All companies focus on what they put out in the world, (products, services, marketing,) but many companies spend little time thinking about what they are building within. Specifically, we’ve seen that only the most successful organizations, ie those with a strong “internal operating system”, tend to think intentionally about how they’re developing a collective consciousness. Collective consciousness refers to the shared beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and knowledge that are common to a social group or society. Originally developed by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, it informs our sense of belonging and identity, and even our behavior.
You can see evidence of this concept playing out all around you in everyday life, regardless of whether you’re aware of it or not. The ramifications of collective consciousness (or lack thereof) can be seen in small organizations and large ones.
Collective consciousness has the power to impact teams as large as the military. In Team of Teams, retired Army General Stanley McChrystal discusses how the conventional “command and control” mentality of the military, pre-2004, failed to stand up to the more unpredictable threat of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The military of the past focused on efficiency over flexibility (and therefore necessitated a high degree of control over group members).
Instead, the needs of the 21st century necessitated a mentality that allowed for more adaptability:
“the twenty-first century is more connected, faster paced, and less predictable than previous eras. Though we encountered this shift on the battlefield, similar changes are affecting almost every sector of society.”
This unpredictability and complexity necessitates a team mentality, whereby teams are deeply knowledgeable and able to solve problems as they arise, rather than awaiting word from the top. All facets of the organization needed to change, in order to develop this new consciousness. From physial space to daily briefings, the military reconsidered what information was share, to whom, and in what context. By developing the team’s collective consciousness, McChrystal was able to operate more quickly and effectively.
Why is collective consciousness important?
In the past, many organizations prioritized this “command and control” attitude. They did so in large part because progress happened slowly, and efficiency mattered more than flexibility. If you tightly control a system, (like a widget factory,) you can ensure a high degree of consistency and speed. But we now live in an age where, thanks to technology and innovation, consumer demands change rapidly and information spreads instantaneously. Because information, processes, and systems now move and change quickly than they used to, this attitude can be a liability, rather than an asset.
Furthermore, people are increasingly engaged in knowledge work, rather than repetitive tasks. Historically, complicated tasks could be broken up into discrete functions, then given to individual specialists. The work would get passed from person to person, until the product was finished. That doesn’t work anymore because products and processes are complex, and the world moves too fast to create perfect, siloed systems. By the time the system is designed, it’s outdated.
Decentralizing decision making
Generally, decentralized decision making can empower a team to execute tasks more efficiently. If employees are empowered to act without approval, they’re likely to be more careful when it comes to important decision making situations. As David Cancel points out, people are more likely to hold themselves accountable when they have more autonomy, since they feel a greater sense of ownership.
In ‘Team of Teams,’ General McChrystal points out that individuals and teams armed with insights and knowledge from the rest of their organization or wider networks are much more likely to make the right decisions and then act appropriately. However, if the individuals on the team don’t have a collective consciousness of what’s important to their managers and the company as a whole, they could well end up making mistakes or repeating work that another colleague has already done.
Building cross-functional teams
Having a collective consciousness throughout the workplace can help an organization create a cross-functional environment where people are equipped with the right information at the right time. By bringing people together from different disciplines and departments, you’re giving individuals, with a common goal, the chance to share their knowledge with others.
You need only look at Ford motor company for an example of how effective cross-functional teams can be in practice. During the 1980s, Ford introduced Team Oriented Problem Solving (TOPS) as a problem-solving method designed to:
- Find the cause of a problem
- Devise a short-term fix
- Implement a long-term solution to prevent the problem from recurring once again
This approach to identifying a problem, and then fixing it, was so effective as it drew together team members and engineers who could share their knowledge to fix a commonly encountered problem.
Prioritizing your customers
Your customer has no idea what your organizational structure looks like, nor do they care. What they do care about is addressing their problems or needs.
For example, imagine you’re a guest in a hotel. You leave the service tray from your breakfast outside your room and go about your day. You return to discover that that service tray still hasn’t been picked up. It has been there for hours. During which time there’s no way an employee didn’t walk past it.
You aren’t concerned about the shift hours or who is meant to be where and when – you just want to have the tray removed, so that you stop bumping into it. This is a situation where a collective consciousness akin to that of the Ritz-Carlton could have improved the customer experience. The Ritz-Carlton prioritizes the care and comfort of the guest above all else. It’s a mindset that pervades all levels and roles within the organization. The Ritz goes to great lengths to ensure they’re developing this collective consciousness, even starting each day with a review of the company’s service values.
Collective consciousness can help organizations break down any barriers that exist between themselves and the customer – in this case, a hotel guest. By sharing knowledge internally, teams can prevent scenarios which could lead to mistakes. Had our theoretical hotel prioritized an unwavering commitment to the guest experience, someone would have cleared away the tray, rather than adopting a “not my job” attitude.
Bonus tip: creating collective consciousness is all about trust
Finally, referring back to McChrystal’s ‘Team of Teams,’ collective consciousness is facilitated by strong relationships and most importantly, trust. People need to trust one another with knowledge and with the autonomy to act on that knowledge. Collective consciousness and trust can each exist without the other, but they function best in tandem.
This trust must exist between individuals, as well as teams. Departments historically have a competitive relationship, but to reduce this hostility, you can encourage employees to forge relationships with members of other teams and departments. It’s not possible for everyone to know each other in a large organization, but if each person knows a few others, it’s likely there will be at least one connection from each team to another. This makes it easier to disseminate the information necessary for collective consciousness to thrive.
By encouraging trust and connections within an organization, you’re building the environment in which collective consciousness can take root. People will feel more empowered to make decisions and feel more confident in acting on those decisions. The organization as a whole becomes more adaptable adapt, and all teams can more easily succeed.