A Friday Feature on the Microsoft Tech Community where I talk about Yammer, collaboration and community for organisations grappling with digital transformation.
In business, we are used to making priority calls. We can’t do everything. It always feels like we are up against a hard choice between A OR B. Limited resources must be carefully allocated. When it comes to collaboration in a community, this attitude can get in the way of inclusion. A community can embrace AND using the diversity, contributions, and engagement of all participants. A community doesn’t have to choose OR, it can choose AND. The generative potential of a diverse network is one of the key benefits of collaborative communities. Don’t squash that for a false choice.
The Limits Don’t Apply
The traditional decision-making constraints of business are all driven by a flow of resources, decisions, and priorities from the top of the hierarchy down. When allocation is the principal business challenge then we must make either/or choices.
The resources owned by the hierarchy are limited because the flow of information is limited. The hierarchy must manage with limited information of the circumstances of the business, surpluses and shortages in the plan and often a generic understanding of the processes, roles and human capabilities in the network. Hierarchies narrow choices and standardise options to make the complexity of the network easier to manage. In traditional businesses which sought to scale proven processes, the costs of this approach in loss of information, flexibility and potential were overwhelmed by the scale advantages of standardised execution.
The networks of a collaborative community have the ability to manage a wirearchy, Jon Husband’s concept of ‘a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology’. Standardise models, limited information and simple either/or choices can be exchanged for the information of the people on the spot, the capabilities of the individual and the needs of the business and its customers. The wirearchy can also pull from beyond the organisational resources extending its reach beyond the organisational boundary to pull in information, resources and people needed to manage delivery.
The fast-moving digital economy has put a priority on businesses having the ability to learn, adapt and leverage opportunities, not just scale execution of standard processes. A collaborative community working as a wirearchy better reflects this goal.
Nice Theory, So How Does it Apply to Collaboration in Communities
When we apply our typical constraints mindsets to the launch of a collaborative community, there can be a lot of debate around limiting the employee choices of use of collaboration. Many organisations develop prescriptive what to use when guides trying to channel the fluid collaboration of knowledge work as if it is a production line process. Other organisations focus on restricting their employees valid uses and objectives for collaboration in an effort to ensure efficiency in a community process. Some even go as far as trying to prescribe particular activities and use cases. The mindset underlying all these efforts is the traditional hierarchical management by constraint.
However, collaboration in communities cannot be programmed. Effective collaboration in communities is emergent. Organisations can scaffold the development of value in the community, helping users to more quickly find value and leverage collaboration, but they do not need to constrain the choices for users. Users will make rational decisions to allocate their time, efforts and potential to solve the issues that matter to them, their peers and the organisation. Well managed this is a highly inclusive process where people bring new ideas, new capabilities and new approaches into the organisation and socialise them with their peers to find the best fit to the organisational and personal goals of the community. This process of finding a community fit is an adaptive learning process and a source of new abundance in organisations.
Fostering this process requires organisations to signal that AND is a valid option. The need to encourage inclusion and value the diversity of approaches. Employees can pursue multiple paths simultaneously reflecting different circumstances and capabilities. Employees are given the opportunity to engage as they see fit, not forced to engage in the standard way. The test of success is fitness or as the definition of wirearchy puts it “a focus on results”. If the results are being achieved, does it matter that everyone got there a different way? Working out loud will create transparency and learning to help align better approaches and foster sharing of success. In time, this process of diverse experimentation will discover new standards and new approaches.
We have a lot yet to learn about new ways of working. What is clear is that we will get there faster if we embrace the diverse power of AND.
The commonest error in plans to develop social collaboration in an organisation is the most obvious error. Too many plans aren’t focused on the work. You don’t have a strategy for realising the value of collaboration in your organisation if it doesn’t focus on the work of your organisation.
Early Friday morning last week was the #ESNChat tweet chat. Rita Zonius and Dion Hinchcliffe were discussing a question about the plans for developing ESNs. Dion reiterated an important point – adoption or other abstract goals don’t matter. Your business is in business and needs your employees doing something meaningful.
One Success Measure
The only measure of success that really matters to your business is the value that you create in your social collaboration. Value doesn’t have to be measured wholly in monetary terms but for a great majority of businesses value will have clear measures and commonly direct financial elements. Value creation, broadly defined, is what separates successful businesses from the pack.
