What guidance do collaborators need?

A question: What do the Bible, tidiness guru Marie Kondo, Life Coach Tony Robbins, Author Stephen Covey and my smart phone have in common?

Perhaps not much, apart from their diverse promises to ‘show us the way’.

Lately I have been doing a lot of thinking about what ‘showing the way’ looks like, as we explore the idea of creating a guide for collaborators. That is, we are hoping to create a comprehensive ‘how to’ guide for project managers or leaders who find themselves needing to design and run a collaborative project. It feels like a useful addition to our existing Collaboration System. The problem is I’m not sure what such a guide should look like. But I have some ideas:

Like the Bible the guide should provide the big-picture principles and ‘values’ of collaboration. Things like doing ‘with’ rather than doing ‘to’; Acting in order to learn, rather than planning in order to act, and so-on. If nothing else, these principles allow users to orient themselves in the right direction.

What about Marie Kondo, famous for telling us to declutter our homes by holding items tightly and discarding those that don’t make us feel happy? In just this way a collaboration guide should show us a range of simple, practical actions we can take ‘right now’ to begin our collaboration. Actions such as getting who you can in the room together and genuinely listening to how each stakeholders sees the dilemma.

And Tony Robbins? As a popular ‘life coach’ he talks about the attitudes and mindsets of success. Likewise, a collaboration guide should shine a light on the thinking that collaborators must bring to their work. How do collaborators think and how does that differ from business as usual?

Stephen Covey wrote the best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Similarly, a comprehensive guide must describe and encourage the powerful habits of collaboration. Habits such as sharing your process questions so everyone can get their fingerprints on the way this project runs. Practising these habits every day is a key to collaborative success.

And then there is my phone. This one is pretty straightforward. When seeking a new destination my phone is able to give me a step-by-step guide from where I am to where I want to be. When I’m feeling lost or unsure I consult the phone and know where to turn. I hope our guide will do this for all collaborators, with clear steps and a map to follow.

So, it seems that what we are creating for collaborators should provide the high-level guidance of the Bible while containing practical action instructions, mindset advice, processes for building new habits and a detailed map of the way forward. Hmmmm, I wonder if there is a guide for creating such a thing?


Sailing into Troubled Waters

I’m just back from a fascinating 10 days sailing Japan’s Setonaikai – the inland sea separating the four main islands. We did a lot of traveling from place to place, which meant every night we had to find a new place to anchor. Simple in theory, but sometimes things didn’t go to plan.

5:00pm: We dropped anchor at the region’s most beautiful beach. It was a little tricky, with the sonar showing us that the beach dropped very steeply away below us into deeper water. It raised some questions about the ‘bite’ that the anchor had in the bottom. If it’s sitting on a steeply sloping bank could it swivel and pull out?

Sometimes the only way to know is to go down and have a look and it was my job to put on the mask and fins, dive in, swim down and check the anchor on the bottom. Easy, right?

But then… “hey this water is really murky! It’s black and I can’t see a thing. There is no way I’m going 10m down into that murk!”  Too scary. Too difficult.

And I climbed back up onto the boat, into the calm beauty of the long-shadowed afternoon. It was so much nicer up here!

3:00am: Woke to an energetic rocking motion, lots of rattling rigging and a clear sense of movement. Jump up on deck. “Where’s the beach?” Turns out our fears had been realised. As we slept, the anchor had quietly lost its grip on the sea floor, casting us adrift…..out to sea and into danger. Needless to say, we moved fast. Started the engines, pulled up the anchor, and headed off on the next leg of the trip. No harm done, apart from a scare, some violent words from the skipper and an unusually early start.

