stepping stones 3
In previous articles on New Collaborative (Existential) Enterprises, I’ve explained what existential enterprises are, how to avoid the most common landmines, how viral marketing works, and the role of innovation. This article will focus on assembling the team for your New Collaborative Enterprise. This step is what differentiates NCEs most from traditional small enterprises. It is also probably the hardest step, the most important, and the most personal.

Assembling the NCE is a juggling act. You need to simultaneously accomplish two things:

  • Find people you profoundly love and respect — an NCE is a partnership every bit as deep as a marriage.
  • Find people whose skills and knowledge match, nearly perfectly, the skill and knowledge needs of the enterprise you want to build, with minimum overlap (if you have two experts in X and you only need one, guess what the two experts will spend most of their time doing?)

If this isn’t hard enough, these attributes are likely to change constantly: You may change your mind about what you want your NCE to do, you and your partners’ skills and expertise may change, and your attitude towards your partners may change (or vice versa). All of these will require changes to the team. The good news is that the selection of the team isn’t your (or any one person’s) job — it is the essential collective responsibility of the team itself. NCEs are self-selected and self-managed enterprises, because a cohesive group together can always make better decisions than any one person can. As you’re assembling the team, your first job is to explain what an NCE is and what’s so good about them to your potential partners (I’ll cover this in next week’s article in this series), so that they accept the shared responsibility for building the team and the enterprise.

This will take some practice and may have some surprising fallout. You might find that as the team assembles itself, you’re the one with the redundant skills, and the other potential partners will urge you to self-select yourself out of the enterprise. If so, it’s back to square one, creating a new team, possibly doing something somewhat different from what you had envisioned, where your skills and expertise are truly critical to the enterprise. If it sounds a lot like dating, it’s because that’s precisely what it is.

You may also find that, with the collective wisdom of the team, you may have second thoughts about what you want the enterprise to do. One team member may inform the team that the need you thought you had identified doesn’t really exist, or is quite different from what you’d thought. When you refocus on a new need, a new enterprise objective and purpose, it is likely that the skills and expertise you will need to bring it to fruition will also change, and the whole constitution of the team will need revisiting. Just remember, the selection of the team is a shared responsibility. There is no hierarchy.

There will also be a temptation, until the Internet and our society really understand NCEs and help facilitate their formation, to settle for something less than the ideal team. Obviously I can’t tell you (and your team) that this is a categorically bad idea. But it’s like lowering your sights after you’ve unsuccessfully asked several lovers to marry you, and propositioning someone you don’t really love just to get a ‘yes’. Sometimes it’s better to keep looking rather than settle for something that’s not likely to succeed or make you happy. If you want to be rich and miserable, an NCE is not the answer (marry someone rich instead).

Each potential partner brings acquired skills and knowledge to the enterprise. Let’s look at what these terms mean.

From what I’ve observed in over a hundred entrepreneurial businesses, there are five key groups of business skills:

  • Creative skills — the ability to conceive, design and apply new ideas
  • Communication skills — the ability to compose, present, and express ideas and information
  • Information skills — the ability to organize, understand and apply information
  • Interpersonal skills — the ability to appreciate, connect with, and persuade other people
  • Spatial skills — the ability to sense, visualize and coordinate physical objects and actions

While a base level of all these skills is essential for anyone who hopes to succeed in business (or anything else in life), we each excel at only a few of these skills. What we do best is largely a function of what we most enjoy doing (because all of these skills can be learned, and practice makes perfect). Our niche skills, our ‘distinctive competencies’, may be broad (across all five skill groups) or deep (e.g. the writer who composes brilliantly but can’t even deliver his own speeches, or sing his own songs, well).

Knowledge, on the other hand, is what you have learned about specific subject matter. If I want to write software, just having the skills is not enough — I also need to study and learn programming languages and about information systems and the business environments in which they’re used. Some knowledge can be acquired academically, while other knowledge can only be learned from experience.

The combination of skills and knowledge is what we call expertise. Ideally, you want your enterprise team members to have expertise. But if you’re young, you may have the skills but not the knowledge. And if you’re old, you may have the knowledge, but your skills may be rusty. Your team may therefore consist of some people with skills and others with knowledge — as long as they love and respect each other, that can be just as good as having expertise, and may be a lot easier to find.

