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.


What guidance do collaborators need?

A question: What do the Bible, tidiness guru Marie Kondo, Life Coach Tony Robbins, Author Stephen Covey and my smart phone have in common?

Perhaps not much, apart from their diverse promises to ‘show us the way’.

Lately I have been doing a lot of thinking about what ‘showing the way’ looks like, as we explore the idea of creating a guide for collaborators. That is, we are hoping to create a comprehensive ‘how to’ guide for project managers or leaders who find themselves needing to design and run a collaborative project. It feels like a useful addition to our existing Collaboration System. The problem is I’m not sure what such a guide should look like. But I have some ideas:

Like the Bible the guide should provide the big-picture principles and ‘values’ of collaboration. Things like doing ‘with’ rather than doing ‘to’; Acting in order to learn, rather than planning in order to act, and so-on. If nothing else, these principles allow users to orient themselves in the right direction.

What about Marie Kondo, famous for telling us to declutter our homes by holding items tightly and discarding those that don’t make us feel happy? In just this way a collaboration guide should show us a range of simple, practical actions we can take ‘right now’ to begin our collaboration. Actions such as getting who you can in the room together and genuinely listening to how each stakeholders sees the dilemma.

And Tony Robbins? As a popular ‘life coach’ he talks about the attitudes and mindsets of success. Likewise, a collaboration guide should shine a light on the thinking that collaborators must bring to their work. How do collaborators think and how does that differ from business as usual?

Stephen Covey wrote the best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Similarly, a comprehensive guide must describe and encourage the powerful habits of collaboration. Habits such as sharing your process questions so everyone can get their fingerprints on the way this project runs. Practising these habits every day is a key to collaborative success.

And then there is my phone. This one is pretty straightforward. When seeking a new destination my phone is able to give me a step-by-step guide from where I am to where I want to be. When I’m feeling lost or unsure I consult the phone and know where to turn. I hope our guide will do this for all collaborators, with clear steps and a map to follow.

So, it seems that what we are creating for collaborators should provide the high-level guidance of the Bible while containing practical action instructions, mindset advice, processes for building new habits and a detailed map of the way forward. Hmmmm, I wonder if there is a guide for creating such a thing?


Can you "structure" emergence?

In our experience, an issue that constantly emerges, particularly from the leaders, is the lack of something tangible to 'anchor to' when staff are attempting to collaborate. They want to collaborate but are missing the measures, lacking project structure or a plan.

So for some years we have been delivering programs such as Collaboration Builder, and now an obvious and ongoing question for us is how to add rigour to the collaborative process without compromising the emergence which we believe is a key attribute of effective collaboration.

While almost all collaborative processes lay out principles and a broad guide, such as our own Power of Co Pathway, it is almost impossible to find a definitive process map of what to do, when and how to do it.

Now why is that?

We know that dealing with complexity requires a different approach to business as usual, and that structured problem solving methodologies do not work well in situations where uncertainty reigns, solutions are unknowable and even the problems are unclear. In these situations it is foolhardy to closely define the plan as it will likely fail to allow for new emerging directions that are the very heart of good collaboration- where the solutions emerge from the interaction, and can't be planned with "best practice" or even a "good practice" approach.

Yet clients want clarity and confidence. In an attempt to tackle that dilemma, we wondered what characteristics to consider in a useable guide. We landed on four which we use regularly as a lynchpin for our work- content, process, mindset and relationships. We then considered what might be useful under each heading to provide a bit of a map without compromising the flexibility and emergence critical for working in complex situations.

  • Content- recognising the tangible focus for working differently
  • Process- mapping out the collaborative frame
  • Mindset- shining a light on how people might think and act to hold that frame
  • Relationships- checking in on how the relational dynamics are being monitored and tackled consistent with the desired frame

The next step for us is to provide some more clarity on what these might look like, without locking in to a pre-determined plan. Stay tuned for updates, and let us know what you think.


Surviving workplace disruption #2

Organisational restructuring seems to be an ever-present solution to many issues - often in the belief that "if we only we had the right structure, we would work better together, be more efficient and effective...etc, etc."   A bit like the success fantasy that Vivien wrote about in the previous blog.

