Are you collaborating at every scale?

Everyone seems to be seeking to collaborate to tackle life’s difficult problems. Whether it is managing water, planning cities, creating policy, developing strategies, collaboration is increasingly seen as the necessary process. Yet I feel we often overlook some important components or ‘units’ of collaboration when seeking to work together.

What is a unit of collaboration? It is simply a way to picture a subset of relationships, where collaboration will be important. Imagine a project manager inside a local government authority tasked with improving water quality in a much-loved and much-stressed local catchment. Being smart our manager realises that Council alone can’t affect change across the catchment, so success will only come from collaborating with a wide range of stakeholders to create and implement solutions together. This realisation drives a number of process, all focussed on what will it take to create a collaborative group comprising a cross-section of stakeholders from across the catchment.

Right here is one of the units of collaboration; a specific component of the whole system that must learn to work together if the project is to succeed. This unit of collaboration is probably the most obvious. After all, if we are going to work together to improve our catchment it is clear that we need to get catchment stakeholders in the room.

In this situation it is easy to focus is on how to set up and support such a collaborative group. In doing so it is also easy to overlook other units of collaboration, putting at risk everything our project manager is seeking to achieve.

There are multiple additional sets of relationships or ‘units of collaboration’ that are equally important. In the case of our Council example they could include:

  1. The project team unit, collaborating around questions such as: how will we work together to make this happen, and do so collaboratively?
  2. The management unit comprising the project manager and her boss, and her boss’s boss, who collaborate on questions such as: how will we meet the needs of the Exec and ensure the authorising environment on this project, while ensuring we walk the collaborative talk?
  3. The branch or division unit, who collaborate on questions such as: how will we resource this project internally, given its implications for the whole team?
  4. The organisational unit, collaborating on questions such as: how will we bring the assets and strategy teams together on this journey so that implementation is smoothly integrated?
  5. The governance unit comprising elected reps and senior bureaucrats, facing collaborative questions such as: how will we all get our fingerprints on this project so that there are no surprises for any of us?

Each of these can be considered a ‘unit’ of collaboration and each is critical to the success of the project as a whole. Yet we often overlook them, for a number of reasons, including:

  • It can be scary and difficult to try to improve collaboration up the chain of command;
  • The need to improve collaboration in these units is invisible. We often just don’t see it so we continue to focus outwards;
  • Working on some of these relationships implies a need to change how we think and behave, and that is hard. We would rather not go there. Much easier to work on our external relationships than our internal relationships and processes.
  • The business as a whole is not really interested in collaboration and unprepared to put any effort into understanding it and learning how to do it better. Much more comfortable to pretend that collaboration is only about how that project team works with those stakeholders.

Of course the consequence of ignoring these important relationships is that we never really collaborate. Despite the best efforts and intentions of our project manager, she is severely hamstrung by the lack of collaborative capability within the organisational system. Her relationships with external stakeholder may be good but the ability of the organisation to back up the talk with a different way of supporting and implementing the catchment project means that business as usual continues to rule. How could it be otherwise?

What to do about this? The key finding is how important it is to focus on the smallest units of collaboration, just as much as the larger, more obvious and external units. Every collaborative project or process is made up of multiple components over multiple scales. The smaller tend to be less visible, often more difficult, easier to ignore, but if we are serious about working differently with others, we have to commit to that at every scale across the project, whether internal or external. This realisation lies at the heart of our most popular capability building program, Collaboration Builder, which helps people get results while working on their external and internal collaboration.

So, what are your units of collaboration and how are you ensuring that collaboration is happening in every one?


Key Questions for Collaborators

Collaboration is the essential process when we are facing high uncertainty and the need to create something new together. That means we collaborate when we don’t know the answer. In such situations it is easy to focus the energy on trying to find answers and solutions, but collaborators know that the path to solutions is paved with smart questions.