Why am I sharing this story? Because I was reminded of it when thinking about some recent work with collaborative teams. I watch them and listen to them working. On the surface, they seem to be going well. They share ideas, they ask questions, they talk and smile politely. It is calm and sunny and comfortable here. But then someone says something revealing, like “it feels as though your team is blocking progress on this and I can’t understand why they are getting in the way…”

Yikes! It feels as though the collaborative anchor is at risk of coming adrift. There is only one way to ensure the connection remains strong; The group needs to dive into the relational water, where it is a bit scary and difficult. They need to do a health check on their relationship and levels of trust. They need to open up and be vulnerable about their feelings and how each group sees the other. But just as I experienced in Japan, it is so much more comfortable to stay on the surface and hope that all will be well. It is deep, black and murky down there. Yet if we don’t brave the relational depths we might find our collaboration coming adrift and coming to grief.

I understand the challenge of diving into difficult waters. We all need some help to do that safely. Sometimes all that our clients need is some timely strategic advice and support to help them take a deep breath and start swimming together. I hope I take my own advice next time I am asked to check an anchor.

If you would like to know more about Twyfords’ strategic advice service, contact us.


Six Roadblocks to Authentic Collaboration - Part 3

This is the last in a series of three blogs where we examine the six roadblocks to collaboration. Click through for some simple tools to apply.

  1. Business practices limiting flexibility and innovation

Be prepared to modify your "operating system":

Organisations build up formal internal operating structures and protocols that reflect their experience, and are a key part of the control mechanisms for stability and certainty. These manifest in project protocols like terms of reference, project plans, timelines and milestones, etc, as well as other habits like business planning, HR protocols, etc

"But we can't proceed until we have nailed the Terms of Reference......"

While an essential part of managing, the unintended consequence is they can frustrate trying different things, or tackling things in new ways, when the demand for these controls may clash with the flexibility and alternative approaches essential in taking a collaborative approach requiring experimentation and innovation.

One way to tackle this can be to develop a solid alternative "structure" that might look a bit different, but meets the same needs in providing confidence to those involved while not limiting the flexibility required to innovate. An example might be this collaborative log tool- an emerging time based record that lays out context, plans, progress and outputs, but also recognises the importance of flexibility, emergence and relationships when dealing with complexity.

 

  1. Hierarchy and silos

Thinking and doing "with", not "to":

Organisations are traditionally set up using hierarchical structures and horizontal separation to manage the business. While appropriate and necessary, they can consolidate a power and control mindset and behaviours that can limit collaborators working across the horizontal boundaries, and constrain their ability to be authentic, to listen, and be flexible.

"But that might cut across what planning is doing, and we'd have to run it past finance....." 

Such collaborative activities may be perceived to threaten the implicit power dynamics, triggering reactive behaviours that can shutdown innovation. It is difficult for collaborators to build the essential trust under these conditions.

Thinking and acting differently is a way to 'virtually' remove such boundaries while living within the existing structures and protocols. Acting "as if" the participants are one team not separate groups can help shift conversations and behaviours. One example is the tension we often see between the planning and delivery silos, and here is an example of a collaborators guide to encourage a "with" mentality and congruent behaviours in such situations.


The Six Roadblocks to Authentic Collaboration - Part 1

This is the first of three blogs in which we explore the six roadblocks to collaboration. Click through for some simple tools to apply. 

  1. The lack of robust collaborative processes

Finding a pathway:

A couple of years ago I was talking to a NZ client about collaboration, and he lamented "the team sits around the table and wants to collaborate, but they don't know how or where to start". He explained that they were keen to do things differently, especially in working across their traditional boundaries, but tended to do what they always did as they had no other guidance other than- 'you need to collaborate'. That often left them confused and frustrated as the experience seemed to be more of the same- lots of talk, little listening, and same old solutions.

Over the next 12 months, we introduced his team to the Power of Co framework and they applied it to a couple of projects. He was keen on how they had responded and I asked him why. He said that for the first time they had a series of steps that helped them collaborate- some guidelines and handrails so when they got together they felt confident they were tackling things differently, but not too 'boxed in' to a process- it gave them a roadmap and confidence with their collaboration.

  1. A business as usual mindset that cripples authentic collaboration

Changing the mindset:

The traditional unilateral approach to problem solving relies on expertise and "knowing the answer".

This is sometimes best demonstrated for me in an organisation with what I call 'the curse of the expert' - ie "if only you knew what I know, you would agree and we could just get on with it"

This thinking can have unintended consequences as it risks closing down collaborative activities when people withdraw and stay silent when confronted with others pushing their answer.

