we bigger you

We Is Bigger Than You

You may have witnessed it yourself: living clouds created by thousands of starlings flying together, commonly referred to as ‘murmuration’. The way in which all the birds suddenly change direction or speed as if they were a single entity still remains one of nature’s secrets, with most scientists assuming starlings undertake this unique collective motion in order to reduce predation risk. In a similar way, great organizations are more than just the sum of great individuals: organizational strength, progress and resilience are determined by the extent to which individual employees ‘fly together’ as if they were a single entity working towards a common goal.

Just recently two Michigan State University evolutionary biologists offered new evidence that evolution does not favor the selfish. “We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable,” said lead author Christoph Adami. Their study reconfirms that humans are a ‘we-species’ at heart, nevertheless often suffering from the ‘illusion of I’. Did you know that even Thomas Edison was not operating alone, working with a team of 14 or so engineers, machinists and physicists with Edison splitting his time between inventing, dealing with clients and investors and speaking to the press?

So with human beings being fundamentally social with only a bit of independence, how can you better benefit from building a ‘we-powered’ culture?

Humans are a ‘we-species’ at heart, nevertheless often suffering from the ‘illusion of I’.

1. The intelligent WE

In his book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, James Surowiecki already highlighted the overall idea that groups of people make smarter decisions than individuals. In an opening anecdote, he shares the story of a crowd of people at a county fair guessing the weight of an ox. When averaging their individual guesses, the result proved to be more accurate than any of the estimates made by cattle experts separately. In a similar way, smart organizations tap into the collective wisdom of employees, customers and other critical stakeholders. Take the example of Best Buy. Since 2008, more than 3,000 Best Buy employees registered for its Twitter customer service channel Twelpforce. Unlike traditional customer support services, Twelpforce access is not restricted to a select group of highly trained agents, but open to an existing talent pool of employees who welcomed the chance to share their knowledge in their spare time. It is the result of a company-wide team effort, unleashing the collective cross-disciplined wisdom of people throughout the Best Buy organization. Best Buy recently took it a step further launching the Best Buy ‘Unboxed online community’, uniting their employees and customers in one place to share their experiences collectively.

Smart organizations tap into the collective wisdom of employees, customers and other critical stakeholders.

2. The happy WE

Are you familiar with the ‘IKEA effect’? Its name is derived from the Swedish manufacturer and furniture retailer IKEA, selling many furniture products that require assembly. Different experiments have revealed that, when people use their own labor to construct a particular product, they value it more – even if it is done poorly – than if they did not put any effort into its creation. So having people co-create together will not only contribute to more and better ideas, the mere act of co-creation can drive a more happy company culture. Researchers from the University of British Columbia managed to confirm this, discovering that human beings are in fact ‘pro-social’ beings: we derive happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others. In a ‘we-powered’ culture, there is no need for separate team building initiatives as people derive happiness from working and co-creating with each other every single day.

3. The economical WE

Owning assets and intellectual property decreasingly is a required ingredient for business performance. We are moving from an owning economy to a sharing economy, with resources being shared among a wider population of users, thereby driving cost efficiencies. A great example of the unfolding sharing economy is ‘The Street Store’ in South Africa. It is the world’s first rent-free, premises-free, pop-up clothing store for the homeless, accessible entirely on the street only. With their “hang up, help out” baseline, their mission is to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, making it easier to donate and more dignified to receive. Think about ways in which you can unlock the principles of the sharing economy in your organization, challenging the idea that your employees or customers necessarily need to own things instead of use them. The opportunities to drive economies of scale and stimulate group cohesion through for example shared office spaces, shared car parks or shared knowledge are massive.

Having people co-create together will not only contribute to more and better ideas, the mere act of co-creation can drive a more happy company culture…We derive happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others.

4. The conversational WE

People tend to identify with other people or brands which are aspiring and purposeful to them. Tony Hsieh, CEO at Zappos, knows all about the power of purpose, building his organization around delivering happiness instead of selling shoes: “We asked ourselves what we wanted this company to stand for. We didn’t just want to sell shoes. I wasn’t even into shoes – but I was passionate about customer service.” He knows like no one else that brand identification and great customer experiences are the most important sources of social sharing. When Universal Studios went to launch the ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ theme park, they did it by only telling 7 people. They selected the 7 most influential Harry Potter bloggers and gave them an exclusive face-to-face webinar with the creators and designers and watched the rest happen. After the webinar, the bloggers wrote in great detail about the ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ and people passed it along through Facebook, Twitter and e-mails. Within 24 hours approximately 350 million people had heard of it through trusted referrals.

