The future of collaboration is unstructured

by Ragu Satkunam 09 October 2019

Is our aversion to chaos stifling creativity? Often, it takes a bit of unstructured interaction amongst individuals and teams to generate the best ideas and the most productive results. Yet most organisations shy away from this sort of approach because of its perceived risks – resorting instead to structured processes that encourage collaboration and innovation but only in a predetermined space.

In a recent LinkedIn post, my colleague Marcin wrote about the need for a more autonomous, unstructured approach to collaboration – something we’ve been pursuing at Ricoh for quite some time now. This new approach is not always comfortable. It has required us to question, challenge, and forcibly erase many of our deep-seated perceptions about success in the workplace, from the personal stigma around “failure” to unhealthy desires for individual recognition.

Empowering our collaborative workforce

It has also proved intensely empowering. Not only has this unstructured approach given birth to far more ideas than ever before, but it also provides us with the autonomy to come together and pursue, evolve, or even discard those ideas according to people’s skills and interests. More than that, we’re seeing a renewed sense of purpose within the business: a sense of not only being one team but being in collective control of where Ricoh heads to next.

There is, of course, a line between creative chaos and anarchy. To stay on the right side of that line, we’ve tried to ensure that everyone shares the same vision of what collaboration is and what it seeks to achieve. That vision continues to evolve as we experiment and test what works best with one another: the same co-design mindset that we now use for our products and services is also being applied to how we work together. However, the core values behind that vision remain the same.

Power of empathy

One of those values is an emphasis on empathy – and, more broadly, treating one another as people first, thus creating an inclusive culture for better relationships and better human connection. This plays out on every level of Ricoh today, and I would credit it as the main reason why our unstructured approach to collaboration is working so well. Leaders at Ricoh spend significant portions of their time just sitting down with and talking to employees – not just about work, but also how they’re doing in their families and outside lives. There’s broad recognition that family always comes first and that although you’re expected to put in the hard yards, you also have your leader’s unflinching support if you need some time off to take care of your loved ones and private life.

Smarter organisations deploy a combination of structured and unstructured collaboration techniques, based on the nature of work and desired business outcomes, to maximise employee engagement in getting things done. I suspect the reason why many collaboration strategies fail is that they seek to buy that commitment amongst individuals and teams, instead of earning it. Earning takes time, patience, and genuine investment in people’s lives. When you do that, however, you get a culture where people want to work together – and can be trusted to do so. The future of collaboration is unstructured, but only if we take the time to earn each other’s trust, respect, and desire to build something bigger than any of us.