Your organisation exists to fulfil some purpose. The strategy that is in place in your organisation sets out how you will maximise the value of the work to realise that purpose. If social collaboration in your organisation is not directly connected to this strategy and the value to be created for purpose, then everyone in your organisation has the right, and the obligation, to (a) question why it matters and (b) ignore it.
Measuring value in collaboration is hard. This challenge is greater when organisations are often sceptical of new ways or working or chains of benefits. Usually the benefit realisation happens away from the platform and is measurable only in other systems. Many proponents of social collaboration choose to ignore the hard to measure benefits and focus on easier to track goals, like adoption, satisfaction, sentiment, engagement or measures created specifically for the organisation’s collaboration plan. The danger of failing to align the measures of social collaboration to the measures of the meaningful work of the organisation is the danger of irrelevance.
The most damning criticism of many social collaboration networks showing high degrees of adoption and engagement is that they are a “parallel universe” to the real organisation and its interactions. In this parallel universe, the hierarchy is levelled, leaders are proactively engaging people in conversation, employees are empowered to speak up and discuss their whole lives and great strides are being made in engaging employees and advocating for social issues. In the office, not so much.
In this scenario, the lack of accountability for real work outcomes has allowed the collaboration network to drift into play-acting an ideal organisation. Without real work there are no hard decisions and no ugly compromises. Without real work, it is easier for everyone to get along. You only need a little bit of fantasy to undermine the interactions of an entire network.
When a collaboration network is focused on supporting the real work interactions that network is bound to what goes on across the organisation. There is a greater chance that the discussions in the network will reflect the issues, the challenges and the interactions that happen in the corridors of the conversation, for good and for bad. Getting tough work challenges into a collaboration network, as ugly as they may be, enables the network to help address and improve them.
Many organisations like the idea of a utopian network that shows them their better side. Role modelling is a valuable purpose. However, role modelling only works when the interactions are real. The network can only contribute to making those interactions better, if the work is being done in some way across the network. Without the work, there can be no greater value.
A better network for social collaboration does the hard work to fulfil the organisation’s strategy. You don’t have a strategy for your social collaboration if you don’t have that work and aren’t measuring its value.
Some enduring conflicts in business are caused by structural or systemic issues. Another large source of these enduring conflicts we encounter in our working lives are conflicts caused by a lack of shared context. In both cases, we can do better if we start the next debate by seeking to gain better context.
Understanding can be a Solution
Like everyone, I get frustrated when some arguments just won’t go away. That frustration is never constructive. It can cloud my judgement, cause me to miss issues and never helps resolve the debate. No matter how polite I think are my efforts to explain or convince, that frustration will be in the background and the other party can always sense it. We are finely tuned detectors of the emotional states of others. Anyone who senses frustration in someone with whom they are arguing is highly likely to interpret it as a lack of genuine intent, trust or respect.
Often when one of these conversations has gone on a long while it hits me that I don’t really understand what the other person wants. When I shift my focus from convincing them that I am right to seeking to understand their position, a radical change comes over the discussion. Firstly, I often discover some point of context I am missing or that I have misunderstood their position, concerns or their goals. Secondly, we slowly begin to rebuild the trust and respect that has been damaged by the conflict. Both of these are highly useful in finding a joint path to a solution
Often seeking to understand leads to an even more surprising resolution. When conflicts are caused by a lack of a shared context, some times the other party just wants to be heard. They want you to understand the context that you are missing. There might be nothing to do to fix things other than to listen deeply, actively engage their views and acknowledge what you have learned.
Context can show you the System
Seeking to understand is an important first step in the tricky issue of structural or systemic conflicts. These issues arise when parties are trapped in a system that pushes them into conflict, often without either side realising the issue. Think of your classic clash between organisational silos. Operations are trying to reduce the cost of the process. Sales are trying to increase revenue. Both parties are right in pushing to meet their KPIs. Both feel authorised to fight on, but the answer is that the organisation needs a balance of the two perspectives. In this context, it is easy for minor issues to become enduring proxy fights of the larger structural issue. I’ve seen teams fight repeatedly over whether error rates were driving cycle times or vice versa when the real issue between them was a need to better align their two businesses.
Changing the conversation to explore a wider context, to explore each party’s goals, concerns and views will help show the wider system at play in these debates. Opening up this broader conversation is how leaders can identify often hidden issues like culture clashes, misalignment of incentives or parts of the system working with unintended consequences.
It takes only a few minutes to ask a few questions to ensure you truly understand what the other party is seeking to achieve. The insights from that quest for understand will benefit both of you.
