Can you Collaborate?

Collaboration is everywhere. Companies are seeking to collaborate with others to develop their brand. As team members we are urged to collaborate with other teams so that we can better serve our customers. Large public sector contracts are requiring the competitor teams to work collaboratively together on the project and to demonstrate competence in collaboration before the contract is awarded.

Meeting TableBut do we really get what this means to us as individuals? Do we recognise what we need to change in our behaviour so we are seen as someone who can be collaborative?

Probably in answering these questions your responses are positive. Who would not want to be collaborative? It has become one of those characteristics like communication that everyone believes they do well but equally complains that everyone else does badly!

At the heart of our challenge with collaboration is that although we think we want to collaborate we have a deep grained tendency towards competition and to wanting to win. This desire to win can mean that we inadvertently do things which cause the collaborative relationships we have been building to break down. We cannot resist the desire to show that it was our unique contribution/idea that allowed the team to be successful. We do this even when it means the others in our team will appear less effective. As a facilitator I will often be asked to observe team working on real or simulated problems and am always fascinated to see how any element of competition will hinder attempts at collaboration. The team just wants to do whatever will lead them to be successful at the task in the short term.

So what is it that is needed to make collaboration more possible? The key to this is the ability to trust others. We need to trust that the others in our team will put the urge to win aside and will do the right thing for the team even at the cost of their own personal gain.

How do you know you can trust others? How do you make sure that they behave in the interests of the team?

The short (and I know rather disappointing) answer to this is that you can’t. You cannot make others do anything. How they behave in a collaborative relationship will be in reaction to your own behaviour and this is the part you can control. This means that the more useful question to ask about collaboration is “what can I do to be seen as trustworthy?”

In the past trust was always seen as something that took time to build up. Recent insights from Swift Trust Theory have indicated that this is not always the case. In reality a lot of trust comes about through our actions and this is something we can control.

The three main actions you can take to build up your reputation for being trustworthy (and therefore someone I would want to collaborate with) are:

  • Do what you say you will do, when you said you would do it
  • Share what you know with others
  • Do your job well, be competent

This sounds simple but these building bricks start to build up the trust relationship and from this you have the basis of an excellent collaborative working relationship.

The extent of collaboration in organisations is growing and so we may also need in our own organisations to create the right conditions to make it possible for teams to collaborate.

There are four key areas to work on with your teams:

  1. Agree ways of working – it is vital to be clear about who does what, what the expectations are for how things are done.
  2. Define and Share Goals – there will be shared goals for the project but also different team members have different goals. Being open about these personal goals helps each party to get what they need from the collaboration
  3. Manage Behaviour – we all think we are trustworthy, we all think we are great listeners, we all think we are open to feedback but the truth is often very different. We need to support teams to address behaviour and increase the self-awareness within the team.
  4. Review and Reflect on Practice – collaboration needs practice so your teams need to take stock of what went well by conducting a structured lessons learnt review.

leavesMost importantly teams need time to support them in becoming collaborative. Sharing information with others, discussing joint plans, identifying personal objectives, all of this is time consuming. The final goal will be a richer outcome but there will be short term pain which will sabotage the collaborative working unless we recognise this by allocating more initial start-up time for our project teams. A great example of where this valuable time made a huge difference to a start up project is in our case study.

To return to the question of can you collaborate? There are some important things you can do to manage your collaborative behaviour by recognising how strong your competitive desire to win is and looking at ways in which you can rein this in! You can start developing your trustworthy behaviour so people want to collaborate with you and finally you can give others and demand for yourself the time and space to work in a collaborative manner.

Our facilitation team are skilled in working with teams to encourage greater collaboration. Do contact us for a chat!

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Peeping Upwards Above Our Silos: the process of inter-disciplinary working

Diverse skills working together in valuable ‘white space’

As Facilitators we enjoy the stretching challenges we encounter as we strive to help people by providing appropriate processes to achieve ambitious goals. Recently we have successfully provided facilitation in situations where people are engaging ways of working to elevate themselves out of their usual silos into valuable ‘white space’ to create breakthrough or ‘holistic’ solutions. We know there is both a need and benefit for people with diverse skills to work together in some form of ‘higher ground’ that could be called ‘white space’. Sometimes we call this process “Cathedral Thinking”.

white space

Facilitators can help people to reach this white space, by providing well-thought through facilitation processes. These processes are designed so that people are enabled to explore, challenge and articulate a shared goal. We design ways to make sure that people really listen to, hear and understand each other, and then bridge through to working together to achieve progress towards the shared goal.

