And yet this theme was around all along. My entire life through.
From the moment when facing my plate with avid eyes, I heard “don’t have eyes bigger than your stomach”. Right there! The tone was set, the message settled: “how much can you handle?”
And yet this ‘aha moment’ stayed all mysterious until not so long ago. Even when I heard about the ‘harvest’ that people carefully planned for in their meetings and events, I remained circumspect, having seen the two extremes of the spectrum from ‘document all the way to your death’ all the way down to ‘why bother to keep any trace?’.
And just to be clear, I’m talking here about (sending and) harvesting knowledge/information from interactions…
Harvesting is a measure of how intentional our learning is.
You don’t harvest too much, because you know the practice of harvesting actually comes at a cost (to harvest and to use), and you don’t want to exhaust the sources of bounty either.
You don’t harvest too little, otherwise you have no grain to plant the next season, ie. no learning to re-inject in the mix.
So here you are, contemplating how much there is to harvest. From an event, a collective process. How much information can we deal with.
It has implications all around:
From how much is put in presentations vs. what can realistically be absorbed / processed by the audience
From interview protocols that are extractively collecting everything a whole set of researchers might want to collect data from vs. how much matters for the people being interviewed and how much will trickle back to them
From evaluation forms that contain all the pet questions that organisers want to add, vs. what will in all likelihood be addressed from this time to the next
From meetings that intend to gather all flipchart sheets (or these days Murals or Google slides or Miro sheets or whatever) vs. what participants and organisers alike might want to do with that data
From conversations where one person starts getting oblivious to the pace at which others are soaking up their thoughts vs. an open-ended, curiosity-laden, half-lazy half-astute ‘unhurried’ conversation where people are in it for a genuinely bohmian dialogue
From advices given to everyone, children, staff, managers, parents, family, friends, vs. what these people are genuinely ready to hear and use
From strategy processes where all kinds of signals are being heard and could legitimately shape the new agenda, vs. what makes more sense or is more digestible
Mindless design, mindless practices about harvest. I have been guilty of this. I am seeing it now. And by the same token, I realise how I got it wrong. It’s always about the receiving end. It’s not you who has to plan the harvest, it’s whoever can most effectively use that information.
It is high time we paid attention to how much we are harvesting, ie. how much we are giving others. The great wise men of old, the buddhist monks and all the rest of them have known all along: it’s not about sharing your wisdom or collecting more answers, it’s about asking next questions that can guide us and others in our life…so let’s make our next harvest a mindful one…
That’s discipline, and determination, rolled into one grit wrap!
And for the cool gang that is used to sitting at the back of the room, making smart comments, it may look uncool, but there’s no amount of coolness that will replace that fact: your extraordinary powers and skills come from long-term dedication and discipline into practice. Not from making smart comments from the back of the class without ever getting your hands dirty.
You may frown at people planning too much and instead enjoy being ‘happy go lucky’. I feel I’m falling into that trap occasionally too, but frankly, in my fields (collaboration, knowledge management, process design and facilitation) all the most inspiring, amazing and humbling people I’ve met were all great because they were smart, but particularly thanks to the work they put in through their grit.
The truth is, grit sounds like a lot of work – and it is – but eventually, it’s what guides you to experience, expertise and wisdom (along with a few other things) and more surprisingly, it’s your ticket to letting go… Having determination and discipline means you can increasingly go off your script and into the madness of LIVE action!
So let’s stop marvelling at the lazy gifted and let’s trust people with grit and wits to find creative ways forward!
That’s it, we’ve started that amazing slow-thinking and triple loop journey to make sense of this incredible transition and challenge that we are facing. We had our first session last Monday and it was intense. Because this transition journey is intense… Really intense… Not least emotionally.
We are grappling with all kinds of signals and drives: sadness, elation, excitement, fear, confusion, anger, dumbfounded-ness, happiness, fatigue, despair, grief, hope, admiration, denial, curiosity, envy, self-pitying, encouragement, optimism, compassion, hallucination, enthusiasm, cynicism, delirium, humility, acceptance… it’s a whirlwind of feelings out there and in here, in our hearts, minds and souls. This oozing well of emotions has opened as it dawns upon us that not only are we not coming back to the ‘old’ normal, but the transition to a new normal will actually be long-lasting, not a thing of days, weeks and months, but of years, and perhaps even decades, for all we know.
Our physical distancing means that we are more than ever dependent on each other in more subtle ways than we would have ever considered otherwise. To quote someone I just talked to this morning:
I’m getting tired of online meetings and chats but that’s all we’ve got!
And by the way I really, really feel for all those locked down alone, in deep isolation, even more so for those who are possibly grieving in silence and solitude now.
