What to do when you don’t know what to do

One thing is certain … collaboration will take you into uncertainty. You start on the collaborative journey full of enthusiasm and energy. “This is exciting,” you say to yourself and your new colleagues on the collaborative journey. “We can learn to work together and we can achieve things that none of us could have achieved on our own! Let’s get started!”

But someplace and sometime on the collaborative journey, the group or individuals within it will say “I don’t know what to do next!”

Sometimes this happens because the way forward, which looked like a clear road ahead in the collaboration guidebook, becomes narrower and full of thorny disagreements. People who seemed initially very committed to working together seem to argue over small things. There are differences of opinion that seem irreconcilable. Meetings descend into arguments about personal opinions rather than opportunities to share and explore diverse perspectives.

Here are a few thoughts about how to move forward when you and your group just don’t know what to do next on the collaborative journey.

A road map or a set of handrails can help

It doesn’t matter what map or model of collaboration you’ve chosen, when things get tough ask questions. What does the model suggest as a next step? Where might the group need to backtrack? What principles of collaboration, if applied in this situation, might overcome a roadblock? What questions or activities might take the group out of their messy arguments into a space of shared exploration.

Share your concerns about what to do next and find a solution ‘with’ your collaborators

When you’re not sure what to do next, ask the group for suggestions. Let go of your need to manage, and be willing to say “I don’t know, I need your help.” Invite conversations in pairs or small groups, encourage suggestions and thinking together. Explore the assumptions collaborators have about each other and the problem they need to tackle. Document the outcomes of the conversations. Use the data to make decisions together. Collaboration requires practice – so keep practicing.

Try something active

Next time you meet, try an investigative activity. Ask your group what would be helpful for them right now. Would a walkabout or a site visit create a shared experience to build positive relationships? Perhaps exploring new and unfamiliar spaces would make it easier for people to express their vulnerabilities and learn from others. Perhaps being physically active would stimulate their ability to think and act together. Ask whether meeting in a different space might change the dynamics and help you all to move forward.

Test a hypothesis

Run a small but do-able experiment to help the group focus on something practical and provide a sense of achievement and learning. For example, establish your hypothesis that, if your collaborative group could design and run its own meeting instead of ceding responsibility to a facilitator, it would learn something useful about collaboration. Then run the experiment and check whether the hypothesis is correct. Check that what the group is learning through its experiments is moving it in the direction it needs to go.

Look for articles and books, conferences and speakers

Research what other people have done in similar situations of not knowing what to do. Ask whether anyone in the group has read a book or article about collaboration or been to a conference or event where someone gave useful advice? Ask for a 2-minute summary of what they learned and ask the group what suggestions arise.

Just do something concrete – something practical rather than theoretical

Sometimes it helps to ask your group to do something meaningful from which they learn together. Identify a right-sized but real-world problem, associated with the collaboration, that moves the group closer to its ultimate goal. Work out a way to solve it together. Have at least one member of the group watch the process used to solve it and have them report back on what was done and how the group worked together. Learning through doing is powerful and builds trust.

Accept the consequences of whatever the group has done.

Try any of these suggestions and own whatever results you get. Learn from them and move on. Don’t be burdened by regret or a sense of making the wrong choice. There is no wrong choice. Fail forward. Learn from every experience including mistakes. And move on to the next choice.

When you don’t know what to do … try something!

The ABC of Complexity

As I write, the head of Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, has just announced a very significant restructure of the organisation and its 5,000 employees. CEO Michelle Guthrie was quoted as saying:

“This exercise today is about making sure we work collectively and in better and smarter ways to serve our audience.” “The initiatives … will improve collaboration and decision making,” “[These changes] provide for more flexibility in allocating resources.”

It sounds very impressive and sensible, but how confident can the CEO be that the restructure will deliver as expected? Complexity science would say not confident at all. Just consider some of the basic concepts of managing any complex system, such as a large corporation.

With a complex system we can only manage the current state, we can’t manage the future state.

