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?

Why is my collaboration toolkit empty?

I spoke recently with an experienced CEO of a member-based organisation. An important part of her job is to support her members to work together to create strategies and policies to guide the whole group and to ensure that together they are more than the sum of their parts. In other words, her job is to help her members to collaborate.

But she finds this easier said than done. “My members don’t all see eye to eye,” she said. “There is an element of competition among them. Politics is definitely involved and there are some challenging personalities”.

Then she said something simple and yet so important. “We meet monthly as a board and all we do is run through the formal agenda. Those meetings are terrible forums for collaboration, but we don’t know any other way to work together!”

It is a tough position to be in. This capable leader is seeking to improve collaboration but the only tool she has is a monthly meeting with a very business as usual agenda, chaired in a very business as usual way. The collaboration toolkit is empty.

How is it that we can spend years learning to manage teams and businesses, but never quite obtain the tools of collaboration or the skills to use them? Though an experienced leader, this CEO is finding that in her current situation she doesn’t have the power to make things happen, and that is new to her. Though her management toolkit is full of useful items, none of them are suited to supporting her members to, for example;

  • listen to each other deeply
  • practice curiosity about how others see the issues
  • put their solutions aside
  • define their dilemmas together from all perspectives
  • co-design processes so that they all feel ownership and accountability
  • see past their own needs to co-create something that none could create on their own


These are among the skills of collaboration and they require a different toolkit. What is your experience? Is it time you filled your collaboration toolkit?

If you are curious about the things to put in your collaboration toolkit you, get in touch, or register for our webinar in May https://bit.ly/2Qh9dYB.

Collaboration- Assert and Love?

A client recently talked about the seeming ‘bi-polar’ nature of their organisation, where they see a strong desire for good relationships with their stakeholders, which can feel at odds with their role as a regulator and being strict on the rules, even when this damages relationships.

It reminded me of Adam Kahane’s book we discussed in our February blogs (“Collaborating with the Enemy”- Berret-Koehler, 2018)

As well as his simple framework around collaboration as a choice, Adam also suggests that being able to move between “asserting” (having the power), and “love” (building relationships) is actually a key if one chooses the multilateral approach.

This parallels our experience, where we often see people vacillating between wanting to drive in a particular direction, and waiting to build consensus together. They can be nervous about which path is “right”, rather than acknowledging that both might be appropriate and part of effective collaboration.

So when is "assert" and when is "love" appropriate? According to Kahane, asserting reflects the need for individuality, the importance of respecting that individual’s difference and their piece of the truth, and their need for control.

Love on the other hand respects the collective, and the fact that only by being together can we find the collective truth. It recognises that if the individual is not part of the collective problem, then they can’t be part of the collective solution.

If one seeks consensus too much, one might give up too much and let down their constituency.

If one asserts too much, one might damage the relationships and be unable to reach a required consensus.

So if we assume that “assert” and “love” need to exist in a symbiotic relationship for effective collaboration, what does that mean for the collaborator?

How do you manage that internal conflict?


Are your collaborative contracts really collaborative?

A couple of years ago I worked with a major utility that wanted to change the nature of their services contracts.

Previously they had run a very top down, top heavy process requiring the contractors to jump through many process hoops, which left them feeling very constrained and powerless.

The provider started a new process stating they wanted it to be a more collaborative, flexible and outcome focused regime where contractors would be valued as equal partners.

What was interesting were the comments that I heard from the contractors during the subsequent implementation process, which were quite revealing about the attempted change.

I heard comments like:

  • this doesn't feel very collaborative 
  • you are still the "big gorilla" in charge of the cash
  • but you are just telling us how it will work
  • I'm not sure you really trust me....

While the new contracts were reasonably well received, and seemed to provide benefits, it soon became apparent that these new arrangements were just a bit better, rather than the quantum shift that had been planned.

While it looked different to the utility, it felt the same to the contractors- in the contractor's mind, the real power and control continued to reside with the utility, so it seemed that nothing had really changed.