Increasingly complex challenges demand a multilateral approach, supported by a "we" mindset, as illustrated in this simple tool:

  • I don't know all the answers,
  • I need some help,
  • if we listen better we can tap into the diverse expertise available
  • and generate solutions we couldn't have come up with on our own

Such shifts in thinking drive new behaviours and so we do things differently when working in the collaborative space (and these new behaviours also positively impact other day to day work).


How Collaboration is Helping the World's Central Bankers Sleep Better

On a recent job in Indonesia I heard some surprising things about what keeps central bankers awake at night, and it goes something like this:

  1. Our world is disrupting. Digital currencies are emerging outside the financial system. Cash is in decline. The internet is shifting the way we tax and regulate and new fintech startups are emerging every day, bringing a new suite of challenges.
  2. To navigate this changing world we need to work differently, with different stakeholders such as law makers, regulators and technology providers.

What troubles bankers is their sense that “we don’t know what working differently looks like or how to do it”. And with this comes the fear that the age-old central bank model may be left behind. Now that is enough to make any banker feel nervous.

Yet the other (perhaps not so) surprising thing is that the banks are seeing collaboration as a key strategy for retaining their role and influence in the emerging world, which is why they were talking to me about the what why and how of collaboration. Their thinking goes that in a disrupted world, where innovation is going to be increasingly important, central bankers need to learn what collaboration is. They recognise the complexity of the environment they work in and know that collaboration is the way to make progress in this context.

They also know that collaboration isn’t just about getting in the room together, but involves powerful frameworks, new skills and new ways to think and act.

What they may not fully grasp is that collaborating well means overcoming the six roadblocks to collaboration. From what I have seen in organisations seeking to work more collaboratively, if they can’t meet these systemic requirements they are unlikely to stay relevant and influential.

So if collaboration is helping the central banks of the world to be flexible, creative and effective, what can it contribute to your success? And what are you doing to tackle those roadblocks?


Gorillas in your midst

A few years ago I was working with a client in the transport sector who was keen to engage with their stakeholders on a new approach to contracting. The client was a large government organisation who used a diverse range of contractors across the state.

At one of the consultation sessions, the client representative was listening to some of the contractors discussing the proposal, when one of them said- "you know Tom, you are the 'big hairy gorilla' in this system, and we are effectively powerless..."

Tom was a bit taken aback and asked what he meant. The contractor responded that "you control the money, and even though you say you are giving up control with this proposed system, you really still have all the power"

I remember being surprised at the reaction of my client Tom. He was genuinely shocked to realise the impact that his organisation's status and behaviour was having on his effort to share control - quite unintended from his perspective, but quite realistic and expected if you sat outside his "bubble".

When talking to Tom later he said that he had actually seen the consultation as a meeting of equals. He was surprised with their reaction, and realised since that them seeing him as the gorilla has obvious implications for relationships and trust which could compromise his good intentions.

I reflected on this recently as we were discussing our topic of power for this month. I reckon it reveals a couple of useful insights about power and control:

  • we are often unaware of the impact we have on others
  • well intentioned plans can be unknowingly undermined by the perceptions of others
  • it can be hard to give up power if it undermines status quo

Are you sometimes the big hairy gorilla, and how would you know?


Curiosity creates better questions

We ask questions to find answers. So, when we ask questions within an important conversation, it’s essential that we are really curious to find out what another person thinks. I’d like to explore the topic of curiosity as one element of asking better questions.

But first, what do we mean by a ‘better question’?

Warren Berger, a questionologist (a person who studies questions), defines a beautiful question as “An ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceived or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Fran Peavey, another question studier, talks about strategic questioning as “focused on what could be, and upon the creation of active participation in present and future transactions”.