5. The reciprocal WE

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”, Winston Churchill said. The effects of reciprocal acts of kindness are even larger when these are shared with others. A great example showing the power of group reciprocity is the ‘Fun Theory’, a Volkswagen initiative, stimulating people to come up with ideas that are fun and at the same time change human behavior for the better. Kevin Richardson, winner of the Fun Theory Award, wanted to get more people to obey the speed limit by turning it into a reciprocal concept: people staying within the speed limits automatically participated in a lottery enabling them to gain money for sticking to the rules. The idea was so good that Volkswagen, together with the Swedish National Society for Road Safety, actually made this innovative idea a reality in Stockholm, resulting in an average speed reduction of 22%.

People tend to identify with other people or brands which are aspiring and purposeful to them.

Are people talking in ‘we’ about you?

Have you ever noticed how sports fans talk about their favorite sports team? Right, everything they say is about we: ‘we won the game’, ‘we should not have used this tactic’, ‘luck was not on our side’. If your employees, customers and other stakeholders are talking about ‘we’, this is a sign that you are really reaping the benefits from ‘murmuration’, with everyone flying together in perfect harmony and positive spirit.

Interested in learning more on what steps you are taking to build and cherish a ‘we-powered’ company culture!
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Image credit: stillfx / 123RF Stock Photo

Kristof De Wulf started his career at Vlerick Business School, obtaining a PhD in Applied Economic Sciences from Ghent University and later becoming Associate Marketing Professor and Partner at Vlerick Business School. Together with 3 Vlerick colleagues, Kristof co-founded InSites Consulting in 1997, acting as CEO of the company since 2012, providing strategic direction and energy to more than 130 team members in New York, London, Rotterdam, Ghent and Timisoara. With over 20 years of relevant experience with world leading FMCG brands, Kristof helps global brands to unlock the consulting potential that resides in ‘ordinary’ consumers. Kristof has published numerous articles in A-rated journals such as Journal of Marketing, International Journal of Research in Marketing, Journal of Retailing, Journal of Business Research, International Marketing Review, Services Management, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, Journal of Business Ethics, etc. He is co-author of the book ‘The Consumer Consulting Board’, has been awarded with the MOAward for Agency Researcher of the year 2010, and is a regular speaker at various research and marketing events worldwide. He is included in ‘The Ultimate List of Social CEOs on Twitter’, just a few places behind Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch ☺.

  • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

    We is such a powerful word, and ethic! Another stellar post, Kristof.

    My proudest career accomplishments to date are all right here on S&S. One example is when our Senior Editor, Beth, began using “we” instead of telling us, for instance, how much she admires what “you guys” are building. I can’t express how delighted a seemingly-little shift like that is.

    Another example is every time I hear our Leaguers use “we.” Deb Scofield started in on it right away, and is advising us with her startup experience as a VC. Dr. Janet gave us access to her TeamAbility tool and coaching – again, so “we” can build this community into something closer to its potential. By now, we hear “we” all the time from our Leaguers, and it’s such a gratifying word each time it hits my ears.

    My favorite “we” of all? It’s watching the ownership our community members – our regular readers/listeners/viewers – take in helping to spread the word, in commenting… the whole thing.

    If you’re a leader of any endeavor, there is no sweeter sound than We, is there?

  • http://www.pmhut.com/ PM Hut

    Hi De,

    Another story that reminds us of the power of we is when a shepherd asked a bunch of people to take a look at his sheeps and estimate their numbers. The average number was said to be almost the exact number of sheeps.

    Sometimes though, the “We” can hurt, especially in critical decision making. The “We” can be over-cautious and hesitant, the “I” is usually more affirmative and firm. That’s why a decision made by the “I” is often better than that made by the “We”.

  • Denis Duvauchelle

    I really liked your point on the “IKEA effect” – that we place more value on something we made ourselves even if it is not a fantastic product in the end. In my team, we all get involved in each other’s part of the work and keep the projects visible in our collaboration tool. Seeing the progress being made as a whole and seeing your impact is very motivating in a team. http://blog.twoodo.com/721/definition-of-teamwork/?track=blogcomment

  • Pingback: What I’m reading now: We is Bigger Than You | Monday Musings: Work, Life and Leadership()

  • Kristof De Wulf

    Thanks for sharing Denis, we are not using Twoodo for the moment, but would definitely need to look into it!

  • Kristof De Wulf

    I agree that ‘we’ has its limitations and that in specific contexts the ‘I’ can be more powerful. Most great teams are composed of great individuals that collaborate and complement each other in harmony.

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    There’s a more human way to do business.

    In the Social Age, it’s how we engage with customers, collaborators and strategic partners that matters; it’s how we create workplace optimism that sets us apart; it’s how we recruit, retain (and repel) employees that becomes our differentiator. This isn’t a “people first, profits second” movement, but a “profits as a direct result of putting people first” movement.

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