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?


There is co-design, and then there is co-design...

Co-design is a word on many lips these days, but at Twyfords we believe that there is co-design, and then there is co-design!

When most policy makers refer to co-design they are typically referring to a process that invites stakeholders in to jointly solve a particular problem. From our work we have developed a different, more specific understanding, reflected in our Power of Co framework.

In the Power of Co framework Co-design is one part of a structured, holistic collaborative process. While the whole framework is about inviting stakeholders in to tackle complex problems together, co-design is specifically about ensuring that stakeholders have their fingerprints on the process. In other words, it tells us that successful collaboration requires that all collaborators have a say in how they will work together. They are not simply invited into a pre-defined collaborative process. They are invited in to help design it – every step of the way.

Having worked on some very complex collaborations we have learned the importance of getting fingerprints on process. When stakeholders share process decisions they:

  • Become more invested in and supportive of the process, which really helps when things get tough and trust becomes critical;
  • Are more likely to accept outcomes of the process because they had a share in designing it;
  • Add their intelligence and creativity to ensure the process works best for everyone;
  • Step up and share accountability for how this process is running;
  • Feel like partners rather than pawns in someone else’s process fantasy (they are done ‘with’ not done ‘to’);
  • Develop trust and a stronger working relationship.

When you have worked with the Power of Co for some time, the idea of co-design becomes second nature and an integral part of your daily work. Rather than sitting at your desk sweating over how to run the next meeting you will find yourself asking participants what they would like to do. Instead of trying to work out what information your stakeholders will find most useful, you will ask them. Rather than mapping out the Gantt chart for the project and doing it ‘to’ your stakeholders you will plan each step with your collaborators as you go.

So when you next hear someone saying they are running a “co-design process”, you might ask just how much involvement stakeholders have had in co-designing the process. If the answer is “not much, but they are involved in finding a solution” then perhaps a critical piece of collaboration has been overlooked.

Do your stakeholders have their fingerprints on your processes?

To find out a little more about how we see co-design, take a look at our co-design guide.


The Agony of Silence

Thinking about this month's theme of listening I've been reflecting on why I find it so hard to be silent in a group environment- to pause and wait for others to speak. In my experience as a facilitator and coach, I feel this tension almost every time I work. That growing anxiety as I pause and wait for input or a response from someone else in the room or on the zoom call. But why do I feel this way?

  • Is it that I feel inadequate if I'm not contributing or controlling the conversation?
  • Is it that I worry my client won't be getting value if I'm not talking?
  • Is it that I just have so much valuable stuff to say that I must get it out?
  • Is it that I don't want to give others a chance to get their threepence worth in?
  • Am I worried that they might say something contradictory?
  • or even worse, they might say something more insightful or valuable than I could?

The palpable tension as the pause lengthens, and silence fills the space.

What are they thinking? Will someone step up? What happens if they don't, and will it seem like I've wasted their valuable time being quiet.

It's a ridiculous fear really, that a 30-second pause might result in a failure to meet a deadline, or get a job done, or meet the boss's needs, particularly as we have already used 10 times more than that on arguing who is right or wrong on some aspect of the issue.

And then relief! Someone steps in with an insight, a question, a comment, an idea. It cascades from there like a dam has broken and overwhelms those assumptions and anxieties.

So I have learnt that the pain of being silent is one of the keys to listening more effectively. But this insight doesn't make it any easier to keep my mouth shut for those seemingly interminable seconds!


A hop, skip and jump into collaboration

When facing any problem at work, our natural tendency as a leader is to seek a clear process to find solutions.

A step by step guide that gives us confidence we are on the right track, and can get the desired outcome. It would seem that part of the attraction is our need to know, and to be seen as a good problem solver (otherwise we might look a bit incompetent??)

Now it seems that in a lot of circumstances this works just great, but what about those wicked and complex problems where our standard problem solving fail and we need new thinking to tackle it together.

We've spent a fair bit of time trying to make sense of this dilemma- how to provide a step by step guide to solve complex issues when the nature of complexity dictates that a linear approach will fail!

