Is it time to get off your horse?

A mouse! A mouse! My Kingdom for a mouse! Said no King ever. But maybe this is what leaders should be saying at this time of rapid change, disruption and great uncertainty.

How so? Picture a great maze that is all but impossible to solve. Two people stand ready to find the way through – a small girl with her shoebox full of mice and a great leader astride his horse. They start. The leader rides in with a plan to explore sector by sector. The girl releases her mice.

Eventually a mouse emerges from the exit, while from within can be heard the rider, still executing the search plan. While the horseman is still applying his idea, a mouse has found a way through.

According to a lovely framework by Chris Bolton, the horse represents the way most of us go about problem solving or creating change in uncertain situations. We have an idea we think could work. We get agreement to trial it. We do lots of work we hope will increase its chance of success. We plan it out and we run it. By the time it looks like it might not work we are so vested in it, with so much emotional and financial resourcing sunk into it, that we proceed  anyway.

Bolton says it is a solution dressed up as a trial. In other words, the horse is a Trojan horse – something sold as a test but built and run as ‘the answer’. The approach might have worked in Troy when all the Greeks had to do was get through a gate, but it doesn’t work well in more complex times.

So to the mice. Each one represents a small idea that is easy to put together, easy to test, easy to walk away from if it doesn’t work. Each test is an experiment designed to help you better understand the situation and learn more about the best way to proceed. Each mouse is set free in the maze and many will only find the dead ends, but even that is useful as it helps narrow down the options.

When facing uncertainty and complexity, Bolton advises us to use mice, not the horse. Test small, agile ideas that might include something obvious, something from left field, something naïve, something that seems unlikely to work, something that seems counter to your understanding of the situation. Together these diverse mice – each one a small opportunity to test an idea and learn from its success or failure – will point the way forward.

In these uncertain times, are you creating a solution dressed up as a test, or setting the mice free to run in unexpected and useful directions?


The best laid plans of mice and Treasurers

Where did our national surplus go? Just months ago in Australia we were being assured that the nation was “back in black”. What’s more, there was a clear plan to prove that this was the case – otherwise known as the 19/20 Budget.

So what happened? As I write, governments around the world are scrambling to respond to the burgeoning COVID19 ‘crisis’. In Australia this comes on the back of a horror season of drought and bushfire and flood. Together these shocks have put the budget in the shredder as state and federal governments are forced to loosen the purse strings.

So why am I writing about this? I’ve been reflecting on our collective obsession with ‘the plan’. More specifically, our tendency to expect someone else – typically government – to have the plan and, by extension, the solution to our problems. Governments get caught in the trap too and can’t resist behaving as though their plan is the answer

But if the plan is the answer, where has our surplus gone?

Obviously the series of unpredictable events has made the budget redundant. But that is my point. Running a nation is complex and getting more so every day as global connections deepen. It is always going to be complex, meaning that all plans – all budgets - are at constant risk of disruption.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t create national budgets and do our best to stick to them. I am suggesting that our at times irrational belief in THE PLAN has consequences:

  1. Those who create and own the plan are motivated to defend it at all costs and find it difficult to change course.
  2. Those who didn’t create it find it easy to criticise the plan and its authors.
  3. They also absolve themselves of any responsibility for delivering the plan: “it’s the government’s budget. What are they going to do about it”.
  4. We all get despondent and disappointed when the plan doesn’t work as we thought it would. Let the blame game begin.

To avoid the worst of these consequences when facing complex situations, I suggest we get better at identifying aspirational targets that we can all get behind. Rather than focussing our energies on the plan – which is always at risk – let’s get behind an aspiration that motivates and inspires us together. Even if our plans change along the way the ‘light on the hill’ gives us our sense of shared destination.

What sort of aspiration for our economy could we all get behind? And what part in achieving that could I then be motivated to play?

Similarly, are you facing complexity? What is the shared target you and your team are working towards?


A plan or a target?

There’s been a lot of talk recently by politicians here in Australia about the benefit of plans versus targets, particularly in relation to reducing carbon emissions to ensure the future of our planet. This binary argument may be useful as a club to beat the opposing political party with but is it useful as a way to safeguard our future?

Let’s look at what they offer.

A plan is typically a series of steps or intended actions within a specified timeframe, developed to co-ordinate the activities of many people in order to achieve a desired outcome. Plan making is useful when the present situation is known, the desired outcome is clear and the intended actions required to achieve the outcome are obvious, known or at least knowable.