Convincing an employee to take on the new practice of working out loud depends on being able to make a credible case for their personal benefits. Working Out Loud sounds new, different and risky at first.
Amy Edmondsen has done extensive research on team collaboration and demonstrated that a key component of participation in collaboration in teams is a sense of psychological safety for individuals. People need to feel it is safe to take interpersonal risk to learn, collaborate and experiment together. It is challenging asking people to Work Out Loud if the leadership, performance or other aspects of the culture make that personally difficult or disadvantageous.
One of the reasons that the Value Maturity Model above works to build collaboration and working out loud up from connection and sharing is that it is a way to build trust and develop the culture of collaboration from safer foundations. Focusing sharing and solving around work needs and goals through working out loud can make it easier to change the culture leveraging work needs and key strategic priorities.
Working Out Loud can contribute to changing an unsafe culture, but that will take the work of Change Agents to role model the way and to run the risks of pushback. The kind of Change Agent who will take on a harsh culture to drive change is rarer than we would like.
The Practitioner’s Hard Benefits
A lot has been written about the human benefits of working out loud. Deeper connection to others, richer learning, personal purpose and fulfilment, the personal rewards of generosity and collaboration are all real and lasting benefits of working out loud. However, business is business and some users are looking for ‘hard’ financial benefits as their sole focus for change. The more demanding and siloed the performance environment, the more likely you will need to build your story on financial returns.
There are few sectors more focused on hard measurement of value than financial services. When I worked in banking we used to say there were four things you could do to create value for a customer. Our customer propositions were focused on the bank’s ability to:
- save time,
- save money,
- enable people to make money, or
- protect money or other assets (from risk)’.
A variant of these four holds for the personal financial benefits of working out loud to a practitioner:
- Save time: avoid search, avoid learning time, avoid wasted work & prevent duplicate work
- Save money: prevent duplicate work, improve alignment, avoid coordination costs, avoid expensive learning, avoid errors & rework, improve personal productivity & effectiveness
- Make money: better align to needs, leverage diversity of ideas and solutions, leverage broad contributions & agility of teams, reuse intellectual property, make experience a transferable product
- Protect: benefit from experience & learning of others, manage experiments easily, reduce risks, improve quality, etc
Each practitioner’s potential benefit equation will be unique. Work with their needs and circumstances to identify a suite of hard and soft benefits that engages their attention and provides an incentive for them to start the journey of working out loud.
Effective collaboration in your organisation depends on trust. The best way to build trust in your organisation is through collaborative work.
Trust is a consistent theme of this blog because it is fundamental to effective performance in organisations and social relationships. However, we mostly take it for granted and organisations often go out of their way to remind employees that they are not trusted and should not place their trust in the organisation.
Trust in the Work
One commenter on my recent post on collaboration and every day work suggested I was missing the need for trust to support collaboration. My response was that trust comes through actions and interactions. Organisations often talk about trust as an abstract and something that can be worked on itself.
The reality of most trust building activities is that they create no trust unless they are connected to the fundamental interactions of the organisation. Trust is a manifestation of the expectations of interactions in the organisation, i.e. culture. Trust is human. All the fancy trust building exercises will fail if people believe the real interactions that support the work will occur differently.
Founding trust in and around the work to be done is important. Collaboration can deliver this new foundation for trust. Transparency helps employees better understand what is going on in the organisation. Networks leverage that transparency to deliver new accountability to help people have confidence in the work of others. Collaboration networks better enable employees to judge the intentions and capability of others based on the past performance in public interactions with others. Each of these interactions fosters a better level of understanding of the potential for trust.
Most importantly of all, collaboration networks can increase the interactions and the experience of generosity between employees. We all find it hard to trust strangers. Sharing a social network enables people to develop a deeper understanding of all of their peers not just those in their own teams.
Organisations that want to increase the level of trust between employees can benefit from focus on encouraging employees to work out loud and seeking opportunities for collaboration in their everyday work.
Get Out of the Way
Organisations also need to take care that they send signals that reinforce the value of collaboration and trust in every day work. Treat collaboration as inherently risky and you will discourage your employees from participating, trusting their colleagues and trusting the organisation.
When collaboration technology enables new interactions in an organisation, it can be easy to identify all the new risks that can be created. The traditional corporate approach to risk is risk elimination. Why not turn off the solution or the feature that creates the risk so that there’s no exposure to one poor decision by an employee. However, to avoid a rare event, this approach either excludes collaboration opportunities from the organisation or signals to employees that they cannot be trusted.
