How do two people who’ve never met each other collaborate? This is quite an interesting question because it strikes at the heart of why the human race has been so successful compared to our fellow animals: collaboration at scale.
Collaboration allows us to perform feats that would be impossible to perform individually. For example, scaled collaboration allows us to build complicated machines, like tractors, that semi-automate farming and manage complex supply chains so we don't spend the majority of our day gathering food.
So what goes into collaboration at scale? It clearly involves a degree of good communication. And good communication relies on speed and bandwidth. As the speed of communication has steadily increased through the ages (from sending horses → letters → wires → telephone calls → emails), so has our collaboration improved.
Communication isn't enough though. The USA and Russia had a red hotline to each other throughout the Cold War, but didn't collaborate on much. There's a second ingredient: trust.
Collaboration through trust
If two people have never met each other, how can they trust each other? The answer is, they proxy their trust through a third party. This might be a company or some kind of institution. It doesn't have to physically exist. As long as both parties believe and trust in it, they can outsource their trust for each other and collaborate.
The simplest shared basis for trust between people is money. We invented money because it abstracts away the inconvenience of bartering. As long as both parties have trust in a particular currency, they can use that to collaborate.
For example, the North Koreans and the US couldn't disagree more, politically. But they both trust in the United States dollar, and so they can collaborate on things like hostage negotiations.
This works very effectively for simple collaboration. For more complex financial collaboration, we combine money with legal contracts to proxy our trust to the courts. However, it does lead to a mercenary kind of relationship which, while effective, can lead to individualistic short-term thinking.
Consider a salesman motivated purely by commission. They have a part-collaborative, part-contentious relationship with the company they work for. While they rely on the company to create a valuable product they can sell, their focus is on their quarterly commission. They are competing with their colleagues and they are not incentivized to care about the long-term prospects of the company. Indeed, if the company goes through a rough patch, their incentive is to jump ship and find something easier to sell.
There are ways to solve parts of this. For example, issuing stock options to your team ties their performance to the long-term prospects of the company, which in turn incentives longer-term thinking and behavior. But you can still run into the mercenary aspect of a purely financial relationship: reduced loyalty.
So to get scaled collaboration, we need to combine financial incentives with something less transactional. There are a variety of tried and tested ways of doing this, but they boil down to three things: shared mission, shared values, and a close-knit community.
Mission vs. values
We all crave purpose and connection in life. Working on a mission you believe in with a group of people who share your values is a combination that is more intoxicating than any financial reward.
If a mission is what we do, then values are how we go about doing it. Our mission is our north star, and our values help us assemble a team, plan, prioritize, collaborate, and build the spaceship to get there.
While people may share our mission, if they don't share our values, it'll be impossible to work together. That's why it's very important to screen for values during the interview process.
They actually make hiring easier because they're a great filter, not just on our end but also on the candidates’ end. We present candidates with our values and if they don't align with them, they tend to opt out. And that's ultimately a win-win all around.
We also use our values when deliberating. Often we have to make decisions that juggle competing company priorities. Our company values often show us the way.
We like to celebrate our company values every week by highlighting a person of the week who has demonstrated a particular company value. This helps us talk about our values at every all-hands.
- Care (Give a shit). Empathize with our customers (and each other). Take the time to understand our customers’ and colleagues’ frustrations, needs, and desires.
- Craft (Master it). Own your craft. Never stop learning and improving.
- Team (Work together). Teamwork makes the dream work. Fill gaps. There’s no such thing as “It’s not my job.”
- Truth (Say it). Be upfront and candid. Say it like it is. Hold yourself and others accountable.
- Initiative (Be resourceful). Don’t wait for permission. Figure it out—or figure out who can.
- Fun (Have it). Don’t take yourself too seriously—life is short.
Picking your values
Values come from the team, not the CEO. Matt Mochary puts it well in The Great CEO Within:
One misconception CEOs sometimes have is thinking they get to choose the values. By the time you have thirty or so employees, your company has a set of values whether you like it or not. It’s now your job to codify what’s already there. While it is possible to change a value, it will take a lot of work. Agreeing on what your values are is the kind of statement that needs maximum buy-in, so it should involve your whole company. Send out a survey and gather contributions from everyone. Ask your team to suggest both a value and the name of an employee who exemplifies it. Then arrange all the suggestions into common themes, and have your leadership team vote on the final cut.
Once you have agreed on your values, use them to guide your hiring and firing. Bring in people who want to live by these principles, and let go of people who don’t. Otherwise, your values will have no meaning. Distribute your values, print them out, and repeat them until your team knows them back to front. Every week at the all-hands meeting, highlight a value and a person whose actions best exemplify that value that week.
We recommend a talk by Sebastian Deterding on What your designs say about you. Sebastian delves into the implicit values we push when creating products.