But not just any questions. While our usual practice is to ask questions about the problem, collaborators know they must ask questions about the process. Put another way, the tendency is to ask ‘content’ questions – what is the problem? what is going on? how does it work? what is causing this…? And these are important, but successful collaboration requires us also to ask ‘process’ questions designed to help us focus on the state of our collaboration.

Here are some simple process questions you can use to reflect on and nurture your collaboration. If reflecting alone the questions are ‘am I…” questions. If reflecting as a group use “Are we…” questions. Note that as a group we might be reflecting on how are we collaborating together, or on how are we collaborating with others:

  1. Are we thinking 'with' or 'to' and how would we know?
  2. How would doing this 'with' look different from what we are doing now?
  3. Are we all building commitment through co-defining the dilemma and co-designing the process together?
  4. Are we all getting our fingerprints on this work? How do we know?
  5. Are we experimenting or solving? That is, are we trying to solve our complex problem (as though we can work out in advance how to do that) or are we learning together through hypothesis and testing?
  6. Are we letting go and sharing control?
  7. Are we sitting with uncertainty or rushing to find answers?

This isn’t an exhaustive list but it’s a great set of questions to start with. And of course it generates the need for one more over-arching question collaborators must regularly ask themselves: Are we stopping to ask ourselves about the state of our collaboration in order to improve our practice?

When collaborating, reflection on process is essential, for without it we revert to business as usual. The constant temptation will be to dive into the detail and trouble-shoot the project, but with good process questions we can coach each other to continually build our collaborative muscles. If we hear lots of content, stop!.... and reflect on process instead. Only in this way will our collaboration thrive and great results follow.

Any questions?


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.


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.


The four traps on the path to a digital water future

In its recent Digital Water report, the International Water Association lays out a map for the transformation water utilities are undergoing towards a digital future. The report draws on interviews with many industry leaders to arrive at eight key findings.

I do a lot of work with water companies, and I am working on a number of ‘digital futures’ projects. These experiences have highlighted some important, and surprising, risks to successful transformation. These are the traps that are likely to capture the unwary business as they walk the slippery path to a digital future.

Trap 1. The need for certainty in an uncertain world.

The world of digital technology is changing rapidly – even exponentially. This brings with it unavoidable complexity and uncertainty. The only thing we know for sure is that the technology and systems available in 10+ years will be different in ways we haven’t imagined yet.

The uncertainty of the digital future means managers will have less clarity than ever before. They will have to make decisions and find the way forward when the ‘right way’ is impossible to know. They will have to act even when the outcome is unclear.

The trap is apparent in the IWA report itself. The advice from leaders is to build a clear roadmap for the journey, identify priorities, outline strategies, allocate funding, get approval for plans. The trap is that doing so from a business as usual (BAU) mindset will lock managers into a fruitless search for certainty through endless planning. In a complex and emergent realm, BAU project management can’t deliver, yet it is often the only tool we know. Managers will continue to plan in order to act, when the transformative approach is to act in order to learn.

Trap 2. The curse of the expert.

The water sector is full of subject matter experts, operating in a culture that relies upon and rewards expertise. Knowing the science and applying it to problem solving has long been the key to success in the industry.

Yet in a complex and emergent world, we must recognise the limits to our knowledge, and the limits to our ability to work things out. Building a networked organisation to deliver emerging solutions to fast-evolving challenges, in a complex social, regulatory and political environment, brings with it the painful inevitability of saying “I don’t know”.

The trap is that that while we rationally recognise this and understand the logic of it, in many cases our organisational and personal identities are built on the ability to deliver, to have the answer or to solve the problem. The curse of the expert dooms us to relying on our experience and knowledge, even when these are insufficient to the task. Organisation who can’t break the curse will struggle to make the transformation to a digital future.

Trap 3. Knowing the solution before we understand what the problem is.

As the report highlights, moving to a digital water future will involve a wide range of stakeholders and a wide range of technologies. The promise is that getting all of the different parties to work and co-create together will ensure smart and implementable solutions.

