When the Bark is worse than the bite

I currently have an issue at home with a neighbour’s barking dog. It is very annoying as it’s a large breed with a big deep bark, which carries across to our house frequently during the day and at night.

I was getting more and more annoyed and angry, but was reluctant to say anything because of my concern about the interaction with the neighbour. I was thinking that they might get angry or aggressive if I complained, they may retaliate in some way, they may think I’m being unfair as other dogs bark too.

I was fearful of having a hard conversation.

While I did have the option to complain to Council, deep down I knew that a better course of action was dealing directly, so I summoned the courage to visit the neighbour.

And my fears were unrealised. I found the interaction actually useful and pleasant. They explained the history of the barking, their work with Council, what they were doing at home to manage the dog, and asked for some help. While the dog still barks, we have created a window in the relationship for working together to get a result we can both live with.

So in this case, the bark was worse than the bite - my fear of the hard conversation was out of proportion with the reality, and the resulting discussion has helped to build an initial relationship to help us find solutions together.

Tackling the relationship “elephant”

One of the biggest challenges we see inside organisations when trying to work better together is the elephant in the room- the reluctance for staff to reveal how they feel about working with others.

We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and it can feel a bit unsafe to say what we mean.

While quite understandable, it can be a huge drag on the ability to work well together, as our behaviour is often driven by what we feel, but can’t really talk about.

For example, if we are thinking

  • I’m not quite sure I can trust them with that information…
  • They seem to be only concerned with the money….
  • I feel they don’t value me and my team
  • They see us as incompetent….

then we will quite likely act in ways that will drive dysfunction rather than co-operation or collaboration.

And our thinking and assumptions are not visible or able to be tested.

In our experience a simple tool can help people be a little more honest about how they feel about others, and provide a platform for improvement.

Asking the different workgroups to respond to a series of questions can help surface such thinking and provide a foundation for more authentic engagement and collaboration:

  • How do we see ourselves? (our workgroup)
  • How do we see the other group?
  • How do we think the other group sees us?

Making the output visible by posting the results up can be quite powerful, as it can start to reveal some of the less obvious assumptions that are impacting how we work together.

Then discussing and exploring that together can help to tease out the relationship “elephant”, providing a platform for working better together.

More data doesn’t solve the trust problem

I have been working with a number of clients lately who are working in partnership with other organisations to deliver service or infrastructure outcomes. Sitting in on their meetings is illuminating and I have learnt a number of things.

Firstly, there are so many smart and capable people out there doing amazingly difficult jobs with commitment and competence. It’s humbling to see. Secondly, content experts find great comfort in talking about content. Gathering and analysing data, reviewing options and making decisions are mothers milk. And that’s as it should be for people whose job it is to deliver on challenging projects.

But there is a downside to this content competence, and it poses a critical risk when collaborating on complex problems. The downside of being a deep expert can be that if something doesn’t look like data or information about the project then:

  • I may not recognise it as important;
  • I may recognise it as important and then get stuck trying to gather data about something that defies a data-based approach;
  • I may recognise it as important but ignore it in the hope it goes away.

The latter two are examples of retreating to the comfort zone of information and analysis.

An example would be when relationships and trust begin to break down on a project.

Sitting in on meetings recently with one project group I have seen the pressure mount on the team and relationships take a turn for the worse. Everyone sees it, and they definitely feel it. What is interesting is how they respond. For example, one project team says to the other “I want to know where you are getting those figures from, because they seem different to what we are getting?”. The response is often something like “we will get you the numbers…”.

The assumption seems to be that if we go back into the data and do more looking around and analysis we will find an answer that will satisfy you and we will all be happy. But of course what is really going on is an unspoken conversation about lack of trust. Team A is saying “we don’t believe your numbers and you can’t be trusted”. Team B is saying “we’ll get the data and show you so-and-so’s who can be trusted around here”.

The problem is clearly trust but the conversation is about the numbers: A classic retreat to the data. And of course, the longer the real conversation is avoided the harder it gets to have and the more damage done to relationships. The tendency to default to ‘safe’ arguments about data gets stronger, and around the vicious cycle we go.

In these situations, when at daggers drawn, what is most needed is some real listening, authentic curiosity and genuine vulnerability. We must talk to each other like people, with honesty and transparency.

These are hard conversations to have yet we all know that clearing the air and getting things on the table is a great way to bring people and teams closer together.