A better management of those risks is to place accountability on employees to manage the risks, both for themselves and others. That is a signal of trust in your employees and your willingness to make them responsible for a better workplace. That’s usually how you manage those risks outside collaboration technology where you have less control over what employees say and do anyway. Treating collaboration technology as specially unsafe is a bad signal for trust and ignores the opportunity to teach employees to the benefit of all the work.
This last point is significant. Trust, collaboration, agency and agility that you grow in your collaboration platform doesn’t stay there. Each of these capabilities are based in our human characteristics and follow wherever your employees go. They spread through the whole organisation. Manage trust well in the collaboration of every day work and the whole organisation will benefit.
I woke up this Sunday and I had a terrible nostalgia for the days where my morning question was not:
“What have the politicians done to entertain us today?”
All around the world politics has become far too similar to a reality television show. The politicians, the media and our focus is on the daily conflicts, dramas and stupidities. The media environment and the demand of the media audience is far less concerned about leadership (other than the theatre of a leadership contest) than the entertainment of the political show. We have forgotten that the exercise of power for the betterment of society is more important that a following.
Politics is not alone in this confusion. Thought Leadership and other forms of punditry also shows a similar confusion. The accuracy or effectiveness of advice to better society now matters less than the ability to entertain and accumulate an audience. Platitudes and gross simplifications play better than difficult messages or a call to hard work.
Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
Conflict has always entertained humans. Conflict is the key to all our storytelling. Threat based narratives help us understand our tribes and bind together in times of adversity. We can see why politicians and pundits rely on them heavily. Inspirational narratives tend to appeal to our ego, our desire for ease and the uniqueness of our community and suggest the inevitability of our future success as long as we continue to follow the advice of the storyteller. We are suckers for entertainment as the makers of content for our mobile phones are well aware. Politicians, thought leaders, media commentators and even corporate executives are just meeting the market demand.
Increasingly, in the age of mobile devices, entertainment is a solo activity. We have lost much of the collective experience of entertainment that was the standard experience of previous generations. That lack of collective context weakens the foundations of community and hinders collaboration. We need shared context and trust to come together to make change happen. Trust is an outcome of the work and the experiences we share together. If we are each following our own personal entertainment guru, there is a fragmentation of that larger shared community.
As social technology and far better media tools creep into corporate life, we have also seen the rise of the executive as entertainer. Senior management can now engage and cultivate a following internally through collaboration tools and externally through social media and even traditional media roles. For some the dynamic changes from leading to entertaining. Rather than advocating for change and conflict within the organisation, it is easier to demonise an Other, such as a competitor, an external stakeholder or abstraction like errors or waste and demand the attention of a following without pushing people to change themselves. These executives are far less likely to demand challenging change of people themselves for fear that they lose part of their following or that they lose status to someone who promises a more compelling external enemy or an easier life.
We Need Power
We need to do more than meet a market demand for entertainment. We need power to push us beyond the limitations of our own efforts and our own imagination. We need the power to step outside of our individual potential and collaborate with others. The exercise of power in this way is called leadership.
A comment in a recent article on the often hidden role of power in design practice put the issue in a way that helped me see the connection:
The definition of power: the ability to influence an outcome
This quote starkly highlights the connection of power and leadership. We can often confuse power with its past abuses or the privilege that vests it undeservedly or unevenly in others. We can prefer our power to be responsive to the needs of the community. However, as Adam Kahane has pointed out in Power and Love, it is wishful thinking to wish power away or to demand that leaders are only responsive.
Leadership is about influence. Leadership is about achieving outcomes together with and through the work of a community. Without any resulting outcome, all you are doing is entertaining the community with a show. Bringing people together to help address complex social issues is going to take the exercise of power.
We need leadership because we need the action of small self-governing communities of change. That work is the power that matters now. We cannot rely on the politicians, the thought leaders, the senior executives or the experts to deliver us. We will have to do the work of change ourselves.
Yesterday I saw a list of all the reasons why people don’t use social technology to collaborate in their work. You know the kind of list: fears, habits, lack of understanding, lack of leadership, etc. I have to admit I sometimes tire of the focus on the negatives, especially as a sales pitch for consulting work. My response was to point out to the author that at the heart of almost all the points that were raised was a lack of an understanding that collaboration is how work gets done. When we are clear that collaboration is an important part of work then we get over our objections and make it happen. It also opens us up to consider the most effective ways to connect, share, solve and innovate together.