Fran suggests the questions that are useful in a conversation include those that don’t force anyone to defend a position; questions that move the conversation forward and open it up to new thinking, that help create new options.  Perhaps a genuinely curious question “How often do you fill your bins for recycling and green waste?”  is more likely to generate ideas about waste management than: “Why don’t you sort your household waste properly?”  She suggests that better questions are often the unaskable questions which give them great power, asked simply in a single sentence.  In the Emperor’s new clothes story, it was the child who asked, quite simply, “Why doesn’t the Emperor have any clothes on?” because he was genuinely curious about so obvious an issue.

So, how does our curiosity help us create better questions?

Being curious, and having a personal desire to learn from others, gives us courage to ask what might sometimes feel like dumb questions.  I once sat on a Board of a financial institution and initially felt I didn’t have enough knowledge of the industry to ask what other Board members might think was a dumb question that just exposed how little I knew. I was encouraged by another Board Member from the steel industry who used to preface his question with the words “Well I’m just a simple production man, but this issue doesn’t make too much sense to me. Can someone please explain why this is so?” I was often curious about things I didn't understand, and found this way of asking a question useful for me and also allowed me to be useful to the group by introducing ideas from a female perspective and from outside the finance industry.

Curiosity keeps us asking questions even after getting an answer, so we explore the situation more deeply. An answer to the waste question “I have lots of stuff to recycle but not much green waste”, could lead to a broader conversation about recycling as part of waste management and generate new thinking. Perhaps continuing the curious questioning might eventually generate a better question and new ideas about our society’s use of plastic.

Curiosity helps us to learn from failure and move from a loss to a personal gain.  I have always found that I learned more from my failures and disappointments than from my successes, because I am curious to know not only why I didn’t get the results I anticipated, but also why my reasoning was faulty. Curiosity pushed me to ask more and different questions about why I failed and what I might change.  Failing is fine in my book, even necessary, because there is so much to learn if we are curious about, rather than defeated by, failure.

Finally, curiosity helps us to overcome fear, to listen without judgement to whatever answer comes from our better questions; to be interested in and willing to explore any small piece of an answer that takes us both forward.

I suggest being constantly curious and unafraid to ask, helps us to formulate better questions over time particularly if we listen carefully to every answer.


Ducks in a row ...

What does a picture of ducks in a row conjure up for you?  Is it a mother duck leading her brood to or on the pond? Or a group of birds flying in formation? Or even a row of moving targets at a fairground attraction?

Whatever the mental picture, getting your ducks in a row in a work situation usually means planning a project carefully so you stay in control of all the elements before you risk moving forward. This careful planning is something that many of us understand as an essential pre-requisite to action when we are working with others. We believe it’s important to make sure everyone in our team is “on the same page” or “singing from the same songsheet” before we move into action.

How useful is this message to us when we’re working in complexity? When we need to harness the talents and ideas from our team to find a solution that none of us could come up with on our own?  I suggest that it’s more of a risk to our project than a benefit.

Complexity by its very nature means that the future is unknown, even unknowable. It is not predictable from the present or from the events and actions of the past. Even the problem to be tackled probably looks different from different perspectives and the solutions will come from trying new things, learning from doing and often feeling uncertain about the possible messiness around us. The antithesis of leading from the front in our duck images.

The idea of ‘getting our ducks in a row’ is likely to reduce diversity rather than expand it. But when facing complexity, when tackling complex dilemmas and challenging situations, we need diverse perspectives and diverse ideas. We need to encourage our team to bring all of themselves and their ideas to the mix rather than expecting them to conform to one set of ideas and one way of working. We need to seek diversity rather than uniformity as we address today’s complex dilemmas, or ‘wicked problems’.

Being in control, being certain, and being in the state of knowing, is very comfortable, but not helpful when we need to take the road less travelled; when we need to experiment, listen and learn from others who know things we don’t; when we need to explore all the possible solutions (even those many would say are impossible) and learn together from what we find.

Perhaps we should stop trying to get our ducks in a row and recognise instead that just getting them splashing around in one pond can be enough to start with.


Are you planning to act or acting to learn?

Most of us would be familiar with the management aphorism: “If you fail to plan you are planning to fail”, and there is a lot of truth to it. But there is a darker side to this saying as well, one which many of my clients struggle with. Clients like Bob.