Our insight is that we need to treat such situations more like a dance than a climb- taking a flexible approach allows for the emergence necessary when taking a more collaborative approach.

We can still generate a framework and set of tools in a logical sequence to provide guidance, but we are seeing growing evidence with clients that being able to "hop, skip and jump" is key to success. This might look like

  • starting at the appropriate place in the logic given your situation- maybe step 3 or 7....
  • moving back and forward through the logic as needs dictate
  • missing some steps if needed
  • starting anywhere, but going everywhere.

While you might need to understand the framework and know how to use any particular tool, a key success factor will also be to know what tool to use when- the hop, skip and jump approach.

If you want to know more about how to do this, talk to us about applying our Collaboration System.


The Presence of Trust

When this photo (the one of the guy on the motor bike) comes up on a screen in a collaboration workshop or conversation as an example of trust, everyone laughs!  It is clear that those standing on their heads must trust the guy on the motorbike!

I’ve pondered about this thing we call trust.  I’ve read the books.  I’ve interrogated my own experiences as an employee, a traveller in foreign lands, a mature-aged student, a manager, a consultant, a company director, a mother, step-mother and grandmother.  I’ve asked myself ... what is trust?  Why is it so important in human relationships and human communication? How do we build it?  How do we lose it?  How do we rebuild it when it’s been lost?

Trust is the glue of individual relationships, therefore of communities, of organisations and societies. It’s what makes them tick and stick. When it is present, we are willing, even eager, to be part of a group whose purpose and values we expect to share.  We are willing to step into mutual interdependence with other people, even when we don’t know them yet or have a history with them. When trust is not present, or we need to build it from scratch with a new group, we don’t immediately engage with people we don’t know.  We wait until we are drawn in by the empathy and energy of a group. If trust doesn’t build, then early relationships may become fragmented, we feel uneasy and mistrust emerges.

So how do we build trust? The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying ‘To earn trust, money and power aren’t enough; you have to show some concern for others. You can’t buy trust in the supermarket.’ Stephen M.R. Covey (the son of the Stephen Covey who wrote the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) suggests that a key principle of trust is that ‘You first have to trust yourself, because trust is similar to confidence’. 

What I’ve learned is that trusting yourself is important.  You won’t be confident that others will keep their word, will be sincere and authentic, will be open and transparent, will work with you productively, if you know you don’t behave like that yourself.  Behaviour comes from personal values, so holding values such as integrity, dependability, openness, fairness and equity and recognising their importance in relationships, will help each of us act in a way that encourages others to trust us.

Recently being asked to design and run a program for a client whose staff will need to do their work in fire-ravaged, damaged and traumatised communities, has reminded me about the importance of empathy as part of building trust.  If we are to communicate effectively with people, we must start by listening ... not just hearing, but actively listening to understand.  ‘Walking in other people’s shoes’ for a little while helps build trust, and by doing so we can better understand and empathise with their situation.  In short, we need to build trusting relationships before trying to help, or transacting.

Finally, a key component of trust is the ability always to be your authentic self. Someone who never admits mistakes or shares their human side, rarely hears truth from others. If you are able to admit being wrong, to acknowledge and apologise for errors or mistakes when they happen, to admit to being unsure or not knowing and to ask for help, this very vulnerability will help others to trust.

Trust is the core of a group or team’s capability to collaborate. It’s worth the effort of building trust within any group of collaborators, starting with trusting yourself to do so, because trust is the glue that keeps the collaborators collaborating.    


One thing the populist response to COVID tells us about collaboration

The global COVID pandemic, as tragic and difficult as it is, offers many insights into how people and nations respond to wicked problems. An insight that stands out for me is the value of working to understand the problem faced before leaping to solutions. We call this co-defining the dilemma. When done poorly you get Brazil’s COVID response. When done even half well you get something like Australia’s.

So what is the COVID dilemma? A better question would be ‘what are the many dilemmas inherent in this situation? Let’s pick the central two dilemmas within the dilemma, which every country is obviously grappling with:

  1. How do we minimise the impact of the virus on our health?
  2. How do we minimise the impact of the virus on our economy?