So, in your collaboration, are you always conversing about the data or are you building in the time for just talking, learning and sharing together? If you’d like some guidelines on how to do that feel free to download our ‘Respectful Inquiry’ tool, which offers a simple way to help go below the data.

Just Try Some Experimentation

I have a client I have been coaching for some time. Let’s call him Rob. He’s a senior guy in a business with a nationwide footprint including multiple offices of widely varying sizes. One of Rob’s key responsibilities is to take the Strategic planning process forward, building the cascade from corporate strategy to section objectives to team actions and personal KPIs. Importantly, Rob wants to do this work collaboratively as part of an organisational aspiration to be more collaborative in its culture. And he also has to fit everything into the frameworks provided by their multinational owner.

So it isn’t a simple task, and in our regular conversations I see Rob grappling with the question “how am I going to do this?”

Understandably, Rob finds the task very uncertain and challenging, even overwhelming at times. What he dearly wants is the answer and until he finds the answer I see him sometimes spinning his wheels and losing confidence.

I can’t give Rob the answer or tell him how to do this. Nobody can. This task is a complex one, both very alike the situation in similar organisations, yet unique in its own ways. What I have been able to help Rob gain is the confidence to admit he doesn’t know, to understand there isn’t a right way, and to just try things. Rob has shifted from problem solving mode to learning and testing mode. And the difference has been amazing. In recognising the inherent uncertainty, complexity and ‘unknowability’ of the situation Rob has been able to cut himself and his people some slack.

  • He lets go of the need to have ‘the answer’.
  • He trys different things and learns how to build the frameworks as he goes.
  • He takes small steps with confidence, learning as much from the things that don’t work as from the things that do.

For example, Rob wants teams to report back against their agreed objectives and KPIs. He was struggling to come up with the ‘right’ questions that would gather the ‘right’ data. Then with his experimenters hat on he decided to test different sets of question in different offices, to see what was going to work best.

Now at the check-out from our coaching calls I hear Rob use phrases such as “I’m really looking forward to trying this” and even, “I’m excited about the next step”.

There is real power and freedom in that mindset shift from “why don’t I know how to do this?” to “what can I try next?”.

So why not try a little experimentation?

If you want to learn some more about the experimental approach in practice, join us for our upcoming free webinar on August 19th.

Re-experimenting with my migraines

In reflecting on my blog (below) from 2 years ago,I realised that I had fallen back into the black hole of "business as usual", and my approach to solving the problem was a key part of the problem.

Even though I had recognised previously that my focus on being overtired and stressed was preventing me trying alternatives, I had fallen back into a pattern of just trying to "fix" that probable cause.

Over the last 2 weeks I just happened to avoid my evening sugar hit (I love lollies!), replacing them with fruit and lots of water, and was pleasantly surprised at the result- no migraines!

Now while I'm realistic enough to appreciate that I probably haven't found the magic answer to my migraines, it did serve to remind me that 'just trying stuff' in complex situations is a more appropriate response than staying fixated on our belief in the one answer.

So my experiments continue, to salve my aching head....


I get migraine headaches regularly, and while I take a specific drug to manage them, I'm constantly frustrated by my inability to find a lasting solution.

I had fallen into a pattern of dealing with my migraines as though I knew the problem, that being overtired or stressed were the causes.  I would try everything to fix the causes, while using the drugs as necessary.

The problem was that no matter how much I slept more, rested my neck, using relaxation and meditation techniques, it made no difference overall to the frequency of headaches.

My toolkit was exhausted. I didn't know what to do.

So when I recently saw an on-line Migraine Summit advertised, I thought why not see if it can help me with some new ideas.

As I watched a series of webcasts from doctors around the world, something clicked for me. Migraines are really really complex, and my 'cause and effect' thinking, and single solution focus was not helping.  I realised that perhaps I needed to let go of my belief that I was in control of what was going on, and that I needed to think and do differently.

So rather than having an answer, I'm taking a different approach.  Rather than apply my 'solution' I have set a goal - fewer migraines and fewer drugs - and just try things to see if they get me closer to that goal.

My experiments so far have included tackling mild sleep apnoea, looking at pillow height, diet and hydration, the sequence and type of daily activities, computer usage at night, and sleeping comfort.

And a key in helping me check progress is not a plan forward, but a daily journal of activity, results and learnings from the experiments I am undertaking.

I'm more accepting now that I can't know the answer, and I don't even fully understand the problem, but I'm more confident than before that I'm making real progress towards my goal.

