point, the whole system will suddenly collapse. That tipping point was reached in 2008 – when all unsustainable cycles from the natural to the economic collapsed together.

The Solution: Enable Sustainability Through Collaboration

When bad times hit, do what the poor do: help one another. Create sustaining relationships, keeping in mind the definition above: sustainability is a cycle when it is in smooth motion. This also means that when it is time for a certain cycle to end, such as in the case of an end to an entire industry, everyone in the cycle can sense the closure at once and get prepared to move on. It is more difficult to move on to bigger and better things when one is either too empowered or too weakened by a dysfunctional cycle. The first one has a vested interest in keeping things as they are, and the second one has no willpower.

It is tragicomic that in spite of the 2008 catastrophic wipeouts, most organizations are still pursuing the aim of meeting their old projected profits and other objectives using the same methods that often directly brought about this breakdown.

It is clear by now that the game and the rules have changed. But how do we move on? The real issue at this time may be a sense of insecurity and high uncertainty – the end of greed and the beginning of fear.

In my view, this is exactly the current challenge. We are no longer oblivious of the fact that the planet is in peril, and people are severely endangered from our own actions and the backlash of nature. It is also apparent by now that we have at once the responsibility, and (some say perhaps) the power to do something.

Interestingly, at this point in human history, we happen to have a technology for every need. We have also tested almost every social, political, and economic system great human minds could envision. In other words, the “hard” and the “soft” elements are present. What, then, do we need?

Answer: Collaboration

Wikipedia defines collaboration as: “A recursive process where two or more [entities] work together towards an intersection of common goals. For example, an intellectual endeavour that is creative in nature – by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus.”

Precisely because we have all the requisite technology and ideology at our disposal, our next task is to put things together in a way that benefits the wholeness of our systems. The systems are already whole (cyclic) by their nature and definition. Our real task is to develop a method that facilitates the motion of cycles. And that method is a value: working together. Collaboration.

Collaboration is a means to an end: the end is sustainability – enabling the cycle of life.

The Principle of Collaboration

There are several processes, behaviours and conversations that relate to collaboration. They are too many to remember intellectually. Another approach is to understand the fundamental principle, and then apply it to individual situations. The basic principle is: Collaboration is to facilitate the motion of a cycle. The two aspects of the cycling principle are:

  1. Increase/facilitate flow.
  2. Reduce blocks.

The first aspect is about being creative. The second aspect is about removing obstacles to creativity. Essentially both achieve the same result, but are needed together. In my view, it is the second aspect that is the real need of the time.

Easy Guidelines For Situational Collaboration

It has been assumed for a while now, especially in the business and political world, that relationships can be ‘created’. There exist fundamental principles of relation between the large and small, giver and taker, weak and powerful, etc. The task of collaborative practices, then, is to honour that which exists and to orchestrate that to use – not to attempt to forge something beyond the system.

Based on this understanding, situational collaboration can be developed.

1. Work With What Is

Resource utilization is a critical contemporary issue. Though often we are concerned with “over-utilization,” the sustainability principle suggests that in each instance something is over-utilized, there is another thing that is being under-utilized – because it is ignored or sacrificed.

The solution is to ‘work with what is’ – evaluate one’s assets, and contribute. Rather than want more resources than are already given, work with what is already given. It is far better to adjust one’s ambitions and ideas than to stretch or waste one’s resources.

2. Work With Who Is

One of the anomalies of the workplace is the poor utilization of people’s talent – though humans are the fundamental orchestrator of all creativity! Author Etsko Schuitema suggests in his “Care & Growth Model of Leadership” that we only have the license to help someone grow if we care for him or her.

If the utilization of a person’s energy under our supervision is to help them grow, what precedes this is taking care to get to know the innate potential of that person.

There is an inborn quality in each person. That quality shapes their contribution. It is the task of the system as a whole and a leader in specific to see that quality and co-create work around it. Schuitema suggests that work is a means to engage the individuals in a relationship. This brings delight back into relationships, even in the work arena.

An implied application is to use experiential experts’ help. Receive the knowledge that others have to offer. Often we refuse to work with talent that is available, in order to pursue imaginative goals. In Pakistan’s context as well as of other developing nations, this non-acceptance of our unique abilities and offerings is leading to the belief that there is a dearth of talent. If that were the case, none of the developing nations would be able to destroy as much as they do, for destruction suggests the presence of energy not utilized.

