This blog has looked at VUCA in the business world from a strategic and an organizational point of view; VUCA also influences team work in business.

The high degree of complexity in globalized organizations is causing an increasing dissolution of the units necessary for effective cooperation. Colleagues are located across the globe and are no longer individually locally accessible: if meetings take place at all, they do so via video conference or in Cyperspace. Every locality itself is a hub of busy activity: coming and going, departures and arrivals. Even locally situated teams experience an increasing degree of volatility as everyone reels among tightly set appointments in overflowing schedules.

This trend is most visible to us consultants in our workshops. Take this example: It has become almost impossible to keep all participants together in one room for more than half a day. Some arrive late, being so fully booked that even minor irritations like a traffic jam or a delayed train can throw the entire day into disarray. Others are physically present, but their mind is fast asleep as their home timezone is at least a continent away to the west or the east. At any time, any individual may spontaneously leave the room to accept an important phone call. Others will have excused themselves in advance for a given time to »briefly« leave the event for a video conference. During every break, laptops are opened and emails are answered. Towards the end of the workshop, the first participants will start leaving before the conclusion in order to make their plane. The workshop sponsor is alone in trying to counter all of this by insisting on discipline or maintaining telephone rules. Alternatively, the sponsor may choose to suppress the aggression welling up inside and to accept the situation … In this example, it is the participants’ volatility that is the central challenge facing the moderators.

Regulating teamwork and putting it to efficient and effective good use in meetings has been at the center of many texts. I, however, propose the following hypothesis: The participants’ volatility will nevertheless continue to increase rather than decrease, just as organizations are continuing to grow more complex. Increasing disciplinary action will not solve the VUCA challenges posed to team work; it is quite probable that it would even enlarge them. I will follow another path in this contribution: Maybe the community concept of multitude can achieve a more successful cooperation in VUCA situations independently of uniformity and consolidation.

I will begin by going back in time to almost 350 years ago. The dutch optician and philosopher Baruch de Spinoza published his ideas on ethics and political leadership in c. 1670. His ideas on the freedom of thought and his historic-critical analysis of the bible made him unpopular with the established authorities. Amongst other issues, it was his concept of multitudo (lat: a large number, crowd, multitude) as a vital bearer of civil freedom that met with disapproval. Spinoza described multitudo as a plurality of people that never converges into a One. According to the philosopher, people can unite and act together without giving up their diversity. They can remain in their plurality without having to erect a center or a hierarchy. A multitudo can remain able to act even without clear commitment and definition through individuals’ affective devotion to common issues and the immanence of a situation. Spinoza was convinced that a human (liberated by rational thought) is fundamentally tolerant and is naturally inclined to charitable action.

The English mathematician, state theorist and philosopher Thomas Hobbes published an exactly opposite agenda to Spinoza’s at about the same time: his doctrine of enlightened absolutism. Hobbes thought that Spinoza’s multitudo posed a danger to the unity of the state and would have to be fought by all means. Hobbes offered an opposite to Spinoza’s term with that of the commonwealth of people united in their joint will and acting in concordance in a united stance. The commonwealth refers as one to a common essence and follows the same aim. As man is a wolf to man in his state of nature, he must seek protection from the evil inherent in himself and others. He thus joins a commonwealth as a citizen and together with all other citizens they subjugate themselves to the sovereign (the state) as protection from himself. A social contract passes the power of decision and the power of judgment to the sovereign, who is placed above all others.

Hobbes and Spinoza thus delivered two opposing discourses of cohabitation, collaboration and thus also cooperation as early as the 17th century: homogeneous, transcendentally focused unity versus heterogeneous, immanently situation-bound diversity. It is obvious which of the two models is followed by business organization today. It was not for nothing that the discourse even then had a clear victor: Politics agreed with Hobbes and Spinoza was dismissed and banished from the discussion.

Spinoza’s concept (in an anglicized form) has recently returned with new verve, however, albeit hitherto still only among the fringes. The American literary theorist Michael Hardt and the two Italian philosophers Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno regard multitude as an effective form of organization in the context of our economic system’s state of emergency. Critical of capitalism as they are, these thinkers have published some rather radical thoughts; they define multitude simply as a set of »singularities that co-operate«, as a heterogeneous field of people who are not identical, who are »the many as many«. Hardt, Negri and Virno regard the multitude as providing the possibility of sovereign organization able to withstand the all-encompassing pressure of the spheres of work and economics in its full diversity.