So important are plans to the successful completion of small and large scale projects that a whole discipline, as well as hundreds of project management software programs have been developed to co-ordinate the skills and personnel involved. One of the key requirements of a useful plan is that the enthusiasm and energy required from those who will carry it out can be sustained over the life of the plan. Unfortunately we have seen too many plans still sitting ... unactioned ... on shelves as testament to the desire to create a plan before getting commitment to making it work.

A target, on the other hand, is typically strategic, aspirational and longer-term. While it may be time-defined, it is future focused, so any attempt at including details of actions required to achieve it would be mere fantasy. At the time of setting the target they are unknown. While the target can be articulated with clarity such as “zero carbon emissions across Australia by 2050,” what this will look like in every sector is unknowable.

A target is intended to be aspirational, inspirational and motivational.  It provides some certainty as to intention.  It encourages all those with an interest in achieving longer term outcomes, even past their own working lives, to start thinking about and working towards achieving what may currently seem an impossible outcome. It provides a language to share ideas across sectors and find partners and collaborators in unlikely places. It encourages investment in specific technologies that may contribute towards achieving outcomes that at the time of setting the target are not even on the horizon.

No one person or group of people will manage the journey to the target, although many may contribute.  The target is like a ‘light on a distant hill’ inspiring us to act and learn together, even when we are most unsure. It will encourage individuals, teams, organisations and sectors to make small advances towards the target over time.  Celebrating every step that brings us closer to the target, small or significant, made anywhere, by anyone, attracts more people with a desire to contribute.  Success breeds success, across sector boundaries and among unlikely partners.

Targets and plans will make different contributions towards reaching a ‘light on the hill’.

It is helpful to start with a target. If it’s important and genuine, it will support individuals, organisations and sectors as they invest in and experiment with new ideas, technologies and ways of acting together. Solutions will emerge from uncertainty, new thinking and collaborative effort. Then plans and activities will have their place to deliver them.


Who do you trust?

Who do you need to trust when working with others on difficult problems? I have been reflecting on this question since a recent conversation with a colleague. He has joined a big infrastructure project that continues to cause some disruption for people living and working in the area. The organisation has managed to build good relationships with most stakeholders, but there is one local stakeholder who seems to be particularly angry. My colleague hasn’t met him yet, being new to the team, but all of his colleagues have been telling him what a difficult man this person is.

“Don’t go near him alone” is their advice.

My colleague wants to improve the relationship with this person and his instinct is to go and talk to him at his place of business. But he’s nervous about going alone. He also isn’t sure who to take with him, because his co-workers seem to have made up their minds that the man is a lost cause.

What can he do? Seems to me this is a question of trust, on a couple of fronts. He could take his co-workers’ warnings at face value and choose never to go near the angry stakeholder, but he knows this can’t lead to a better relationship. He wants to go and meet him. But can he trust the guy if he goes alone?

Obviously we all need to prioritise personal safety, yet in my experience extending trust is usually rewarded. If my colleague takes the step alone, demonstrating that he trusts the guy to be rational, he will likely find a rational guy. Angry? Perhaps. Unhappy? Sounds certain. But neither of those things are unbearable.

I also wonder if there is a deeper trust barrier here. To go and meet and talk with an angry person who feels aggrieved about what has been ‘done to him’, takes courage. It also takes some confidence. And I wonder if my colleague is thinking about whether or not he has the capability to manage an outraged stakeholder. In other words, he may be thinking “can I trust myself to do this difficult thing?”

When collaborating, we need to extend trust to others. But I’m starting to think that it is just as important to extend trust to ourselves. Collaboration can be challenging and difficult, perhaps leading us to think “I can’t do that”. But if we want different outcomes we have to do different things.

So trust yourself. You can do this!


Build a relationship before you tackle a job

Even though our home wasn’t at risk, my own reaction to the bushfires and smoke over the holiday period surprised me- I was tentative, worried, frustrated, lacked focus and was generally a bit stressed, even around family and good friends, and even more so with strangers.

It reminded me of the challenges of getting things done when people are stressed, and I remembered a few things I have often found helpful in similar situations....

  • feel, feel, feel- show that others matter- acknowledge how people feel
  • listen, listen, listen- acknowledge and understand what matters to others first. Then people may be willing to listen to what you have to say
  • build the relationships before you tackle the job
  • acknowledge that you do not know- what to do…., what is best..., where to start.... etc, and that it's OK to ask for help
  • understand that the solutions are best not coming from you, but are better to emerge from conversations with others (even if you think you know what to do!)
  • expect the next steps will not necessarily be the "answer", but will be a start towards finding some solutions together
  • accept that it will take time and people can't be rushed.

Looking at the list also made me realise how hard I find trying to think and act like that- my default is often the opposite!

Do you have other ideas that might help?


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.