Collaboration and a doubtful mind

My favourite TV interviewer is Leigh Sales – from ABC 7.30 report.

I like her even handed and probing way she questions in her interviews – no matter what side of politics is under scrutiny.

I recently came across a little book she wrote in 2009 where she provides the background to her questioning that arises from possessing what she calls a doubtful mind – the desire to seek what is behind the certainty.

I was struck by her anecdote about Treasurer Wayne Swan in 2009, where he reportedly said

“If you are experiencing self-doubt, it means you are aware of vulnerabilities and sometimes I think that might be a bit better than people who just assume confidence in everything they do, full steam ahead”

The nature of the collaborative process for tackling complexity is one of emergence – where the central tenant is “not knowing”.

This nicely sums up the dilemma we see often, particularly with public sector clients, as they attempt collaborative processes to tackle some of the vexed and complex policy issues – doubt equals weakness.

As Leigh states in her book – “A leader (especially a politician) who expresses doubt is seen as indecisive rather than capable of nuanced thought and self-reflection. By contrast, certainty is considered a strength. The leader who acts from unwavering confidence appears forceful and trustworthy”.

So how to keep our leaders (and the participants) “safe” in a collaborative process, to be able to be vulnerable, listen and explore, when the natural tendency is to know the answer, or the question, or the direction?

I didn’t get any real clues from Leigh in how to shift that tendency, but our experience is that it comes from practice, when the individual finds out that people often appreciate authenticity over bluster.

So maybe Leigh is on to something here….

Perhaps self-doubt is a key capability for effective collaboration.


Collaborating upside down

If you wore glasses that made everything look upside down, how would you cope? This question is at the core of a famous set of experiments from the mid-20th century. You can find some information about that here or try this quaint video.

It turns out that at first the brain struggles to make sense of the upside-down view, but after a few days, something miraculous happens. The brain adjusts and upside down becomes the new normal.

To me this story is a good metaphor for learning to work differently with others. In my work with clients I often encourage them to “put on their collaborative goggles” after which they won’t be able to see the world the same way. It sounds easy, but I know that those collaborative goggles can be just as disorienting as if they turned the world upside down.

With the goggles on we see opportunities to collaborate everywhere, but our business as usual brains struggle to make sense of the vista. While we see an opportunity to be vulnerable, to express uncertainty and to invite people in to our dilemmas, our business as usual brain is telling us that we can’t talk to people until we ‘have all of our ducks lined up’, or that we need to create the plan and then ‘sell it’ to our stakeholders.

Initially, the collaborative world looks strange and unmanageable and we struggle to make it work. But after a while that miracle happens and our brains begin to adjust. It isn’t long before we stop noticing the newness and strangeness, and find ourselves operating in a very different way. Rather than tell we ask. Rather than solve problems and ‘roll out the solution’ we share dilemmas and invite others in to help. Rather than apply linear thinking we value emergence in the face of complexity.

And after a while we no longer need those goggles. We have rewired our brains and can never go back to the old ways.

So, put on those collaboration goggles. The world will look strange at first, but it won’t be long before you are seeing things you have never seen before.