Accelerating the Value of Collaboration

Value Maturity Model red phases 170519

Accelerating the value of collaboration remains the key issue for many organisational leaders.  The Value Maturity Model of Collaboration and the extended tools and practices that it has shaped have been a useful guide to adoption practice for leaders and community managers.  It has also inspired a range of other applications of the ideas including its use by Swoop Analytics to shape the analytics leaders and teams can use in these networks and a range of extended applications by others, including this recent post by Harold Jarche on its application in leadership.

The model is now approaching its 5th anniversary. As our understanding of collaboration in organisations grows through growing global research and practice, there is value to revisit and update the implications for the models we use to foster adoption and accelerate.  This post recaps the high-level themes from my latest work on application of the model and highlights the directions of my future work and research.

Connect: The Rise of Purpose and Psychological Safety

In five years, adoption practice and the related customer success focus of the technology vendors has changed dramatically. ‘Build it and they will come’ is unambiguously dead. Value is now a regular part of the conversation for organisations and adoption is often aligned to strategy. Value to the employee is increasingly an important element of planning.

The core elements of the Connect phase are largely well understood and have matured and begun to be codified into workshops, governance guides, playbooks and roadmaps for new solutions. What remains a challenge is that much of the focus reverts to technology and narrow use cases instead of a focus on people and value creation that people can deliver for the organisations strategy. At senior executive levels, strategic alignment remains a core issue in organisations.

Organisations are increasingly focused on the role of purpose for engagement of employees and as a guide to alignment for value. However, there remains a lot of confusion as to what purpose is and how to leverage it.  Just like collaboration, purpose cannot be imposed. Purpose is a process of discovery and alignment for the individuals in any group.

We have discussed since the beginning of the model that the Connect phase is a time for people to find ways in the organisation to connect their personal purpose to the shared purpose of the organisation. The better organisations design the Connect phase to enable people to reflect on and discover connections and alignment around purpose the stronger the foundations are for the community that develops. Collaborative communities can also play a key role in engaging a wider organisation in reflection and discussion around shared purpose.

It would be hard to miss the recent discussion around psychological safety in organisations. The work by Amy Edmondson and others to highlight the importance of psychological safety in teaming and collaboration puts real rigour behind many of the adoption challenges organisations face with these solutions. Five years ago unsafe organisations were full of people asking ‘Why should I share? What are the risks? What happens if I do something wrong’.  You find those same questions in the laggards today. If it is unsafe to share or take any risk, employees will not do so, no matter how nicely you ask.

As Dr Jen Frahm recently highlighted our control oriented cultures and cultural uniformity can create real issues for the safety of employees. High performing networks are those with high diversity and where people share more of themselves without the risks of being forced to do so.  There is much more work to do to make this commonplace and to enable all leaders in networks with the skills to foster and lead in this diverse environment.

Psychological safety is not something that organisations announce. The culture of the organisation in practice will determine the perception and expectations of safety Creating that practice requires leaders and teams to have active conversations about work, failures and appreciation. Amy Edmondson has highlighted many of those steps in her book, The Fearless Organisation. Collaborative communities are great places to foster this leadership practice and spread it to the wider community.

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Share: Working Out Loud in Every Day Work

The principal difference between a network that is solely a tool of employee communications and a productive network is the existence of a consistent practice of working out loud, sharing work in progress with relevant communities to foster learning and collaboration. Working out loud changes the nature of a network. It removes the social media feel and it helps employees find the relevance of the community to their work. It still surprises me how many organisations are focused on collaborative communities but don’t include work in their plans. You can see plenty of consultant’s approaches to social networking that leave work out too.

Many networks have working out loud. I have discussed before that by drawing discussion of work and awareness of work into the network, working out loud enables the transition to the Solve stage. As we have demonstrated through International Working Out Loud Week year on year, working out loud takes many forms and is increasingly practiced around the world.

