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.

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.

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?


Beware the Dark Side

In his recent blog post John wrote about a decision tree developed by Adam Kahane to help with that perennial question – “when should I collaborate and when not?” The framework gives us four options: leave, adapt, collaborate and force. This post is about the ‘force’ option.

In summary, Kahane’s framework gives us a way to determine our options. Where we can’t change a situation and can’t put up with it, our option is to leave. When we can put up with it our option is to do so, to adapt. If we can change a situation but only through working with others, we collaborate. Where we can change the situation unilaterally we force it.

In my experience clients often are freed up by the idea that there are times when they can just do it, act unilaterally and force it. I can understand their reaction, but want to point out the obvious dark side of the force. If this option becomes an excuse to maintain a command and control dynamic then this is risky territory for any leader.

Just like in the movies, the ‘Force’ can be used for good if done with the appropriate intention and mindset. If we define forcing quite broadly as describing those situations where I maintain decision-making rights, this allows me the decision-maker some room to work with others. I can seek feedback on my draft decision. I can get some ideas from them but then make the call myself. I can even sit with them and generate some new knowledge together. Or as I am making my decision I can simply explain to everyone where I’ve got to and why. In each case if I am applying the force option I will ultimately make a unilateral decision and everyone will have to put up with it. But because they have been on the journey to an extent, they are themselves likely to be more able to choose to live with it than leave.

So the force option is always there and when you have the power it is tempting to use it to its fullest extent. But beware the path that leads to the dark side. The smart leader knows that working with others always has value. With a collaborative mindset even the force option of unilateral decision-making can be a more inclusive one.

We all know we mustn’t underestimate the power of the dark side. My realisation is that we often underestimate the power of doing ‘with’ not ‘to’.

May the force of collaboration be with you.

If you would like to find out more about how to develop a collaborative mindset and skillset, why not get in touch today?

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.

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?

The Joy of Silos

A quick search on the Net for ‘organisational silos’ generates an endless list of headlines such as:

  • Breaking down silos for customer experience
  • The silo mentality: how to break down the barriers
  • Six strategies for breaking down silos
  • How to fix workplace silos
  • Reasons to permanently remove your organisational silos”

The list goes on.

At the same time, my clients say things like:

  • “The two Divisions aren’t working together like I need them to. We have to get rid of these silos…”
  • “The left hand never seems to know what the right hand is doing around here. There’s too many silos…”
  • “The conflict seems to be growing between the groups because of our silo mentality”
  • They can’t sort out the problems themselves so things get escalated to me and I don’t have time to deal with that. I need help to break down these silos”

No surprises here, perhaps apart from the fact that we are still saying these things after who knows how many decades of effort to ‘fix’ silos. I suspect that people would have had very similar complaints soon after the dawn of bureaucracy and the large organisation, yet we keep repeating ourselves and keep seeking the solution.

Worse, most of my clients seem to spend most of their working life under a mind-numbing state of restructuring, that tiresome quest for the Nirvanas where structure lives but silos don’t.

Isn’t it time to acknowledge that the quest to restructure away or otherwise kill our silos is akin to the hunt for the unicorn? It’s probably time to give it a rest.

So if we admit defeat and stop trying to restructure our silos to extinction, what’s Plan B? I say it is time to embrace our silos; time to stop trying to kill them; time to stop fruitlessly redesigning them; time to stop using them as an excuse. It is time to learn to work across them effectively and make those silos hum.

This means we:

  • Cease the endless restructuring and work with what we’ve got.
  • Stop blaming the ‘silos’ for getting in the way
  • Stop blaming them – the other group – for being hard to work with or not ‘getting with the program’.

Instead, as organisations we:

  • Focus on building our relational capability and the skills we need to work with other humans;
  • Build our ability to work in complex situations, to think systemically across silos
  • Strengthen our collaborative muscles, which are a key to success regardless of the organisational structure.

And as individuals we switch the frame:

  • from competition across silos to collaboration
  • from mistrust to extending trust
  • from me to we
  • from telling to asking and listening.

These things are hard to do – perhaps harder than calling in an expert to lead a restructure process – but might it be that the hard road is the one that offers a road to improvement?

Perhaps it is time to love our silos.

