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.


What makes you do different?

While reading Stuart and Viv's great new blogs to get some inspiration for this month's topic, I noticed the tag line at the bottom of our blog page- about our programs "building your collaborative muscle"

Then I thought ...aahh...I'm actually in the middle of something just like that- my continuing recovery from my surgery for my ruptured quad tendon, particularly re-building the quad muscles that had atrophied from lack of use.

So why is this a time to try something different?

I've realised that I just have to, because:

  • I can't do what I normally used to do
  • there's a high risk to my future (mobility) if I push what I normally do
  • when I try to fix something it doesn't seem to work the same as before
  • I'm willing, but others aren't (in this case my leg!)
  • I revert back to business as usual pretty quickly

So what am I now doing that I may have avoided before, not even considered, or been embarrassed to try?

  • slowing down hugely (easier when your body forces that on you)
  • asking for help (eg requesting a wheelchair at the airport)
  • following a really rigorous 12 month rehabilitation plan (that actually changes weekly depending on progress)
  • but also accepting that I might just have to let things emerge, as I can't predict or plan everything (eg improving knee flexibility past 90 degrees)
  • constantly experimenting with new ways to get things done (climbing stairs, crossing slopes, working permanently from home)
  • Letting go of some things (being OK to not control everything- because the damn leg just won't respond)
  • sharing the load at home and work (could be just an excuse to avoid cleaning the shower!)

And I'm actually seeing that trying something different isn't just really useful when I am faced with a complex and uncertain situation that challenges almost everything I do, but it's actually the only way to get the type of progress I need to reach my vision- skiing black runs again within 12 months- Covid permitting!

So I'm wondering what's your try-different story? Hopefully not as debilitating as mine!


Is it time to do something different?

This is a very appropriate title for my blog this month as I, personally, am about to do something very different that is simultaneously exciting, scary, sad and makes me feel vulnerable. Yes, I’m going to step back from 59 years of (almost) regular work and 32 years since I founded Twyfords in 1988. I’m going to step into the unknown world of “retirement’.

I’m doing it because it seems like a sensible way of approaching the rest of my life. I don’t know what it will look like, I don’t know what it will feel like. I have already received advice that ‘transition to retirement is not always as easy as many people expect’ and that I ‘should have a retirement plan’.

What I have learned over this last decade of exploring collaboration is that, when facing an uncertain future, full of ambiguity, which is likely to include complex decisions about many things,  and likely to be dependent on the input of many other people, careful planning isn’t necessarily going to help.

So, my plan is not a detailed plan but more of a heuristic to live by as I let the future emerge. My notes to myself are:  keep my body active through regular local and long distance walking; keep my mind active by learning new things and reading more widely; and finally continue to attempt things that challenge me.

While musing about this future, after 32 years I’m unable to switch off the habit of considering Twyfords future, in parallel to my own.

I am excited for the possibilities for the company, and sad that I won’t be such an active participant as in the past.  We’ve been working hard during the uncertainties of the Covid-19 environment, the anxieties of the Black Lives Matter movement all embedded in the planet’s vulnerability to climate change. It’s pretty obvious to us just how important collaboration is going to be at every scale.

Twyfords theme this month is ‘Is it time to do something different?’

By this we mean, isn’t it time to think and act differently and improve our people’s capability to work really effectively with others on tricky, messy issues where complexity and uncertainty abound?

We asked our networks and their networks to respond to a quick 60 second survey. We are delighted at the number of responses we’ve had. We are finding evidence that the challenges facing project managers who want to lead their teams into more productive ways of working are the challenges our work is focused on solving i.e.

  • They are looking for ways to ‘nudge’ their people to work differently and more constructively together.
  • They seek confidence in leading a diverse team as it tackles difficult projects.
  • They want to ‘add’ collaboration to their project management skillset for the future and
  • They want to be able to ‘manage up’ and influence their managers and executives to support this new way of working.

I am confident that my colleagues at Twyfords, starting immediately, have solutions for project managers within organisations that struggle with:

  • impermeable silos,
  • a risk averse culture,
  • a technical focus ... and most specifically
  • a lack of support for ‘doing different’.

I wish them, as well as old and new clients, an exciting, but sometimes a little scary, way of ‘doing different’ where both authenticity and vulnerability will lead them into new ways and new success.

I’m also confident those ways of thinking and working will help me as I step into my new world as well!


Fear of failure - does it shut us down or drive us?

Perhaps fear of failure starts at school where the words ‘failure’ and ‘fail’ are scary. They are represented by teachers and parents as something definitely undesirable. I was a bright kid in a small primary school in the UK, so I didn’t come into contact with those words until, at age 11, I went to grammar school, where I was among lots of other bright kids in a much larger school with regular tests and exams.

Used to being near the top of a small class, I found myself struggling. Tests and examinations became opportunities to fail. “What did you get?” was a common question as results were handed out. Failures made me feel inadequate and less worthy. I didn’t always meet my own expectations let alone the expectations of teachers, friends and family.

These failures at school, while uncomfortable, didn’t frighten me or shut me down. I think I just redefined my future. I decided on exploration as my next step rather than university and a specific career. I might have experienced failure academically, but I wasn’t going to fail at work or at life.  I’d be successful if I applied myself, stayed open to new experiences, met new people, travelled to new places, set and met my own goals and lived the life I chose. My inevitable failures would be temporary and be learning experiences.

These beliefs drove me. With every move, every new opportunity, every compliment, I gained confidence. I even tried academia again ... and succeeded.

