Monday, 12 March 2018

Interested in time travel? Know that the watched pot never boils...

As mentioned in the introduction to this set of posts, the pace at which we perceive time to be passing is affected by how important progress towards an achievement or an event is to us: the 'watched pot never boils'.

If something is important to us it can often, regardless of the actual amount of time involved, feel as if ages are passing before it is achieved or happens. If an issue is not important to us, then the amount of time passing before it is addressed is of little or no personal significance (so even long periods of activity can go by almost unnoticed).

Also, how we perceive the passing of time is influenced by the cultures we live and work within and the habits they encourage us to develop. If we are used to working within a fast paced environment, we will become frustrated if results are not achieved quickly and will seek to hurry things up. If we are used to a slower pace, we will not worry about achieving results quickly enough and will happily 'go with the flow'.

These differing perceptions of time and the pace of activity will all be tangling and interacting with each other as a collaboration develops and progresses. This means that whilst people work together, each person may be seeing and working towards differing time horizons. If these differing perceptions are not managed effectively, they will cause mutual frustration and misunderstandings (and perhaps even conflict).

The first step towards managing people's differing perceptions of the speed and pace of time (and how quickly or otherwise people think things are being achieved) is to be able to identify them through behavioural cues and signals.

People who perceive time and activity as moving too slowly and that things are taking too much time to get done (the pot is taking too long to boil) will use the following types of easily recognisable phrases: 
  • We need some quick wins.
  • The deadline is fast approaching and...
  • We need to hurry up/get things moving.
  • We need to see some progress/see some action.
  • There is no sense of urgency.
  • We need some urgency.
  • When will you start?
  • When will you finish?
  • What are you doing now?
  • What is being done?
  • Let's set some interim milestones and deadlines.
  • The clock is ticking.
  • Quicker/quicker!

People who perceive time and activity as moving too slowly will, as the above phrases indicate, be preoccupied with the perceived rate of progress and achievement. As a result, they will likely express and exhibit frustration and impatience.

In terms of their behaviour, they will be quick and focused in their speech and actions. They may seem a bit pre-occupied and fidgety during meetings. They will probably demonstrate shaping behaviour during interactions with others, seeking to influence people towards clear decisions and actions that will demonstrate progress. When they get the opportunity to lead and ensure progress in a certain direction, they will grasp it firmly (and probably be reluctant to let it go). 

People who perceive time and activity as moving at an okay pace (they are not watching the pot boil) will use the following types of easily recognisable phrases:
  • All in good time.
  • Things will work themselves through.
  • Just give it time.
  • Things are chugging along just fine.
  • There is no need to rush.
  • I'm relaxed about how things are going.
  • Let's just allow things to come to a natural conclusion.
  • I have other things to get on with right now. These things are taking care of themselves.
  • Let's spend longer looking at this.
  • That is an interesting idea.

People who are not concerned about time and activity moving too slowly, as the above phrases indicate, will be relaxed about the perceived rate of progress and achievement. As a result they will exhibit contentment and unworried patience.

In terms of their behaviour, they will be relaxed and laid-back in their speech and actions. During meetings they may seem somewhat disinterested or distracted by other things. They may also be inclined to explore apparent side-issues and show significant interest in items under 'Any Other Business'. They will probably exhibit very friendly and engaging behaviour during interpersonal interactions and prefer informal gatherings and one-to-one chats rather than formal meetings. This is because informal gatherings and chats will allow more time for exploration of new and interesting topics and enable people to get to know each other. For a person not worried about when the collaborative pot will boil, this will be perceived as a very good use of time.

They will not be too quick to take opportunities for leadership. If they have leadership positions by right (or given to them) they will ensure things run smoothly and easily and that time is invested in informal 'getting-to-know-you sessions'. They will also want to explore innovative areas of a collaboration's work that are not currently 'centre stage'. Sometimes, feeling content with the rate of progress and perhaps not having too much of a personal stake in the achievements of the collaboration, they may delegate their leadership position to others (who may then seek to speed-up activity and progress).

On reading the above, it quickly becomes clear that there is no 'correct' perception of time and the pace of activity: those who perceive time and activity as moving too slowly, for them the watched pot is never boiling, will add a sense of urgency to a collaboration's work; those who are content with the pace of time and activity, they are not waiting for the pot to boil, will add a sense of reflection and informality to the collaboration's approach and also provide the necessary space for original and innovative thinking.

The two part challenge for a collaboration is, therefore, to avoid favouring one perception over another and find ways to manage and mix them to create a synergy that enables both efficiency and effectiveness: that enables a collaboration to not only get things done on time but also invest the time in getting new things done. 

