A tree in Colorado might seem like an unlikely model for running a business, but nature always has lessons to offer us.
Each fall, while riding my motorcycle through the Rocky Mountains, I witness something amazing. All across the slopes, the aspens change color in unison, as if they’re following a single pattern. Watching the trees turn from green to gold got me thinking about a challenge many organizations I work with face — how to collaborate better.
In the complex organizations we build today, it’s easy for people to focus on their own concerns and neglect teamwork. Yet collaboration is where the magic of new ideas, solutions, and opportunities takes root. Without an effort to coordinate, our work becomes fragmented and contradictory. Opportunities are lost and relationships wither.
It turns out the aspen trees have something to teach us about working together, and it lies in looking at their roots.
When we see a group of aspens, we’re actually looking at a single organism, seemingly hundreds of trees united below the ground by their roots to be one. This is how they’re able to bloom in unison in the spring and to turn from green to gold together in the fall — they are governed by their connection.
To work effectively, a complex modern organization needs to nurture its own root system. This requires strengthening connections that might not show up on an organizational chart but that grow beneath the surface.
How can we do that?
There are several meaningful dynamics that can make a big difference. Here are a few:
Take time to understand others and their priorities.
Trust is essential to collaboration, and it is strengthened when we get to know our team members on a deeper level. Make time for people to share their roots and how that has made them who they are today. Getting people to openly share this with each other is an exercise I frequently do with teams. When one person reveals a deeper truth about themselves, it often prompts others to open up, like popcorn popping. Amazingly, even colleagues who have worked together for years gain new insights into each other, deepening the trust necessary to collaborate at an even higher level.
Catch people doing something right, and praise them for it.
In business we are often so intent on finding and fixing what’s wrong that we neglect to recognize what is going well. Appreciation is the currency of teamwork. When we catch people doing something right, and praise them for it, they feel encouraged to collaborate even more with us.
Recognize we all have the “best idea”.
Who has the best idea? I do!!! And you do!!! To be clear, although it is our best idea, it may not be the best idea. Openness and adaptability to sharing ideas is both a team principle and an individual behavior that’s critical for expanding the boundaries of what we can achieve together.
Practice Effective Conflict Dynamics.
This starts with understanding that conflict is not a fight or even an argument, but a difference of opinion or points of view. We practice effective conflict dynamics when we avoid emotional reactions, seek to understand points of view that differ from ours, express our desire to find shared solutions, and then work together to craft them. Approaching conflict in a healthy, constructive way, rather than turning it into a destructive battle, builds collaboration and trust.
Create a meaningful shared vision or goal.
Anchoring to a meaningful vision or goal fuels collaboration. This can take any number of shapes and the key is building it together. When there is a heartfelt Battle Cry shared by the group, people tend to come together and collaborate toward it. The Battle Cry might be “we are going to CRUSH this competitor” or “we are going to DOMINATE this market” or anything that unites the team on a mission. Determine what you want to focus on, and build a Battle Cry around it. Just like in sports, that shared vision of conquering will energize a spirit of collaboration.
Taking these steps won’t just improve the way your organization works. It will also reshape the way external stakeholders see you.
Since I learned how the aspens are connected, my experience of skiing through them has been transformed as well. Now, as I move through these beautiful glades, I can feel the connection between the trees around me. Their bond creates a magical atmosphere, one in which I feel embraced and supported by nature.
That’s how a stakeholder will feel when they encounter a truly collaborative organization. Connectedness creates a supportive experience, a sense of sharing in something larger than ourselves without the friction of destructive conflict.
It’s the magic of a single organism connected by deep roots.