Our social interactions have started to change. The result of social – oops, physical – distancing:
My social stream is full of anecdotes relating to this new social reality. Amidst this novel situation, people are subtly taking notice of some interesting process aspects…
A small interaction that made me smile this morning: A team member who is based in a different country and thus always works remotely with our otherwise co-located team was excited this morning that: “Now…
And in so doing, I won’t restrict this write up to the case of ‘Liberating Structures’ as such but to the broader case of ‘facilitated collaboration’ because the same criticisms can largely be applied. I’ve skipped the ones specifically about Liberating Structures.
Criticism: (facilitated collaboration) takes away all my control
Cure: Nancy is right on asking ‘so what’? and ‘do you like to be controlled, yourself?’. Most of us don’t like it. The thing is, it’s also not just a question of control or not control, it’s a question of making that notion of control explicit or not. In many cases, the people in charge know (or will eventually decide) whether they retain control over things or not. But for the other people in the room, when that is not clear, it creates a high transaction cost for participation.
And also – crucially: it’s about the dynamics you’re engaging with. If your point is simply to pass on some information to people, you can retain the control. If you are however genuinely interested in solving a problem together, control has to be shared. ‘Want to go fast, go alone; want to go far, go together’ and all that…
For me this also relates to a final point: if we are interested in connecting all nodes of our collective brain together, then we have to make that possible by illuminating those nodes, giving them the means or creating the space and time to empower themselves – and that rubs against control once again. Control is fine, for small, petty challenges. The real ‘wicked’ problems of our times, the ones that require true collaboration, they cannot be addressed with control, but with the magical combination of our energies and possibilities, when everyone plays like a jazz ensemble ‘in the groove’…
Criticism: Meetings are fundamentally a waste of time. I don’t need to learn how to design and run better meetings, I just need to get rid of all of them.
Cure: ‘Purpose’ says Nancy, as in ‘mind your purpose’ and she’s totally right! What happens with a lot of meetings is that they are called for without a clear idea of what needs to happen, without an approach to design and process them, and they tend to rely on ‘how we have run meetings thus far’ rather than ‘what are the outcomes we (should) strive for, and what does it take to achieve our intended outcomes’?
Like so many other examples (Powerpoint presentations, annual reports, team building exercises, participatory projects etc.), bad meetings give a bad name to meetings. Meetings are not bad in and of themselves. Bad practices about them have contributed to entrench a durable bitter taste about them.
The reality of collaboration around complex issues is that meetings are key moments that reveal the health and sanity of any group working together. Such meetings require that purposefulness, strong design, and to be honest in many cases they may require quite some meetings. We can’t oversimplify the nature of some of our endeavours.
The seed of hope is in how we are conceiving of our meetings: the what, the why, the how, the who etc. And that is where facilitated collaboration can unlock incredible potential.
Criticism: As an NGO or international development organization, we don’t have the luxury of going to capacity building workshops. We are too busy address others’ capacity building needs.
Cure: Nancy addressed most of this in her response. I would simply add that this has much to do with prioritising what really matters and strong time management accordingly. Identify what you really want to do/achieve, what you want to let go of, and once you have found your sweet spot, invest in your own capacity (as group, team, organisation, network etc.) to make it happen. And think creatively about how capacity development happens. It doesn’t need to be training, it can be about tapping into the positive deviants’ practice within your group (and you can even use one Liberating Structure to explore that: Discovery Action Dialogue).
Criticism: People are getting totally annoyed with me breaking them down into groups, doing 1-2-4-All and all that. Come on!
Cure: That is a common issue, and boils down to various degrees and shapes of ‘resistance’: resistance to change, resistance to interactions with strangers, resistance to new habits, resistance to what might be assimilated to ‘un-serious, unworthy, un-professional’, resistance to structure (as opposed to the ‘open discussion’ for instance).
There are various degrees of solutions to these layers of resistance, from getting people slowly used to feeling ever so slightly uncomfortable with subtle change, to letting people play with their own theories and getting them to see (and believe), to removing the formality or ritualisation of facilitation (or even the process scaffolding of explaining what a given participatory format is called etc.). This is what Anna Jackson was also suggesting in a recent interview about dealing with resistance to Liberating Structures.
Criticism: Complexity is a buzzword or indicates a mess so big we can’t deal with it. I’m done with complexity.
Cure: Yes I can totally relate to the eyes rolling when hearing complexity converts open up the book of their prophecies etc. The point is though, that complexity is real, pervading all aspects of our lives, and we have been exposed to many of its manifestations:
Today’s (complex) problems cannot be solved with yesterday’s solutions – no need for a blueprint…
Patterns repeat themselves across scales and give us some indications about how the complex world evolves.