So key realisations for me have been:

  • recognising the complexity of my situation
  • accepting there is a lot I can't know about this, and I will probably never know the “answer”
  • acknowledging that I need to try different things,
  • finding ways to keep track of what helps and what doesn’t
  • and keep trying….

and I feel a lot better about my slightly less sore head!

Unlocking Co-design

On reading Stuart’s last blog about tapping into the three cornerstones to build collaborative capability, I recognised one way I saw this happen recently.

I had a coaching call with a client where they were complaining about a recent meeting where “hidden agendas” seemed to be constraining progress on a difficult co-design issue. The group consists of diverse external participants, each of whom passionately represents their constituency, and it some cases wear multiple hats, and so are no doubt juggling many perhaps conflicting points of view.

The client was seeking a tool that would help manage these people and their agendas.

We explored one of our meeting tools called “hold positions aside”- a way of helping groups to step past their strongly held views and consider new ideas.

As we explored and discussed using the tool, I was struck by the way the conversation and insights ranged across the three cornerstones:

  • In discussing the context for using such a tool, the client realised that it prompted a new way of thinking (mindset) about the views of the passionate participants, seeing them less as “hidden agendas”, and more as a view that needed to be respected and heard.
  • This also prompted some questioning as to whether the group might need to revisit where they were on the co-design journey (pathway), and potentially revisit their shared understanding the problem. And also whether the ‘agendas’ did reflect some reluctance to commit to working together, indicating perhaps that a review around the willingness might be useful.
  • And in actually knowing about and using such a tool (skillset), the client highlighted key aspects that make a tool like this useable in their inexperienced hands:
    • Simple step by step process
    • Knowing where it fits
    • Being able to “mix n match” the elements- to modify it to suit the users and the environment
    • Building confidence to use it themselves

And so in this case the process of finding a simple tool to tackle a difficult argumentative group helped to unlock and integrate the three cornerstones of collaborative co-design capability- pathway, skillset and mindset.

Cornerstones of Collaboration

Sometimes when working with others on challenging issues where different views abound, things can get a little difficult. I’ve definitely faced my share of situations where collaborators aren’t seeing eye to eye, when there is argument instead of exploration. This isn’t how it should be!

In our recent webinars and newsletters we’ve been sharing three “cornerstones” of collaborative capability: understanding the collaborative pathway and process; having the skills and tools to work differently, and; the ability to think collaboratively. So how do these three cornerstones shine a light on my struggle in those difficult meetings?

The Collaborative Pathway

If I’m seeing people in disagreement it helps to think about where we are on the journey and where we might more usefully be, given where people are at. Disagreement often stems from the fact that we aren’t clear on the problem, so revisiting the dilemma can be useful. Or if people are disagreeing about who should be involved or which information is to be trusted, then taking time to get everyone’s fingerprints on process design can help. Or if people are questioning the value of their involvement, then look back at the commitment step. The point is, knowing how to travel the pathway allows me to shift the conversation to where it may be most useful.

The Collaborative Skill Set

So my group of collaborators is at the point of co-creating solutions and we’ve agreed that this is the important and appropriate conversation. Yet we are still stuck! This is where the tools and the skills to use them can be useful. People are talking but nobody is listening? Perhaps it’s time to reach for a tool like Practice Curiosity which gives me a way to encourage learning and listening across the group. Fortunately the simple instructions walk me through the process so I can use it with confidence.

The Collaborative Mindset

Now I know where I am in the journey and I have a tool to help. But practising curiosity means I’m going to have to actually ask questions of others to learn more about how they see things, and why. Meanwhile, in my heart of hearts I struggle to value their view or their experience. If I go into this conversation expecting to learn nothing, and being uninterested and incurious then no tool will be effective, and no collaborative process can deliver. This is when I need to be stepping into the mindset of a collaborator, coaching myself to be curious, to expect the best even of someone I don’t quite trust, to listen as loudly as I would otherwise be speaking. Of the three cornerstones, the mindset is the most fundamental and the one requiring practice over time.

The interplay between process, skill set and mindset has guided the development of our Collaboration System and toolkit. But whatever approach you take to collaboration, with whatever toolkit, keeping these cornerstones in mind and tapping into them to guide your practice helps deliver success. How is your capability across all three?

Lessons from a newborn

Mindset is crucial for effective collaboration.

The clearest reminder for me about the importance of mindset was when our son was born (32 years ago!)

