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Cohorts are a decision

Cohort seems to be one of those words that has crept into usage as a way of conveniently describing a group of people. It’s not good use of a powerful word.

The dictionary definition of cohort is “a group of people with similar characteristics”. Its origins lie in Latin : “a company of soldiers, band of warriors”. It was the basic building block of Roman military organisation – a group of eight men, a “tent group”, who lived, worked and fought together. completely interdependent. Everything above was built on it.

Our modern day usage is much looser. I think though that we have much to learn from the original version in terms of size and cohesion. In good times, we don’t pay that much attention to shaping the groups we’re part of – that’s mostly taken care of by HR. When the going is easy, budgets are being met, and the economy in reasonable shape we cope fine. Maybe some complaining, blaming and politics and other challenges that come with comfortable day to day routine.

When times are tough however, it’s different. It gets serious. Whilst we can often carry underperfomers in good times they determine our futures in bad times, often when it’s too late to change things. The same is true of our “equipment” – the products and services we supply, and how well they stand up to duress. In the good times, Amazon is strong, and in the current difficult times, it’s stronger. The same cannot be said of High St Retailers and Hospitality businesses. The vulnerabilities here, whilst obvious in hindsight were equally visible if subjected to critical thinking beforehand.

I suggest the same is true of the cohort we choose as individuals. We may not have much choice withi the formal structure of the organisation, but we do when it comes to the informal. People inside and outside work. People whose views we respect, whose integrity we trust, and who can help us see the reality behind the work we’re doing.

I think it’s going to be more important than ever over winter. As things shakeout, those businesses whose decline has been delayed by support go back into decline, many who were coping will cease to cope, and new opportunities will appear for others to replace them with new offerings designed by those who can see what’s happening.

A well structured cohort has enormous power to see things that poorly thought out ones do not.

Seeing what’s happening depends on three critical qualities:

  • Trust. An ability to speak openly to each without fear
  • Diversity – different ways of seeing the world
  • Generosity – not competing, beyond collaborating, a commitment to each other’s wellbeing.

These rarely come about in organisations where people are grouped by function to be efficient. Specialism is great for depth, but not breadth. Specialists speak the same language, are given the same information, judged on similar criteria. “Wilful Blindness” becomes an occupational hazard.

We have learned during lockdown how to have conversations over media at an entirely different level of quality and openness. We can harness that ability during periods of uncertainty to check in with others to build the qualities we need.

I have been surprised, and enormously encouraged by the power of virtual conversations between former strangers without an agenda – just collegiate discussion about what we’re seeing and experiencing, what we sense is emerging, and what it means for us. Removing an objective frees the conversation, is hugely enjoyable, and creative. I think because there’s no competition, coversations are open and trust builds. It appears to be a great (if technically inefficient) way of building conversations that matter.

Conversations are critical to harnessing uncertainty and turning it to advantage,

Cohorts are important. Design yours.


Harnessing Uncertainty is an experiment about how we build these conversations, and turn them to advantage. We’re looking to build a couple of more small groups (that’s sixteen people in total) to make this winter a great time of transition. Join us for a conversation if you’re interested.

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About the Author

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Complexity and volatility create enormous opportunities for those willing to go beyond the boundaries of "business as usual" to explore the edges of their business. I am an entrepreneur, a coach, a creative thinker, and above all, an explorer of possibility.

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