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Blog by Dr. Arndt Pechstein

  • Writer's pictureDr. Arndt Pechstein

Collaborate or Die

The rise of ecosystems and collaboration in the era of human transformation

Hidden genes: The heritage of our ancestors

Evolutionarily speaking, we are a relatively young species. We have been around for some hundred thousand years only. In the past ten thousand years, we have developed and transformed our environment with a tremendous speed and impact. Not so much ourselves, though. Our behavioral, mental, and biological setup is not so much different from that of our ancestors. That, though, poses a challenge in an era where conditions and the context around us have changed so profoundly that old instincts do not always serve us well.

We are amidst the largest and fasted transformation of human history and we are the first generation realizing that turmoil. And facing this brand-new condition, our ancient memory constitutes both a barrier and an enabler at the same time. On the one hand, we have to deal with an evolutionary legacy that makes it hard for us to accept change. For thousands of years, it has been hugely beneficial to avoid change for two reasons. First, sticking to known patterns was simply safer and more predictable, trying new things always bore the potential of risk and danger. Second, with the human brain consuming more energy than any other primate’s brain (25% of our energy is consumed by the brain at rest alone) minimizing, energy use is a critical issue.

Using existing neuronal activation patterns of established experiences (coherence) is far more energy-efficient than dealing with new experiences, change and disruption. So, we simply try to avoid it. It feels so safe in our comfort zones. On the other hand, we are gifted with an almost forgotten ability that made Homo Sapiens develop much faster and much more successfully than any other species, a skill that we urgently need to reactivate today: collaboration, the ability which allows us to work together creatively with others achieving our shared, common goal.

Collaboration as survival factor

In fact, collaboration has been a key factor in the evolution of our own species. The socio-economic benefits of collaboration in response to pressures and opportunities have led to survival through the evolution of languages, narratives, and cultures. They all require and enable collaboration. With human babies being born pre-maturely in comparison to other species whose offspring is self-dependent within a much shorter time, the huge and risky endeavor of raising a child could only be taken on by a community. That led humans to develop social bonds, complex social structures, and eventually cultures including narratives, organizations and societies.

Taking a wider perspective, evolutionary biologists show us today that cooperation (and collaboration in humans) seems to be even the predominant form of relationship between and within species. The cooperative advantage has driven milestone developments throughout evolution in emergent stages: from endosymbiosis (the origin of nucleated, eukaryotic cells), to multi-cellular tissues and organisms (integrated cooperation of many eukaryotic cells) to cooperative groups of organisms. Biological systems developed to be predominantly cooperative.

Matching the complexity level: The need for collaboration

Why do we need collaboration, teams, and information & knowledge networks today more than ever before? The answer to that question is rooted in cybernetics and systems science. Ashby’s law, the law of requisite variety, states: ‘Only variety can absorb variety.’ The law is a quantitative statement about the different types of responses that a system needs to have in order to deal with the range of disturbances it might experience. The larger the variety of actions or responses available to a control system (team, organization), the larger the variety of disruptions it is able to compensate. In other terms, the more knowledge you have about a system, the better you can manipulate it.

Since the variety of disruptions a system can potentially be confronted with is unlimited, we should always try to maximize its internal diversity, to be optimally prepared for any foreseeable or unforeseeable contingency. For that reason, it is wise to aim for diversity within teams and organizations and exchange information timely and transparently. We have to collaborate! That way, we meet complexity with complexity and thus empower people, teams and organizations to manage uncertainty and rapid dynamics. The 21st century is the age of network effects and team-and-cloud intelligence. Or, as Peter Spiegel beautifully put it: WeQ is more than IQ. Creativity and innovation are not solely the result of experts and domain knowledge (measured by the IQ) but rather emerging from a collaborative mindset (WeQ), from a collective intelligence and We-culture.

Image: phi360

What’s in for the people: The perks of teamwork and collaboration

Successful organizations prove the new way of working. It redefines underlying values such as autonomy, self-development, and purpose and empowers people to be agents and not only recipients of tasks. As an agile coach helping organizations in their transformation process, I see important recurring patterns of successful team work. A reflected, principle-driven approach is what allows secure navigation through uncertain terrain, rather than blindly chasing the team imperative and setting up innovation labs randomly. Just as agile is great where useful but not the holy grail to everything, team work is not in every case the best and only setup. But more often than not, it allows us to meet the requirements of a volatile and complex world. Teams and their inherent culture give stability to individuals in times of uncertainty. They allow for collective ownership and identification with shared goals.

