A few thoughts on Patagonia’s culture of collaboration

Could it be that after more than 100 years of hierarchical thinking, we may come to a point where democratization is the obvious choice for organizations?


This past Thursday I attended a Connected Commons webinar on Patagonia’s culture of collaboration. Here are some of my thoughts on the key points Chris Mason, the Head of Talent Management, L&D, Compensation, & Workforce Analytics at Patagonia, shared with us (key points in bold, my thoughts follow).

When you put the mission first, and recruit only those who have a passion for that mission – collaboration is more effective. 

While Chris didn’t present us with data and analytics on the relationship between ‘passion for mission’ and ‘effective collaboration’, this notion aligns with social exchange research which demonstrates trust builds faster when people are similar to one another. Recruiting only people that have a passion for the organizational mission provided Patagonia with great grounds for trust, which is essential to effective collaboration.

But there was another piece of information Chris shared, which I find highly important. In Patagonia, a passion for the mission (i.e. saving the environment) is a must, but people can relate to that mission in different ways. This is an important piece, as growth and innovation require diversity and the bridging of different perspectives. By focusing on the mission at large, but allowing different approaches to that same mission, Patagonia created a space where people can “connect based on their similarities and benefit from their differences” (Valdis Krebs).

Democratize, democratize, and democratize.

If I took all the words used by Chris during the webinar and created a word bubble, the word ‘democratize’ would have appeared large and center. But how does democratization relate to collaboration?

At the core of things democratization is about people at all levels of the organization actively making decisions and driving initiatives to shape their work, their working environment, and the organizational outcomes. But individual decision making cannot bring about the value of democratization without collaboration. For democratization to work people have to make decisions while working together. First of all, as our work is integrated with the work of others, any decision made in one place may have unexpected outcomes in another place. To make decisions that see the holistic picture, people need to listen, to trust, to share knowledge, to raise concerns, to solve conflicts, to compromise. They need to work at a ‘default collaborative mode’.

Moreover, making decisions and pushing forward new initiatives is great but it is also risky. Some decisions may lead to undesired outcomes, and some initiatives may end up failing. For these failures to turn into growth, we need people to work together to learn, ideate, and push forward with motivation to succeed in the next initiative. When there is no blaming and finger-pointing, but rather people working together to overcome & grow, trust is built even further, enabling future decision-making and intrapreneurship.

“Think of your tools. Are they designed for employees first or managers first?”.

This point Chris made highly relates to the previous point on democratization but takes it an important step further. The way I see it, Chris’s question highlights two interrelated realities.

First, despite growing discussions about moving from hierarchies to networks, most organizations are not democratized and do not hold the mindset such as the one in Patagonia. Decision-making is still for the most part a managerial responsibility. So, when selecting platforms and tools, companies prioritize those tools that will help their managers make better decisions. Moreover, managers are also seen as responsible for the employees themselves – their performance, their development, their engagement. For example, new people analytics technologies focus on enabling managers and HR to make better people decisions. But(!) what if we would use people analytics for the people themselves so they can drive their own performance, development, and career progression? Chris’s request to participants to think about the tools in their organizations highlighted the fundamental mindset gap between hierarchical and networked organizations. Moving from hierarchies to networks require organizations a new mindset with a new set of tools to support it. These tools, just like the mindset shift, are few but growing, which leads me to the next point.

As organizations demand tools for management, most of the current startup companies are innovative in the way they use data and new technologies such as AI and Blockchain, but the underlying approach about who the tools serve is still the same. From my perspective, Chris’s question is really a call for action to entrepreneurs, demonstrating there is a new market emerging – a market of organizations who wish to democratize work. Tools for this new market are not simple adaptations of existing tools, but rather tools that are designed first and foremost for employees. Thinking about employees as the main customers, even if the organization is paying the bill, will lead entrepreneurs to use the same data and technologies while building vastly different products.

The two realities – of organizations and startups – are interconnected. The more we will see companies embrace a network, bottom-up mindset, we will sure to see more startups taking the route of employee-first tools. And the more we will see startups offering such tools, the more democratization will be able to emerge as the new way of working.

Taken together, these three points emphasize the need for companies to take a leap of mindset. Our current organizational models lean on the ‘machine’ analogy, but with rising complexity and new technologies these models can’t provide the adequate answer. Patagonia works as an organism where the mission is the bounding force, and the life of the Patagonian organism is rooted within the social dynamics of its people, who have the space & tools for action and reflection. Working as a dynamic network and embracing emergence by democratization, Patagonia thrives while making a positive environmental and social impact.

This was a great, thought igniting webinar. Learning about Patagonia’s culture and initiatives (e.g. ecological internships) was enriching! As someone who is passionate about enabling democratization through ‘employee-first tools’, I found this webinar to be an additional sign we are nearing the tipping point. Could it be that after more than 100 years of hierarchical thinking, we may come to a point where democratization is the obvious choice for organizations?

If you are interested in similar webinars, I highly recommend following the Connected Commons events page. And if you want to learn more about StarLinks – an employee-first tool for building social capital – please drop me a note.



1 Comment
  1. […] Here are some thoughts on the key points Chris Mason brought up – recruit based on mission-match, democratize (!), and use HR tools that serve the employees […]

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