The trap comes from the very human urge to get on and solve the problem - an urge that is very hard to resist, even when we rationally know that the problem is complex and messy. The technology providers will each come with a particular tech solution to an often-unspecified problem. Communities will be looking for a different range of outcomes. Water companies will have another suite of solutions based on a long history of providing safe water and sanitation. But what’s the problem we are trying to solve here?

Stepping back from ‘my’ view of the problem and solution is a very difficult thing to do. The tendency is to gloss over this part of the process and get into the exciting work of doing ‘new stuff’. The consequence is everyone running off in different directions. No alignment, No clarity. No results. If we don’t learn to be curious about the problem together, before considering solutions, we will put at risk the creation of a smart digital water future.

Trap 4. The need to control

The report describes a digital maturity curve from a transactional organisation through transitional, to dynamic and flexible, with strong networks within and between utilities and other stakeholders. This requires a less siloed, more connected and collaborative organisation.

The trap is that while leaders talk about collaboration, many continue to maintain control through BAU systems, relationships and structures. Some drivers are obvious – leaders are expected to be accountable for all that happens, so they naturally want to have their hands on the levers. But the key trap is in the less obvious drivers, such as the unconscious belief that ‘as a leader I should be the person who makes the decisions and calls the shots’. The flip side is the equally powerful tendency for team members to feel that ‘I had better take this to the boss, just in case I’m doing something wrong here’. In other words, all levels of organisations conspire to maintain existing power structures, even in the face of broad agreement that things must change. Without transforming the power dynamics, a flexible and collaborative organisation is out of reach.

These four traps aren’t the only ones that lie in wait for water businesses on the path to a digital future, but they represent the subtle complexity of the task. They also demonstrate that achieving a digital future is not simply a matter of focussing on smart technology. It is, at heart, a human journey, and all the more transformative for that.


The Heat(er) is on!

I was at our ski lodge over the long weekend enjoying the best start to the ski season in 20 years, and found myself in an engrossing and funny conversation over dinner.

The topic was the lodge heating system, and we had great fun contemplating a social credit system like in China to ensure compliance to the lodge conventions or "rules" around energy conservation.

What did strike me was the way the passionate committee members were approaching the pretty complex issue of lodge energy consumption and management. The approach reminded me of the "expert" and "technical" model that we see constantly in organisations we work with- while complex, the problem is pretty obvious, and so is the answer- we just need to design the new system, and tell people to get with the program.

The answer in this case could be to commit to a fairly expensive automated system of thermostatically controlled radiators in each room.

I was chewing on this later over a schnapps with some of the guests, and we explored the situation. Some interesting things emerged- one guest admitted that they always turned the radiator in their bedroom to full on each night and opened the window- he liked the fresh air to ward off the inevitable germs from his coughing fellow guests.

Another recounted that he liked overriding the boot room electric dryers in the morning because he just loved the feeling of his feet sinking into hot ski boots before braving the elements.

And I'm quite partial to the ambience of the gas fire in the lounge, and had turned it up while we chatted. I then noticed another guest had opened the balcony door to cool the overheated room.

I had this sinking feeling that all the planned good work around technical solutions was being unknowingly undermined by the guests.

I was seeing a complex system at work- not just the technical heating system, but also all the inclinations of those interacting with it- compounding a dilemma around managing lodge heating and the implications for our electricity bill.

While on my 2nd schnapps, I had a fuzzy realisation about what that might mean- that it is crucial when facing a complex issue that all the perspectives are on the table and understood before attempting to find a solution. It doesn't just mean the technical operation, but also our assumptions and habits, and how people think and act that change the way the system reacts.

If we tapped into the guests as a first step, we would build a much better picture of the problem we faced, and how the system really works. This could well lead to some more creative and lower cost solutions, rather than relying on the "obvious" answer.

Then I turned the fire up- brrr it's cold in here......


Strategy shining new light on collaboration

I was preparing for a short session on collaboration for a client this week, assisted by the local PA. She was setting up the data projector, but we were a bit low to the screen. "No problem" she said, whipping out an inch-thick book to sit under the projector. "At least one use for the strategic plan", and she went on to wonder why the only people who seemed to look at it were the planners......