The best performing networks don’t see working out loud as an extra thing that they do. They don’t have dedicated working out loud processes, groups, tags or feeds. The goal is for everyday work to occur on the network. The organisation exists for the purposeful work and so should the collaborative network. Work is designed to be open, to be narrated, to have input from others and to allow others to contribute to the goals. When that is the case, value creation accelerates quickly and employees quickly understand the value of changing their work to be more collaborative.

Solve: Enabling Degrees of Freedom

All business is about change to create new value. Most traditional organisations are established with so many layers of control, process and policy that change is difficult. Employees and customers are expected to put up with or work around, partial solutions, broken things and poor outcomes. In every senior management conversation, fixing these issues and delivering the efficiency and effectiveness outcomes that follow is a key topic of discussion. Senior managers tear their hair at the silly little issues standing in the way of performance but the culture of fear and lack of freedom to act differently is why these issues persist.

When we import concepts from social media into our organisation collaboration, we can become overly focused on hierarchical power and fame. Organisational collaboration is not a power or game. Organisations don’t need influencers. They don’t need heroes who share their thought leadership or highlight issues for others to solve. They need the work of change to address the real gaps and to solve issues as and when they surface in the flow of work.

We have had a rush of discussion of alternate organisational models, like holacracy, agile and more, many from the start-up world, that endeavour to address these issues by fostering discussion of tensions and accelerating change. However, we have also seen that implementing these models in a traditional organisation meets real challenges. They are often an entirely alien experience of organisational leadership, interactions and decision making. The same managers who talk of the importance of trust also struggle to deal with the vulnerability of trusting.

My recent experience is that we should be focusing instead on the degrees of freedom employees need to realise the organisational strategy, make change and create new value. Degrees of freedom are the magic ingredient in a collaborative community. Instead of adopting an alien culture wholesale, we can enable employees to begin to create agile change one degree of freedom at a time. This is a key theme of my current research and practice.

Leading collaborative networks encourage these degrees of freedom in the themes of discussion that they pursue, in the examples that they set and the leadership that they foster. Organisations release the real or perceived constraints with approaches from a Fix it group to encourage all employees to take ownership of change to Invitations to remove policies. Organisations create more value this way from enabling front line workers to represent the customer to more elaborate innovation programs, collaborative networks should be enabling every employee to contribute to making the organisation better. Organisations enable greater changes by tolerating their rebels and giving them the tools to start movements.  That means more than just chatting. It means the freedom to do themselves and experience the personal rewards of influencing others and achieving a better way of work.

Innovate: Scaling Agency and Agile Change

Organisations exist to enable us to realise human potential individually and as a collective. That goal of greater effectiveness is widely demanded by employees but translates in management speak into strategic value creation, innovation, agility and change management. To break free of the innovation labs model of value creation we need to be able to scale employee agency and sustain agile change aligned to strategic outcomes.

We lose sight of this often in our focus on efficiency. We need to escape the Four Horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse and build organisations that give employees agency, scale that agency into teams, communities and networks and leverage agile models of change. Digital transformation and the competitive environment demand that change but it is a direct challenge to deeply engrained management values and traditional concepts of leadership and power.

When we consider agency and agile change we must recognise that these must be supported by new systems and new capabilities. The freedom to act without the systems or capability to do so is no freedom at all. Organisations that want to realise the potential of employees will need to focus on how they support the development of these capabilities and systemic approaches to capability development that ensure agency results in effective change.

Conclusion: Ongoing Work Accelerating the Value of Collaboration 

Almost five years ago, when I wrote the first post on the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration, I thought the challenges of adopting social collaboration would largely be completed over the next two years. Five years on, we have learned a great deal but we still have only begun to scratch the possibilities of realising human potential, working together in better ways and finding new sources of value.

I underestimated the cultural challenges, overestimated the technology and the willingness to change traditional models of management. We have in many cases chosen to put new tools to the service of old values of management. What I have realised in the years since is that the process is one of mastery, not achieving perfection. We are working in the realm of culture, community and people, not technology. That means we will always be learning and coming together to do better. The greatest collaborative communities will be those who accelerate the process to realise more value for participants and the organisation.

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