Ain’t Nothing Special
We can easily fall into the trap of selling collaboration technology as special. We’re adding new technology. Magical things will happen. You can have new conversations. You can do new work here. We will achieve all the abstract goals that you have always wanted like engagement, innovation, customer loyalty, productivity, and much much more. As much as we talk about them, these abstract capitalised nouns remain abstract because they aren’t the work most people are doing.
Positioning collaboration technology as different and special runs straight into a priority problem. Where do I get the time to do this new and different thing? How do I even find the time to learn how to do it? With new and different also comes risk. What if I aren’t any good at this new magical and different thing?
Positioning collaboration technology as wondrously different also runs into the problem it is not new. This technology has been in use for nearly a decade and stretches back to models of technology that have been around far longer. Why are we talking as if it is special?
What is the Work?
Ask a different question instead. What work in your organisation requires people to collaborate? Focus on the work and not on the technology. Go find all the instances in each of your work processes today where people have to find coworkers to help, share information, share documents, solve problems together and meet and interact around business challenges. That work is going on right now all around you. Start with the collaboration and bring the technology.
When you start with the collaborative work, you are having a different conversation. The work is going on. You don’t need anyone to prioritise their time different. You only need them to consider which way will make their work more effective. How could that collaboration be different if they worked out loud? How might it be easier, faster, better quality or otherwise more effective?
Put the collaborative work of your organisation at the heart of your collaboration technology. Your users probably don’t want anything else there.
Talk is Talk. Work is Value
Because collaboration technology is often owned by support areas, we can see it as a communication technology. We can focus far too much on the new conversations that will come along as the community builds. You do not want to position collaboration technology as a place for chat or social interactions.
The purpose of your organisation is the work that you do. That work involves connecting, sharing, solving problems and making change. Do that work in your collaboration technology. Focus obsessively on creating strategic value by connecting to the collaborative work across the organisation. When you do so, you will surprise the organisation with the value that can be created by working differently. You will also find that most of the barriers disappear as people race to be involved.
Yesterday, I had an opportunity to gather with two colleagues to prepare a joint presentation for a future conference. We had put aside 2 hours to work on integrating three distinct approaches to the role of collaboration in digital disruption into one compelling approach. After thirty fire-cracking minutes of sharing, building on each other’s ideas and the odd challenge, we had advanced everyone’s understanding and put together an exciting story that we all passionate believe in. We were so excited by the outcome that we will likely seek to convert the approach to other formats as well. What made the experience is exciting was how quickly 3 diverse perspectives came together when approached with trust, openness, generosity, a focus on practice and a willingness to learn. This conversation was working out loud at its finest.
Working out loud helps me every day to understand and engage with diverse perspectives on my work. I am a middle aged white male who has had many senior executive positions. I am regularly hired as an expert, a consultant and a speaker. I am confident in my opinions and given too much latitude can easily slip into the bad habit of dominating conversation. However, I don’t learn anything when I am speaking. All I do is confirm what I believe to myself.
Working out loud is an opportunity to change that pattern of interaction. When I am open with what is going on, but not yet finished, I invite the contributions and corrections of others. When I am open and generous, I encourage others to trust me more and respect the vulnerability I have shown. As I haven’t concluded the work, I have less to defend. I don’t engage the other people around me as well by expressing conclusions because I am tempted to fight for them. When I haven’t finished, I am much more open to learn and to develop ideas based on the generative inputs of others.
Working out loud has taught me to go seek the voices of the quiet participants in groups and to seek views from further afield than my usual interactions. I have learned to encourage others to share their harshest views of my work. In some of the most brutally unfair criticism, there can be insight to another worldview or a different message that needs to be addressed in my work. Working out loud around the world has also helped me to understand the hidden cultural expectation that shape our work and our behaviour. Effective change and adoption require us to be able to surface and engage with these cultural expectations as well. There is more that I can do to gain additional perspectives but I know that working out loud will be a critical vehicle for me in learning from the views of a diverse community of collaborators.
Leadership is the art of realising potential. That potential is often least tapped where diversity is suppressed or people’s contributions are not being considered. Working out loud as a leader can play an important role in supporting an inclusive environment and gathering new views and contributions. All leaders need to reflect on how they step outside their own experience and opinions and learn from the wider community around their work.