I guess my wife and I both thought at the time that the world would keep rolling along and we just had to fit the new arrival into our comfortable 'business as usual' existence (notwithstanding the advice from family and friends about the significant change we were about to experience!)

While we could learn the techniques of child rearing (nappy change, bottle feed, managing the crying, etc), a big surprise was how we had to adjust our thinking:

  • No longer were we in control of our agenda- we had to adapt and be ready for what emerged in the night, or at mealtime, or when we were due to be somewhere!
  • We no longer knew the answer (and sometimes even the question was unclear - babies aren't very clear sometimes in what they want!). So we had to become a lot more comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing but just trying stuff and seeing what worked (or not)
  • Our schedule went out the window, we had to accept that flexibility and not certainty was the new order of the day.
  • We could no longer do things 'to'...., it always had to be 'with'....the new arrival- as uncomfortable and frustrating as that sometimes was.

I learned to shift my mindset around some significant patterns of behavior, just as our experience at Twyfords tells us is necessary for collaborating effectively.

My key insight is that our natural and learned thinking that has worked and been successful in the past can compromise our efforts to collaborate.

We need to challenge and shift our thinking - to "rebirth" our mindset so that our collaborative efforts are congruent and effective.

Collaborators beware! There's a black hole out there

When I was young two sci-fi movies came out at around the same time. There was The Black Hole, apparently Disney’s first film with a PG rating. And then there was Alien. Not sure what it was rated but in terms of traumatic impact on my young mind it scored a clear 11 out of 10. I’m still getting over it.

I recall The Black Hole being a little underwhelming, but all these years later it’s the inescapable power of that thing at the centre of the galaxy and the centre of the plotline that I keep being reminded of in my work.

We all know that black holes exert an unfeasibly strong gravitational pull. Get too close and there is no escape, but even at a distance we can feel its presence. Any traveller in the vicinity has to constantly fight this invisible force lest they disappear forever.

Strangely, this has come to seem a lot like the universe my clients inhabit in the workplace. But in their case, the black hole is business as usual (BAU).

My work is all about supporting individuals and teams to grow their ‘collaborative muscles’; that is, their level of collaborative skill, behaviour and thinking. Inevitably for clients this means some change to the way they think about other team members, other business units, other stakeholders. Yet, the gravitational pull of business as usual is very strong, sometimes almost inescapable, making it really hard for people to grow a new, more collaborative pattern of thinking.

And just like gravity, the force that BAU exerts is invisible. It emanates through existing structures and processes, culture, performance evaluation frameworks, expectations of self and of others and in a 100 other ways. So when I work with clients I see people wanting to change their approach, to work more collaboratively, yet struggling to make progress against the black hole that traps their thinking into BAU. And if the thinking doesn’t change, neither can the actions.

Organisations that make the shift to a more collaborative way of working do so with more than just a few tools and a training program. Rather they do so by making new thinking possible. With the right support and freedom to learn, any person can escape the black hole of BAU. Let’s just hope they don’t encounter the Alien on the way past.

Accessing the Collaboration Gold

When I was a kid, my Dad used to take me exploring for gold near Tamworth. We all knew there was some gold in the local mountain streams, as both my Dad and uncle had been successful there for years, and the area has a long history of gold mining.

But as we got to the creek and started panning, I quickly realised that while I knew the gold was there, getting to it was something else. And try as I might, swirling and swirling the gravel in my pan, I was initially unsuccessful, while my Dad in short order was showing me the grains of gold in his pan.

So I painfully and slowly learned and practiced with the pan and my technique, and eventually success! - as something finally glittered in my pan.

I was reminded of my gold panning experiences recently when running a workshop for a client learning and practicing collaborative tools and techniques as part of implementing a collaborative way of working, and utilising our Power of Co system (PoC).

I've heard many times from clients that they saw the PoC as "gold", and then saw both them and myself frustrated by the apparent inability to get real collaborative change in the workplace. It seemed that while the pathway made absolute sense and gave them real confidence in collaborating, they really struggled with the "how", particularly letting go of longstanding practices that compromised the collaborative effort.

This was the catalyst for our development of a series of steps, activities, tools and techniques to provide a more detailed "how"- a bit like my Dad showing me how to use the pan, where to get the likely gravel, how much water to use, how to swirl effectively , etc.

So our realisation, like mine, was that knowing about the collaboration gold is only part of the story, and having access to the tools and techniques and learning is a critical element of success.

Have you the tools to access the gold?