Collaboration – It’s in our DNA

Collaboration – It’s in our DNA

By Mark Benbow

Just over a year ago, a friend of mine recommended a book I had not heard of called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harari, 2014). Considering how much I enjoyed their previous suggestions, I turned the first few pages with much appetite for the journey ahead. A journey that exposed me to two of the finest books I have ever read, and brought history, humankind and the future to life in a way I would not have thought possible. As I reflect on both Sapiens and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, there are numerous thought provoking discussions on human behaviour that caused me to raise an eyebrow or lose myself in analysing us.

Being in the world of business psychology and human behaviour, maybe I am moulded to analyse Harari’s viewpoints through a particular lens. Perhaps that is why one of the things that struck me the most was his summary of why humankind came to dominate the planet. Harari acknowledges the importance of the cognitive and agricultural revolutions, yet he still suggests that “twenty thousand years ago, the average Sapiens probably had higher intelligence and better toolmaking skills than the average Sapiens of today” (Harari, 2017, p.131). Indeed, “in the Stone Age, natural selection tested you every single moment of every single day, and if you flunked any of its numerous tests, you were pushing up daisies in no time” (Harari, 2017, p.131). How then, has humankind become so much stronger and gone from “hunting mammoth to exploring the solar system” (Harari, 2017, p.131)?

Harari’s research has highlighted two factors related to cooperation that have enabled our species to get ahead, namely: flexibility and large numbers. “Ants and bees learnt to cooperate en masse millions of years before Sapiens, yet their cooperation lacks flexibility” (Harari, 2017, p.131) and they are unable to adapt to new opportunities or threats. Conversely, “social mammals such as elephants and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than bees, but they do so only with small numbers of friends and family members. Their cooperation is based on personal acquaintance” (Harari, 2017, p.131). Harari concludes that, to the best of our knowledge, only Sapiens can cooperate flexibly in large numbers and this unique capability explains our mastery of the planet.

So, as I reflected on this I wondered what the lessons from these conclusions might be. Businesses only succeed when people are able to work together towards a common goal. We often talk about the importance of teamwork and collaboration, but how can we help leaders to harness the power of flexible cooperation within and across teams? After all, it was this power that enabled us to define nations, create written language, invent electricity, land on the moon and develop the internet. At Wickland Westcott we understand that great leadership displays itself in many guises and every business will have a slightly different take on ‘what good looks like’. However, if we look at what history has taught us, finding a way to bring diverse individuals and groups together to work as a collective should arguably be at the top of every list.

How to achieve this is where the fun starts and personality, behaviour, learnt skills and individual experiences will play their part in how effective each leader can be in driving this. That said, if our species can be defined by our unique ability to operate in this way, then we should all feel positive about the opportunity to succeed. Below are five key practical considerations to help leaders foster a culture of collaboration and use it to accelerate their performance:

  • Define a purpose that is clear, tangible and communicated consistently. Work has become more than just a job for newer generations and creating a sense of purpose is critical to ensure engagement and retain talent. This has to be more than just KPI led – the best organisations are creating a unique purpose and brand aligned with making a positive difference to the world and its future. Achieving this will inspire the collective and ensure a consistent vision that every individual and team can work towards.
  • Create a broad framework for individuals and teams to work within but allow people and teams room to explore and innovate. Structure is necessary to some degree but organisations need to be flexible and agile to allow for the most productive co-operation. Remember how we surpassed the ants and bees thanks to our ability to work flexibly. As long as the collective purpose is clear, freedom and empowerment should be disseminated as far as possible.
  • Embrace difference and individuality. Whilst there needs to be a common purpose, game-changing solutions are more likely when different ideas and approaches are brought to the table. This can only happen if a workforce is constructed of a diverse range of individuals who think differently, thanks to who they are and the experiences they have been exposed to.
  • Build trust and inclusion. The above ambitions will only succeed if every individual feels valued and part of the collective. Take time to build relationships and encourage this within and across teams. Encourage (and role model) an environment of openness where everyone feels safe to bring ideas to the table and constructively challenge peers or senior colleagues. Like with elephants and chimpanzees, understanding our co-workers more intimately increases our ability to co-operate flexibly.
  • Ensure line of sight. An overarching purpose creates a common goal but it is crucial that each team understands the part they play within the wider plan. Whether teams are aligned to projects, functions or customers, ensure each team member is clear on how their immediate group can positively affect the broader vision. Ensure ownership of this by engaging everyone within the team to co-create a team charter that aligns with the overall purpose.

Business success and effective leadership is, without doubt, based on many variables. Nonetheless, when it comes to behaviour, past performance is the greatest predictor of future performance. If a certain way of behaving has enabled humankind to achieve greatness for thousands of years, let us ensure we underpin our future success with that unique capability as well.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email

HARARI, Y. N., 2014, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, London: Vintage.
HARARI, Y. N., 2017, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, London: Vintage.

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