But situations where the possibility of failure disables me and makes me vulnerable are still there. One of those is giving ‘expert’ presentations. Standing on a platform, being an expert on something, giving advice from a podium gives me serious imposter anxiety. I don’t like pontificating. I don’t like talking ‘at’ people. I feel vulnerable in a way I never do when in conversation with others where I love to listen and engage. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

No-one enjoys failure. No-one enjoys failing. However, working in the complex space, in uncertainty, just trying something is a useful strategy ... and whether our experiment or trial succeeds or fails, we will learn. Failure is just a detour not a dead end.


(Not) Walking into Uncertainty

I'm not sure, but my experience is that having a sequence of uncertainties might actually makes things a bit more manageable. Seems a paradox, but perhaps provides some clues for living in these uncertain times.

So, to explain.

I arrived back from an overseas skiing trip with a serious leg injury in early March, just as the pandemic got serious here with the restrictions then lockdown.

Initially I was facing lots of unknowns regarding my treatment- did I have coronavirus? (test negative!), could I get to see the specialist and get surgery asap, could I recover in time for planned overseas trips, could I work?.

And then I get the surgery done and faced a whole new set of unknowns- how to manage with a full leg brace on 24/7 - could I sleep, work, etc?, how to get around?, how to even sit at home?, how to get rehabilitation?, and what does the rehab look like?, what should my leg look and feel like at the milestones in the rehab program?

And at the same time, Covid19 restrictions kick in and so a new set of unknowns emerge - how to get the stitches out with hospital cancelled?, face to face physio not available so how to recover?, how to exercise when staying at home with no walking?, how will it impact a fairly strict and lengthy rehabilitation program?, etc

But interestingly, I have survived OK when facing seemingly overwhelming uncertainty (both short and long term), and I was just reflecting on some of the things that might have helped:

  • Structure- providing myself a series of routines that gave me some short term certainty- a shower and dressing routine each morning, a short walk and coffee at the beach each day with my wife, timed 4 hourly exercise routine during the day, scheduled bi-weekly physiotherapy appointments, news hour each evening.
  • Not worrying about things I can’t control - letting go of the plans for travelling or skiing for 12 months, not stressing about needing someone else put my left sock and shoe on, relaxing about being driven everywhere, working as much as I can manage at home- even if it’s only 2 hours a day.
  • Keeping connected- using Zoom and WhatsApp to stay connected with clients, colleagues, friends and family
  • I’ve always been an optimist, so I guess that has also helped- I tend to look at things with a positive view, and that has been evident in how I have viewed my surgery and recovery and prospects- she’ll be right!
  • Also helpful is being flexible and trying some new things around my leg and recovery- like flexing my knee at home for physiotherapy rather than just relying on the expert- small safe to fail experiments!

So while I don’t recommend tearing a quad muscle tendon, it has given me new insights in how to thrive in uncertainty!


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?


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.


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.


Are you planning to act or acting to learn?

Most of us would be familiar with the management aphorism: “If you fail to plan you are planning to fail”, and there is a lot of truth to it. But there is a darker side to this saying as well, one which many of my clients struggle with. Clients like Bob.

Bob is a project manager, smart, competent and successful. He works in a large water company, but there are many like him in all sorts of companies around the world. Bob has a track record of managing a range of difficult projects from planning through to delivery. Most recently he took on the exciting task of working with a diversity of stakeholders to improve water quality and amenity across a large urban water catchment. Bob knows his organisation can’t deliver outcomes on its own, and he is committed to collaborating with others to create lasting solutions together.

But a few months in, progress wasn’t as fast or as easy as he had expected. In fact, he was very worried that the collaboration would fall apart. People seemed unsure, unhappy, frustrated at the complexity and messiness of the task. Bob felt it too. But, being an experienced project manager, Bob gritted his teeth and applied himself to the problem of how to ensure this collaborative group delivered outcomes.

Going back to first principles, Bob decided he needed a plan of action, setting out the steps he and his collaborators would to take in order to get outcomes in a timely fashion. So he sat down with some smart colleagues to create the document.

But there was a problem. He actually didn’t know what the next steps should be. He wasn’t sure what the problem was – is it lack of commitment or lack of clarity or lack of resources…? He wasn’t sure who should be a part of the problem-solving process or who wanted to be a part of it.

What did Bob do? Being a good project manager, he decided to gather more data so that he could answer some of these questions in order to write the plan. But hang on, what data did he need? Where should he get it? What will that data mean..? He needs a plan for this…

Poor Bob was stuck in the space of not knowing; paralysed by the need to get the answers in order to proceed. His powerful urge to line up the ducks on this project was clashing with its unknowability.

The lesson is that planning can only take you so far when collaborating in complex situations. Rather than plan in order to act, Bob found more success when he began to act in order to learn. In practice, that meant Bob and his collaborators confronting and acknowledging the inevitable uncertainty of the situations they faced, but not getting paralysed by it. Instead, they tried things, developing small experiments to run. And together they learned from those activities. Some things didn’t work so well. Other things were more effective. All have been useful to help shed further light on how to tackle this catchment management problem. Only by taking action has the group learned what it takes to make a difference to their waterway.

Taking action when we don’t have all the answers can be scary, but Bob has now been working this way for many months as part of our Collaboration Builder program, and together he and his collaborators have created actions that no plan could have covered. They have learned not to plan in order to act, but to act in order to learn.