Bob is a project manager, smart, competent and successful. He works in a large water company, but there are many like him in all sorts of companies around the world. Bob has a track record of managing a range of difficult projects from planning through to delivery. Most recently he took on the exciting task of working with a diversity of stakeholders to improve water quality and amenity across a large urban water catchment. Bob knows his organisation can’t deliver outcomes on its own, and he is committed to collaborating with others to create lasting solutions together.

But a few months in, progress wasn’t as fast or as easy as he had expected. In fact, he was very worried that the collaboration would fall apart. People seemed unsure, unhappy, frustrated at the complexity and messiness of the task. Bob felt it too. But, being an experienced project manager, Bob gritted his teeth and applied himself to the problem of how to ensure this collaborative group delivered outcomes.

Going back to first principles, Bob decided he needed a plan of action, setting out the steps he and his collaborators would to take in order to get outcomes in a timely fashion. So he sat down with some smart colleagues to create the document.

But there was a problem. He actually didn’t know what the next steps should be. He wasn’t sure what the problem was – is it lack of commitment or lack of clarity or lack of resources…? He wasn’t sure who should be a part of the problem-solving process or who wanted to be a part of it.

What did Bob do? Being a good project manager, he decided to gather more data so that he could answer some of these questions in order to write the plan. But hang on, what data did he need? Where should he get it? What will that data mean..? He needs a plan for this…

Poor Bob was stuck in the space of not knowing; paralysed by the need to get the answers in order to proceed. His powerful urge to line up the ducks on this project was clashing with its unknowability.

The lesson is that planning can only take you so far when collaborating in complex situations. Rather than plan in order to act, Bob found more success when he began to act in order to learn. In practice, that meant Bob and his collaborators confronting and acknowledging the inevitable uncertainty of the situations they faced, but not getting paralysed by it. Instead, they tried things, developing small experiments to run. And together they learned from those activities. Some things didn’t work so well. Other things were more effective. All have been useful to help shed further light on how to tackle this catchment management problem. Only by taking action has the group learned what it takes to make a difference to their waterway.

Taking action when we don’t have all the answers can be scary, but Bob has now been working this way for many months as part of our Collaboration Builder program, and together he and his collaborators have created actions that no plan could have covered. They have learned not to plan in order to act, but to act in order to learn.


If only we had a new meeting structure.....

In my past life at a major manufacturing company, I was frustrated in a job I had supporting the leadership team in one part of the business.

The team met regularly and always struggled to have effective meetings. They were getting bogged down in detail, meetings ran over and out of time, and generally were ineffective.

The boss's response was always about the structural elements we needed......and the wait for that certain something that would "fix" things":

  • if only we can get a new meeting structure.....
  • if only we could follow the agenda......
  • if only people would come better prepared....
  • if only we were all really clear on our roles in the team....

The pattern seemed to be a desire to get the structure sorted, then everything would be OK and we would be functional!

Unfortunately nothing we tried made any real difference!

In looking back, I've realised that I was seeing a common pitfall when tackling complexity- seeking a simple solution when faced with uncertainty, which instead delivers delay, frustration and avoidance.

I call it lining the ducks up. 

Unfortunately, in complex situations there is not likely to be a simple answer or answers, and it’s a fallacy that you can get all the ducks lined up- or that you even know what all the ducks are!

In this case it seemed that there were a few other ducks that we were avoiding- the less pleasant ones around poor relationships, lack of trust and competition.

In such circumstances, a more useful approach is to accept we may not understand the problem, resist the temptation to 'nail' the answer, and live with a little uncertainty while trying something.

An emergent approach is more appropriate as it recognises that one cannot order or design the pathway forward in such situations.

With hindsight we may have been better to step back from the boss's single-minded focus on the "right" approach (in this case the meeting structure and logistics), and given space to learn a bit more about what else might be happening (poor relationships, etc).

We might then have tried some different actions like listening a bit more, checking assumptions etc, and perhaps been more functional as a team!

Perhaps if we had set the ducks free....