Hardt, Negri and Virno and their ideas greatly influenced the Occupy movement, which began in the New York Zuccotti (Liberty Plaza) Park and kept politics and finance on its toes for months on end throughout the years 2011 and 2012. One of the greatest irritations for many politicians and journalists was the movement’s continued refusal to adopt one program or nominate a permanent leader or speaker. Occupy was accused of failing to follow a clear aim, yet this strategy allowed the movement to retain its character as a multitude: it continuously prevented its own stabilization, allowed no clear point of contact and consistently celebrated its diversity. The very thing that was experienced as an incidence of VUCA from the outside acted as an internal motor and source of energy for the socio-political movement from the inside. Occupy acted like a large, global flash mob: setting out from each situation, it used the energy of those who united with others out of their own free will for that moment in time in order to express their own, individual aims and messages. The immanent diversity of voices provided an impetus for a great range of fields in the arts, culture, society and even economics and politics without being reduced to one or two central messages.

I am neither writing in support of the occupation of businesses, of course, nor do I want to abuse the Occupy movement for the purposes of capitalism. I do, however, think that aiming for multitude makes it possible to have it both: It can help make cooperation in businesses that has suffered from VUCA more effective and thus (economically) more successful while at the same time allowing people in business to act with greater sovereignty where they had hitherto experienced increasingly inhumane working conditions caused by VUCA.

In what ways, then, can multitude work as a form of cooperation in business? I believe that the fundamental question that arises in this context is: Should I force the many in their individual situations into my uniform format of cooperation or should I design a format of cooperation that optimally fulfills the many in their individual situations? The sheer presence of people does not translate into work success. Obligatory events are rarely productive. Motivation, engagement and the resulting quality of work grows, on the other hand, with the degree of freedom to chose.

My colleagues and I have been working together and in consultation with more open minded client organizations to design events in such ways that the participants are able to act as multitude. In doing so, we may use established formats such as Harris Owen’s Open Space or new ideas from urban development. We obviously shape our design to closely fit the given topic. What always remains, however, is the basic idea of taking the multitude as a cue: not to understand the participants as a unity who will act in conjunction on all issues, but to allow diversity regarding personalities as well as forms of participation in the event. Obligations are reduced to a minimum (reducing push factors), while we try to make the event as attractive as possible for the participants (increasing pull factors). The event is conceived as a platform that the participants can connect to. The moderators provide only as minimal a frame as possible, and the participants can and indeed have to organize themselves. We fully trust in emergence: the spontaneous development of new qualities out of the interaction of individuals.

Let me give you a concrete example of how this multitude-lead cooperation can take place: We were working on an encompassing organizational development project that necessitated synchronization of the existing concept with the internal project group, whose members fulfilled different capacities in the organization. Usually, we would have organized a workshop during which the entire project group would have worked together on this synchronization for two entire days. The SYNNECTA project group (Marc C. Berger, Anja Kulik, Dr. Andreas Lindner, Thomas Meilinger, Michael Stiegler and myself) decided to use a different, alternative multitude concept: We installed a so-called Open Office at a central spot, within which the concept status was visually displayed with posters and other media. The project group members were invited to visit the Open Office at any time convenient to them in the course of the given two days in order to offer their perspective on the concept. The only participants who were continually present in the Open Office were the internal project leader and two consultants. All project group members did indeed come to the Open Office in the course of the two days and engaged in a lively and focused discussion on the project status. Some participants came for several short stints, other only once (but stayed for longer), and yet others stayed for the whole day – this resulted in constantly shifting constellations for the discussion. During »idle periods«, the Open Office team processed what had happened during the discussions, focused the experiences and discussed further steps to take with the next participants. The quality of this Open Office workshop output in no way suffered when compared to that of a conventional workshop. At the same time, however, the client experienced increased efficiency. The individual participants never failed to be fully focused while in the Open Office, as they had chosen the time that was right for them for this activity. At the same time, they had saved time and capacities, which from the business point of view obviously translates into money.

This format does, however, massively raise the demands on the moderators: In response to the set-up’s volatility, they must react to the situation and the given constellation of participants with a high degree of flexibility. In order to handle the unpredictability of the course of events, the moderators have to work with fuzzy visions and must be able to withstand the process’ high degree of openness. They have to keep a keen eye on the constantly changing, complex interaction of those who are involved in the discussion and the new arrivals joining in. In order to do so, they have to be even more able than ever before to provide an empathic, intuitive and analytical assessment of the situation and react to interventions with fast decision making. At the same time, they need greater methodological competence and a differentiated toolkit. They need to find and keep up the right balance between confident attraction and trusting release, between challenge and support. This will result in the right, attractive flow that allows the multitude to develop its potential as the many as many.

I am not asking for the dissolution of all teams in businesses, nor for an abandonment of all conventional cooperation in the form of planning, responsibility and community! Not all tasks or challenges can be adequately met with the multitude as a form of cooperation. At the same time, however, I do want to propose focusing on the potential of the multitude in business in order to open sensible, real »free spaces« and thus raise valuable efficiency. Where people are able to act in open movements as the many, we can make use of emergence. When we trust in that and try to surf the wave of the flow, the multitude will transform its own VUCA qualities all by itself into the stability, security, simplicity and clarity of good results.

Johannes Ries