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.


Ducks in a row ...

What does a picture of ducks in a row conjure up for you?  Is it a mother duck leading her brood to or on the pond? Or a group of birds flying in formation? Or even a row of moving targets at a fairground attraction?

Whatever the mental picture, getting your ducks in a row in a work situation usually means planning a project carefully so you stay in control of all the elements before you risk moving forward. This careful planning is something that many of us understand as an essential pre-requisite to action when we are working with others. We believe it’s important to make sure everyone in our team is “on the same page” or “singing from the same songsheet” before we move into action.

How useful is this message to us when we’re working in complexity? When we need to harness the talents and ideas from our team to find a solution that none of us could come up with on our own?  I suggest that it’s more of a risk to our project than a benefit.

Complexity by its very nature means that the future is unknown, even unknowable. It is not predictable from the present or from the events and actions of the past. Even the problem to be tackled probably looks different from different perspectives and the solutions will come from trying new things, learning from doing and often feeling uncertain about the possible messiness around us. The antithesis of leading from the front in our duck images.

The idea of ‘getting our ducks in a row’ is likely to reduce diversity rather than expand it. But when facing complexity, when tackling complex dilemmas and challenging situations, we need diverse perspectives and diverse ideas. We need to encourage our team to bring all of themselves and their ideas to the mix rather than expecting them to conform to one set of ideas and one way of working. We need to seek diversity rather than uniformity as we address today’s complex dilemmas, or ‘wicked problems’.

Being in control, being certain, and being in the state of knowing, is very comfortable, but not helpful when we need to take the road less travelled; when we need to experiment, listen and learn from others who know things we don’t; when we need to explore all the possible solutions (even those many would say are impossible) and learn together from what we find.

Perhaps we should stop trying to get our ducks in a row and recognise instead that just getting them splashing around in one pond can be enough to start with.


If only we had a new meeting structure.....

In my past life at a major manufacturing company, I was frustrated in a job I had supporting the leadership team in one part of the business.

The team met regularly and always struggled to have effective meetings. They were getting bogged down in detail, meetings ran over and out of time, and generally were ineffective.

The boss's response was always about the structural elements we needed......and the wait for that certain something that would "fix" things":

  • if only we can get a new meeting structure.....
  • if only we could follow the agenda......
  • if only people would come better prepared....
  • if only we were all really clear on our roles in the team....

The pattern seemed to be a desire to get the structure sorted, then everything would be OK and we would be functional!

Unfortunately nothing we tried made any real difference!

In looking back, I've realised that I was seeing a common pitfall when tackling complexity- seeking a simple solution when faced with uncertainty, which instead delivers delay, frustration and avoidance.

I call it lining the ducks up. 

Unfortunately, in complex situations there is not likely to be a simple answer or answers, and it’s a fallacy that you can get all the ducks lined up- or that you even know what all the ducks are!

In this case it seemed that there were a few other ducks that we were avoiding- the less pleasant ones around poor relationships, lack of trust and competition.

In such circumstances, a more useful approach is to accept we may not understand the problem, resist the temptation to 'nail' the answer, and live with a little uncertainty while trying something.

An emergent approach is more appropriate as it recognises that one cannot order or design the pathway forward in such situations.

With hindsight we may have been better to step back from the boss's single-minded focus on the "right" approach (in this case the meeting structure and logistics), and given space to learn a bit more about what else might be happening (poor relationships, etc).

We might then have tried some different actions like listening a bit more, checking assumptions etc, and perhaps been more functional as a team!

Perhaps if we had set the ducks free....


Finding the grit in the dilemma

We were just creating a new Dilemma Tool for the June newsletter, and had a big "ah ha" moment.

We were going to use a simple picture of what a dilemma statement might look like to provide readers with a guide to exploring the issue they face. I was a bit dissatisfied with it as it seemed too glossy and aspirational - too 'nice'. Then we realised that it perpetuated 'business as usual' thinking around outcomes. It was focusing more on the aspirations and desired outcomes of the project and less about the existing realities that increase its complexity.

So we decided to flip the statement - rather than the aspiration first, we will put the reality of the situation first - the context of the situation in which the dilemma sits.

In our experience, such contexts include relationships and trust, politics, power and governance, competition, timeframes, levels of messiness and controversy, and behaviours.

