June 13, 2017

Collaboration and our Brave New World

By Alan Furlong | 13 June 2017

The world has changed, and continues to do so, at what feels like an ever-faster pace.

The models of business that were developed through the industrial revolution are no longer fit for purpose. ‘Command and control’ management is ineffective where success depends on each individual’s ability to respond and adapt.

We need to let go of the old paradigms and take a fresh look at ourselves and our business lives. In 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill-health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health1. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS)2 show output per working hour in the UK dipping to 15.9 per cent below the average for the rest of the G7 advanced economies. Let’s be honest – something’s not working, and these figures show that the damage is being felt equally by individuals and businesses. We need to act. We are part of an exciting new age of transformation – and the Agile way of working points us towards our brave new world.

Agile is changing the working paradigm

If we accept that we are social animals, then it makes sense that collaboration sits at the heart of an Agile way of working. Agile is changing the working paradigm, and we need to focus on building a new set of skills and competencies that make collaboration effective, based on the developing sciences of what makes us really thrive.

We collaborate better when we understand others, when we can put ourselves in someone else’s position and look at a problem from a variety of perspectives and not just our own. To do this, we need to understand a bit about how the human brain works. When we collaborate well the brain produces oxytocin, the neurochemical that makes us feel good and encourages us to collaborate more with others. It is vital to any healthy team.

Stress reduces our capacity for problem solving

Unfortunately, in many organisations today stress gets in the way. When we generate the stress hormone cortisol, it significantly reduces our capacity for problem solving. It puts us on ‘red alert’ for threats and makes balanced analysis difficult. When people don’t feel safe, they can’t see the bigger picture and their field of vision narrows to focus solely on the ‘threat’ in front of them. Cortisol inhibits the production of oxytocin and that is why, even in unconscious threat-based cultures, employees tend to look out for themselves, expending a lot of energy on ‘looking good’ in relation to colleagues. This makes it much harder to be open-minded, committed to understanding the viewpoints of others, or working cooperatively.

Humans are engineered for collaboration

Human animals are engineered for collaboration, but we need to learn how best to tap into this natural resource. The way forward is for organisations to create a sense of community and connection, to encourage people to share new ideas in a safe environment, and to focus first on the things that are going well. These are the oxytocin-organisations; the teams, and the people that will be able to adapt and thrive in times of fast moving change.

We are used to hearing about Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, but biologists like Elisabet Sahtouris have highlighted that Darwin was wrong and that nature is built around principles of collaboration, balance and reciprocity.

The world is changing. Success in the brave new world will be centred on what Sahtouris refers to as ‘the survival of the most cooperative and collaborative’.

Do you feel ready?


Alan Furlong MBA, BA Hons, Cert Pos Psych facilitated an exploration of this topic at the Agile Business Conference, October 4th & 5th 2017. 

Alan is a Director at Sherpa and focuses on translating the latest research findings into what makes us perform at our best – across practical tasks, habits and our daily business life.