The terrifying journey to co-design

When I was in high school I remember travelling to a school sports carnival in the city, an hour away to the north. The sports teacher drove us to the event in the school's hard-working minivan.

I live in the Illawarra on the NSW south coast. Returning home from the north requires the driver to leave the highlands and head down the notorious escarpment to the coastal plain. It is a long, steep decline and, as I learned that day, a potentially terrifying drive. On that particular day I had the misfortune to be in the front passenger seat. Normally this would be fine, but it quickly became abundantly clear that our sports teacher was a frustrated racing car driver. He piloted that van like his life depended on it, diving off the mountain and plunging at buttock-clenching speed down the Pass. I had a front row view of each and every near miss, grazed guard rail and hair-raising hair-pin bend. When we commenced that trip home I was a confident teenager in the prime of life. By the time we made it home I was a gibbering wreck. And the teacher? He was cool as a cucumber, unaware of the terror he'd inspired in me and others.

There are two long-term lessons I've carried with me from this (mis)adventure. First - never, ever get back in a van with my high school sports teacher. And second, having no control is a really scary position to be in. The thing is, I've been driving myself now for decades, and I've long realised that I too am a frustrated racing car driver. I often charge down the mountain, enjoying every near miss, grazed guard rail and hair-raising hair-pin. And at the bottom of the hill I'm not a gibbering wreck but a cool cucumber. As for my passengers? I'm not sure really. It isn't easy to talk to someone who seems to be curled up in a foetal position with the seatbelt clenched between their teeth and eyes out on stalks.

The difference is that as the driver I am in control. I have my hands on the wheel and I trust myself to get to the bottom of the hill safely. But as that schoolboy front seat passenger, I was along for the ride but my hands weren't on the wheel (they were mostly over my eyes as I recall). It was someone else's journey and I felt totally out of control. Not a nice feeling.

I've realised that this very same dynamic applies to problem-solving processes. If someone else is expecting me to participate in a process exclusively designed and run by them it can feel like plunging over the escarpment with a deranged teacher at the wheel. But when I am invited into co-designing the process I can feel more confident about how this is going to end. Getting my fingerprints on the process is like being at the wheel. If you want my buy-in then you'd better find a way to allow me some control not only of where we are going but how we plan to get there together. That is, don't just invite me in to work on the problem with you. Invite me in to help design how we are going to work on the problem together.

Our Collaboration System has a strong element of co-design built into it for just this reason. Co-designing process is an integral part of the collaborative journey. So my advice is to let your collaborators share the driving. The more control they have over 'their' process, the more commitment, energy and innovation they will bring to the task of solving problems together. With co-design you will be able to conquer any mountain together.

Fingerprints on the bypass

I was thinking about our topic this month of Co-design, or "getting fingerprints on the process" and it reminded me of a story from a couple of years ago.

"A roading authority was planning the route for a major highway bypass around a small coastal town that had been a traffic bottleneck for some time. One of the loud voices was a vehement environmental advocate and local Councillor who was strongly opposed to any bypass due to the adverse environmental impact on the surrounding farmland and forests.

Recognising the potential controversy, the authority put a lot of effort into involving the local stakeholders in the decision making on the bypass options. While being opposed to any option, the activist did participate in the process.

At the end when the preferred option was agreed and actioned, the activist reflected on his involvement, and reported that while he still disagreed with the decision to proceed with the bypass, he could live with the decision because of the way he had been involved - and in fact that he was quite supportive because of the way he saw his "fingerprints" on the process. He noted that the process had been open and fair, and he felt he and his views had been considered and respected, a range of views had been explored, and he had been able to influence the process in some way".

Knowing a bit about the activist's previous strong positions, I remember being a bit surprised at the time by his reaction- to seemingly support something so strongly at odds with his position.

In hindsight I now recognise some of the characteristics of the process that likely contributed to such an outcome:

  • an invitation to participate
  • the authority sharing power a little, just in terms of how to do the assessment
  • feeling listened to, involved and respected
  • the authority sharing information openly helping to build trust
  • people feeling ownership of the selection process, leading to an increased commitment to the outcome
  • the authority asking for help and not just imposing either the process or solution

These are some of the elements of co-design that we see as a critical step in getting from argument to agreement on tricky issues.

How often might you bypass the fingerprints?