Our salute relies on our ability to connect and remain emotionally connected with each other. Because making sense of things is just too confusing and too hard. Taking care of each other, that’s the safest, and perhaps wisest, bet we can make for now.
The one element, the ring of power, that binds us (nearly) all is our emotional intelligence, or even further: our emotional literacy. Our capacity to understand our and others’ emotions and act upon them.
Which is also another major reason why I just really can’t stand Donald Chump (my new nickname, which is actually way too darling for this GDMFSOB) for being such a cruelly empathy-devoid psychopathic @sshole. But I digress here…
Our online world is supposed to allow us to work through these emotions just as gracefully (or not) as we can offline.
What seems like a fundamental transition, or need for transition, is our ability to ramp up our emotional literacy. That’s our ticket to resilience in these tumultuous times.
Now dig this for a starter:
So here we are. Having no other choice, and hopefully no preferred direction against toxic masculinities and the likes…
MeToo + COVID19 + climate change (and the combined effect on online meetings) = the dawn of emotional literacy… ? Could that be true? It’s about time. It’s a crucial element of process literacy generally…
What is sure is that in our online interactions, whether in a family, friends’ or working context, we need to be able to feel, deeply experience, name, share, honour, welcome, amplify, dim, adapt our emotions and those of others. That is one of the beautiful opportunities offered by this transition that we are all going through.
And that is hard.
Because accepting our emotions is not a given. Let alone accepting those of others. Let alone accepting those ‘difficult behaviours’ that brush us the wrong way. Yet that’s our ticket to remaining hopeful and together as one species facing one of the steepest challenges of our times (masking the even bigger one of climate change)…
Luckily, on this perilous journey, we are also helped by other emerging facts such as a welcome informality ubiquitously fuelled by the presence of our interiors, tastes, relatives and pets.
We may be clueless as to where we are or where we’re headed. But so long as we’re together, and we model, mould and muster a better together, we’re on the right track.
In her preface to a great series of posts on moving online in pandemic, our iconic and highly inspirational friend Nancy White made this revealing statement:
In typical Nancy fashion I jumped into action, started up an email list, opened a Google Doc to share resources, responded to individual requests for help. Boing, boom, zip, zap!
(And she goes on to suggest precisely slowing down).
The point is: in the face of a crisis, or a situation that requires an immediate reaction, we tend to flee or fight, or indeed to freeze, not to fall back, free ourselves from that frame and feel or think about the situation. When it’s a matter of immediate life and death, fleeing or fighting makes sense.
But when it’s not the case, taking a step back could actually be the better option.
In the wake of the pandemic that is sweeping the globe, and the ensuing confinement, many people have had to learn how to move, work and collaborate online. Managers, managees (ha ha), independents, we’re all jumping into the pool and learning how to swim the online waters…
Great! As I said previously, this is actually a very promising premise for the future of our collaboration, including face-to-face. But there is also an incredibly powerful transition at play here, and we’re too busy making that transition to actually learn and document how that transition is really taking place in a mindful way. Who is doing that process documentation?
And why bother documenting this? This triple loop learning (learning how we learn) matters because it can give us incredibly powerful insights into our changing patterns in the face of a crisis – this pandemic has had incredible effects on our ability to tackle some global challenges like drug trafficking, but also on our ability to adapt to change. And adapting to change we are. See this below…
Thinking about this transformation is a temporary slowing down of our pace to realise what is really happening, in order to collectively accelerate our learning and get better able at wondering about the right questions.
And there are many many interesting questions to explore in this. Here are just a few I can think of, off the bat:
What is it we really want to know and get better at?
How do we know what we need to adopt, adapt, cherish, change, let go?
How are we making space for novel practices?
How much practice and stock taking does it take to be able to draw our lessons?
How are we bringing useful novel practices to stability and maturity?
How useful can an ‘ecocycle planning’ lens to our work be in this world of change?
How are we sharing our insights on the transformation?
How do we try to ensure that our true and tested insights are potentially put in practice by others around us?
What is/are the scale/s of change we are focusing on from the micro to the macro scale?
How much do we rely on ourselves individually as opposed to e.g. the power of feedback and external observation to inform our learning?
How frequently are we looking at the changes we’re going through?
How intensely are we looking at it? How frankly are we looking at it?
How are we putting into practice the insights we’ve gathered with every cycle?
What indicates we are on the right path, what are our measures, metrics or sensory means to know we’re on the right path?
How do we most effectively tease out useful lessons when collaboration takes two to tango and it’s difficult to untangle what’s the result of our practice and what’s the result of the others’ dance?
What is the best environment for us to reflect on and learn about changing practices? What can help with that?
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.