Collaboration: are you an Eagle or a Rattler?

In most firms, we divide people into distinct groups, set up systems that foster internal competition (like rating people on a curve), and are dismayed at the lack of teamwork across the company. An experiment from a boys’ camp in 1954 tells us a lot about why we don’t collaborate well in most firms - and what we can do about.

The Eagles and the Rattlers

The experiment (described in Morten Hansen’s excellent book “Collaboration”), involved 22 eleven-year-old boys in a 3-week summer camp. It showed how easily people can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other.

The boys were broken up into two groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers. In the first week, the boys in each group bonded by hiking, swimming, cooking and eating together.

In the second week, the researchers tried to induce conflict between the groups by holding several competitions. The winning group would get a trophy.

Over the course of the week, the competition became intense. A loss in a game of baseball resulted in name-calling. A loss in a grueling 48-minute tug-of-war led to the “enemy” camp being raided.

After the final competition, at the awarding of the trophy, a fistfight broke out and adults had to step in.

But, in the 3rd week...

Despite the bad feelings in the camp, the researchers wanted to see if they could now unite the warring groups. They introduced a series of seven unifying goals that could only be achieved if the boys worked together - e.g., locating a “broken” pipe somewhere in a large area that only a coordinated effort could find and fix.

It worked. The boys grew increasingly close as they found the broken pipe; pushed the stalled truck; and accomplished more and more together. By the end of the week, they took turns entertaining each other around the campfire. As camp ended, they all wanted to return home on one bus instead of the two they arrived in.

It's not just kids and camp

These same kinds of behaviors - both the bad and the good - can be found at work. “Collaboration” opens with the story of the Sony Connect, the new version of the Walkman that Sony was building just as Apple was developing the iPod.

In 2001, Sony was in a much better position than Apple to build a next-generation music player. Sony already had the Walkman division; their own computer division (Sony VAIO); the Sony Music division; Sony Electronics for batteries and other devices; and, notably, much more money.

As Sony’s chief technology officer said at the time, “We can do this in nine months. We got the product, hardware, software.”

Nine months was indeed a good estimate - for Apple. Despite having to combine 6 key components from 6 different companies and the need to work closely across 3 internal divisions, Apple shipped the first iPod in October, 2001.

Sony’s effort was riddled with internal competition. Each division - and sometimes each region - had its own ideas about what to do. Hard disk versus MiniDisc. MP3 versus ATRAC. Different groups even produced entirely different players.

Sony finally introduced the Connect in May, 2004. Panned by customers, reviewers, and the market, they actually issued a public apology in January, 2006. By August, 2007, they killed the product altogether.

Which group are you in?

The hierarchies in large companies are naturally divisive. So, just like the Eagles and the Rattlers, we can easily be drawn into internal conflicts. Sales versus marketing. Investment bank versus retail bank.

Social tools and practices make it easier than ever to fix this. To connect people across organizations. To build relationships based on more than acronyms. To create purposeful social networks focused on company goals instead of on managers in the hierarchy.

The ability to transform the way we work is presenting us with our own iPod opportunities. But will we be Apple or Sony?

Think of it the next time you introduce yourself in a meeting. Are you an Eagle or a Rattler? Or are you aiming for something more?