Accessing the Collaboration Gold

When I was a kid, my Dad used to take me exploring for gold near Tamworth. We all knew there was some gold in the local mountain streams, as both my Dad and uncle had been successful there for years, and the area has a long history of gold mining.

But as we got to the creek and started panning, I quickly realised that while I knew the gold was there, getting to it was something else. And try as I might, swirling and swirling the gravel in my pan, I was initially unsuccessful, while my Dad in short order was showing me the grains of gold in his pan.

So I painfully and slowly learned and practiced with the pan and my technique, and eventually success! - as something finally glittered in my pan.

I was reminded of my gold panning experiences recently when running a workshop for a client learning and practicing collaborative tools and techniques as part of implementing a collaborative way of working, and utilising our Power of Co system (PoC).

I've heard many times from clients that they saw the PoC as "gold", and then saw both them and myself frustrated by the apparent inability to get real collaborative change in the workplace. It seemed that while the pathway made absolute sense and gave them real confidence in collaborating, they really struggled with the "how", particularly letting go of longstanding practices that compromised the collaborative effort.

This was the catalyst for our development of a series of steps, activities, tools and techniques to provide a more detailed "how"- a bit like my Dad showing me how to use the pan, where to get the likely gravel, how much water to use, how to swirl effectively , etc.

So our realisation, like mine, was that knowing about the collaboration gold is only part of the story, and having access to the tools and techniques and learning is a critical element of success.

Have you the tools to access the gold?

The Heart of Collaboration

There is a lot of energy expended bringing people together to find solutions to complex problems, but getting diverse stakeholders in the room together is no guarantee of success. Why do some efforts to co-create solutions founder when others succeed? It often comes down to three important steps of collaborative work that can be overlooked or underdone, yet together these three steps form the heart of any authentic collaboration.

Where trust is low and scepticism is high, what is it that allows people to work together to find solutions? An absolutely critical piece in the puzzle is that everyone trusts the process. Many clients seek to address this issue by hiring an “independent facilitator” to manage the co-creation process. “You may not trust us but you will trust this person we are paying, right?” Wrong!  “If I don’t trust you why would I trust your hired gun? And even if they are fabulous, why would I trust that you will listen to us or respect our views in this?”


In order that all stakeholders trust the process we have learned how important it is that they get their fingerprints on it. In others words, we want them – and all of us in the collaboration – to own the process by which we will work together to co-create solutions. Successful collaborators design the conversation together, the data, the questions they will ask, agreeing the boundaries, identifying the stakeholders together. They discuss and own the decision-making process, the criteria, the options development etc. And all this great collaboration happens before they start to talk about solutions. So that when they get to that step in the process they are ready, committed, engaged and able to truly co-create together. Even if trust in the ‘who’ remains low, trust in the ‘how’ allows progress to be made.


But where trust is low and the project, problem or situation is seen very differently by different stakeholders, invitations to help co-design the conversation are likely to be met with stony silence. “Why would I talk to you about collaborating when I believe that you are the problem?” What is it that makes the co-design step flourish? In our experience collaborators are much more likely to step into the process when they feel that the problem or project that brings them together is something they are a part of, they understand and feel is worth their precious time. Building a shared sense of the complex situation we face together and taking ownership for our own piece of that bigger problem is the magic of Co-defining. Only when we have all heard each other on the nature of the problem and found some agreement on aspects of it, can we productively move into co-designing and co-creating.

Commit to collaboration

So we come to the root question. What makes stepping in possible for those who don’t trust the system and don’t see the problem, or feel they already know what the solution is? This is the commitment question. It is both a pre-cursor to co-defining and co-designing and an integral part of each. It is about my/our commitment to collaborate with ‘them’ and ‘their’ commitment to working with us on this.

If we skip over the first three steps – Commitment, Co-definition and Co-design – and begin with Co-creating, how can we expect a high level of commitment? And in the absence of commitment, how can we do the difficult work together to find solutions to our complex problem?

There is a pathway to follow when collaborating and it begins well before we attempt to find solutions. In your work are you collaborating from the heart?

You can find more about the whole collaborative pathway on our website under Why Collaboration?

Not Collaborating is OK too….

It seems that there is a growing tendency for ‘collaboration’ to be seen as the answer to any tricky issue, particularly if there are questions or pushback from those affected.

But that often just deepens the dilemma, by creating expectation that probably can’t be met ie that the decision can be influenced by others.

A couple of years ago we came across a really nice decision-making framework that has been particularly useful in helping clients with this question.

It was developed by Adam Kahane, and outlined in his book “Collaborating with the Enemy” (Berret-Koehler, 2018)

In the framework, Adam suggests that when faced with a difficult situation, one can respond in 4 ways- collaborating, forcing, adapting or exiting-

He suggests that one should choose to collaborate only when it is the best way to achieve the objectives. So this means collaboration is appropriate when adapting or exiting are hard to swallow, and forcing is impossible because one can only succeed by solving with others (multilaterally).

Adam also notes that the choices can be situation and time dependent, and one may move between the choices (for example between collaborate and force) over time or as circumstances change.

In our experience, decision makers are quite relieved that it’s OK to “force it” and retain their unilateral control.

However, we reckon that it’s a bit more complicated, with the unilateral choice labeled “force it” likely encompassing a spectrum of choices around the degree of engagement.

For instance, it could be just imposing a unilateral decision, but it could just as likely be inviting stakeholders into the process, while still retaining the right to make the final decision.

The distinction from the multilateral collaboration choice is retaining the power around the decision.

Our growing experience is that by recognising that it’s OK to “force it” when appropriate, the multilateral collaborative efforts tend to be more genuine and successful.

Three ways to take your contractual partnership from good to great

A client in the water infrastructure business recently approached me to talk about how the team can learn to work together with their contracted construction partners as they deliver a massive bit of infrastructure. They told me that the relationship between them and their delivery partner is good but that, in a competitive world where margins are slim, they would only deliver on budget if their partnership shifts "from good to great". They needed to shift their collaboration to a new level or risk their profit margin.

With the growth of alliance contracts and governments' preference for outsourcing service delivery to contractors, this is an increasingly common scenario. Yet while it is one thing to be a contractual partner, it is another thing altogether to develop the collaborative mindset and behaviours that make these contractual relationships hum. How does my client move from an 'us and them' mindset to a 'we' mindset, and do so in the high-pressure world of project delivery? It isn't easy, but here are three things I've learned:

  1. A partnering contract alone does not a partnership make. Behaviour and, most importantly, thinking has to shift in order to give the contractual aspiration a chance.
  2. A commitment to working on relationships and a process for doing so is critical. You can’t just focus on doing the content work better.
  3. To build collaborative muscles we need to go to the collaboration gym, so build in a way for practice, reflection and learning.

To support clients on their partnering and alliance journeys we have developed our unique collaboration system and coaching process. We will be talking through key aspects of the approach in our upcoming webinar. We hope to see you there so you can take your contractual partnerships from good to great.

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.