Two ways to think about help

I know two ways to think about help.

The first way: think about a vampire and a blood bag.
The second way: think about coincidence.

I find ‘help’ a very useful word. A lot of people find it quite uncomfortable, but I like it. When it comes to people working together, a lot of people talk about things like ‘collaboration’ and ‘co-working’ and ‘co-operation’ or even ‘co-creation’. But I find ‘help’ more useful. Because when you talk about someone helping then you have a whole language that comes with it.

“Am I helping?”
“Can you help?”
“Do you think this will help?”
“What help do you need?”

When it comes to people working together, the word ‘help’ is really just built for the job. And I think the best thing about the word help is also the reason it makes people uncomfortable: ‘help’ has hierarchy built in. You can talk about ‘co-creating’ something all day and all night without ever having to think about hierarchy. But as soon as you use the word help, you find yourself having to define who is helping who with what. Am I helping you? Or are you helping me? And even when you’re just talking about two people — that’s a hierarchy of two. The helped and the helper. Number one and number two.

And it’s the most natural thing in the world:

“Hi. Can you help me with this?”
“Yeah, sure. What do you need?”

When you’re helping, you know you have to find out what is needed. Because otherwise, how would you know if you’re helping? And we know that it is the person asking for help who knows. Sometimes we can guess what someone needs help with. But we also have to remember that we don’t actually know. Only the most misguided and unhelpful of helpers is sure they know better what someone else needs.

So, even with tiny things, and even without having to think about it, in most cases we understand and respect a natural hierarchy when it comes to helping. If I’m building a house and I ask you help by putting up the walls and you ask someone else to pass you bricks, then there’s a nice, natural hierarchy of three people: house-builder, wall-builder and brick-supplier. Not the kind of hierarchy that says the house-builder is better than the wall-builder or more important or has higher status or seniority or whatever. The house-builder is just the person everyone else is helping. The wall-builder is number two (helping the house-builder) and the brick-supplier is number three (helping the brick-supplier). One, two, three.

And the real magic of using the word ‘help’ is that it naturally ensures that responsibility and authority are accurately apportioned. The house-builder, as number one, is responsible for the whole house. As they are the one asking for help, only they know what help is needed. As such, they also have authority over the whole. The wall-builder won’t know what walls to build until the house-builder says what walls he needs. The wall-builder, as number two, only has responsibility for building the wall. And when, in turn, the wall-builder asks the brick-supplier for help, it’s the wall-builder who knows what help is needed: he has authority over the wall.

And it’s all very simple. But this little bit of structure — of helper and helped — is the underlying code for collaboration. Even with chains of hundreds of people. Even with hugely complicated projects. You can build an infinitely vast family tree of helpers just using this simple question of who is helping who. It generates all the information you need in order to accurately map authority, responsibility and hierarchy. It tells you what needs to be done and by who.

And that’s why it’s dangerous not to talk about ‘help’. Talking about ‘collaboration’ and ‘co-creation’ without talking about who is helping who invites fogginess and confusion and all kinds of imaginary ideas about who is responsible for what. It lets you off the hook too easily.

I think people don’t like the word ‘help’ because it evokes a kind of distorted and misguided approach to hierarchy that is the bedrock of corporate culture. Where being number one doesn’t just mean being ‘the person who asked for help’, but does confer status and seniority and importance and the rest. And where being the helper implies the opposite of all those things.

But this is where we come back to two ways of thinking about help.

The first way of thinking about help requires force. The person who needs help is a vampire and the helper is a blood bag.

“You need to help me.” says the vampire-who-needs-help, with just enough implied threat.
“OK,” says the helper-under-duress, worrying about what will happen if they refuse.

And the helper-under-duress doesn’t do the work because it’s something they also need to do. They do the work because they’re scared of the alternative. It’s not even really a request for help — just an order backed-up with a threat. And the helper helps until they run out of energy for the task. They’re a blood bag to be used up. A ‘human resource’. They have no genuine appetite for the work. No passion for it. And so each bit of energy they invest in the work leaves them drained. That’s one way to think about work: “You need to help me.”

The second way to think about help hinges on coincidence. My definition of ‘help’ is when two people need the same bit of work to be done and only one of them actually needs to do it. If you need an excuse to practice your guitar-playing for an hour and I need someone to accompany me while I sing for an hour, then you playing the guitar helps me. This is the best kind of help. No vampire, no bloodbag, no treating people as resources to be drained. Just two people benefitting from one lot of work.

If I talk about ‘collaboration’ I define it as ‘two people working on a shared need’. That’s the only kind of collaboration that actually works. Where each person is doing something because it meets a need for them — and both people benefit from the work being done. And it depends on coincidence: the coincidence of two identical needs. The art of getting the help you need is the art of looking for coincidence: finding people who share one or other of your needs. Because when people are working on something they need to work on, then they have appetite, then they have passion, then they’re not drained. The need is the fuel for the work.

It doesn’t help to come up with new, less uncomfortable words for ‘help’. The thing that helps is not being a vampire and not being a bloodbag. Not saying ‘We need to do this’ or even ‘I need your help’ — but, rather, going through the necessary steps to establish whether there is a coincidence of needs. And these are the steps:

  1. Say what you need to do.
  2. Ask for help.
  3. Check if there is a shared need.

“I need to build a house for myself before winter. I need help building the walls. Could you help me?”
“How would you like to help?”
“Well, I’m trying to get better at bricklaying, so I’d love the chance to practice that.”
“Awesome! You can be in charge of bricklaying.”
“Awesome! I’m in.”

It’s a tiny, basic procedure. Maybe just one additional step — checking whether there is a shared need. But it’s the bare minimum necessary for working together in a sustainable way. And it makes the difference between getting help from an unwilling, resentful, increasingly exhausted ‘helper’ — and an enthusiastic, engaged and passionate one. It’s the difference between exacting help through force and control and supervision, on the one hand, and enjoying the coincidence of two independent people getting what they need.

For more on being clear, read the rest of How to be clear.
If you need help with being clear, get in touch.