How can this happen? These four examples are great demonstrations of what I mean by facilitating in the white space:-

I worked with a newly appointed business manager, needing to turnaround an ailing company very quickly. The diagnosis was that there were many people, with excellent functional skills working in strong functions. However, in totality the overall business result was quite frankly abject mediocrity! Through a series of workshops we enabled people to envisage a ‘boundary-less organisation’ where the diverse, but potentially complimentary skills were welded together to achieve a successful, sustainable, robust business.

Another project was focused on constructing a brand new hospital. The traditional ways of working were at best transactional, more frequently adversarial. We invested time to share goals and perspectives and to form common goals. This process motivated everyone and helped people to understand each other’s potential contribution. Unprecedented levels of productivity resulted. It would be easy to assume that everyone just wanted to ‘make as much money as possible’. However when you delve deeper into the shared personal motivations there is far more at stake than this. The installers wanted to go home at the end of the working day without a sore back / neck (ergonomics). We heard stories from the factory workers wanting to go to Sunday morning sports with their children instead of being in the factory making rushed components desperately needed the next day. In practice, a well facilitated process enabled people to achieve their personal goals and make a successful project.

Another project exposed me to another circumstance where diverse skills needed to work together in this valuable white space to craft a comprehensive and robust solution to a very complex set of issues. In this case, an organisation had a need to design and implement a global process / system for dealing with and transparently reporting financial currency hedging. This programme had all the usual ingredients of establishing common goals. The critical factor in this project was the impact of language, and in particular the understanding of meaning and culture within the multi-national team of people. The facilitation processes had to invest time to carefully tease out perspectives. This meant that people were able to appreciate and value the background underlying those perspectives.

More recently, we facilitated an EPSRC sandpit, addressing the Nexus involving Water, Food and Energy. It was delightful to work with and facilitate a wide range of academic disciplines and stakeholders with differing perspectives. Our process supported the group to identify some approaches that transcended the whole topic and expertise in the room. Once again the facilitation processes were designed to enable people to explore, challenge and ultimately share a common goal. We encouraged people to value and connect diversity. The result was to create and articulate novel programmes in the ‘white space’.

This approach can also be seen currently in the world’s response to Ebola, using a ‘Systems Thinking’ perspective. As we start to see progress being made what is becoming clearer is that a diverse range of skills / organisations, including Governments, Armies; Community Leaders; Scientists; Pharmaceutical competitors; Medical professionals; Academics; Charities; came together to formulate and adapt a programme to tackle the situation. It will be enlightening to understand what learning can emerge (de contextualized) and how that learning might be reused to inform any situation where there may be a benefit to enabling a diverse group of skills to work together, to address a shared goal.

Increasingly we see that people, organisations, communities are facing up to challenges which may be most effectively addressed by moving outside and above boundaries into the ‘white space’ described here. In that space, people need to be helped to listen to each other, to understand each other’s language, context, perspective and drivers. Fortunately a professional, skilled Facilitator will be able to provide useful processes to enable this dialogue and engagement.

If you would like to explore ways of reaching upwards to the white space of Cathedral Thinking we would love to talk to you.

Agile Team Working – making time to talk

Proud and Sorry

Proud and Sorry

As facilitators one of the great benefits is that we work across a range of different organisations and professions, picking up little bits of technical knowledge as we go. I worked within a software company on a series of projects and facilitated events to help them explore some Agile working practices. In the process of this I came across an excellent reference source: Agile Retrospectives

This book is often my “go to” book when working with smaller teams. One of our recent challenges was a piece of work with a small team of remote workers for the ECC The team needed to make progress on some work tasks during a series of two face to face meetings but more importantly they needed to talk to each other and build the feelings of trust. Some of the tools in the Agile Retrospectives really helped with this challenge.

One of the ones that I often use successfully is the “Proud” and “Sorry” session. By using this format it is possible for people to share what disappointed them about the project, or others, in a way that seems to avoid the normal defensive reaction. This method also does something which we always suggest to even small teams – it allows you to write and think your responses individually first before sharing them in a group. With a small team it is tempting to have all the discussions in the large group but this can lead to Groupthink and make some contributions less significant than others.

As with all teams taking time to listen to each other, to build the trust will then make sure that the actual meeting work can be done very effectively. We find that the meeting takes no longer than a normal more agenda driven type of meeting approach, but the richness and depth leads to a far better result after the meeting.

Case Study of our work with ECC

Are our meetings giving a return on investment?

Whilst delivering a training course recently, the perennial topic of effective meetings raised it head – again!