Now I'm not suggesting that restructures aren't both necessary and useful in the right circumstances.  However, given that they tend to be quite disruptive, and can have serious impacts on staff, it makes sense to consider how to tackle them using a more collaborative mindset - and to consider some Golden Rules for Thriving in Workplace Disruption.

When proposing a new structure, we invariably ask people what they think. We seek feedback because we want to know about the impact the changes might have, and help people through such changes. This is a great start, but it often misses the most important element - how people feel.   Some might be excited and enthusiastic, while others might be frustrated, lost or frightened. And how people feel influences how, and even whether, they respond. So you may not know how people think if you don't check and acknowledge how they feel.

One Golden Rule - Check in and listen to how people are feeling, because that is what impacts their behaviour.

Given our unbridled enthusiasm for the change, and the conventional need to be discreet on sensitive restructures, we have a tendency to decide the new structure in a small group and have most of the answers ready in advance. While this seems to make logical sense, such structural changes are inherently complex, impact people, and can never quite appreciate all the nuances of how the organisation operates. From our experience we know that surprising solutions can emerge from tapping into the knowledge and ideas of those involved, and implementation of any new structure is invariably smoother when staff feel they have contributed to the solutions.

Another Golden Rule - Just "try stuff"- generate a range of ideas together (rather than sticking to the first 'right' answer), because that delivers smarter and more owned solutions.

As well as being sure of the answer, we often are quite sure how to progress the planning and implementation i.e. the process of involvement and solution finding. While no doubt efficient, it can leave people feeling a bit disenfranchised and "done to". By stepping back and acknowledging some doubt about what the best process could be, those leading such restructures can invite staff into putting their 'fingerprints' on the process, which encourages staff participation and ownership.

A last Golden Rule - allow people to put their fingerprints on the process, and they are more likely to go on the journey with you.


Sailing into Troubled Waters

I’m just back from a fascinating 10 days sailing Japan’s Setonaikai – the inland sea separating the four main islands. We did a lot of traveling from place to place, which meant every night we had to find a new place to anchor. Simple in theory, but sometimes things didn’t go to plan.

5:00pm: We dropped anchor at the region’s most beautiful beach. It was a little tricky, with the sonar showing us that the beach dropped very steeply away below us into deeper water. It raised some questions about the ‘bite’ that the anchor had in the bottom. If it’s sitting on a steeply sloping bank could it swivel and pull out?

Sometimes the only way to know is to go down and have a look and it was my job to put on the mask and fins, dive in, swim down and check the anchor on the bottom. Easy, right?

But then… “hey this water is really murky! It’s black and I can’t see a thing. There is no way I’m going 10m down into that murk!”  Too scary. Too difficult.

And I climbed back up onto the boat, into the calm beauty of the long-shadowed afternoon. It was so much nicer up here!

3:00am: Woke to an energetic rocking motion, lots of rattling rigging and a clear sense of movement. Jump up on deck. “Where’s the beach?” Turns out our fears had been realised. As we slept, the anchor had quietly lost its grip on the sea floor, casting us adrift…..out to sea and into danger. Needless to say, we moved fast. Started the engines, pulled up the anchor, and headed off on the next leg of the trip. No harm done, apart from a scare, some violent words from the skipper and an unusually early start.

Why am I sharing this story? Because I was reminded of it when thinking about some recent work with collaborative teams. I watch them and listen to them working. On the surface, they seem to be going well. They share ideas, they ask questions, they talk and smile politely. It is calm and sunny and comfortable here. But then someone says something revealing, like “it feels as though your team is blocking progress on this and I can’t understand why they are getting in the way…”

Yikes! It feels as though the collaborative anchor is at risk of coming adrift. There is only one way to ensure the connection remains strong; The group needs to dive into the relational water, where it is a bit scary and difficult. They need to do a health check on their relationship and levels of trust. They need to open up and be vulnerable about their feelings and how each group sees the other. But just as I experienced in Japan, it is so much more comfortable to stay on the surface and hope that all will be well. It is deep, black and murky down there. Yet if we don’t brave the relational depths we might find our collaboration coming adrift and coming to grief.

I understand the challenge of diving into difficult waters. We all need some help to do that safely. Sometimes all that our clients need is some timely strategic advice and support to help them take a deep breath and start swimming together. I hope I take my own advice next time I am asked to check an anchor.

