From Silos to Collaboration: The Process of Cultural Surgery

The leader of a large organization was seeing increasing and rapidly changing external demands.  This leader felt an urgent need to turn an organization of silos into an organization of high collaboration.  We had eight hours to initiate a transformation in the 35 senior people.  Doing so was a prerequisite to creating an ongoing transformation in the entire organization.  The 35 were deeply experienced in the tradition of silo behavior and had limited reason to believe in the possibility of collaboration.
I sometimes refer to this kind of challenge as cultural surgery.  The objective is to repair and enhance the collective mind.
Conventional thinking desires to do this through authority, expertise, and telling.  They originally asked me to come in and teach them; they wanted me to make presentations and share what was in my head.  I suggested they did not know how to ask for what they needed.
The work of the cultural surgeon is to create experiences that change beliefs.  For every surgical act, there is a feedback loop that changes the surgeon and the surgery.  The success of the operation is dependent on the capacity of the surgeon to maintain focus on the highest purpose while learning and changing in real time.
I suggested a day of learning exercises that had the potential to change the collective imagination.  They agreed.
In two warm-up exercises, I had the people define what they loved about their work.  Then I had them build their own theory of social excellence.  This led to a discussion of collaboration and symbiotic relationships.  The group was just beginning to embrace the image of an alternative, desirable, and unlikely future.  There was a seed of hope.
At that moment, a challenge came from one of the participants.  Here is an approximation, “I take issue.  In the biological world, animals meet and one dominates the other.  You have to take care of yourself or you die.  I was in a marriage.  I tried to sacrifice.  If we were trying to figure out where to go on vacation, I would defer.  I continually subordinated myself to her wishes and I was dying.  I had no self.  You have to have a self.  Symbiosis is a myth.”
The room froze, and everyone looked at me.  It was a critical moment that not only challenged my authority but also challenged the credibility of the collective objective.  The underlying message was that self-interested people naturally live in conflict and high collaboration is an unrealistic image.  Pursuing it was a waste of time.
I had the ammunition to deal with the statement.  Yet, if I had used it, I would have made a mistake.  The purpose of the surgery was not an ego-driven, intellectual victory of the surgeon.   It was to create a new, collaborative, and symbiotic culture.  To be effective, I had to give them an experience outside convention.  I had to model the building of collaboration.
Instead of immediately reacting, I paused to ponder my purpose.  My highest life purpose is to inspire positive change.  My purpose for the day was also to inspire positive change.  To do it, I needed to let go of my ego and become more virtuous.  I had to model the living of contrasting, positive virtues tempering each other.  In this case, I had to model disciplined persistence of purpose while I modeled human sensitivity and transformational influence.  I needed to simultaneously challenge and support; I needed to practice tough love.
The pause and the clarification expanded awareness.  Once free of the temptation to operate from my ego, I began to see his statement differently, as a cry for help.  I determined to operate from both purpose and compassion.
First, I honored his input.  Choosing to speak with authentic appreciation, gentleness, and respect, I indicated his observation was of great value to our entire endeavor because it illustrated two things everyone in the room had to understand clearly.  First, because conflict is natural, building high collaboration requires work.  This is why it is so seldom emerges.
Secondly, building collaboration is not about submission.  It requires purpose and loving confrontations.  We have to care enough about our purpose to surface conflicts and do the work necessary to transform them into systems of collaboration.
I pointed out that in the biological world there are alternative forms of relationships.  Some are conflictual as in the case of one animal eating or dominating another animal.  Others are symbiotic, in which one system elevates the other.  In the latter cases, both grow into something more.  I gave an illustration they could all relate to—the meeting of sperm and egg—and we traced the evolution of transformation.
I told the group that in order to soften their silos and create the culture they sought, they had to learn how to have a shared purpose and transform conflict into symbiotic collaboration.  This did not mean submission; it meant having an organization full of leaders.  They had to see a new vision and care enough to do the work necessary.  I shared the following illustration.
Stephen Covey often wrote and spoke about the need to establish win-win or symbiotic relationships.  One day a CEO challenged him.  The man told Covey that win-win does not work.  He said that every time he tried to do win-win, he ended up losing.  Covey responded, “Then you are not practicing win-win.”
I turned to the man and said in essence, “So you are right about voiceless submission and the death of the self.  That is absolutely what we are not about.  We are about a much more demanding form of work.  We are about turning natural dominance-submission patterns into symbiotic-flourishing patterns.  This requires everyone to be high on task and high on people.  We have to relentlessly pursue our purpose while maintaining our relationship of accelerated learning.
“When we engage in such work, a miraculous thing happens.  The old self evolves into a new and more capable self.  Our best self is the self that emerges when we are pursuing our highest purpose with passion and compassion.  It is a demanding form of work.  It requires that we leave the realm of fight or flight, of passive aggressive behavior.  When two or more people succeed at doing so, they form a culture that gives rise to flourishing.  When such a culture spreads, we create organizations of high collaboration.”
I asked the group, “Does this make sense?”  They affirmed that it did.  I could see an increase in trust.  This was crucial.  I was there to transform the culture of that group, and at the end the day, I would be asking them to engage in excruciating work well outside their norms.  For them to cooperate later, I had to build their trust and hope now.  How I treated each one of them determined the success of the surgery.
At the next break, I made it a point to chat with the man who made the statement.  He seemed to welcome this.  We had a warm discussion and discovered some mutual relationships.  As I walked away from the discussion, I had a genuine feeling of positive regard.  (Even as I write this I have a feeling of positive regard for the man.)  For the rest of day, he was a cooperative participant.
We went on to a seven-step process that was way outside the box.  In step one, I asked them to envision a commonly desired future, an image of their organization as an organization of excellence.  In step two, I asked them to consider what they needed to do differently to create the ideal.  In step three, they were to consider the other individuals in the room upon whom they were most dependent and specify the most valuable contribution of the other person.  In step four, they were to consider how they needed to change and specify on the other side of the sheet what they needed from the other person to make their needed change.  Specifically they answered this question, “In order for me to create a better culture, what I need from you that you are not giving me is….” In the fifth step, they delivered their sheets to the other people in the room.  In step six, each examined the sheet specifying appreciation and new expectations.  In step seven, each stood, shared what they learned, and shared the new commitments they were willing to make to create a more collaborative organization.
The last step produced deeply authentic communication.  Each person was revealing their level of commitment to the desired future.  Collectively, they were co-creating a new behavioral contract, a new narrative, or a new set of collective expectations.  They were taking a first step in co-creating a new culture.  There was much more to do, but the process had begun.
As the day ended, the participants were excited about their accomplishments.  In eight hours they had done something few organizations ever do.  They changed their collective expectations and they had a vision and strategy for changing the whole organization.  Many things contributed to this.  There was a particularly important contribution that was hardly noticed and would be unlikely to show up in a conscious evaluation.  It was a moment of pause and personal self-deepening.  This work of self-change was required of me.  Without it, I would have stayed in the norms of social exchange, and transformation would have been less likely.  This kind of work is required of every leader or teacher who seeks to create a culture of excellence.  We bring culture change by inviting people to new experiences.


  • Why do people try to bring change through authority, expertise, and telling?
  • Why does cultural change require new experiences?
  • What were the keys of success in this case?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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