In other words we have no way of knowing that if we do X we will get Y. An organisation is like an organism, with many separate parts all interacting in multiple ways, some of which we know about and some we don’t. Because every part of a complex system influences and is influenced by every other part, it is impossible to know with certainty the outcome of any action large or small. Complex systems are the realm of unintended consequences and emergent responses, meaning we can never be sure that the structure we bring in today will deliver the outcome desired tomorrow. The only thing we can be confident of is that we won’t get what we expect.

Beware Premature Convergence

Landing on a solution is what leadership is about, right? Except when we are dealing with something genuinely complex, it is much easier and more comfortable to name a ‘solution’ than to acknowledge and grapple with the inherent unknowability of the situation. The temptation to come to a position is powerful but the minute we start narrowing down – converging on a solution – we reduce our capacity to scan for the unknown, to explore other possibilities, to have our ideas doubted and tested and to test others. In complexity, the answer is never the answer anyway so staying open to what is emerging is a much more powerful strategy.

Experimentation is key

Nobody knows what is the ‘best’ structure for a large public broadcaster in Australia in the early 21st Century. Nobody can know. The changes announced today for the ABC, while couched in terms of certainty, in fact amount to an expensive, possibly disruptive and risky experiment in corporate design, as all such restructures do. They can’t be anything else. But leaders aren’t allowed to acknowledge that they are experimenting on their organisation. They particularly can’t acknowledge it to themselves. Yet, experimentation is in many ways the best strategy.

In complex situations we can’t know in advance the outcome of actions, so how do we manage? We create hypotheses and test them in ‘safe to fail’ ways. We experiment around specific ideas about how the system works and what might improve it. If we find those experiments successful we ramp them up. If we find them failing we dial them down, while learning as much as possible about why they aren’t working as expected. And then we do it again. And again. And….

Management therefore becomes a continuous exercise in ‘learning the way forward’ through incremental changes, using pilots, tests, trials, experiments. At no time can anyone say with certainty that the existing structure is ‘the best’, but they will be able to say that new ideas are constantly being tested and improvements introduced. Importantly, the brainpower of the entire workforce can usefully be employed in generating hypotheses, designing and running experiments, deciding what did and didn’t work and determining and making changes as a result. Rather than paying a big four consultant to ‘fix the problem’ a manager can rely on the employees to co-create something unique, fit-for-purpose and always, always shifting to meet emerging needs.

In some ways, managing complexity is very challenging, but to accept uncertainty and adopt an experimental approach is as easy as ABC.

I don’t know but together we might

A few years ago, we used a great video by Peter Bregman in our collaboration workshops about the power of being able to admit “I don’t know” as a way of getting better outcomes from others.

I was reminded of that recently when a client told a similar story of how they tried it and found it changed the group dynamics of a team meeting significantly with people engaging, stepping up and being creative.

We talked a little about the challenges of being OK personally to try that, and I was left wondering why it seems so hard….

So what assumptions might sit there when I consider saying “I don’t know?”

  • but I should!….(know the answer or what to do)
  • I might look incompetent
  • the boss might think I’m not up for the task
  • my team might think I shouldn’t be in charge
  • I’ll be less able to influence the decision
  • people may point the finger…at me!
  • my reputation might suffer

Or, I could be thinking

  • it’s good I don’t know it all or I might drive this in the wrong direction
  • it will be a great way to tap into the knowledge of the team
  • the boss wants people to innovate and this could draw out new ideas
  • the team will be grateful that they are more likely to be able to contribute their ideas
  • I will be more confident we are making the right decision if it emerges from the work we do together
  • I’m less likely to be blamed if we do this together
  • my reputation will be enhanced as a leader who works with others to get better outcomes

It’s likely that all these thoughts are swimming around…it’s our choice as to which we allow to influence our behaviour as the leader.

I’d love to give you some tips about how to do this, but I don’t know….

How high is your CQ

I read an article this week called “How High is your CQ?” The term CQ, or collaborative intelligence, is new in my vernacular, but the concepts in the article are not.

According to the article’s author, John Butcher, CQ is a special kind of emotional intelligence required by those tackling complex social problems using a collaborative approach. In our work we call it a collaborative mindset, or collaborative muscle, an ability to both think and act differently.