We don’t need to complexify things, but we also can’t afford to dumb things down either (remember Albert Einstein).
Perhaps the point here is to agree to navigate between over complexifying and over simplifying. And not get too hung up on complexity in itself, but recognising that it is there, somehow. And perhaps giving a go at complexity-friendly ways to collaborate (such as with Liberating Structures).
Criticism: Yeah, it was great at our retreat, but we go back to our old habits
Cure: This is a problem I really struggle with. Perhaps I don’t work consciously enough on the participants’ profile, their ‘home’ (/work) reality, the questions they’re grappling with etc. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that I interact with many groups for just one event (or another one the next year/s) without having the liberty to check how things are evolving.
Perhaps change is happening but we are just not well equipped to make sense of it all and to sense how it is coming about. People change their ideas without revealing what’s going on in their mind. They change habits in very subtle, almost invisible ways. And we tend to expect, and look for, sensational changes. Like any behaviour change work, it simply takes time.
For sure there are some solutions in the LS repertoire, but more about that in the upcoming online dialogue with Nancy and Nadia…
Collaboration often starts off from a place where a collection of relatively self-centred individuals decide to work together.
The self-centredness is not a problem per se, it’s a fact. Though I was recently reminded in a Blink about ‘Ego is the enemy‘ that one can be unreasonably self-centred too but that’s a digression). In any collaborative, we have our personality and our individual experience, set of interests and motivation… there is a whole lot of things that matter… to ourselves.
We essentially live the beginning of that collaboration as a gallery of ‘me’s‘ wandering about and trying to achieve what is at stake for ourselves to start with.
Then time kicks-in, slows things down, slows us down and gets us to see a whole new playing field, Patterns emerge. The relationships we cultivate as part of a collaboration evolve just like that, with a different time frame than that required by what that collective wants to do.
In that derailing time frame, a click happens. As we work together, talk together, reflect on ourselves and our actions together, we start opening up, we make ourselves more vulnerable, we develop empathy.
And this recent post by Melinda Gates in my news stream just captures one of the key values of empathy:
Empathy leads to listening—and listening leads to understanding. (A conversation with Oprah is good for the soul. https://m-gat.es/2DBZG53)
Through empathy, we are not only being respectful for each other’s ideas, we start getting genuinely interested in finding out what others have to say, and who they are. Another recent post in my stream is chiming in on this point:
When Me flips to We, if we have developed some process literacy, we start supporting each other not just individually, for one another, but also for the collective interest. It’s no longer just about understanding everyone individually in the collaborative, it’s also about helping everyone connect to what the group is doing, and helping the group accommodate all its individuals. A dual game that again rests in empathy and the emotional, mental and moral support we provide for each other. (As it happens, in a recent study group session of the above-mentioned Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration training, I was a first-hand witness of that phenomenon).
It could almost be summed up by an equation:
Empathy + Process literacy = Effective collaboration
Of course my point here is certainly not to obliterate individual points of views and the expertise that everyone brings. On the contrary, I’m advocating for everyone to share their expertise, their superpowers, and to mobilise them in the service of the collective, not of our Ego.
On this note, watch this funny video about having quality collaboration vs. uninformed/inexperienced collaboration:
Now, a football game is one thing. Collaborating on some of the wickedest problems is another. And in the latter case we usually do need more than a few experts.
In any case now we know there are at least two things any of us involved in collaboration can work on: Stretch our empathy (and that takes some personal introspection – my next post) and develop our process literacy.
Not bad a start considering the tough challenges around us. So let’s go!
So the balance should weigh in favour of more listening, right? Isn’t that where most gains can be achieved?
Yet, upon closer inspection, this question is thornier than first meets the eye.
Expanding our listening ability
Listening does require efforts. Active listening does anyhow. That is, listening with a real intent to understand what the other person is saying. A brilliant little piece came up in my news stream this week, in relation with an interview of Melinda Gates by Oprah Winfrey:
Empathy leads to listening—and listening leads to understanding. A conversation with Oprah is good for the soul. https://m-gat.es/2DBZG53
In collaboration listening is about cultivating a genuine curiosity and interest. Not just politely waiting your turn to say what’s on your mind again. And collaboration definitely needs a lot of listening. It’s no wonder that listening is often earmarked as one of the most important top leadership skills. High performers have mastered the art of listening, because they’ve understood it’s their door to getting as much insight as possible, their treasure trove of great ideas, spectacular solutions, and antidotes to ongoing problems.
