What IS a collaborative mindset?

I’ve just read a couple of articles posted to LinkedIn today that, in different ways, are practical demonstrations of a collaborative mindset.

The first is an interview with Margaret Gardner AO on Australian Leadership. It’s a long interview but the three bits that caught my imagination were, firstly, that good leaders are generous. Margaret says “I think the truly remarkable thing (about examples of exceptional leadership) is the variety of ways exceptional leadership can be demonstrated.  But anyone who’s any good is generous. Leaders who make the biggest impact are generous in outlook and generous in how they work with others.”

Secondly Margaret makes the case for leaders who experiment. “I often feel we need to reignite the feeling of experiment and boldness.” She wants to hear leaders say “We could follow this bold new path because it would be consistent with what we think is a better life for our people or a better way of operating in the world.”

Finally Margaret refers to the person who “will cause the thing to happen, and in the end nobody is quite sure where it started because he doesn’t need to claim he started it but wants to make sure, with others, that it happens.”

Leaders who ... want to make things happen ... are willing not to have the answer but to experiment ... don’t look for accolades for what they do ... all demonstrate a collaborative mindset.

The second article is about someone I’d never heard of because I’m not a follower of sport. His name is Dwayne Casey, an American basketball coach who took his skills to Canada for seven years with significant success. In his seventh year, he led his team, the Toronto Raptors, to the best record in the NBA and won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award. However, two days later he was fired!

Instead of a frustrated or petulant response Dwayne sent a letter to the Toronto Star in which he thanked his team’s supporters without whom the team would not have been successful and he thanked Canadians for “teaching our all-American family the Canadian way. That being polite and considerate to one another is always the best way. That diversity is something to be embraced and celebrated. That taking the time to learn about each other’s cultures is the surest way to find common ground and understanding.”  The letter goes on to say how important it had been for Casey to raise his children “in a country that shows through its words, actions and laws that all people deserve basic human rights, and a chance to reach their goals through education and hard work.”

Casey showed respect for the opportunity he’d been given and the values of the country where he’d lived. He chose to go beyond basketball to a bigger picture. He opened his heart and mind to a positive response of gratitude.

 People who ... demonstrate respect for others’ values ... look for the bigger picture in adversity ... stay positive in negative situations .. also demonstrate a collaborative mindset. Without these characteristics, I can’t see how a leader could collaborate successfully.


Letting go of the need to know: an important water wise principle

I have been interested to read the IWA Principles for Water Wise Cities, designed to help leaders deliver safer water and sanitation through integrated planning. It is a great body of work with principles that I would endorse.

Yet there is one principle that I would add and it is let go of the need to know.

Let me present my argument:

The 17 IWA Principles are grouped in four logical levels of action. Each level represents a range of challenging issues and opportunities. Together, the four levels comprise a system of very high complexity and uncertainty, in which nobody has all the levers to hand and nobody has a complete understanding of how the whole system works.

And the thing about complex systems is that cause and effect is unknown and unknowable in advance. In other words, when managing a complex adaptive system, such as a city, its environment, politics and people, we can never know that if we take action X we will get outcome Y. We may in fact get Z. The complex realm is the realm of unintended consequences, unforeseen outcomes, side-effects and unwanted impacts.

For example, a government policy to invest in more affordable housing in a city drives residential development that then increases pressure on the city budget to build infrastructure to support new communities, which impacts decisions and budgets for basin planning and leads to long-term consequences for catchment management that the original social housing planners could never have dreamed of. And that’s just one policy of many.

In this space, water planners seek to make decisions and find solutions to drive better water outcomes. Yet it is clear that when working in complexity the desire to solve the problem is part of the problem.

My principle – to let go of the need to know - is about recognising that when facing complex urban water planning challenges, we don’t know the answer, because we CAN’T know the answer. We can’t even be sure what the problem is. But for deep experts brought up in an industry with 200 years of problem solving history, we rightly feel obliged to analyse, identify and solve.

This habit has two powerful impacts. Firstly, by imagining that we and our peers have the necessary expertise to solve problems we limit the experience, wisdom and insights that we draw on in finding solutions, thus hampering the innovation that the IWA Principles rightly identify as essential. We in fact become less expert by being ‘the expert’.

The second impact is on the all-important connections and relationships that integrated, systemic planning is built on. The more we imagine that we have things under control, the less we value the input of others. We might talk about working collaboratively, but if we feel that we are the experts why would we collaborate? From this mindset we constrain the collaboration and undermine the very relationships that ‘integration’ requires.

Collaborative water planning requires us to not know, because it is only from a position of not knowing can we authentically invite the rest of the system in to help us understand the problem and solve it together.