Several of the people on the course were quite stressed, working long hours, looking tired and generally not the happiest people on the planet! I then did a quick survey, asking the simple question, ‘On average, how many hours per week do you spend in meetings?’  The replies ranged from about 5 hours to one person spending 30+ hours per week in meetings. Each of these meetings seemed to be typically attended by about 6 people. I then asked:-

 ‘and if your company’s CEO walked into the meeting, would all participants be able to explain what the meeting was going to achieve and how they were contributing to that objective?’ 

There was some nervous shifting in chairs and mutters – I felt I touched a nerve, so not wishing to heap further pain on already stressed individuals I backed off and opened up a ‘back to basics’ session on effective meetings, this resulted in a number of delegates committing to revisit their own meeting schedules.

It seems that most of us know what we should do for a meeting (e.g. justify, plan, prepare, run, follow-up on). However it is easy to find a series of meetings that have become a routine – they have a ‘life of their own’ – and occur without much thought and even less challenge about the actual value.

In our working lives, do we start to behave like hamsters in a wheel, expending more and more energy running around the same track? If this touches a nerve for you, do yourself a favour and just do a very quick analysis of your recent time at work:-

  • How many meetings did you run / attend?
  • Was the meeting justified, was it the best way to achieve the objective?
  • Was each meeting effective and efficient, were all attendees required and able to contribute?
  • If a key stakeholder, like the company CEO, or a major shareholder in the company, walked into the room, would you be confident to explain why the meeting was happening?

If you are positive in all your answers, Gold Star, well done! – keep up the good work.

If not, maybe you have found one key to a more productive and less stressful working life.

Value Added Venues

When we start to plan workshops and events with our clients, the discussion includes the question about ‘where shall we hold this event?’

Of course there are the usual practical considerations, including cost, ease of access, capacity and facilities at the venue and the cost! At another level, we consider the opportunity the location and environment provides to enhance the event itself.

  • Transport Energy Issues

    Transport Energy Issues

    We worked with the Energy Strategy UK team to explore the future of transport energy. The workshop was held at a Transport Museum in Coventry. This venue provided an insight through a tangible record of transport energy in the past. In the workshop design we incorporated activities using these resources to ‘hover above’ today and look back and look forward. A great way to stimulate creative thinking about a future where transport may look very different to the past.

  • We worked with a Programme Manager who needed a project group, composed of very technically competent specialists to understand the interrelationship between their disciplines and how the various parts of the project formed the whole mosaic. In this case a countryside site, remote, but accessible and modest, was chosen for their monthly two-day project review workshops. The two days together in a remote location enabled the team to leave behind the shackles of the day-to-day workplace. A more collaborative style of working was established so that the specialists  were able  to deliver coherent and highly effective solutions.
  • A team needed to develop their Customer Relationship Management capability so we held their workshop at a conference venue that shares space with an up-market repair centre for prestigious cars. The venue provided a great opportunity for participants to see first-hand how the repair centre went about its work – and particularly to see the attention to detail that really makes a difference and generates referrals and repeat business.
  • Ready for Revolution

    Ready for Revolution

    We worked on a “Sandpit” event for the TSB, who were seeking projects to support radical innovation in the Long Term Care of people. We agreed on Crewe Hall,  a location that enabled visits to be made to local venues to provoke thinking. This included a visit to a local garden centre  which highlighted the intense dedication of the plant specialists, for many of them their work was much more than a means to earn money. We also planned a visit to the Methodist Chapel, which provided insight into communities, care and peaceful revolutions.

A well-chosen venue can support the overall theme of an event and can become part of the process. Seeking out interesting locations is a challenge but can often add real value to the event.

Making Things Easy: Using Three Buckets

We believe that facilitation should make things easy for people. Sometimes we develop a new method that does just that! Our Three Bucket Method is a perfect example of how we can help break down problems into easy containable elements so people can find their way through the fog.

The situation we were asked to facilitate was for a scientific study who will be starting a process of interviewing people to collect a wide range of data. The meeting we were asked to facilitate was of the Scientific Steering Group who needed to agree the final questions that would be used in the interviews. The problem was that in the pilot study there were about 60 minutes more of questions than was reasonable to ask in the time allowed.

We had one day with the Steering Group to reach consensus about which of the items should go.  There were 1,000 items in total to discuss and agree consensus on! We quickly realised that this would be a challenge and needed to be broken down into a more manageable amount.

3 buckets imageThe questions were all arranged in categories and there were 25 different categories.  We knew that it would be important to keep momentum going across the day so that these important decisions which would impact on researchers for years ahead were not rushed.

