Collaboration is a Relationship

One of the consequences of our machine metaphor of work is a transactional view of tasks. We see work as moving inputs to outputs moment by moment through our actions. The human engagement in our actions can be lost in the business. A transactional view of collaboration is one that will have limited success. Collaboration exists in relationships and fostering those relationships in groups and communities is key to ongoing value creation

Bringing Relationships to the Fore

Imagine a total stranger from your organisation approaches you at work and says ‘let’s collaborate’. Your immediate reactions are predictable:

  • Connect: Who are you? For what purpose would we collaborate? Why should I bother?
  • Share: Tell me more. I need some context.
  • Solve: How can I help? What do we need to achieve together?
  • Innovate: What do you need to do differently? What capabilities are missing?
Developing a relationship through work

Expecting someone to collaborate without addressing at least a minimum answer to these issues is relying on their inherent human generosity. Not everyone at work begins an interaction with a stranger as a good samaritan with time, capability and resources to spare. Our transactional focus at work often pushes the exact opposite mindset of husbanding our information, resources and capabilities for our own work.

A stranger demanding you collaborate transactionally is not an opportunity. It is a threat. That threat is not solved by simply designating people a group, a project or a team. Before we can bring about effective and valuable collaboration we need to start fostering the kind of relationships that engender connection and community.

Relationships Means Time

Relationships are reciprocal. A one-way relationship is no relationship at all. All the parties that need to come together in collaboration need to have the time and effort put into establishing the necessarily level of relationships. This effort is one reason why collaboration activities are rarely overnight big bank launches. The community that is expected to collaborate needs to spend time together connecting, sharing and solving problems towards the greater goal.

No matter how safe you assure people collaboration will be they want to see it in action. No matter how much value you promise people from sharing information they want to experience the value themselves first. No matter how big the benefit of collaborating on problems, people want to see the successes and the benefits before they commit their time and effort to strangers or even their immediate colleagues.

The Collaboration Maturity Model above is underpinned by its focus on these human relationship dynamics of alignment, trust, capability, agency and reciprocity. The steps of the model describe only the phases. The detailed work in each phase is how we realise new levels alignment, trust, agency and reciprocity.

Because we can’t turn on collaboration when we need it, the work of leaders is to be continuously building the relationships and capability across the organisation. The use case and benefits of collaboration exist in your organisation today. What is lacking is the relationships that bring that capability to bear on your organisations strategic problems and enable your employees to contribute directly to the success of your organisation. Building enduring collaborative communities in your organisation gives you ways to leverage this talent to achieve your strategic goals.


Such a headwind!
Sometimes it requires
all my strength
just to end a line.

But when the wind is at
my back, we’re likely
to get carried away, and say
something we can never retract,

Connie Wanek, Umbrella

Finding a photograph to represent wind is a challenge. There are plenty of photographs of storm clouds. You can have the mime act of a person walking into the wind. There are lots of photos of things that use the wind: gliders, yachts and balloons. The challenge is tough because the wind is invisible until it bends you out of shape with its long years of assault.

Headwinds is one of those corporate terms that has a vague explanatory value hinting, but not defining, forces impeding progress towards a goal. Like many such terms, its value is as an excuse without specificity. Why aren’t things going well? Headwinds. Whether those winds are expected or unexpected is unaddressed. Use of the term ignores that headwinds can be of value; pilots deliberately land into headwinds to increase lift and control of the plane. Headwinds challenge is to be better, more adaptable and more flexible in the achievement of our goals.

Much of the time, we are like a tree bent by the prevailing winds. Our life and training either teaches us to bend or brace against headwinds. Some winds are stronger due to prejudice, lack of privilege or other disadvantage but there is always some form of headwind, light breeze or howling gale. In our current predicament, much of the opposition feels like a gale. We all enjoy the rare moments of relief from pushing against the force of invisible opposition. The test is not how well we rail against the wind but that we find ways to brace ourselves against its worst blowing and slip our way forward, if only on hands and knees.