An example of a collaborative initiative that achieved this is the Harlem Children's Zone; it did so by doing the following three things:
  1. It created an ambitious and imaginative vision (which encouraged investment of time in creative and innovative thinking).
  2. It focused on being not only innovative but also innovative at scale: producing innovation that could be reproduced more widely within different areas and contexts (which encouraged a focus on getting things done, impact and tangible results).
  3. It engaged with a partner experienced in consulting with the social enterprise sector (Bridgespan) that was at one remove from HCZ's day-to-day work. Being one step back from things enabled Bridgespan to see, probably more clearly than other partners, the mix of perspectives about using and investing time that was most appropriate for HCZ. (Did HCZ need to create room for reflecting and incubating scalable innovations? Or did urgency need to be injected to ensure impact at the right time and place?)                                          
More generally, collaborations can begin to meet the above mentioned challenge by discussing partners' expectations and obligations and agreeing the balance and timing of rewards partners will receive.   
So, in summary, encouraging partners to think explicitly about how they perceive, react to and use the time they spend working together will discourage unhelpful preconceptions about what should be happening by when. It will help create a shared sense of pace and time that is appropriate to a collaboration, what it needs to achieve and how it needs to achieve it.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Interested in time travel? Beware blaming back and blaming forward

Partners who contributed to creating a collaborative initiative or who joined it early might, quite naturally, prefer to look back at the times when they were most influential and able to shape priorities and contribute significantly to achievements in which they believed.

Also, quite naturally, those who joined a collaborative initiative later may prefer to look forwards towards new approaches and ways of doing things that might increase their influence and enable them to shape priorities and achieve things important to them.

When these preferences for either the past or the future clash, they will form the basis of an often heated argument about a collaboration's strategy: should it consolidate and build upon existing gains (so maintaining the esteem, credibility and influence of the founding fathers and early joiners of the collaboration)? Or should it break its mould and flow into new and innovative areas of activity (so increasing the influence of the young and thrusting sons and late joiners of the collaboration)?

Even when a strategy has been agreed, especially if the old or new guard feel they have won or lost the argument, the noise and conflicts from within which it was forged will continue to reverberate down the timeline of the collaboration. They will likely cause uncertainty and disagreements about the effectiveness of the collaboration and the value of its achievements: the old guard, set in its ways, will continue to look towards the past and point to old agreements and contracts as evidence that the collaboration has failed to live-up to initial expectations; the new guard, keen to introduce new ways, will point to new agreements and contracts as evidence of the collaboration's ability to move with the times.

Old and new understandings and agreements will overlay within people's minds in the present of the collaboration, weakening its resolve and clarity of purpose.

New partners will challenge old and founding partners, some of whom no longer directly involved, about their failure to do this and that in the first place: they will 'blame it back'. Old partners will challenge new partners about their inability to do this and that now: they will 'blame it forward'.

Partners preferring and fighting for the credibility and reputation of different times, agreements and achievements will create an unstable 'timeflux' within the collaboration. This will, slowly but surely, encourage ambiguity about the ultimate worth of the collaboration's achievements to grow within people's minds. Eventually, this will severely weaken the collaboration's credibility and reputation (and, perhaps most importantly, threaten its legacy).

This situation is most obvious and likely to happen within large scale 'mega-project' collaborations (e.g., CrossrailHeathrow Terminal 2, and London 2012). These collaborations last for years and often decades, which means there will be much toing and froing of partners during the lifetime of the collaboration and the type and mix of partners involved at its beginning will be very different to that at its end.

This, together with changing pressures and demands over time (and different partners not only responding to these pressures in different ways but also adding their own vision and priorities to the collaborative mix), means that different partners from different times will most likely seek to justify and defend different decisions and actions and judge the collaboration by baselines they had a hand in creating. This situation is nicely summed up by this quip from a person involved in one of the previously mentioned mega-projects:

"They (the delivery partner) will immediately say 'it's their (the previous partner's) fault, they've stuffed up all the estimates'...and they (the previous partner) will say 'bloody amateurs, couldn't they build it for that?'".
(Lundrigan, C. Gil, N. Puranum, P./2014/The (Under) Performance of Mega-Projects: A Meta-Organisational Perspective/INSEAD The Business School for the World -- Working Paper Series 2015/04/STR)

Being realistic, this tendency to blame back and blame forward probably cannot be stopped, but it can be managed and minimised by doing the following five things:
  1. Being consistently open and transparent, especially about necessary changes to the work of the collaboration in response to new pressures and demands (and being patient and willing to repeat these reasons as often as required).
  2. Having regular meetings between partners and holding 'scouting meetings' where old and established partners can get to know new and potential partners (and where all present can discuss current activities and how these may need to be continued, adapted, changed or added to in the future).
  3. Ensuring meetings between partners are chaired by someone who is trusted by and credible to all, and (to further encourage transparency and promote shared accountability) giving this person the authority to approve meaningful and significant decisions at the meetings with the explicit support of all those present (both old and new partners alike).
  4. Noticing blaming language and behaviour and challenging it early so that it does not become a habit which could eventually lead to a damaging culture of blame.
  5. Ensuring the leaders of the collaboration and other high profile and influential partners model a no blame culture and, where necessary, they receive help and support (including coaching and interpersonal skills training) to help them achieve this.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Interested in time travel?