If you would like to know more about Twyfords’ strategic advice service, contact us.


Surviving workplace disruption #1

Collaborative workspaces are all the rage at the moment. Client organisations are looking for them and commercial developers and interior designers are providing them at speed. But moving offices can be stressful and disruptive to work lives.

We hear about a ‘roam and work’ ethic which involves removing cellular offices and making dedicated desks a thing of the past. We read about desks, booths and lounges arranged into ’village’ formations, tree beds designed into floors, corridors mimicking city footpaths and hanging plants providing a sense of outdoors.

I wonder how the occupants of these new offices, specifically designed for collaboration, will adapt to these new environments.  I have heard from colleagues and clients that, for those used to having their own space, their own desk and a place they ‘belong’, the idea of ‘roaming and working’, sitting at a different desk every day and not being able to personalise their space with photos and nic-nacs may be quite confronting. As I heard from a client facing workplace disruption yesterday, “even though we brought people along every step of the way in designing new processes, now they have to work differently our people tend to revert to their familiar, comfortable way of relating to others, telling rather than listening, taking orders rather than taking accountability.  Can you help us?”.

One client is watching a new building going up across the street that will house four different government functions.  The aim is for the staff of these four departments to use the new layout to work better together.  The planners and designers are creating new spaces to support collaboration because this is in their brief.  Simultaneously with the space planning, workers in these new collaborative spaces need the opportunity to rethink the way they will do their work in this new environment.  Giving staff an opportunity to get their ‘fingerprints’ on both the new environment and a new way of working before the move is important to them understanding and achieving the desired outcomes.

Twyfords has developed some Golden Rules for Thriving in Workplace Disruption.  One of those is to avoid the success fantasy. In the office scenario I’m writing about, this success fantasy might play out as “Once the challenge of the move is over, everyone will settle down into a new and more collaborative way of working together.”

We suggest that:

  • sharing expectations for new ways of working across functional boundaries in the new spaces .... because this creates ownership ...
  • paying attention to feelings and relationships ... because this affects behaviour ...
  • having time to try and test new ways of working before and after the move ... because this builds confidence ...

can make a difference.

If you’d like any advice or ideas about how to set functional teams up for success in any new collaborative way of working ... give Twyfords a call.


Six Roadblocks to Authentic Collaboration - Part 3

This is the last in a series of three blogs where we examine the six roadblocks to collaboration. Click through for some simple tools to apply.

  1. Business practices limiting flexibility and innovation

Be prepared to modify your "operating system":

Organisations build up formal internal operating structures and protocols that reflect their experience, and are a key part of the control mechanisms for stability and certainty. These manifest in project protocols like terms of reference, project plans, timelines and milestones, etc, as well as other habits like business planning, HR protocols, etc

"But we can't proceed until we have nailed the Terms of Reference......"

While an essential part of managing, the unintended consequence is they can frustrate trying different things, or tackling things in new ways, when the demand for these controls may clash with the flexibility and alternative approaches essential in taking a collaborative approach requiring experimentation and innovation.

One way to tackle this can be to develop a solid alternative "structure" that might look a bit different, but meets the same needs in providing confidence to those involved while not limiting the flexibility required to innovate. An example might be this collaborative log tool- an emerging time based record that lays out context, plans, progress and outputs, but also recognises the importance of flexibility, emergence and relationships when dealing with complexity.

 

  1. Hierarchy and silos

Thinking and doing "with", not "to":

Organisations are traditionally set up using hierarchical structures and horizontal separation to manage the business. While appropriate and necessary, they can consolidate a power and control mindset and behaviours that can limit collaborators working across the horizontal boundaries, and constrain their ability to be authentic, to listen, and be flexible.

"But that might cut across what planning is doing, and we'd have to run it past finance....." 

Such collaborative activities may be perceived to threaten the implicit power dynamics, triggering reactive behaviours that can shutdown innovation. It is difficult for collaborators to build the essential trust under these conditions.

Thinking and acting differently is a way to 'virtually' remove such boundaries while living within the existing structures and protocols. Acting "as if" the participants are one team not separate groups can help shift conversations and behaviours. One example is the tension we often see between the planning and delivery silos, and here is an example of a collaborators guide to encourage a "with" mentality and congruent behaviours in such situations.