The prerequisites for that, however, are long-standing teams that can develop a working culture and optimize their performance. Too often, I see individuals being shuffled around between projects and not vice versa stifling motivation, creativity, and excellence. Critical to team performance, speed/responsiveness and ownership is a shared end-to-end responsibility for design, development, delivery and maintenance. Almost nothing can stop a passionate and committed team around a well-defined objective working in a structured but self-organized fashion.

Team of teams: Scaling collaboration in exponential organizations

How do we scale beyond the team? How do we create a learning organization, an organization that can adapt and scale? Interestingly, the principles behind successful organizations are proven in systems ranging from agile teams in organizations to collaborating teams in modern army (see: General Stanley McChrystal).

These principles are:

  • Agile at scale requires trust and vision at scale: The glue which keeps everything together when it comes to getting small and effective teams to pull together is trust and an important common purpose which bonds everyone. This massive transformative purpose, as Salim Ismail puts it, is the driver for exponential organizations in the 21st century.

  • Sharing & Transparency: The key to building an adaptable and resilient network is to collaborate and to use savvy communication based on complete transparency in order to create a shared knowledge and consciousness.

  • Let go!: The ultimate aim of building a networked organization is to facilitate speed and agility by empowered execution within the organization. To achieve this, the imperative of leadership needs to be "Eyes On – Hands Off."

  • Embrace Change and ambiguity: If your organization has successfully established trust, common purpose, shared consciousness and empowered execution, you're positioned to excel in the future. Importantly, in an organization of the 21st century you can't solely pursue efficiency but you have to add adaptability and disruptive capability to your DNA.

Ecosystems on the rise

Fierce competition on saturated markets has reached its limits and proven to be short-sighted. Collaboration and large ecosystems of mutual benefit are clearly on the rise. Take the mobility sector as an example. Whether it is about development, production or service delivery – cooperation may yield faster and more effective traction securing new markets than individual efforts. BMW and Daimler joined forces and offer customers a single platform for urban multimodal mobility services (Share Now). With that cooperation they intend to offer a holistic ecosystem of intelligent, seamlessly connected mobility services, available at the tap of a finger. Both German automakers even discuss to share one electric car platform in the hope of saving development and production costs and as a move to position the two to better compete with electric vehicle (EV) front-runner Tesla.

In 2014, Tesla in turn, released and open-sourced its patents for the advancement of EV technology and to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. Tesla believes, that they, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a collaborative, common, rapidly-evolving technology platform. Currently, the three German auto giants BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler as well as major parts suppliers, including Bosch, Continental and ZF, are in talks on a formal collaboration to work on key technologies and industry standards for autonomous driving. Collaboration has gone big. It is not a utopian theory any longer.

With my team, we have taken the same concept of cross-sector collaboration and open platform innovation to the German national rail company Deutsche Bahn. Since 2017, we are curating the driversity platform for innovative and sustainable business travel and employee mobility together with Deutsche Bahn. With GLS Bank as partner and a massive cross-sector network of large, small and medium-sized companies including Schneider Electric, Merck, Randstadt, Alphabet, and Avis, we design innovative solutions to make private, commute, and business travel more intuitive, seamless, and sustainable. All driversity network members understand that despite some of them competing in core markets, a collaborative approach to tackle employee satisfaction, purpose-driven innovation, and technology integration is beneficial for the entire ecosystem.

Image: Tobias Wieland


This text is a collaboration project for the Merck Curiosity Initiative. Merck is known as Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the United States & Canada. As a science and technology company, Merck fosters the idea of curiosity. Results of their most recent 2018 State of Curiosity Report investigates the power of curiosity at the workplace.


About the author: Dr. Arndt Pechstein is a neuroscientist, agile coach, and management consultant. He is an energetic blend of a scientist, serial entrepreneur, and business coach. He holds a PhD in neuroscience, a diploma in biochemistry & biotechnology, and has specialist backgrounds in Agile & Design Thinking, Circular Economy, and Biomimicry. As founder and managing partner of the boutique consultancy phi360, Initiator of the Hybrid Thinking approach and founder & director of the Biomimicry Germany Think Tank, he advises companies and organizations on agile transition, innovation, adaptive leadership, new work, bio-inspired disruptive innovation, and a new digital mindset. Arndt’s mission is shaping a just, sustainable, and desirable future.


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