3. Increase Collaboration, Reduce Competition – Deliberately?

Competition has long been a virtue, and it had its rightful place in the evolution of human endeavour as we strove to push the boundaries of our potential and existence. I think there is less blame to be assigned to competition itself – rather the need is to realize that the time to compete has simply passed.

In this age, we must intentionally lower ‘competitive think’, and replace it with ‘collaborative think’. In my work with a beauty products client, for instance, we have chosen to see household based women entrepreneurs as friends and partners rather than as threats to our business. There is an acceptance that there will increasingly be small entrepreneurs who will test their own mettle. Traditionally the Big Business attempts to drown them out. My client took the approach of changing their business model to a modular one that suits the variable nature of workers in the fragmented marketplace for today. The immediate benefit is that energy is now reserved to co-create joyful solutions, and to do the real task of carrying the product to consumers to enhance their life – rather than being consumed by the anxiety of overcoming beyond control “competition.”

4. Minimize Legislation, Maximize Relation

Legislation is oft-invisible but often the most powerful of blocks in the way of human endeavour and relationship. The problem is very simple: we have come to believe that legislation exhausts the list of all possibilities.

Therefore, there must be a law for every DON’T and a description of every DO. This is a fallacy. Law is a limitation, and its only function is to mark boundaries and off-limit areas in a relationship. The off limits are those where, by definition, the relationship ends if one or all partners venture there.

Legislation is not the fullness of a relationship. It is the boundary of a relationship. The best constitutions of the world, therefore, are short or non-existent. A constitution as exacting as that of Pakistan, for instance, anticipates being violated as relationships and their needs evolve and as boundaries – which are not fixed – are re-marked.

Part of this practice in business is to create projects based on mutually ‘engaging’ rather than ‘acceptable’ terms. When we engage another on the basis of their fulfillment and joy they would co-create happily with us, while we can also create a beneficial ethic amongst ourselves, which helps the whole system.

The Technology

There are two broad types of technology: one is soft (conceptual), the other hard (quasi-physical/physical). The best kind the first technology is described already: it is relationships – amongst people, and then people and every living and non-living thing.

The best of the second type of technology is the Internet, identified as “the supreme communication network” and the “enabler of people” [the first and the vastly more important element in collaboration] in this Intent and Attention Era.

Outcome: Benefits of Collaboration

One would like to round off a solid case for collaboration by listing a set of definite outcomes. This, however, is not a great idea because ‘definite’ also means ‘limited’ – and limitation is resisted by human nature. Indeed it is a block in the cycle of growth. The truth is that the outcome of collaboration depends upon the clarity of understanding what it truly means to work together, to contribute, and the sincerity and intelligence with which this way is made a practice.

Despite this, the very technology of collaboration – such as shared workspaces – immediately yield certain benefits, such as:

1. Reduced Activity Footprint:

Using fewer things means lesser material is being churned out on the planet and there is less pressure on the already exhausted systems. Carbon is a fundamental measure for “activity.” Eliminating the non-essential and sharing resources implies reduced activity and therefore reduced carbon footprint.

2. Reduced Cost: Competition is cost:

Primarily because it takes attention away from creative opportunities and the right application of one’s talent. Often an entity competes with one that is different from it. I have seen media enterprises in Pakistan who ditched their niche to chase the rival’s territory (such as entertainment) – and hence led to the decline of both. Competition is a cultural phenomenon that has led to megalomania-driven growth, and decline. Henceforth, our growth should be based on service to the whole system, not competing with elements.

3. Healthy Interdependence:

A state where all elements in a cycle support and rely on each other, and are clearly aware that mutual benefit is the real benefit. This is most practical at a local level where community members work with each other and support others’ enterprises.

It is my belief that the issue that we face is not of meltdowns and painfully wrenched bailouts. It is the issue of bringing values back to the way we work. The values, in turn, are employed so we can experience the joy of being alive. That joy, I believe, is the real aim and must become a part of the world of business – and the business of the world. Collaboration, when practiced faithfully, is that joy in itself.

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    Author Information

    Ramla Akhtar is the founder of Pakistan Changemakers Hub, a connector of innovators and community leaders, and co-founder of The Oneness Breakfast, a peace initiative.

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