A friend of mine recently posted the above spoof sign on Facebook. It made me smile; then it made me think.

Time is something we all take for granted: tick-tocking at a constant rate in the background of our lives. Except that is not really how time works for us humans. Each of us interact with time in different and very personal ways: some times are perceived as a friend, some as a foe; some times are felt as fast, some as slow; some of us prefer the future, some the past; most of us, understandably, prefer times when we won or succeeded rather than those when we lost or failed.

Our experience of time is subjective and summed up by the well-known phrase 'A watched pot never boils'.

This phrase reveals another important aspect of our personal experience of time: the more important something is to us the more we take notice of it and the time it takes to happen.

And, of course, different people will perceive different things as more important than others. We all have our own important days and events: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, holidays; or dates for surgery, days in court, receiving life-changing results or verdicts of one kind or another. Whatever the focus, however, the time taken for them to happen can often seem to drag on and on and on. 

There are also events that many people have in common and perceive as important: families, communities and even nations look forward to cultural festivals and celebrations like Christmas and New Year; businesses and companies look eagerly towards the launch of a new product or service; governments look impatiently towards the launch of a new policy or initiative. Invariably, just like those things that are important to us individually, the time taken for these things to happen can seem very long and drawn out.

Lastly, the above sign wording (however humorously and obviously) points to another effect time has upon us: it distances us from the past and often from each other. Time carries us away from old friends and loves; it fades our memories of passed-away relatives; less personally, but almost as significantly, it separates one government regime or company Board of Directors from another.

All these differing and variously shared perceptions, preferences and distancing separations are interacting and tangling between and around us as we go through each and every moment of our lives. They constantly influence what we do and how we react to things, and this is particularly so when we work collaboratively with others (which is when it could be said that we live through not only very interesting but also highly subjective times).

When we work collaboratively with others we do so within a vortex of perceptions of time and differing moments in time that compete with each other for importance and supremacy. If we can grasp and manipulate these perceptions and moments to mutual advantage, we will enhance the effectiveness of our work and the quality and longevity of our achievements. 

Over the next months, I shall be writing about the above mentioned time perceptions and preferences and the distancing effect of being separated in time. More specifically, I will focus upon how these things influence the way we work collaboratively with others from different backgrounds (different communities, businesses, organisations and institutions, etc.)

Hopefully, when I have finished, I will have encouraged people to look at their collaborative work in a new and helpful way: through a lens fashioned to focus upon how we interact with and experience time.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Focus on the problem; don't just throw trendy words around

'Co-design, the Victorian secretary ventured, should mean trying to reach agreement on the nature of a problem to be solved, and opening up to a broader range of ideas and possible solutions.'
Gill Callister: Victorian Department of Education and Training Secretary (The quotation is from Co-Design, Collaboration, Engagement: Don't Just Throw Trendy Words Around an article from
Yes, engagement that is about collaboration to co-design must focus on the nature of the problem!
However, traditional thinking about engagement and collaboration has often blinkered perceptions.
Arguably, it has encouraged us to focus upon 'the best way to engage with stakeholders' rather than 'the best way to engage with stakeholders to solve the problem'
I am glad to see such a simple but frequently overlooked point being emphasised by someone to whom people might listen. This is, it has to be said, all too rare.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Evidence that women enhance collective intelligence

Here is a short post from the Gender Action Portal of HARVARD Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Forum that shares findings clearly supporting the existence of collective intelligence and strongly indicating that collective intelligence is determined by group composition and dynamics.

More specifically, the post identifies that the presence and influence of women enhances a group's collective intelligence. This is because a major determiner of the level of collective intelligence within a group is the group's level of social sensitivity. Basically, social sensitivity is the ability to empathise; this is something women (on average) do better than men.

These findings emphasise the importance of ensuring women are encouraged to contribute fully to collaborative initiatives. This is something I have written about when exploring the conductor Paul MacAlindin's work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq:

This is how a collaborative person works: encourage, involve, appreciate and develop women

This is how a collaborative person works: form the habit of empowering the disempowered

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Use 'Flock Thinking' to help you deal with 'Stretch Collaboration'.

In his latest book Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don't Agree with or Like or Trust Adam Kahane explores what he calls 'Stretch Collaboration'. 