The article reflects strongly our experience that CQ, or a collaborative mindset, involves the capability, when working with others, to:

  • listen intently with a genuine desire to understand what the other person is saying, and what they are not saying
  • see things from an other’s point of view or “walk in each other’s shoes”
  • process information effectively, even when it doesn’t fit easily with our own philosophies or values.

In addition CQ requires the ability to:

  • build and maintain trusting relationships
  • be comfortable working in situations of uncertainty
  • explore together how the bigger system works of which the presenting problem is an integral part .
  • understand and appreciate the problem and the system from the perspectives of all who have lived experience of them, as well as subject experts
  • take an experimental approach to solution finding not spending too much time in identifying the “right” answer but trying different ways forward and learning from each one.

We find that CQ cannot be learned in a classroom; people learn CQ by doing the work, by establishing a collaboration, by being personally committed and by being supported by an organisation that genuinely wants to create a more collaborative internal culture.

I think the term CQ is a good one, coming as it does after Daniel Goleman introduced the term EQ for Emotional Intelligence. In today’s world CQ will be just as important as both IQ and EQ, and we look forward to helping client organisations develop it as a required skill. I’d be very interested to know what you think your CQ is.

Collaboration and a doubtful mind

My favourite TV interviewer is Leigh Sales – from ABC 7.30 report.

I like her even handed and probing way she questions in her interviews – no matter what side of politics is under scrutiny.

I recently came across a little book she wrote in 2009 where she provides the background to her questioning that arises from possessing what she calls a doubtful mind – the desire to seek what is behind the certainty.

I was struck by her anecdote about Treasurer Wayne Swan in 2009, where he reportedly said

“If you are experiencing self-doubt, it means you are aware of vulnerabilities and sometimes I think that might be a bit better than people who just assume confidence in everything they do, full steam ahead”

The nature of the collaborative process for tackling complexity is one of emergence – where the central tenant is “not knowing”.

This nicely sums up the dilemma we see often, particularly with public sector clients, as they attempt collaborative processes to tackle some of the vexed and complex policy issues – doubt equals weakness.

As Leigh states in her book – “A leader (especially a politician) who expresses doubt is seen as indecisive rather than capable of nuanced thought and self-reflection. By contrast, certainty is considered a strength. The leader who acts from unwavering confidence appears forceful and trustworthy”.

So how to keep our leaders (and the participants) “safe” in a collaborative process, to be able to be vulnerable, listen and explore, when the natural tendency is to know the answer, or the question, or the direction?

I didn’t get any real clues from Leigh in how to shift that tendency, but our experience is that it comes from practice, when the individual finds out that people often appreciate authenticity over bluster.

So maybe Leigh is on to something here….

Perhaps self-doubt is a key capability for effective collaboration.

Collaborating upside down

If you wore glasses that made everything look upside down, how would you cope? This question is at the core of a famous set of experiments from the mid-20th century. You can find some information about that here or try this quaint video.

It turns out that at first the brain struggles to make sense of the upside-down view, but after a few days, something miraculous happens. The brain adjusts and upside down becomes the new normal.

To me this story is a good metaphor for learning to work differently with others. In my work with clients I often encourage them to “put on their collaborative goggles” after which they won’t be able to see the world the same way. It sounds easy, but I know that those collaborative goggles can be just as disorienting as if they turned the world upside down.

With the goggles on we see opportunities to collaborate everywhere, but our business as usual brains struggle to make sense of the vista. While we see an opportunity to be vulnerable, to express uncertainty and to invite people in to our dilemmas, our business as usual brain is telling us that we can’t talk to people until we ‘have all of our ducks lined up’, or that we need to create the plan and then ‘sell it’ to our stakeholders.

Initially, the collaborative world looks strange and unmanageable and we struggle to make it work. But after a while that miracle happens and our brains begin to adjust. It isn’t long before we stop noticing the newness and strangeness, and find ourselves operating in a very different way. Rather than tell we ask. Rather than solve problems and ‘roll out the solution’ we share dilemmas and invite others in to help. Rather than apply linear thinking we value emergence in the face of complexity.

And after a while we no longer need those goggles. We have rewired our brains and can never go back to the old ways.

So, put on those collaboration goggles. The world will look strange at first, but it won’t be long before you are seeing things you have never seen before.