In many ways these two dilemmas are poles apart – we kill the virus by closing down, which probably kills the economy. Yet we protect jobs by staying open, meaning party time for the virus.

It’s challenging, yet it seems that many jurisdictions haven’t come to grips with the dilemma here. Of course they have acknowledged the pieces but they don’t seem to have framed them as a dilemma to be addressed. Rather they slide into a simplistic ideological battle; On the one hand “we have to lock down to keep us safe”. On the other, “we have to stay open to protect the economy”.

In some countries this over-simplistic thinking has resulted in an over-simplistic ‘plan’ to keep things open as much as possible, protecting jobs and the economy. Of course, this approach has implications reflected in a climbing death toll and in the end a likely massive economic hit as well.

What might they do differently? Lots, obviously. But my contribution would be to get agreement on the dilemma in order to open up the domain of possible responses. Put very simply this could be something like: how do we best respond to this virus and its impacts in ways that keep us safe and healthy while strengthening the foundations of a resilient and productive economy?

This type of framing of the dilemma isn’t an invitation to go to war over solutions. It isn’t an either-or-problem. It is a this-and dilemma that stakeholders need to work on creatively together. Importantly, it contains some insight into what success looks like in the long term – safe, healthy and resilient. These are things we can all work towards, regardless of our ideology.

Understanding the dilemmas instead of arguing over competing ‘solutions’ to poorly understood problems is such a simple yet powerful idea. And what is true of a national pandemic response is also true of a small organisational, issue. Time taken to co-define is always time well spent. What is your dilemma and to what extent do all stakeholders understand it and agree?

To learn how you can co-define your dilemma, take a look at our Power of Co System.


Four ways to build collaborative habits in the workplace (despite weak flesh)

"Reverting to the usual way of doing things is a deceptively easy default option and often appears to be lower risk than trying something different."

So said someone in their response to our recent survey. It reminded me of another quote which has been around a little longer:  "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation. The Spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak".

In terms of collaboration - and to be honest, most other contexts - I can definitely relate to the idea that while the intention to do something different is there, it can be difficult to stick with the change. Just today, for example, I realised I have participated in a series of one-off conversations around a group, rather than finding a way to get the group together. The outcome has been some confusion, when shared clarity would have been so easy. Yet I got lazy and reverted to business as usual. Definitely some weak flesh here folks.

It is a good reminder of why many clients find it very difficult to achieve a change that sticks, despite knowing that more collaborative behaviours are useful. Behaving differently requires us to, well, behave differently, and as I can attest, that isn't easy. As always, this brings me to the role of mindset, or how we think. It is very clear that, while being more effective as collaborators is about doing things differently, what it is REALLY about is thinking differently. In order to 'do' collaboration we must 'be' collaborative.

So what does it take to think differently in order to avoid sliding back to business as usual ways of working? We are still finding the answer to this question, but here are some things that seem to help.

  1. Learning by doing is powerful. Trying different behaviours, perhaps not always getting them right, but going again.
  2. The magic training intervention is a myth. Time is required to build new patterns of thought. It can't happen overnight so don't expect it to.
  3. Reflection on 'my' mindset is essential. Ask yourself, how am I thinking about this situation, this person or team, and what are the implications of that? If I was thinking like a collaborator, what would I do differently?
  4. Do your learning together with your collaborators. Make it public and make it part of the process. Learn to collaborate by collaborating to learn.

I wonder what your experience has been. If you are like me, then sliding out of the collaborative mindset is an ever-present threat. It is for this reason we have been working on a Collaborative Project Guide (watch this space) to support teams to collaborate more effectively by working differently, despite the gravitational pull of business as usual. While our spirit is willing, we hope the Guide will help our flesh be strong.


The presence of trust

When this photo comes up on a screen in a collaboration workshop or in conversation as an example of trust, everyone laughs!  It is clear that those standing on their heads must trust the guy on the motorbike!