This is where the 3 Bucket Idea started to develop. By suggested that we divide up the 25 categories across 3 different “Buckets” we started to break down the challenge into bite size pieces. Each “Bucket” would be dealt with in turn using a consensus decision making process:

  1. For each Bucket session we set up three areas of the group and divided the question categories across these three areas. Each area had two- four spreadsheets to examine with the questions.
  2. The Steering Group were divided into three groups and each group took one section of the Bucket to look at. They discussed the items as a group and then individually voted with coloured dots on each individual item. They then moved to the next section of the room and repeated this process and then with the final third section.
  3. Our facilitators then looked at the Bucket and identified any questions where there was clear consensus for removal. These were quickly dealt with. Any questions which mainly seemed to be highlighted as suitable for removal were discussed.
  4. We then calculated how much time had been saved, celebrated this saving with a cup of tea and went onto the next bucket.

2014-01-29 10.49.06The process took the day but by the end of the day the required minutes had been saved. By using the 3 Buckets method we had managed to keep the energy and momentum going because there was variety throughout the day. If we had tried to do all the items in one go there would have been a very long period of sitting and trying to reach consensus.

Of course the Bucket Method is not really a “proper” method, we just used the word bucket because it seemed like a suitable metaphor when discussing the approach with our client and the word stuck! What it shows is how facilitation can add value to meeting by thinking not about the content but how to approach the content so consensus can be reached in way that supports engagement and not boredom.

Collaboration: The Key to Project Success?

In October 2012 the BBC broadcasted a 2-part series by Evan Davis entitled ‘Built in Britain’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nd290.

In these programmes Evan explored the potential for major infrastructure projects to act as a catalyst for reinvigorating the UK economy. In part 2, the story focused on two major projects; the high speed rail link between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel; also the Olympic Park. The projects and the potential economic impact were very interesting.

The programme explored the reasons for the success of these two projects and sought to explain the reasons for our ‘new found ability to deliver complex projects successfully’. In addition to funding and engineering excellence, key project people identified a significant reason for the success of these projects in comparison to previous experiences was the contractual relationships set-up; which really encouraged people to work together – a very practical demonstration of the power of collaboration.

This is music to the ears. For many years I have worked with projects, engineering, construction and business change projects. In my experience the most successful projects emerge when project teams really do work together and engage their stakeholders effectively.

Some recent examples in my work include

Global Change

The Project Director inherited a global business change project that had experienced two previous false starts. The Director instigated monthly, off-site, facilitated workshops.

New IT Systems

In the other two examples, business change projects incorporating new IT, the solutions needed to be rolled out across numerous business units in the country. A short sequence of facilitated project launch workshops were instigated.

During these different workshops the facilitators focussed on providing processes that enabled participants to absolutely engage in the highly uncertain situations.

These workshops went much further than the traditional project kick-off meetings where PowerPoint slides are shown and contact details are exchanged. In these facilitated workshops differing viewpoints and perspectives at the start of the project were seen as enriching the process. Through a series of professionally facilitated steps, all participants were able to share, explore and ultimately shape their projects. This led to true collaboration.

Just as in the recent infrastructure projects described in the Evan Davis programme, these business change projects were all delivered very successfully. Perhaps the evidence points to an emergent clue – the key that unlocks a stream of successful projects – true collaboration?
nigelchapman@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Facilitation Must Be More than Fun

Inevitably when we commence planning with clients / potential clients we hold discussions with the leader – the champions of the cause.

In two recent examples comments have been made that set alarm bells ringing. One client said, “I hope you are not going to get us to play silly games, a recent facilitator had us throwing cushions around the room, someone ended up with broken glasses, I’ve no idea why we did that”. Another client recalled having some fun painting tee-shirts, but didn’t feel there was any relevance to the workshop.

This set me thinking. We start with the premise that the role of the facilitator is to provide the group / team with processes that enable them to (more) effectively address a defined purpose. We find that whilst there is often a need to explain and sometimes justify our proposal to include a certain exercise before we run it, we have not encountered examples where after the exercise has run people, especially the leader, dismiss it as ‘silly’ or a ‘waste of time’.

It seems that, at best, some facilitators are failing to communicate the purpose of their exercises, at worst, perhaps, some are including disparate activities without purpose to the fill the time. We believe that this is bad news for the franchise that is ‘facilitation’. Our aim should be to provide effective processes that are ‘fit for purpose’. Maybe, sometimes, an exercise fails to work / deliver the desired progress; this can and does happen, the professional response should be to say so, to regroup and address the need in a more appropriate manner.  This should be transparent to all involved so that people will not go away muttering ‘I’ve no idea why we did that’.

