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.


Six Roadblocks to Authentic Collaboration - Part 2

This is the second in a series of three blog posts looking more closely at the six roadblocks to collaboration. Click through for simple tools to use.

 3. The desire for certainty and control

Resisting the urge to get the ducks lined up

How often have you heard someone say “Never call a meeting until you know what the outcome will be”? I have certainly heard quite experienced business executives talk this way. The subtext seems to be stay in control at all times. Always know what the outcome you want and how to get it. This organisational norm works powerfully to block authentic collaboration, which requires us to let go and to let solutions emerge.

One way it manifests is in the strong desire to ‘get the ducks lined up’ before talking to other stakeholders. When I hear a client say “we want to collaborate but are just seeking the right opportunity” it can be a clear sign that they aren’t ready to let go and therefore aren’t ready to collaborate authentically.

We have found it helpful to shine a light on the ducks in a row behaviour with a simple tool. While it doesn’t make the desire for control go away, at least it makes it visible so all collaborators can recognise what may be happening, and make their choices from there.

 4. A focus on content over relationships

Focussing on the person as much as the content

You have probably been there; Designed a meeting agenda only to add up the allotted minutes and found you don’t have enough time to include all the items. So what do you cut? Most of us in this situation will cut the ‘touchy-feely stuff’ – the introductions, the get-to-know-yous - and focus on the issues, because “we need to get outcomes”. And yet, as rational as we like to think we are, we all respond emotionally to new and challenging information. Working together on wicked problems requires high levels of trust that can only come from getting to know our collaborators as people first, and content specialists second.

Authentic collaboration requires us to go past what we know – or think we know – to explore what we are interested in and what we hold most dear. From this can emerge a new understanding of common ground and common cause. So next time you are collaborating, and even in the face of a strong desire to get to the content, why not invest more in exploring everyone’s interests and values as part of the work, using this simple guide. We collaborate as people, not as data, so moving past our content positions to learn who we are as people is a key to unblocking the journey.


The Six Roadblocks to Authentic Collaboration - Part 1

This is the first of three blogs in which we explore the six roadblocks to collaboration. Click through for some simple tools to apply. 

  1. The lack of robust collaborative processes

Finding a pathway:

A couple of years ago I was talking to a NZ client about collaboration, and he lamented "the team sits around the table and wants to collaborate, but they don't know how or where to start". He explained that they were keen to do things differently, especially in working across their traditional boundaries, but tended to do what they always did as they had no other guidance other than- 'you need to collaborate'. That often left them confused and frustrated as the experience seemed to be more of the same- lots of talk, little listening, and same old solutions.

Over the next 12 months, we introduced his team to the Power of Co framework and they applied it to a couple of projects. He was keen on how they had responded and I asked him why. He said that for the first time they had a series of steps that helped them collaborate- some guidelines and handrails so when they got together they felt confident they were tackling things differently, but not too 'boxed in' to a process- it gave them a roadmap and confidence with their collaboration.

  1. A business as usual mindset that cripples authentic collaboration

Changing the mindset:

The traditional unilateral approach to problem solving relies on expertise and "knowing the answer".

This is sometimes best demonstrated for me in an organisation with what I call 'the curse of the expert' - ie "if only you knew what I know, you would agree and we could just get on with it"

This thinking can have unintended consequences as it risks closing down collaborative activities when people withdraw and stay silent when confronted with others pushing their answer.

Increasingly complex challenges demand a multilateral approach, supported by a "we" mindset, as illustrated in this simple tool:

  • I don't know all the answers,
  • I need some help,
  • if we listen better we can tap into the diverse expertise available
  • and generate solutions we couldn't have come up with on our own

Such shifts in thinking drive new behaviours and so we do things differently when working in the collaborative space (and these new behaviours also positively impact other day to day work).