It struck a chord, and reminded me of a similar experience a few years back, when I was at a Council, and the planner brought out at least 4 versions of a Parks’ Strategy prepared over a number of years. She lamented the lack of ownership of each, and how the planners had been singularly unsuccessful in getting any of the recommendations implemented

Given this gap between planning and implementation seems to be a bit endemic, how might we tackle it?

People are more likely to own the result if they have been part of the process of designing it, so the challenge might be to get the implementer's fingerprints on the plan in some way. This may be tricky given there is often a gap between planning and delivery, both geographically and with timeframes. However, it might provide a potential pathway for greater ownership and implementability.

So perhaps a good question at the start of planning is "who eventually needs to implement this, and how can they can get their fingerprints on the planning process?" i.e. making the co-design more explicit, and inviting others to see it as 'our plan' rather than 'their plan'.

You have at least a couple of choices:

  • You continue with your current approach and develop the plan as you normally would, especially as you tend to engage with those implementers anyway as part of your planning consultation.......
  • Or you sit down and consider how you might think and act as if all the implementers were with you throughout the planning process...  If they were sitting here, what would they need to say, see or hear that would have them all over this plan...?

Thinking in this new way will likely raise practical questions of involvement, resourcing, interest, and so on, but perhaps the real issue is less about the extent of the implementers involvement, and more about the mindset of the planners:

i.e. how do I think about this so it is more likely that those implementing this will see it as their plan too and have the energy to make it happen?

This will prompt different behaviours from the planners more consistent with "our plan", and generate a plan better illuminated in delivery.

Damn, now where is that book to support my next presentation........?


The Hard Truth at the Heart of Collaboration

I’ve spent a lot of time over the holidays thinking about the connection between the ability to collaborate effectively and the ability to be vulnerable, and I'm beginning to see a hard truth.

Stuart in his blog last week, used Ken Henry, until recently Chairman of the Board of the National Australia Bank, and his performance at the banking Royal Commission, as a typical example of our desire to minimise our vulnerability when challenged. Stuart pointed out that, by “hiding his humanity, by denying to us any sense of shame or remorse or sorrow” when being grilled by Counsel Assisting, Ken Henry broke the bonds of respect and trust.

I have some sympathy for Mr Henry.  I personally feel particularly vulnerable in situations when people either have high expectations of me and my performance or are looking to me for answers to challenging questions in my field of expertise. When I dig down, I think my vulnerability comes from underlying imposter anxiety when in front of people who will judge me: “I’m not good enough to do this well; people will see me for what I really am; I’m only posing as an expert! I don’t have anything original to say!” I feel this particularly when I have to make an argument from behind a podium.

The problem with this very uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability is that it shows. The more discomfort I feel, the greater the effect on my performance.  If I continue to show myself as an expert who must behave ‘expertly’ to meet expectations, I hide who I really am. I’m no longer the person who is curious, empathetic and who enjoys engaging with others; who uses conversations as a vehicle for sharing ideas and co-creating a future together.

Brene Brown, the researcher, speaker and author who has had much to say about vulnerability, believes firstly that being able to show vulnerability is a strength and not a weakness, and secondly that our fear of being unworthy or of being flawed is the secret killer of innovation. This fear stops us speaking up, sharing ideas, thinking differently, exposing ourselves warts and all. We are afraid we’ll be seen as wrong or misguided and therefore we’ll be open to being judged, belittled or laughed at, or at worst we’ll be criticised, demoted, demonised or passed over in our careers. It takes strength to overcome those fears.

And that ability to sit with vulnerability is the hard truth at the heart of collaboration.

If we behave as experts and focus only on what we know, we won’t learn from others, and others won’t share their innermost thoughts easily with us. Collaboration needs us to learn about the problem from all perspectives and learn about complexity itself. Collaboration is listening and acknowledging the strengths and contributions of all collaborators. Collaboration is being comfortable to say, “I don’t know, I need your help”.  Collaboration is experimenting without knowing the answer.