We now believe that if we first get a sense of the context, then the dilemmas we describe are more likely to be realistic and grounded.  Any statement we create is more likely to provide a solid foundation for further exploration to guide and support the collaborative problem-solving process.

A more gritty, and much more useful starting point.


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.


Ever heard of a micro dilemma?

At Twyfords we’ve used the word ‘dilemma’ to describe the kind of problem that is sufficiently complex, messy, intractable or tricky, to require a collaborative response.

This month I’ve been working with local government and non-government groups in major cities and in regional centres. I’ve taken questions on whether dilemmas that require collaboration are always huge, such as our national mega-issues of how to address ‘climate change’, ‘obesity’ or ‘social disadvantage’? Or can they be more tactical like internal controversies about priorities for our current budget? Or can they be operational, such as how can our project team become more innovative? Or can they even be at a micro level, about the next small step in working together?

How do you tackle something big, intractable and messy without becoming overwhelmed? I think we can learn from the old saying that we need to do it slowly and carefully, one bite at a time.

Does size matter?  Yes, I think it does, but probably in reverse to what most people are thinking.  Dilemmas come in all sizes; they can be strategic, tactical and operational, sometimes all at once.  But the response that really matters is at the micro level.

In our experience each big dilemma will contain bite-sized micro dilemmas about “what do we do now?” .... or  “what can we do next?”.  The important action for leaders is sharing these micro dilemmas even when we think we know the answer. We are often tempted to ‘lead from the front’, see an issue or a problem ahead and offer our solution to the team without sharing it or asking for help. This can impact on our team’s experience of us as collaborative leaders, reducing their trust in the process because our behaviour doesn’t feel very collaborative to them!

A leader becomes a collaborative leader when he or she is prepared to say, whenever it is relevant, “I’m not sure what to do here, what do you think?”  When we are prepared to be a little vulnerable, not to be the ‘one who knows’; when we really want to encourage others to offer their expertise in the form of new ideas; that’s when collaboration starts to happen.

Think about the last time you stepped back deliberately from being the expert, didn’t offer ‘the solution’ and invited others into your dilemma thus opening up the conversation for everyone to share.  You were building your team’s appetite for collaboration, one bite at a time.


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......


When the Solution is the Problem

Seeing clients and projects thrive is one of the great pleasures of this job, one I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy lately in the context of a tricky catchment management challenge. In this instance the collaboration is up and running well, the various stakeholders are committed to working together and innovative ideas are coming to fruition.

But four years ago when I first talked to this client – a District Manager in a state department – things were very different. In my first phone conversation with her I could hear it in her voice: Frustration, exasperation, and real self-doubt. Charged with tackling the task of improving water quality in a complex waterway, this manager had hit the wall and did not know how to move forward.

As we talked some things became clearer. “The problem is”, said my client, “every man and his dog keeps coming to me to tell me how to improve the water quality. But every suggestion is different and I don’t think we know what we are trying to solve”.

This insight was a genuine breakthrough. It illustrated so clearly our powerful human urge to get to work solving problems – even before we know what the problem really is. Once we had talked this over, I could hear a change in my client’s voice. “That’s right” she said. “That is why we haven’t been able to make progress! It’s because we are all trying to solve different things. No wonder I’ve been feeling so stuck.”

And then the real admission of vulnerability: “I was beginning to think I’m a terrible manager”.

With these realisations made, we were able to embark on our Collaboration Builder program, which brings everyone together to focus on the problem, rather than their pet ‘solution’. Using some simple collaborative tools, a cross-section of stakeholders was able to let go of the urge to ‘fix it’, and to embark on a slower, richer journey of building a shared understanding of just what it was that contributes to poor water quality. Through a series of discussions they built a shared picture of the water quality ‘system’ and some of the forces at play.

Importantly, this process helped everyone see that their solution was likely to be only a part of the puzzle at best. And this realisation helped grow a powerful commitment to work together on the deeper drivers of water quality outcomes.

Four years later the commitment continues, the project is thriving and with various awards under their belt, the success is evident. Collaboration Builder is designed around the idea that defining the problem together is the engine of successful collaboration. It is nice to be able to look back at this project and see just how powerful an engine it is.