So yes, we all do need to get better at listening. And that comes with purposeful practice.
But that’s only half of the story when it comes to collaboration.
Finding our right talking pitch
Indeed, if we all just listened to each other, there wouldn’t be any conversation to listen to.
We also need talkers, we need to talk. But not just anywhere, anytime, with anyone. It’s not about blabbering out and unidirectional logorrhoea… Talking is paradoxically even more difficult a balance to strike than listening, because we all talk pretty much every day, and as a result we all have an innate belief that we know how to talk effectively. And more to the collaborative point here, we all assume we talk respectfully to other people. Most of the time we probably don’t even think a second about that.
But what does it take to talk respectfully in collaboration?
It’s letting others find space to talk too. Not dominating that space so other voices can be heard.
And at the same time it’s ensuring that you get to speak up your mind, because you’re also one of the voices in the room. Your voice counts just as much. So you need to feel free to talk too.
For some that can be intimidating, because it gets us out of comfort zone of a head-to-head one-on-one conversation, yet talking is essential. Otherwise it means you’re also leaving your part of the story behind. Back to monologues or monochromatic narratives.
Talking in collaboration is about allowing your voice to join the chorus of other voices to form music. We need the whole orchestra to perform a true concerto.
Towards a T-shaped talking-listening balance then?
So essentially, if you talk quite a bit already, learn to silence yourself and listen more carefully.
If you don’t talk much, learn to get used to hearing your own voice in public, and to dare speaking up your mind. There might be the seed of a brilliant idea in those words you’re keeping for yourself.
And whatever happens, we can all always get better at listening so double down on it!
All of this boils down to a T-shaped profile: keep talking about what you know and are interested in: that’s the long leg of the T. But also cultivate curiosity and listening to find out what drives your collaborators: that’s the two arms of the T.
Collaboration feeds off of empathetic dialogue. And that is not a secret now, is it?
My former employer’s Director General used to say, almost ad nauseam:
‘always assume good intent’
At some point, it kind of became formulaic.
No one seemed to be listening to that particular message of his any more. And the gossips and rumours went on as they always do – and indeed always did.
But the point he was making was excellent and deserved more attention and more intention.
A marker of good collaboration: We have to assume good intent from our partners. Trust is a bridge made of mutual vulnerability, openness, interest and indeed good intention vis-a-vis one another.
Strong collaboration doesn’t work when you suspect something is off or fishy at every turn of the way. And if suspicion looms in, use it as a great opportunity to strengthen the collaboration by exploring these snags together.
Sometimes the motivation behind our partners’ actions, words, plays is not entirely revealed to us. Sometimes not at all, even. But when we’re serious about collaboration, we can’t draw conclusions too quickly, we can’t act rashly in the face of an ill-understood turn of events, and we certainly can’t jump the guns around.
Every time we act impulsively on the basis of our partners’ hidden motives, we risk undoing the slow, careful, tended growth of our building trust with them. Collaboration -for important and/or complex issues- is just too important to come down to petty toddler reactions. So we all need to learn to hold our breath, keep calm, assume positive intent, and have a useful conversation to clarify matters.
There are people that use quotes for just about anything. It becomes a language in and of itself, and it then often feels like a dysfunctional marketing discourse, devoid of any meaning that was contained in the quotes originally.
Yet a good quote is worth a lot. It’s like a picture but in words – it’s worth 1000 other words – and if it’s a really good quote, you keep discovering different layers of meaning to it.
As I embark today on this new series – which may never go very far – about the ‘little secrets of collaboration’, here is a first post, encapsulated in one quote that I cherish:
The implications of this saying are profound both in positive and in negative ways. And somehow – perhaps the result of my recent gender bias – it’s got to do with cultivating empowerment among the people we live and work with.
In a positive light, ‘how you make me feel’ is about all the little signs and attentions that give you the impression you are seen, heard, respected, invited, embraced, honoured, appreciated – and it’s also the stuff of the great leaders that inspire you to transform yourself and your surroundings, that give make you believe that ‘the impossible is possible’ (I just watched ‘Mary Poppins returns’ and I can’t recommend it enough), and that you can play a role in it.
In a negative light, ‘how you make me feel’ is about all the little snarky comments; it’s the faces that frown and make you feel insecure about yourself because they seem so disappointed themselves watching you; it’s the consistent putting you away in a corner and doing it themselves because blatantly they just don’t trust you… and it goes all the way to the downright toxic comments that “you will never make it”, “you are stupid” and more. All these negative behaviours might still just about work for a short-term ‘contractual’ type of relationship, but certainly not for a partnership that is meant to develop over time and/or achieve great things.
