Outsourcing is difficult to define – Wikipedia needs forty words, the Oxford English Dictionary takes twenty – and the actual experience is no less messy. Nowadays, a myriad of contractors, gig workers and third-party specialists move in and out of frame, are expected to liaise – often internationally – all in the name of diversity of thought. In the boardroom, this can present an overwhelming proposition, but isn’t outsourcing just collaboration?
Many unsuccessful collaborations are blamed on a failure to investigate cultural compatibility upfront, but we can’t determine cultural compatibility on paper. While we can assess how to effectively capitalise on each other’s strengths, it’s impossible to truly know the culture of another entity – or even our own because culture is most invisible to its own participants, just as a fish does not know it is swimming in water. What we really want to know is whether the way we behave with one another will lead to a successful cooperation.
Traditional employment contracts helped us enforce the behaviours we wanted to see within companies. Many of these have been replaced by commercial contracts with external service providers. These contracts “simply” define what work needs to be done, by whom and by when. The natural focus is on what the agreement with the external party will bring. The considerations are on content, competence, knowledge, products, and markets – then we design processes to make the machine run, considering all the contracts, integration plans, roles and responsibilities. At the same time, it’s important to realise that content and processes are not the whole equation – we are missing an aspect that is much harder to quantify. The oil in the machine consists of deeper levels of interaction – clarity in conversation, willingness to listen, climate, mindset, attitudes, feelings and tolerance for difference. We often overestimate the power of content and processes and underestimate the impact of interaction and climate and yet, it is the latter that determines successful collaboration. Perhaps we focus on the content and processes because it satisfies our need to exert control, which places us squarely in our comfort zones. Also, it is obvious that matters like ethical policies, safety standards and the protection of intellectual property require strict control. By definition though, outsourcing places some people, decisions, and communications outside of our range of visibility and direct sphere of influence. Otherwise, we would have kept the work in-house. There’s a price to be paid for outsourcing, we lose a degree of control and take a leap of faith, not knowing whether our cultures will be compatible.
Let us debunk some myths about culture and outsourcing and see how HR can bring more depth to dialogues around interaction and climate through practical questions that will empower teams. The first myth is that culture is makeable, when the reality is culture emerges, it is not created. Culture cannot be “made” by defining a set of corporate values, it is a product of how individuals interpret those values and give them meaning through behaviours over time. For example, the value of “integrity” in an organisation will result in a variety of behaviours across departments, teams, countries, and certainly across all external parties. Because values foster intentions, not behaviours, lead with conversations that focus on which behaviours are working in the outsourcing collaboration. Identify how and where you can use those more, instead of trying to fix the weaknesses. Ask questions like: What made this meeting run so well? How have you handled a similar situation in the past successfully? What have we learned so far that will make us do this even better next time?
The second myth is that one culture fits all. The reality is that diversity of sub-cultures leads to diversity of thought. While the mothership often views itself in the center of a network of outsourced boats around it, each boat in the fleet has many motherships these days. Third party contractors navigate in and out of these organisational cultures on a daily basis. They become yet another sub-culture – including but not limited to functions, departments, generations, and nationalities – within all of these organisations. Consequently, there is not one dominant culture that can become the blueprint for how we work in a network of interconnected companies. Nor is there a need to equalise all cultures into one, as it would suppress the diversity that companies so purposefully seek for creativity and innovation.
In a diverse environment, our self-worth and social standing can feel threatened even more easily. Caroline Webb, author of How To Have A Good Day, provides two useful acronyms, CAP (relates to self-worth) and FIR (relates to social standing), for recognising these sources of threat that throw us into defensive mode: We feel our competence is doubted or at risk (Competence); we feel we cannot steer the work ourselves (Autonomy); we feel something violates our values or is not useful (Purpose); we don’t feel treated fairly (Fairness); we don’t feel that we are included (Inclusion) and we don’t feel treated respectfully (Respect). Brain scans have shown that even the mildest threats will divert energy away from higher levels of thinking that enable us to successfully collaborate, communicate, and innovate. The key is to minimise the amount of time that we spend in “defensive” mode and open up the brain to reap the benefits of diversity in our outsourced partnerships. Ask questions like: Imagine we’re working together flawlessly. What would that look like? What more can we do to tap into the best thinking in our organisations? What insights have recently come up that we have not yet shared with each other?
Myth 3 has it that, in successful partnerships, everything is smooth sailing. The reality is; “a calm sea never made a good sailor.” Parties generally enter into partnerships with the intention to make it work. So, when opinions diverge, it may initially feel better to ignore or minimise the tension, in order to create the illusion of a successful collaboration. But if we close our eyes to the friction, then we define our partnership by what we avoid, rather than what we can create. Great relationships can come from a rocky start – as Patrick Lencioni argued in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – constructive conflict is a precondition for people on a team to feel committed and hold each other accountable for achieving desired results. In this case, the “team” is the constellation of all parties involved in the outsourcing. Meaning is created through daily interactions (emails, meetings, small talk) in which differences come to the surface. Encourage members from each party to take the lead in mobilising the team to address them. This takes courage on internal teams and even more courage when it involves externals. Ask questions like: What other lenses can we use to examine this problem? Are we making assumptions and have we checked to be sure? And what do we need to do next to learn from this difference of opinion? With all of the above questions in hand, HR can play a meaningful role in shaping outsourced partnerships in a pragmatic way. Rather than being oriented on the process of unifying culture, leaders of the future are people who are able to shape diverse organisations by optimising interactions and climate.
A Worthwhile Investment
Seeking to build successful outsourced relationships by asking questions to which we do not know the answers yet, is a strength. Our brains are bias-making machines and no matter how objective we believe we are, our ideas and opinions are merely biased suggestions. If we hold on to them too tightly, it can prevent us from discovering new and better ways of working together. Instead of trying to control and influence, we genuinely open ourselves up to the diversity of views and approaches that makes the collaboration more challenging initially, but more fruitful in the end. So yes, there is a price to be paid for outsourcing: we give up a degree of control but we also can invest in meaningful interactions and a collaborative climate. And that just may be the best investment we ever make.