Tailwinds are rare. When they exist, we need to be ready to take maximum advantage of the momentum they offer. Preparing ourselves for these rare opportunities is a life’s work. The sooner we escaping our headwinds brace to take the opportunity of a tailwind the more we achieve. Some never do. Take care that your stiff brace and determination to fight headwinds does not become a barrier to opportunity.

Invisible headwinds will always oppose our progress. The world may bend to wind but it doesn’t bend to our will. We can always find a way to edge forward, flex and adapt.

Wind sings in its whirling,
water murmurs going by,
unmoving stone keeps still.
Wind, water, stone.

Each is another and no other:
crossing and vanishing
through their empty names:
water, stone, wind.

Octavio Paz, Wind Water Stone


The Ikigai Venn diagram is widely shared. The diagram challenges us to look to the intersection of what we are good at, what the world needs, what we can be paid to do and what we love. Obviously the right answer is in the middle of the pretty flower of overlapping circles. The diagram reduces a great deal of life’s complexity to an elegant picture.

The familiar Ikigai

Any Venn diagram is a selection from all the possible sets and their possible overlaps. Some of those sets like what the world needs and what we love can be hard to map and understand. Presuming we know these is like reading a novel backwards. After all, we expose all of these sets of choices by working and our life experience. It would be much easier if these things were laid out for our careful selection.

A Venn diagram encourages to think about what point we want to be at. However a life or career is a path. Options arise in each moment. We rarely choose one destination. We choose the next step. We can also realise new potential that changes the shape of all the sets. The diagram is pretty but nothing is so simple or fixed about a life.

Reflecting on that diagram this morning, I also saw something I had not considered before. The dark side of Ikigai is just adjacent. Here’s the Anti-Ikigai.

The Anti-Ikigai

If you compare this to the original you will see the top right two sets are the same. Both what you are good at and what you can be paid for are in both and their overlap is a profession. The Anti-Ikigai is just adjacent to the Ikigai. No wonder it is so easy to get lost.

The new diagram introduces two new sets omitted from the first but ever so common in discussion of life and careers. These sets are what brings power and what you can bear. Many will tell you these are critical parts of success in a life or career. We are often told to grin and bear it for a promotion, bonus or other financial reward or new power.

Introducing two new sets bring three new intersections:

  • At the intersection of power and our talents is ambition
  • At the intersection of payment and tolerance is desperation
  • At the intersection of power and tolerance is corruption

All of a sudden it’s not so clear that we want to be at the heart of the pretty flower. Sadly, that’s where many aim to be and feel there is no other choice. This map is directly adjacent to the other as we make choices and discover we can easily wander across into this landscape. With power, aptitude and rewards pushing us forward it can be hard to recognise we are astray. Even more when society reinforces that this is our map.

The sets you see and the parts of those sets you can reveal shape choices both good and bad. Life is a quest to learn, discover and realise potential. There are no easy answers, no matter how pretty the flower. We need to remember that the obstacles are the work. Addressing the challenges before us will help reveal all our options.

A year in rear view

At this time of year, I commonly write a review of the lessons of the year and an outline for work ahead. This year we will pass on the prospective view as the chaos continues apace. However there is value to reflect on what we learned in 2020.

The Work Works

After years of arguing over flexibility and digital work tools, we embraced them when we needed them. We embraced them fast. Everyone is now a working from home expert, ring light included. Compelling work- & strategy-based rationales for change in work processes matter. The best rationale is a need to get the work done or to do it demonstrably better. No matter how or where we work we still need to Connect>Share>Solve>Learn, Adapt & Innovate.

We will be working in new ways for a long while to come. The next phase of making work work will be the gradual adaption of work processes, rituals and routines to the new Covid-normal. Organisations will need to let creativity flourish to complete the adaptation. At the same time, we will need to be inventive to tackle the challenges of fatigue, lack of connection, lack of context, exceptions and broken flow.