In a recent assignment I realised – alas from the negative side – how true this saying is, and how I actually don’t want to work with people that make me feel disempowered. For short assignments, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much, but certainly it does matter a great deal to me for more regular contact and work with such people.
So sharpen your radar for each other’s empathy, because that’s the stuff of true collaborators, and of collaborations that bring true change about.
I hope 2019 brings you health and well-being, happiness, peace, fun, inspiration and success!
I also hope it brings you and us all lots of opportunities to get better at feedback. Both giving and receiving it. When I developed my motto ‘fun, focus and feedback‘, I didn’t expect that this third word would weigh so heavily not only in my life but in my practice and that of people I support.
Feedback seems like its a formality; Such a small thing and yet is can be so powerful that it is a heresy to ignore it.
This year offers a great opportunity for me to work on feedback too as I’m developing a plan with some colleagues to strengthen the culture of giving and receiving feedback in that organisation.
And on that note, let me share fragments of a rationale for feedback:
[start of segment]
Feedback is a crucial source of learning
Receiving feedback is a great way to understand both what one is doing very well (and should keep doing) and which ‘improvables’ someone has. How ‘what we do’ is received by others is not always known or apparent to us. Feedback makes those unclear or hidden effects come to the fore. It is thus a great way to get us out of ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ and to be more intentional on behaviours and activities that matter.
In the process we potentially improve in a number of ways:
In our technical skills and expertise (knowing what works and what doesn’t);
In our communication skills and understanding of each other;
In the way our individual role and responsibilities impacts collective performance.
Not only is this a useful source for individual development, but it is also a very welcome boost to the entire group (or organisation)’s ability to cope with fast changing conditions. A fast-paced world requires short feedback loops that help any collective of people track the direction of things in a more conscious manner.
It is all the more normal that interpersonal feedback contributes to this ability to see opportunities and risks more quickly.
Feedback thus makes business sense.
Mutual feedback is a powerful source of trust
The practice of giving and receiving feedback is not straightforward. A lot of sensitive interpersonal dynamics is involved in it. And that is beneficial for ourselves as individuals and as a whole collective:
Accepting and showing our vulnerability develops our humility and empathy – essential proxies for developing trust, a critical driver of high performing teams;
Being able to talk about problems helps us being uncompromising with the issues we really need to focus on, and can develop our sense of solidarity towards the challenges we face;
Acknowledging mistakes or even failures, accepting one’s share of responsibility and the consequences of ‘incidents’ we have caused fasten our learning and create an environment where progressively everyone becomes mutually accountable;
In addition, for the people giving feedback, the very act of giving feedback stimulates:
Using sharper language – which leads to becoming clearer on where we put our intent and efforts;
Not shying away from difficult conversations – even if that can take some time to build up;
Our own creativity to find constructive solutions to the behavioral issues we are seeing in ourselves and around us.
[end of segment]
It comes as no surprise then that the excellent ‘Thanks for the feedback…’ has become one of the cornerstone books in this effort.
The really helpful premise of this book is that it focuses not so much on how we give feedback but on how we receive it and how we can get much better at that.
My head is still boggling about the relation that some people can have with time. Particularly about what they do with time, this fascinating uber-theme of humanity alongside with love, death and the meaning of life.
I’ll be blogging a couple of posts about time. Starting today with this: the little extra time that smart workers and seasoned KMers take to invest in ‘meta’ reflexes and the world that offers.
What is this ‘meta’ world? The world that is visible with one step back, or aside, or with a helicopter view, or with your third eye. Essentially the vision you get when you step out of your ‘here and now’ and realise there is something important you can do about it for the future – to avoid a Groundhog Day scenario. And here is how it plays out:
Imagine you’re trying to fix a problem, dealing with a crisis, or even just replying to someone, responding to a query, thinking about a possible solution. Most people deal with the issue at hand. That’s great already!
But if your KM meta reflex kicks in, all of a sudden you see another arc:
Hold on a minute! Is this a one-off? Or something likely to happen again? What can I do here and now that will not only help in the moment, but save time for me, and possibly others, in the future?
THAT is the meta reflex that gives you an edge. And it’s personal knowledge mastery at work. It is to knowledge management what meditation is to life. It’s the open secret that helps you avoid the hole in the road. Repeatedly.