So, what can we learn from this?

The key is accepting that vulnerability is a strength and not trying so hard to avoid it.

In our coaching we encourage clients to be curious about those underlying feelings that make them feel uncomfortable.  We help them to recognise that defeat, failure and disappointment happen to everyone at some time and do not equate to unworthiness or being less than.  We reassure them when they fail, are disappointed or miss out, that they can learn from their experiences. We support them as they grow and move on and become wiser and better equipped in their work with others.

Are you ready to face collaboration's hard truth and build your capability to be vulnerable when you work with others?


Bankers and the Path of Vulnerability

In Australia we have just been through a very revealing Royal Commission into the Banking and Financial Services sector. For most of us the nightly news updates from the hearings have made compelling viewing. For the bankers called as witnesses it has been much more traumatic.

During the many months of the Inquiry, senior banking staff were grilled before wrapt audiences. When confronted with evidence of their own, or their banks’, misbehaviour, witnesses tended to wilt before slinking away with tails firmly between legs. But there was one notable exception; Ken henry, Chairman of the Board of the National Australia Bank (NAB).

Mr Henry, a very senior and respected ex-public servant, stood apart from other witnesses. He came out fighting. He was solid in defence, haughty and unrepentant, with little or no acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Was he a shade dismissive?

Last week the Commissioner – gimlet-eyed Kenneth Haynes – handed down his final report and within days Mr Henry and his NAB CEO had resigned their posts, tails between legs after all.

To me, the story of Ken Henry and the Commission is a story about vulnerability and our powerful desire to minimise it. When he appeared before the Commissioner late last year, Mr Henry had his full suit of armour on. Despite the fierce attacks of Counsel Assisting, he deflected all blows and kept himself safe from harm. With his success did he ensure his ultimate failure?

While wearing his armour, Ken Henry the person was invisible to us. With his well-defended mindset he was in effect prioritising his own safety and self-image over his relationship with the rest of us. By hiding his humanity, by denying any sense of remorse or sorrow, he broke the bonds of respect, trust and empathy. How can we understand and empathise with someone who hides behind armour plate?

The very real human instinct to keep oneself safe often gets in the way of our attempts to work with others. We want to collaborate. We believe we are collaborating, yet our unwillingness to reveal our own weaknesses or insecurities in those relationships undermines the very relationships we need in order to work together effectively. We all face moments of truth when we can choose either our own sense of safety and ‘rightness’ or the health and wellbeing of our collaboration. It is hard not to choose the former, but if we are genuine about collaborating, the path of vulnerability is the path we must take.

 


Manual focus on collaborative capability

I read an article last year by Dominik Vanyi about slow photography - how he found his brain effectively "rewired" by changing a long established practice- in this case from using auto focus and moving to manual focus for his commercial photography.

It struck me that it has a lot of similarities with my experience in building capability around collaboration- the less you intervene and the slower you go, the more learning happens and the minds seem to rewire more quickly.

In the article, Dominic relates that the significant learning for him was how manually focusing his camera made him slow down- to compose pictures more thoughtfully and putting more thought into how he approached each photographic opportunity.

This parallels our experience with working together- the act of stopping and reflecting- slowing the "campaign rush" - can be more useful and more valuable than all the quick interventions in the world.
A client recently related to me how they now take a more thoughtful and intentional approach to each team meeting- rather than jumping straight into content they first slow the group and ask some reflection questions before diving into the topics. She noted that it created space to be more collaborative.

Dominic's other insight was that focusing by hand had rewired his photographic brain- and how it was not easy but required ongoing practice.
Similarly we see that changing habits of a lifetime around working with others takes time and practice to become automatic and authentic. Another client related that they can no longer tolerate the business as usual behaviours of some colleagues as their rewired brain sees better practice, so they now intervene to support new ways of working that get more effective outcomes.

So how can you get your manual lens?