I can see some eyebrows raising when I talk about loving the people you work with. We have been culturally conditioned to leave our emotions at the door when we go to work (and school), to spend half our waking lives sublimating what we feel and just doing what we’re told. In a hierarchical organization this is ideal, though it saps the energy and creativity out of workers. But how sick is that? Why should we spend half our lives being what we’re not?

If your enterprise is to be a place of passion, joy, and fulfilment (and it should be!), then it will be a place where emotions run free, and that means its partners need to deeply respect and love each other. No matter how perfect a fit their skills and knowledge are, if they don’t care for, and about, each other, your enterprise will be a place of chaos and conflict, and will eventually self-destruct. That makes the task of assembling the team even harder. But imagine — a whole team of people, doing what they do best, their expertise perfectly meshed, engaged and passionate and crazy about their jobs and each other — isn’t that worth the hard work of assembling the perfect team?

I have reviewed, quite negatively, the first generation of social software tools designed to help people find other people they want to be with and/or work with. It does not surprise me that many of these tools ask you for lots of personal information and seem to be used more for finding dates than business partners. In fact, I think that’s what’s good about them. Assembling the team for an NCE is a job of matchmaking, of seeking love interests, as much as it is a job of acquiring skills and knowledge in human ‘containers’. That’s one of the reasons NCEs must be self-selected: No one person can accurately gauge the affection that partners will have for each other, and it takes an enormous amount of energy and effort to find just the right people, more than any one person can hope to muster. The next generation of social software tools will, I believe, make it much easier.

The pioneers of NCEs will need extraordinary patience and tact, as all pioneers do, because we’re not used to dealing with each other this way, especially in establishing business relationships. Like all pioneers, we’ll need to learn by doing, and document what works and what doesn’t, and share this with each other, to make the road easier for those that follow.

Last but not least, I have to confess, I have found no proven, successful model yet for a complete Existential, New Collaborative Enterprise. I am hoping that when I meet with Charles Handy, whose concept of Existential Enterprise is entirely consistent with the NCE concepts I have been writing about since before I had heard of his work, he will be able to tell me some success stories. I have studied about a dozen enterprises that claimed, or appeared, to be excellent models, but found them critically lacking in one or more attributes. I know of many enterprises that have some of the attributes of an NCE, and they all believe those attributes are what make them successful and happy, but these aren’t yet the stuff of great models. If you took these attributes and combined them in one enterprise, you would have a complete NCE, and there is no reason to believe it wouldn’t be a great company, and a perfect model for other pioneers to follow. But I must be honest — all the individual parts have been tested and work wonderfully, but the whole has yet to be put together in one vehicle and driven. Before the publication of the book of which these articles are a part, I am hoping to find one, or even better, a few. If not, readers will have to settle for some limited-scope success stories instead of a comprehensive one. To illustrate this ‘chapter’ on Assembling the Team I would then fall back on three family-owned businesses I know well. Their partners meet all of the criteria I have described above — they love and trust each other, they have a perfect match of skills and knowledge between them, with no overlap or redundancy to cause ‘expertise conflicts’, and they make all key decisions collaboratively and by unanimous consensus. My only reason for not describing them in more detail here is that they didn’t have to go through the hard part of finding each other, assembling the perfect team. They were already together, by fortunate accident of birth or marriage. What’s interesting is that I also know of many failed and miserable family-owned businesses, all of which lack the love, trust, respect, and/or mesh of essential skills and knowledge that my three successful proto-NCE family businesses have.

And even more interesting, neither the partners nor the employees in these three NCE-like family businesses work anywhere near as hard as most people. They have more leisure time, more time set aside for social activities, and more fun than those in any other businesses I know. And even when they are working, it is a true labour of love. They are workplaces of great joy.

We all deserve as much.

PS: I need your help, dear readers. I have been using Charles Handy’s term Existential Enterprise, and my term New Collaborative Enterprise (NCE) interchangeably. This is probably confusing to readers, but I can’t decide which term, if either, to use. I wrote about NCEs several times before I discovered Handy’s work. His term is simpler and needs no acronym, but the word ‘existential’ sounds kind of academic, theoretical, even intimidating to those who don’t know what it means. So what name should I use?