Through a practice that I set up a while back with some ideas gleaned here and there (“Steal with pride”, rightfully encourages Chris Collison), I reflect everyday on what worked or didn’t, and every week I also reflect on what I did in the week that helps me get more productive and successful in the future. That weekly look back is my moment of dedication to the meta reflex. At least that. Hardly any week I haven’t e.g. set up a list about xyz, developed a template for abc, cooked up a blog post that I can point back at when people ask me about ___, thought of standard questions for a given context etc.
Sometimes it takes just 30 sec, sometimes 5 minutes, sometimes a whole hour. But the payoff is huge. It means I’m better prepared. I’m mentally sharper. And I avoid some crisis scenarios in the future and having to deal again with the same issue.
A related thought: At the moment, I’m also working on the culture of feedback in the organisation I’m part of (and realise how useful ‘fun, focus and feedback‘ is, as a motto). Just like the more you practice giving and receiving feedback, the better you get at it, so too with practicing your meta reflex. It’s a muscle. Go to the gym, and better still: use every single opportunity to use it in your life!
Last week I was invited to help a group unravel the mysteries of knowledge management. It was a great opportunity to intervene both as facilitator and subject matter specialist.
Triggered by the opportunity to connect with my main area of expertise I quickly realised I was hit by the ‘curse of knowledge’ ie. how could I sum up something as complex as knowledge management and something that I have worked on for the past 15 years or so in one presentation (even though we unpacked various aspects of this through the entire workshop)?
I decided not to look closely at the typical KM approaches and tools – from communities of practice to social media, from facilitated participation formats to information systems – but rather to frame everything around the motto of “Knowledge management is a mindset”. In some ways, I thereby echoed Knoco’s definition of KM as “The way we manage our organisation when we understand the value of knowledge”.
And in order to fully appreciate every slide on this presentation, mind the presentation notes that are in the outline of the presentation on Slideshare and explain every bit of information.
In the process it was really helpful to have to challenge myself going through the references and bookmarks that I have about this topic, and to find out that quite a few of my go-to references are also a bit out of date.
Many more reflections are cropping out on the basis of this workshop – I will try and process a couple on this blog over the next few days and weeks… starting with: what is the minimum you can do when you think there’s really no time for KM…
Meanwhile, while I know this presentation is far from touching upon every important aspect, let me know what you think 😉
In the process of unearthing new ideas, though, we sometimes lose the plot a bit.
One of the (relatively) recent sources of innovations is to look into failures and celebrating failures through failure fairs and the likes etc. Great idea indeed if you pitch this well – although I seem to recall from the excellent Leaders in learning podcast series some dissonant experiences on fail fairs too, along the lines of ‘you need to set them up well’ etc. or they amount to a contest of platitudes. But granted: there is something interesting about failing.
The point, however, is that: it’s not about the failing, it’s about the learning. Failing as such is not great. But the learning that comes from failing can be extremely powerful.
Episode 1, How to Disagree: A Beginner’s Guide to Having Better Arguments – BBC Radio 4 https://buff.ly/2wfGR3a #ConversationalLeadership
I went on to check the link – and listen to all five episodes of this podcast. Over the series, the author really made her point more clearly and convincingly that disagreements (like failures) can be a rich source of insights and ideas.
But when I stumbled upon the link first, and the first episode of the series, I couldn’t help but feel awkward at the thought of disagreements.
Disagreements are not the end goal.
What is the end goal, for collaboration etc. to work, is for people to disclose their opinion, their true identity, their feelings, their half-baked ideas, and to struggle through the process to also understand each other and progressively emerge with shared meaning (something which, incidentally, the same David Gurteen recently covered in his blook ‘Conversational leadership’).
Disagreement is, at best, an abrasive way of bringing some good ideas to the fore. But in terms of group development it’s far from being a panacea.
Don’t most disagreements end up rather sharpening our arguments than our ideas?
Does an argument bring the best feelings to the foreground?
Is it the most effective technique (so, purely from a technical point of view) to help the entire group find constructive ways to collaborate, in the longer run?
Does disagreement help build confidence among group members, and does it contribute to a group ‘gelling’? In and of itself?
I’m not so sure.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that disagreement is a) unavoidable, b) potentially extremely useful, c) potentially really destructive too and d) best facilitated, so that it remains a disagreement only for ever so long as it needs, and it helps move towards a renewed understanding of views and positions again – a prelude to constructive group co-creation and group (collaboration) development.
Disagreement is not the goal. It’s one of the ugly ‘necessary evils’ in a group’s life, every now and then. But it’s not the holy grail, the end destination.
Don’t let your thirst for new, sexy ideas distract you from the longer game.