So, to be a true expert in integrated water planning, how to let go of the need to know is something you need to know.

Good luck.


Collaboration and a Doubtful Mind

I was reading a SMH article on the weekend about political backflips and how we might instead welcome changed minds  https://bit.ly/2whh65M,  and it reminded me of my recent blog about embracing self doubt.

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 (On Doubt) 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.


The Project Manager Trap Part 2

I recently wrote about the Project Manager Trap, where the skills we seek in our project managers don’t match those needed to deliver on complex projects. Too often, it seems, our aspiration to work collaboratively outstrips our capability to think and act collaboratively.

In this post I’m continuing that conversation with a few more sample skills I’ve pulled from current job ads in the water sector. If you want to know more take a look at our Collaboration Builder program, which is specifically designed to build 'collaborative muscles'.

A current employer is seeking someone with:

  1. Strong knowledge of strategic and technical solutions for water and sewerage

In a business as usual world the manager with this characteristic would say:

“I draw on my knowledge to quickly diagnose and solve problems as they come up, or to recognise when the team has found the way forward.”

But in the complex world of integrated water planning or catchment management the successful manager will say:

“I resist the urge I and others feel to solve the problem, rather bringing the players together to explore how we each experience the dilemma we need to tackle together. I openly acknowledge that even with our collective knowledge we can’t be confident how to approach this problem nor where best to start.”

  1. Strong project management skills

Typically this means:

“I make sure all the boxes are ticked, that good practice is followed and that we have our ducks lined up to ensure smooth progress.”

Whereas in the complex world we might need to think differently:

“Instead of being ruled by the project plan I embrace the emergent practice that complexity requires. I use my project management skills to help others be comfortable in the face of uncertain process, timeframes and outcomes, knowing this is the key to success.”

  1. Ability to balance competing demands and priorities in a sensitive environment

Again, the employer is probably expecting someone who says:

I juggle the competing demands and navigate the sensitivities to ensure outcomes are delivered on time.”

When in reality the collaborative thinking required would be more like:

I share the complexities and sensitivities with all collaborators, acknowledge I don’t know how best to prioritise, and work with them to navigate the way forward together. I embrace trial and error, recognising that we can’t be certain how best to do this.”

The difference between a traditional project management approach and the collaborative mindset is significant. As we move more into a world of integration and working ‘with’ others, we need to be recognising this and ensuring our people have the mindset and capabilities they will need in order to deliver what we ask of them.


Making a leadership choice

I’m just back from a fascinating 5 week exploration of Japan. During a train trip out of Kyoto I stopped briefly in the city of Gifu where, very close to the station, is a very handsome golden statue of a daimyo, or feudal lord, called Oda Nobunaga. Our guide that day explained that Nobunaga was one of three 16th century Japanese leaders who unified Japan. The other two were Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu whose Tokugawa family then ruled Japan until 1868.

Our guide described the leadership styles of these three unifying leaders in the following way:

  • If you disagreed with Oda Nobunaga he would kill you.
  • If you disagreed with Toyotomi Hideyoshi he would influence you through powerful argument.
  • If you disagreed with Ieyasu Tokugawa he would wait and work with you until you found common ground together.

This quick story resonated with me.  Three men with very different personal leadership styles all with a hand in unifying Japan. Together they achieved a very difficult task. Perhaps, individually, they wouldn’t have had the same longterm success.

When I returned to work this week, I found my colleague John Dengate, reading Adam Kahane’s book “Collaborating with the Enemy; how to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust”.  In Chapter 2 called “Collaboration is not the only option” Kahane describes four ways of approaching problematic situations:

  • Exiting unilaterally (or getting out) if we don’t believe we can change the situation and we can’t live with the situation as it is.
  • Adapting unilaterally to the situation if we can’t change it and need to find ways to live with it.
  • Forcing (the Nobunaga or the Hideyoshi approach) if we believe we have the power to change the situation ourselves without involving others.
  • Collaborating (the Ieyasu Tokugawa approach) when we believe we can change the situation but can’t do it alone; we must work with others to get essential outcomes.

Each approach is legitimate (well, perhaps not the killing bit in the 21st century).  The three Japanese leaders adopted their own style of leadership for better or worse.  However today, when facing a challenge we can choose, after asking ourselves key questions. Can we change the situation? Can we adapt to it? Can we influence or force the necessary change ourselves? If so, we can walk away from the situation, adapt to it, or force our own desired outcome.

If we believe we can change the situation, but need to do this with rather than to others, then we need to ask ourselves how do we step into a collaborative process?

Centuries apart, the options are very similar. Interesting isn’t it?