We are not being spoil sports, ‘fun’ exercises can be very usefully incorporated into team building and creative learning events, but let’s make sure that they really do fit and ensure they are highlighted in context to participants.

Nigel Chapman, Centre for Facilitation

nigelchapman@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Board meetings and facilitation; an unnatural partnership?

A luxurious board room, dominated by an imposing table with heavy chairs placed around it. A Chairman exuding authority, calmness and control. Apologies for absence taken and the minutes of the last meeting accepted. Each item of business carefully recorded by the secretary, with Board members subtly attracting the attention of the Chair when they wish to speak. The meeting creeps from item to item until each member is asked for “Any Other Business” and the date of the next meeting is agreed.
• Is this a tried and tested format which works well and shouldn’t be messed with?
 • Or an old fashioned way of doing business which doesn’t allow for true creativity and problem solving, and holds organisations back?
At the Centre for Facilitation, our experience shows that there are some occasions when flexibility may help a Board of Directors to do business more effectively. The critical point, of course, is “does it help them achieve their business objectives?” There is nothing worse than a facilitator entering a board room, asking members to jump out of their seats, moving people around, posting flipcharts on the walls, and generally putting participants well out of their comfort zone – unless these activities are clearly linked to the business of the day. However, even if the facilitator makes a link, this type of disruption to normal procedures may be the quickest way for them to be thrown out of the room and never asked back.
It is an obvious conclusion, but a facilitator must know the audience and how far they may or may not be prepared to move from their normal way of working.

  • Talking to and understanding the Chair’s requirements before the meeting.
  • Ensuring that the objectives of the meeting (or individual items) are clear
  • Finding an appropriate process for each item which achieves the stated objective,

are the essential skills of the facilitator. Only then can the Chair and the facilitator (together) agree a plan for running the meeting, which may or may not require some aspects of the meeting to divert from traditional practice.

One example might be if there is an item on “reviewing the performance of x / y / z and determining future investment of these areas”. The item may need to begin with a more traditional form of presentation or review of each area, but then the facilitator can help the Board reach a decision more effectively through – for example – asking each member to generate their own list of criteria for investment, displaying the joint list and then asking them to score each department objectively against the new criteria, either as individuals, in smaller groups, or (if time) as a whole group. The business benefit of the smaller group activity is that the whole Board can reach a decision more quickly, because every member can contribute to the scoring without having to wait for their turn.

With a skilled facilitator, Board meetings of the future could consist of something like… a luxurious board room, dominated by an imposing table with heavy chairs placed around it. A Chairman exuding authority, calmness and control. A facilitator helping the group to achieve their business objectives through the introduction of a range of methods. The approach always maintain the interest of members, may involve moving briefly to another room, retains the traditional approach when it is required for information exchange or voting, and above all, moves the business forward through a complete focus on business objectives.
Clare Howard
clarehoward@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Home Early: Good or Bad?

Whenever I run sessions, the question “We are really doing well – how would you feel if we had a shorter lunch and tried to finish earlier in the day?” is usually greeted with universal enthusiasm. Occasionally, however, there are people who prefer to stick to an agreed and advertised end time rather than find themselves with an unexpected half hour’s free time. This was driven home to me during a recent session when one participant felt aggrieved that the outcome had been achieved earlier than she had expected, and the day finished at 4pm instead of the advertised 4.30pm.
Of course, as we all know, people have different preferences when it comes to sticking to a schedule. More importantly, a good facilitator will know when the timings have to be “flexed” to allow for penetrating and valuable debate on an issue which, although timed for maybe 60 minutes, is clearly taking longer to solve. Similarly, we have to know when a discussion is not achieving its desired outcome and needs to be cut short and the process changed to enable a different method to be used to achieve the required result.
I think the key skill lies in flexing the timings accordingly within the agreed start and end point to a day, without finishing late, and yet taking into account those (admittedly few) people who may get upset if you finish early. One solution I find works ( on the enjoyable occasions when a range of facilitated techniques have resulted in an early conclusion) is to warn participants that the timings may be cut short, but that the session will still be “live” and open for further discussion for those who wish to stay until the appointed end time. This works well because although the formal debate has concluded, and results captured, the informal networking and sparking of ideas can continue.
Of course, this means that the facilitator needs to be on hand, and still working hard, right up to that appointed time, but after all that is what we are paid for!

clarehoward@centreforfacilitation.co.uk