Shipping containers fascinate me. It’s an invention that human civilization agrees on more than anything else. Around the world, people who disagree on politics, Internet access, fashion, art, and what side of the road to drive on. No matter how much money finding consensus on such thing would make the captains of industry or how much more stable agreeing on global governance would make the planet, we just don’t agree. That’s why shipping containers are symbolic of the potential for humanity’s collaboration. You can review much of the research that informs this article by listening to eight-episode “Containers” podcast or by reading the transcripts on Medium – Alexis Madrigal hosts the series and he is all of our heroes. Here are seven collaboration lessons from shipping containers.

Shipping containers are paradoxical and…

In order to grasp the complexity of shipping containers and the infinite nuances of human collaboration, take a read of this lengthy summary from the very first episode of “Containers”:

Containerization gave an incredible boost to the global economy, reducing prices for people in rich countries and creating opportunities for literally hundreds of millions of people in Asia to work their way out of poverty. In this country, trade drives the consumer economy that literally everyone in America enjoys, no matter how much we might theoretically take issue with the specifics of how it works.

Nikes, iPhones, apples in the winter, cheap pants, Ikea furniture: shipping is everything!

And also local communities and industries were wiped out. And also tens of millions of Chinese people have jobs linked to US imports. And also the labor of logistics is far less dangerous and dirty than it used to be. And also the work is more routine. And also the huge ports inflict major environmental damage on the areas that surround them. And also American cities are cleaner because the factories are polluting Beijing. And also the ships burn vast amounts of dirty bunker fuel, generating between 2 and 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And also the stuff arrives on our shores with the half the mile-ton greenhouse gas emissions of trucks or planes.

With the containerization, these local-global tensions are everywhere you look.

Containers and containerization are great metaphors because they perfectly represent straightforward, complex and abstract aspects of creating value through awesome collaboration.

They are simple

Shipping containers are basically boxes that fit onto and into things of many different sizes. Like trucks, cranes, trains, ships, and forklifts. Containerization and intermodal transportation weren’t new ideas when they attained a critical mass of interest and capital in the 1970s thanks to the US Military’s need to supple the Vietnam War. Because of the right circumstances a pretty simple concept – put things in a universally sized box, not on a bunch of pallets for one-to-one loading and unloading – changed the world.

What this means for your community: keep things simple by cultivating trust and clarity within your team and removing barriers so that people can get shit done and have fun doing it.

They enhance inclusion

Episode two of “Containers” follows some Filipino seafarers – or sailors – around San Francisco on some errands (to Target) as they hustle to experience land before heading back out on the high seas. Throughout the series Madrigal emphasizes the economic inclusion created by the rise of Asia as geographic producer of cheap goods for American consumption. Many seafarers like the ones from the pod climbed out of poverty and found inclusion in the global economy like hundreds of millions of other folks from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere in Asia. And 11 of the top 18 global shipping companies in the world are from Asian countries.

What this means for your community: when collaboration expands your work into new and, perhaps, uncharted teams you enhance the potential for diversity because new perspectives, cultures and styles generate better ideas and enhance decision-making, even if this makes folks uncomfortable.

They devastate communities

In episode seven of “Containers”, which is called “The Lost Docks”, Madrigal explores the end of how whole communities worked on the dock and lived in the surrounding neighbourhoods:

Automation is more than a robot waltzing into a job site and replacing a human on the factory line. It’s more like one system of work replaces another. When it does, whole categories of jobs become obsolete. That’s what happened when cargo began to be shipped inside big steel boxes instead of stuffed into the holds of a ship… containerization is automation, just with a different name.

With automation came more diesel-powered machines, which created more pollution and accelerated chronic illness and death amongst residents close to the ports. Right alongside global inclusion for producers and sailors were folks who lost their way of life and, in some cases, even their lives because of containers.

What this means for your community: the flipside of working in new and different ways is that folks rooted in how things used to get done risk being left behind or unprepared for the future, just like the neighbourhoods and people in Brooklyn and San Francisco whose structure and way of life were clobbered because of containerization.

They enhance productivity

My favourite episode of “Containers” is the one about coffee. I love coffee and I’m pretty picky about what I drink and where it comes from. But I didn’t know much about “the hidden back end” to how shipping containers created a revolution in coffee production. Growers on subsistence, small and medium farms from Guatemala to Ethiopia can access world markets thanks to shipping containers. And coffee culture in neighbourhoods, like where I live in Vancouver, is exploding because of what’s being produced around the world and roasted in my backyard (not literally, but, like, 10 blocks away).

What this means for your community: whether your team has 20 or 20 million people, being equipped with a business solution like the shipping container is a game-changer for workplaces, so be ready to focus on tactics to enhance your team’s production, not efficiency, when you’re presented with such an innovation.

They promote accountability

Shipping goods in containers, as opposed to cramming them into every corner of a ship’s hull, makes it easier to organize and track items. And, yes, I watched The Wire and understand from season two that monitoring cargo can be “gamed” by wily longshoremen and nefarious gangsters. That said, companies like Target and Wal-Mart can more closely track every step of their supply chain and, for the most part, adapt accordingly. Partnerships like the one between shipping giant Maersk and IBM will align containerization’s already solid system of accountability with blockchain, a digital ledger that tracks every stage of a products journey, which will bring a new level of accountability to global trade.

What this means for your community: being a great collaborator means being accountable for what you say to your community and what you commit to doing; containerization has enabled retailers to monitor and re-supply stock of everyday items in almost real-time, so think about what you can do to facilitate updates or feedback in real-time instead of bottling everything up for a monthly meeting.

They foster innovation

Shipping containers are transformed into homes, bistros, gardens, and nightclubs. Madrigal interviews artists who use containers and bunker fuel to capture the modern beauty of global shipping. Their uniformity, consistency and simplicity inspire creatives to showcase innovative new ways to create novelty and alternative functionality from containers. And the story of how shipping containers were invented is the stuff of innovation, too:

What this means for your community: we all know the common, age-old ways to collaborate, like having meetings, creating project plans and fostering a healthy sense of inclusion and intercultural understanding.  But it is also worth trying to innovate around your core idea by continuing meetings, but fundamentally changing how and where they happen, or re-imagining what inclusion means to your community by trying radical transparency on for size.

They reflect shared value

Doing business to make as much money as possible isn’t enough. The value that’s created must also benefit communities in social and environmental ways. This is what Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer called “Shared Value”, which focuses on the connections between society and economic progress. While there are some trade-offs, like sometimes being filled with crap human beings don’t really need and destroying a generation’s livelihood in North America, shipping containers represent a thing – perhaps the thing – that countless people agreed was beneficial from business, societal and environmental perspectives. Everyone shared a vision of the value that would be created by this invention. According to The Guardian’s Justin Gerdes, corporate competitors are sharing resources throughout their supply chains to reduce costs and carbon emissions.

What this means for your community: the best collaborating occurs when everybody wins for the right reasons, just like the majority of actors in the global economy are winning from shipping containers. Great collaboration can’t just be about one thing because how work gets done is almost as important as what’s produced and why the community cares about the project in the first place.

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