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  1. How about Natural Enterpise? It seems to be a much more natural way of doing business.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    That’s a great name! Thanks, Harold.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Another interesting concept that I believe is at the core of Handy’s work is “subsidiarity”, and I’m curious as to what you think of that as it might interplay with an economic ecosystem comprised of Natural enterprises ?

  4. Dermot Casey says:

    Davegreat post. Existential enterprise sounds too philisophical in tone, it would put off more people that it would attract. New Collaborative Enterprise sounds OK but a little jargony. Why not ‘Collaborative Enterprise’ or ‘Participative Enterprises’. regardsDermot

  5. Dave, I kinda love you when you do these topics in your inemitable style!! Another eye and mindful essay.What do you do for fun???Robert Gagnon, a sometime metaphysician of life and bidness!!

  6. Guys: personally as Dermot said “Collaborative Enterprises” or “Participe Enterprises” sounds great to me; talking about real facts as you Dave know i have been working in an NCE since i left the consultancy (2 years a go) and o have faced some real troublems i would like to share:1. When you work in a knowledege environment the NCE seems the natural way of working but what happend when you are (or need) in the manufacturing area?? being more specific the product you develop needs a lot of labor, low technology and masive production How do you handle this realtionship?? Could you made a NCE in this environment??? -if you dont have financial goals or metrics How will you mesure productivity or eficiency???2. Financially-Center when you work with several teams madden by several NCE; somebody (that generally has been me)has to control the budget, time, etc… playing as (the ancient enterprises call) “project leader”; even there is no hierarchies people feel a little (or may be a lot) treaten for the “Financial pressure”, and even you are not a boss somebody has to give priorities to the tasks, cut some other tasks (for budgets or time reasons) and obviusly this creates conflicts because if every NCE just focus on their “core abilities” they cant (or dont want)to see the whole picture…. If you take a “japanese desicion” (trying to have a concensus between all the members)sometimes you lost oporunities and some other times it is impossible because you have some NCE memebers in others latitudes and is hard to have meetings What can we do???This are questions that i have had in my projects and i woul love to have some help to answer it… if you are interested in this..or you are trying to make your own NCE please dont hesitate to contact me. patadeperro@lycos.com

  7. Don Dwiggins says:

    Wonderfully timely topic for me! I’m working with a small group trying to decide on how to organize ourselves. The NCE model is an excellent one to play our own ideas against; we may well adapt it, or maybe even adopt it. A few more or less associated thoughts that have come up while reading the series:In the words of the statistician George Box: “All models are false, but some are useful.” This is behind my adapt/adopt distinction above.I think it’s admirable and crucially important that you’ve emphasized the provisional and incomplete nature of the model. This reminds me of the need for at least some aspects of a learning organization, a la Senge et al. Rather like the US Constitution, it’s useful if the model provides for its own revision as the enterprise learns what works well, what pinches, and what’s dangerous.While reading, I was often reminded of Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model, which covers some of the dynamic aspects of organizations that could complement the NCE model. In particular, the manual by Jon Walker at http://www.greybox.uklinux.net/vsmg_2.2/index2.html discusses it in the context of British- and Spanish-style cooperatives. (While NCEs will differ from cooperatives, they share enough features to make the paper well worth studying.) Another introduction to the VSM is at http://www-staff.mcs.uts.edu.au/~jim/bpt/vsm.html.Some aspects of the VSM that I consider relevant:- The principle that the parts of system should have maximum autonomy, as long as the coherence of the whole isn’t threatened.- The principle that subsystems of a viable system are themselves viable systems. This could give leverage in understanding how NCEs could collaborate to form “super-enterprises” without losing their essential characteristics.- The Law of Requisite Variety (see the latterreference for details) can help understand the forces that affect a NCE, and how its internal dynamics may work for or against the enterprise’s efforts to respond properly.Speaking of viability, Maturana’s concept of autopoiesis comes to mind, as a characterization of living (or viable) systems. Based on this, here’s another suggestion for a name: “Organic (Collaborative) Enterprises”, with the connotation of distributed control, adaptive growth, and viability.

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