A plan or a target?

There’s been a lot of talk recently by politicians here in Australia about the benefit of plans versus targets, particularly in relation to reducing carbon emissions to ensure the future of our planet. This binary argument may be useful as a club to beat the opposing political party with but is it useful as a way to safeguard our future?

Let’s look at what they offer.

A plan is typically a series of steps or intended actions within a specified timeframe, developed to co-ordinate the activities of many people in order to achieve a desired outcome. Plan making is useful when the present situation is known, the desired outcome is clear and the intended actions required to achieve the outcome are obvious, known or at least knowable.

So important are plans to the successful completion of small and large scale projects that a whole discipline, as well as hundreds of project management software programs have been developed to co-ordinate the skills and personnel involved. One of the key requirements of a useful plan is that the enthusiasm and energy required from those who will carry it out can be sustained over the life of the plan. Unfortunately we have seen too many plans still sitting ... unactioned ... on shelves as testament to the desire to create a plan before getting commitment to making it work.

A target, on the other hand, is typically strategic, aspirational and longer-term. While it may be time-defined, it is future focused, so any attempt at including details of actions required to achieve it would be mere fantasy. At the time of setting the target they are unknown. While the target can be articulated with clarity such as “zero carbon emissions across Australia by 2050,” what this will look like in every sector is unknowable.

A target is intended to be aspirational, inspirational and motivational.  It provides some certainty as to intention.  It encourages all those with an interest in achieving longer term outcomes, even past their own working lives, to start thinking about and working towards achieving what may currently seem an impossible outcome. It provides a language to share ideas across sectors and find partners and collaborators in unlikely places. It encourages investment in specific technologies that may contribute towards achieving outcomes that at the time of setting the target are not even on the horizon.

No one person or group of people will manage the journey to the target, although many may contribute.  The target is like a ‘light on a distant hill’ inspiring us to act and learn together, even when we are most unsure. It will encourage individuals, teams, organisations and sectors to make small advances towards the target over time.  Celebrating every step that brings us closer to the target, small or significant, made anywhere, by anyone, attracts more people with a desire to contribute.  Success breeds success, across sector boundaries and among unlikely partners.

Targets and plans will make different contributions towards reaching a ‘light on the hill’.

It is helpful to start with a target. If it’s important and genuine, it will support individuals, organisations and sectors as they invest in and experiment with new ideas, technologies and ways of acting together. Solutions will emerge from uncertainty, new thinking and collaborative effort. Then plans and activities will have their place to deliver them.


Who do you trust?

Who do you need to trust when working with others on difficult problems? I have been reflecting on this question since a recent conversation with a colleague. He has joined a big infrastructure project that continues to cause some disruption for people living and working in the area. The organisation has managed to build good relationships with most stakeholders, but there is one local stakeholder who seems to be particularly angry. My colleague hasn’t met him yet, being new to the team, but all of his colleagues have been telling him what a difficult man this person is.

“Don’t go near him alone” is their advice.

My colleague wants to improve the relationship with this person and his instinct is to go and talk to him at his place of business. But he’s nervous about going alone. He also isn’t sure who to take with him, because his co-workers seem to have made up their minds that the man is a lost cause.

What can he do? Seems to me this is a question of trust, on a couple of fronts. He could take his co-workers’ warnings at face value and choose never to go near the angry stakeholder, but he knows this can’t lead to a better relationship. He wants to go and meet him. But can he trust the guy if he goes alone?

Obviously we all need to prioritise personal safety, yet in my experience extending trust is usually rewarded. If my colleague takes the step alone, demonstrating that he trusts the guy to be rational, he will likely find a rational guy. Angry? Perhaps. Unhappy? Sounds certain. But neither of those things are unbearable.

I also wonder if there is a deeper trust barrier here. To go and meet and talk with an angry person who feels aggrieved about what has been ‘done to him’, takes courage. It also takes some confidence. And I wonder if my colleague is thinking about whether or not he has the capability to manage an outraged stakeholder. In other words, he may be thinking “can I trust myself to do this difficult thing?”

When collaborating, we need to extend trust to others. But I’m starting to think that it is just as important to extend trust to ourselves. Collaboration can be challenging and difficult, perhaps leading us to think “I can’t do that”. But if we want different outcomes we have to do different things.

So trust yourself. You can do this!


Build a relationship before you tackle a job

Even though our home wasn’t at risk, my own reaction to the bushfires and smoke over the holiday period surprised me- I was tentative, worried, frustrated, lacked focus and was generally a bit stressed, even around family and good friends, and even more so with strangers.

It reminded me of the challenges of getting things done when people are stressed, and I remembered a few things I have often found helpful in similar situations....

  • feel, feel, feel- show that others matter- acknowledge how people feel
  • listen, listen, listen- acknowledge and understand what matters to others first. Then people may be willing to listen to what you have to say
  • build the relationships before you tackle the job
  • acknowledge that you do not know- what to do…., what is best..., where to start.... etc, and that it's OK to ask for help
  • understand that the solutions are best not coming from you, but are better to emerge from conversations with others (even if you think you know what to do!)
  • expect the next steps will not necessarily be the "answer", but will be a start towards finding some solutions together
  • accept that it will take time and people can't be rushed.

Looking at the list also made me realise how hard I find trying to think and act like that- my default is often the opposite!

Do you have other ideas that might help?


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.