The Project Manager Trap

One of the most common things I see companies doing is asking their project managers, who are experienced and competent in one way of working, to lead complex, collaborative projects that require a very different approach. The outcome is stress and slow progress and a slide back to business as usual. It's a real trap.

I wonder if it is time to think differently about how and who we are recruiting and what we need to do to support them once they are in. To explore this question I’ve been looking at job ads for project managers in the water industry to see what skills they require of their candidates. Here are three, pulled verbatim off current job ads:

  1. Strong, broad knowledge of the water and wastewater industry;
  2. A proven track record in delivering on time and to budget;
  3. Advanced level of experience with risk analysis, mitigation and contingency planning.

These are from the water sector, but job ads from many other sectors would look very similar. When working on well-defined, technical projects with clear objectives and limited scope, you want a manager to demonstrate these attributes in a traditional way. So if you want someone to build a pipe from A to B, all is well.

But many of my clients find themselves facing situations that aren’t so straightforward. For example, what if we need to work across a whole catchment to co-create a strategy for improving water quality? Applied, traditionally these very skills and attributes get in the way of progress.

To illustrate, let’s take each of them one by one.

  1. Strong, broad knowledge of the water and wastewater industry;

When applied to a traditional project management situation with a complicated technical project this attribute might look like:

I draw on my experience to understand the problems we are facing and identify the best technical expertise we will need to solve the problem. I get the right people in the room.

But applied in a complex collaborative project this attribute should look something more like:

I acknowledge that I don’t know what the problem is nor how it should be solved. I recognise the knowledge and experience others hold and value it just as much as my own. I value lived (non-technical) knowledge. I tap into the experience of those from outside the industry, recognising that diversity brings innovation. I don’t know who the ‘right’ people are.

See the difference? What about the second one:

  1. A proven track record in delivering on time and to budget;

Again, applied in a complicated, technical context this might look like:

I focus on the Gantt chart and critical path. Getting the job done on time drives my actions so I manage things closely to ensure milestones are met.

On a complex project this would look something like:

I constantly share the challenge of time and budget with my collaborators and look to them to find ways to move ahead efficiently together. I continually invest time in relationships and building trust, knowing that we deliver faster when we are more able to work together.

And thirdly:

  1. Advanced level of experience with risk analysis, mitigation and contingency planning.

Traditionally applied: I use my skills to minimise risk through careful planning and implementation. Nothing happens without my say-so.

Yet we may need something more like: I recognise the risks inherent in this situation and apply a safe-to-fail approach to making progress, learning from ‘failure’ as much as from success. I reframe risk as inevitable uncertainty and build the confidence of my collaborators to work within this paradigm.

Looking over these three examples it is clear to me that our management skills can be applied in very different ways and are likely to have very different outcomes. If you are employing a project manager to lead a complicated technical task then go for someone who will take the traditional approach. But if you are seeking someone to lead a more collaborative approach in the face of greater complexity, you will need someone who thinks and acts quite differently. You will probably also need to redesign your performance management and reward system as well so that their different thinking is supported rather than stymied.

So which type of project manager do you need and have you trapped them or will you support them to work differently?


The Cost of Doing Things For Your Collaborators

If collaboration is about doing things with others, and command and control is doing things to others, what would you call doing things for others?

In my work helping leaders and teams collaborate, this question has emerged as a very important one, with real consequences for the practice. Collaborators know that they can’t do things to people and that working together means just that – doing things with. But what I see clients struggle with is the desire to help others, to do things for them.

That urge to summarise the discussion or to put together and circulate the agenda or to source the experts or find the next venue or to show them how to make decisions together or to stop them arguing or…. you name it. It’s a powerful inclination, but it comes with a risk.

Every parent knows that to rescue your child from any struggle is to limit their opportunity to learn and grow the skills they need. The learning comes from working it out, not from having Mum and Dad do it on your behalf, unless the learning is about how to be helpless.

It’s much the same with collaborative groups. The more they are rescued from their struggles the more they risk being denied the very opportunity they need to learn what this collaboration thing is all about and how to do it together. Every time we make a decision on their behalf or take an action to help them along, we may be undermining the very thing we seek to grow; the collective capability to solve problems together.

Watching clients struggle with this I have learned the power of stepping back. For when we step back we create the space for others to step forward. In stepping forward the group assumes control and the accountability and ownership control brings. They build their confidence and capability to do this work together. They may even decide they don’t need you anymore.

If you want your collaborators to learn to depend on you and to sit back and let you do it, just keep rescuing them. But if you want your collaborators to build their muscles and their mindset, let them work it out. Doing things for others feels right, but letting them do it can be much more empowering.


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….