I’ve pondered about this thing we call trust.  I’ve read the books.  I’ve interrogated my own experiences as an employee, a traveller in foreign lands, a mature-aged student, a manager, a consultant, a company director, a mother, step-mother and grandmother.  I’ve asked myself ... what is trust?  Why is it so important in human relationships and human communication? How do we build it?  How do we lose it?  How do we rebuild it when it’s been lost?

Trust is the glue of individual relationships, therefore of communities, of organisations and societies. It’s what makes them tick and stick. When it is present, we are willing, even eager, to be part of a group whose purpose and values we expect to share.  We are willing to step into mutual interdependence with other people, even when we don’t know them yet or have a history with them. When trust is not present, or we need to build it from scratch with a new group, we don’t immediately engage with people we don’t know.  We wait until we are drawn in by the empathy and energy of a group. If trust doesn’t build, then early relationships may become fragmented, we feel uneasy and mistrust emerges.

So how do we build trust? The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying ‘To earn trust, money and power aren’t enough; you have to show some concern for others. You can’t buy trust in the supermarket.’ Stephen M.R. Covey (the son of the Stephen Covey who wrote the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) suggests that a key principle of trust is that ‘You first have to trust yourself, because trust is similar to confidence’. 

What I’ve learned is that trusting yourself is important.  You won’t be confident that others will keep their word, will be sincere and authentic, will be open and transparent, will work with you productively, if you know you don’t behave like that yourself.  Behaviour comes from personal values, so holding values such as integrity, dependability, openness, fairness and equity and recognising their importance in relationships, will help each of us act in a way that encourages others to trust us.

Recently being asked to design and run a program for a client whose staff will need to do their work in fire-ravaged, damaged and traumatised communities, has reminded me about the importance of empathy as part of building trust.  If we are to communicate effectively with people, we must start by listening ... not just hearing, but actively listening to understand.  ‘Walking in other people’s shoes’ for a little while helps build trust, and by doing so we can better understand and empathise with their situation.  In short, we need to build trusting relationships before trying to help, or transacting.

Finally, a key component of trust is the ability always to be your authentic self. Someone who never admits mistakes or shares their human side, rarely hears truth from others. If you are able to admit being wrong, to acknowledge and apologise for errors or mistakes when they happen, to admit to being unsure or not knowing and to ask for help, this very vulnerability will help others to trust.

Trust is the core of a group or team’s capability to collaborate. It’s worth the effort of building trust within any group of collaborators, starting with trusting yourself to do so, because trust is the glue that keeps the collaborators collaborating.    


Collaboration- is the map a bit blurry?

One of our clients, in commenting on using our Power of Co (PoC) framework, said what he really liked about it was that it gave his staff something concrete to do - they no longer just sat around looking at each other when collaborating- but rather they set about it purposefully and had a bit of a map to follow.

Others have appreciated the fact that it gave their teams a common language with which to approach complex issues, and to understand together some of the key elements they needed to keep in mind when collaborating.

However, clients have also reported some frustration in trying to apply the framework - while they appreciate the approach, they can find it hard to translate into day to day project actions.

We do hear comments like:

  • Yep, I get that commitment is key, but do struggle to know what that might look like, or how to test it
  • When I try to co-define the dilemma with a diverse group, I find it difficult to gain consensus, and so we often still seem far apart and holding different versions
  • I like the idea of people's fingerprints on what we are planning to do, but can't see obvious ways to make that happen
  • When we start looking for solutions, we always seem to focus on the obvious and struggle to think outside the square. It would be good to have some guidelines around trying alternatives

We also see some reservation from project oriented staff, and their bosses, due to a perceived lack of rigour and associated uncertainty in the PoC framework - ie no firm timelines, milestones, or tangible outputs. This is often reflected in complaints like- "but how do I know the process is working and will deliver the results...."

It reminded me of looking at an old small scale road map last night that my wife and I used some years ago to navigate a car trip around Europe- it gave us a bit of a guide, but I do often remember often being a bit lost when we arrived in the specific town and not sure where to go....

This further reinforces our current focus on developing something more like a 'turn by turn' guide to navigate our way in these complex collaborative times. Stay tuned for what such a guide might look like.