And maybe that gives us a clue as to what might make a difference- it takes a different mindset to make a process truly collaborative, which drives different thinking, behaviour and actions:

  • thinking we, not me
  • giving up control and not always knowing the answer
  • paying attention to relationships, and building trust before presenting solutions
  • allowing those involved to get their "fingerprints" on the process

So there is a big distinction between doing collaboration, and it feeling collaborative.

The mindset is the difference.

Three ways to take your contractual partnership from good to great

A client in the water infrastructure business recently approached me to talk about how the team can learn to work together with their contracted construction partners as they deliver a massive bit of infrastructure. They told me that the relationship between them and their delivery partner is good but that, in a competitive world where margins are slim, they would only deliver on budget if their partnership shifts "from good to great". They needed to shift their collaboration to a new level or risk their profit margin.

With the growth of alliance contracts and governments' preference for outsourcing service delivery to contractors, this is an increasingly common scenario. Yet while it is one thing to be a contractual partner, it is another thing altogether to develop the collaborative mindset and behaviours that make these contractual relationships hum. How does my client move from an 'us and them' mindset to a 'we' mindset, and do so in the high-pressure world of project delivery? It isn't easy, but here are three things I've learned:

  1. A partnering contract alone does not a partnership make. Behaviour and, most importantly, thinking has to shift in order to give the contractual aspiration a chance.
  2. A commitment to working on relationships and a process for doing so is critical. You can’t just focus on doing the content work better.
  3. To build collaborative muscles we need to go to the collaboration gym, so build in a way for practice, reflection and learning.

To support clients on their partnering and alliance journeys we have developed our unique collaboration system and coaching process. We will be talking through key aspects of the approach in our upcoming webinar. We hope to see you there so you can take your contractual partnerships from good to great.

Those silos are still around!

In thinking about this month’s topic on silo busting, I was reminded of my blog four years ago:

Following a successful workshop a couple of weeks ago on setting up a collaborative framework for a project with a bunch of internal staff, the manager said to me that she couldn't believe how well the group had worked together, and how "they got more done in 2 hours than we had done in the last 2 months!"

She was surprised, which struck me as a bit unusual until I realised how uncommon working well together must be in that organisation.

I reflected back on my 32 years in a big corporate in a past life and remembered the challenges I experienced in working with teams there- the constant battles between the organisational silos- engineering and production, HR and OD, marketing and sales- hoarding of information, and the strong positions and solution focus that each group took into each session. Then I realised that my recent client was experiencing that same culture of brick walls I had experienced for years.

I also realised that my experience of the last 12 years had been quite different, as I had got so used to a different pattern and so what we saw with the group was more the norm to me, but quite unusual for her.

While I was the facilitator in that case, it reminded me once again that it is not fundamentally the tools or skills I had that made the difference- it was the collaborative thinking that helped people work across their organisational boundaries - people getting to know each other better, willingness to share information, deeply listening to a diversity of views, and their willingness to take ownership of something that they felt important.

This resonated with me yesterday as I read a really interesting case study, where a government agency had focused on collaboration as a starting point to tackle the lack of innovation, in a traditional organisation.

In the case, the key agency Director acknowledges some of the challenges in changing the way the staff work given they felt overwhelmed, siloed, too busy, no info sharing, etc, and how "winning the hearts and minds" of the staff was key task for her collaboration facilitators.

So I'm now more mindful of the effect of the organisational "tribes" and the unconscious and mostly unintended influence they can have on getting good results together, and the power of collaboration in breaking up those silos.

So what have I learned in the meantime?

  • The dynamics around silos haven’t gone away
  • People are more aware of the issues around organisational barriers and how to respond with more useful collaborative behaviours:
    • Listen more
    • Pay attention to the relationships as well as the content
    • Share information
    • Check assumptions about each other
  • We’ve found that a simple tool can be really powerful in seeing each other in a new light by revealing and challenging such assumptions. Try it out here.

How are you finding those silos? A barrier - or an opportunity to learn and try new stuff?