The Problem with Exceptionalism – and Seeking Common Cause in Organizations
One problem that has caught my attention lately is what I would call “exceptionalism” – the belief held in a business unit, sector, or leader within an organization that their “case” or challenge (whatever it might be) requires its own unique solution. This makes a degree of sense. After all every situation and every person is, in the final analysis, exceptional. So every thinking human being can build a rational argument to support the notion that they require their own team, their own resources, their own agency, their own methodology, tools and on it goes. It is also not coincidental that a belief in exceptionalism is more often than not self-serving. Being exceptional allows one more access to budget and authority.
Indeed, there is a case to be made that business, as merely an extension of the pattern exhibited by all organic life, is trending towards increasing complexity and specialization. And specialization, by definition requires unique knowledge, talent and organizational structure. In my field it is clear that you need specialists (i.e. “exceptional” talent) for many initiatives you might undertake; for example search, mobile, ecommerce, privacy issues, social media and so on. No argument there. The problem is that exceptionalism tends to be the default setting within organizations; we begin by thinking we know more than others, that our problem is unique, that we have special needs.
Exceptionalism fractures an organization into silos that spend time on problems and challenges that, more often than not in my experience, are actually not exceptional – but shared. And this fracturing represents not only a waste of material resources through duplicated effort but more importantly the erosion of a culture of collaboration, shared language and meaning. The latter is far more difficult to repair once broken and far more costly in the long-run. And no coincidence, exceptionalism breeds more exceptionalism and begins to look like a form of pathology.
So what if we switched our default setting? What if we began, not with an answer (“I am dealing with an exceptional problem that requires an exceptional solution”) but with a question (“what does this have in common with the challenges faced by the rest of the organization?” ”who else is working on this problem?” ”who else knows about this?”).
Changing the default setting; from exceptionalism to what I would term Common Cause shifts your starting point:
I know best We know better
Distilled into its simplest form of action this is about beginning any inquiry by seeking common cause. Easier said than done, and certainly a trait that must be hardwired into the culture of an organization. That said, Common Cause cultures will dominate “Exceptional” ones.
Digital transformation is steadily eroding the competitive benefits conferred by size. It flattens the field of play by allowing online access to a global market and a host of plug-and-play services ( financial systems, shipping and logistics, on-demand manufacturing and so on) that were once the privilege of large, heavily capitalized companies. In this type of a world the massive drag caused by exceptionalism can slow innovation and increase cost – a deadly combination. So the benefits of size will be outpaced by the virtues of collaboration and common cause.