According to Adam, Stretch Collaboration occurs when 'we need to work with these people and we really do not see how we are going to be able to'. He also identifies two reasons for this perception: 1. we cannot control the situation (and trying to control it will have very negative consequences, as this example shows); 2. we cannot agree about the problem and how to solve it.

In a recent video about his book, Adam says that key to working effectively within these extremely difficult collaborations is developing the ability to suspend your opinions and beliefs: to continue holding them but lightly, as if by a string held in front of you and others.

In the past, and in my book Sleeping with the Enemy - Achieving Collaborative Success: Fifth Edition, I have described a technique that can help you develop this ability. I call it Flock Thinking and you can read about it, and watch a short video of me explaining it, here

If you scroll down to the end of the post about Flock Thinking, you will find a link to another post offering a couple of tools that will help you apply the technique to discussions with collaborators and partners.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Make yourself relevant

Here is a post, written by Dr María D. López Rodríguez for the Integration and Implementation Insights blog, that explores the concept of boundary objects: objects that can be used to help people from different backgrounds and disciplines share and integrate their knowledge, experiences and other information whilst exploring and seeking to solve complex issues and problems.

Boundary objects can take many forms (Dr Rodríguez's, as you will see from her post, consist of a simple diagram).

The key dimension explored by Dr Rodriguez's boundary object tool is relevance: relevance to the problem that needs to be solved. Specifically, three areas of relevance are explored: 1. the relevance of scientific knowledge to solving the problem, 2. the relevance of current legislative frameworks (laws) to solving the problem, 3. the relevance of the problem to society and the public. Each dimension of relevance is discussed and given a rating. These ratings are then combined in a triangular diagram. (See Dr Rodriguez's post for a detailed description of how this is done.)    

Dr Rodriguez's boundary object was designed for a specific reason and context, as part of a process to help scientists and non-scientist decision-makers enhance their collaboration in the area of environmental protection, and the bespoke nature of the tool is emphasised by her as crucial. Her post suggests that all partners in a collaboration need to co-create boundary objects tailored to their unique requirements and contexts.

Having said this, however, perhaps a first step towards creating unique boundary objects is to become familiar with them by adopting and adapting those that have been used elsewhere.

For example, if Dr Rodriguez's boundary object is simplified it can be used within an increased number of contexts and gradually adapted to the specific needs of each one.

A simplified version of the model would be based upon the following three questions:
  1. Are our collective experiences, types of knowledge and skills relevant to solving the problem?
  2. How relevant are current rules, regulations and procedures to the problem and our options for solving it?
  3. How relevant is the problem to the people with whom we are seeking to engage?       
Collaborators would be asked to discuss each question and then provide a rating for each one. The ratings can be from 0 to 3 or 0 to 5, with 0 signifying no relevance to the problem and 3 or 5 signifying maximum relevance to the problem. These rating would then be transferred to a triangular diagram looking something like this:

This boundary object can then be used to encourage further discussion about what the ratings imply and what might need to be done in response to them. The above triangle suggests the following: solving the problem is very relevant to people; current rules, etc., are fairly relevant to solving the problem; and the collaborative initiative's shared experiences, etc., are not as relevant as they should be to solving the problem. (These ratings strongly indicate that to solve the problem effectively it is a priority to gain additional relevant experiences and develop and/or obtain additional relevant knowledge, etc. They also clearly suggest that significant attention needs to be given to working with and exploiting current rules, etc.)         

The following questions could be used to start the discussion about a boundary object's ratings and the shape they create: 
  • Which of our collective experiences, types of knowledge and skills seem most relevant to the problems we are seeking to solve? Why do we think this? What evidence do we have? How can we make them even more relevant?
  • Which of our experiences, types of knowledge and skills seem least relevant to the problems we are seeking to solve? Why do we think this? What evidence do we have? How could they be made more relevant?
  • Which experiences, types of knowledge and skills (which we consider essential to solving the problem) do we not possess collectively? How can we gain them? How can we develop them? From where can we get them?
  • Which current rules, regulations and procedures will or could help us solve the problem? How could we enhance their ability to help us?
  • Which current rules, regulations and procedures will or could hinder or stop our progress towards solving the problem? How could we reduce or remove their ability to hinder or stop us solving the problem? Is there any way we can turn them to our advantage so that they help us solve the problem?
  • Why is the problem relevant to people? Why do we think this? What evidence do we have that the problem is relevant to people? Do people know that the problem is relevant to them? How can we make it clear that the problem is relevant to people?
  • Why do people think the problem is not relevant to them? Why do they think this? What evidence do they have that the problem is not relevant to them? How does the evidence that the problem is not relevant to people compare with the evidence that the problem is relevant to people? Do we have to rethink or reframe the problem to make it relevant to people? Do we have to identify different and perhaps underlying problems that are relevant to people?