How Collaboration is Helping the World's Central Bankers Sleep Better

On a recent job in Indonesia I heard some surprising things about what keeps central bankers awake at night, and it goes something like this:

  1. Our world is disrupting. Digital currencies are emerging outside the financial system. Cash is in decline. The internet is shifting the way we tax and regulate and new fintech startups are emerging every day, bringing a new suite of challenges.
  2. To navigate this changing world we need to work differently, with different stakeholders such as law makers, regulators and technology providers.

What troubles bankers is their sense that “we don’t know what working differently looks like or how to do it”. And with this comes the fear that the age-old central bank model may be left behind. Now that is enough to make any banker feel nervous.

Yet the other (perhaps not so) surprising thing is that the banks are seeing collaboration as a key strategy for retaining their role and influence in the emerging world, which is why they were talking to me about the what why and how of collaboration. Their thinking goes that in a disrupted world, where innovation is going to be increasingly important, central bankers need to learn what collaboration is. They recognise the complexity of the environment they work in and know that collaboration is the way to make progress in this context.

They also know that collaboration isn’t just about getting in the room together, but involves powerful frameworks, new skills and new ways to think and act.

What they may not fully grasp is that collaborating well means overcoming the six roadblocks to collaboration. From what I have seen in organisations seeking to work more collaboratively, if they can’t meet these systemic requirements they are unlikely to stay relevant and influential.

So if collaboration is helping the central banks of the world to be flexible, creative and effective, what can it contribute to your success? And what are you doing to tackle those roadblocks?


Gorillas in your midst

A few years ago I was working with a client in the transport sector who was keen to engage with their stakeholders on a new approach to contracting. The client was a large government organisation who used a diverse range of contractors across the state.

At one of the consultation sessions, the client representative was listening to some of the contractors discussing the proposal, when one of them said- "you know Tom, you are the 'big hairy gorilla' in this system, and we are effectively powerless..."

Tom was a bit taken aback and asked what he meant. The contractor responded that "you control the money, and even though you say you are giving up control with this proposed system, you really still have all the power"

I remember being surprised at the reaction of my client Tom. He was genuinely shocked to realise the impact that his organisation's status and behaviour was having on his effort to share control - quite unintended from his perspective, but quite realistic and expected if you sat outside his "bubble".

When talking to Tom later he said that he had actually seen the consultation as a meeting of equals. He was surprised with their reaction, and realised since that them seeing him as the gorilla has obvious implications for relationships and trust which could compromise his good intentions.

I reflected on this recently as we were discussing our topic of power for this month. I reckon it reveals a couple of useful insights about power and control:

  • we are often unaware of the impact we have on others
  • well intentioned plans can be unknowingly undermined by the perceptions of others
  • it can be hard to give up power if it undermines status quo

Are you sometimes the big hairy gorilla, and how would you know?


Smarter questions- start with yourself

I was at the PRINZ conference in NZ last month, and was impressed by a presentation on listening by Prof Jim Macnamara from University of Technology, Sydney.

What struck me was Jim's research about listening- "there is no evidence of a correlation between talking to people and trust, and a strong correlation between listening to people and trust"

Now based on my observations, I'd think that many people seem to believe the opposite, ie that "if I can only explain things a little better","let them know a bit more", "take more time to explain".....then you will believe me and we'll get on together and solve this.

So it got me thinking about some smart questions that we could ask ourselves that might help one shift that perspective and take the time to listen, even though such questions will probably challenge us and might be very uncomfortable- ie:

  • Do I see myself as the expert in this, and what do I do and say that may stop others contributing to the discussion?
  • To what extent do I believe I can solve this on my own, and don't really need the input of others?
  • What do they know about the topic that I don't know, or even can't know?
  • What will stop me from hearing their views, before I say anything?
  • Do I feel I need to control the conversation, and if so why?
  • How would I go about letting them control the conversation?
  • What would I really like to know, and to what extent am I concerned they may perceive weakness or a lack of knowledge or confidence?
  • To what extent am I afraid to say I don't know, and how might I be able to say that?

If we can ask such questions and answer honestly, it might help us shift our approach and facilitate greater curiosity and genuine listening, and likely a stronger relationship.


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?