To make work work, leaders will need to lead, the verb not the noun. In a remote world, passive leadership is nothing and purely rational leadership is useless. Leaders who want their teams to succeed will need to support their teams across the breadth of their lives, emotions and collaborations. We need to allow people to take their whole self from work (especially at home). Fostering connection and effective digital leadership in each member of the team and collaboration in their internal and external relationships is the new challenge. We will need to leverage their extraordinary talents.The world is too complex for simplicity, certainty and set and forget.

Digital Always

We’ve gone from digital to digital first to digital always. We’ve held on by the skin of our teeth to make the work work in 2020, but in 2021 we are going to find the pace of change accelerates. Born Digital processes and solutions survived the shocks and bumps of 2020 better because there wasn’t an analogue component to be locked out, broken down, distanced or isolated.

Digital always is planning for more than just a narrow single digital path or process. It’s ensuring that all the workflow, every exception and every communication can be captured digitally. That means recognising that people differ and preferences vary. Digital always supports all the necessary paths.

As we transform our work to work as digital always, we will also make smarter decisions on when face-to-face mattters. We will treasure our moments of presence and human connection more as we did in 2020. We can work more to avoid routine and still find joy in the little human moments. We will learn to better value these moments and the people who work to bring them to life.

All The Feels

If you’ve followed the roller coaster of this blog this year, it’s been far less about the future of work. Much of the year has been a process of processing experiences and emotion out loud. Much of it feelings of loss. I never expected that the most popular post on this blog by some margin would be one that captured a zeitgeist of fatigue.

The feels aren’t going away. They are here to stay. They are a key part of our human potential. While it won’t be easy, we will be better not to pretend that everything is rational, safe and OK when it’s actually confusing, scary and unsettling. We need to give ourselves some latitude to tend to ourselves and our lives. We can also bring some understanding, love and compassion to others as they struggle to do the same.

Human Works

In a year when our health was threatened and extraordinary humans went to work to protect and save us it became so clear that being human works, or at least it can when we rise about the petty and the individual to focus on the power of community and human agency at work. Our messy unrealised human potential is more critical than ever to our futures. No magical blockchain, AI, digital process or algorithm is coming to save us or kill us. They serve our humanity.

I promised I wouldn’t make predictions, but I have. There are difficult days ahead. There always are. However, we have reserves of potential individually and together that will help us to adapt. I want to thank everyone for being such a support this year as I and we struggled through. We have a lot to learn and even more work to do. However we will do it together, even if apart for now.

Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season and much rest, relaxation and celebration. May your future be closer than it appears.

Good Behaviour

If I get good behaviour, I will be out of here by July

Paul Kelly, How to Make Gravy

It’s Gravy Day in Australia, 21 December, a name inspired by Paul Kelly’s song about one disrupted Christmas. With outbreaks & new lockdowns, new strains of the coronavirus, concerns people won’t choose to be vaccinated and more, the quote above feels very apt. We are dependant on good behaviour, but community mindsets seem threatened around us.

Public health responses are community responses. Communities come together to pursue a shared purpose of better health for all. These responses depend on individuals to take actions that might involve minor costs and inconvenience for wider good. These are the actions of socially beneficial good behaviour: wearing masks, keeping distance, isolating when exposed and vaccinating when possible. 2020 has thrown into stark relief the individualistic responses that have held back the effectiveness of these responses. We are still waiting for good behaviour from some.

At a time when our organisations have been atomised by remote work, the collaborative, collective and community will be a challenge in 2021. We can manage the individual but the good behaviour and engagement of the work community will be the challenge we face as long as the disruption of the pandemic continues. Work doesn’t happen in isolated units. Work happens when individuals, groups, teams and communities come together with the right behaviours to advance the collective and shared goals. Aligning, coordinating, sharing context and resources, solving problems are all going to be the work we need to do and the underpinning organisational culture of values and behaviours will be essential to success.

Focusing on good behaviour reminds us that rights bring responsibilities that reflect the needs and norms of the wider community. Freedom of speech is the freedom to speak, not necessarily the freedom from responsibility for one’s words. Freedom of association involves the group taking account of the health and safety of those with whom they gather. The freedom to make individual choices involves responsibility to take account of the implications of those actions for others and the wider community. We have seen recently that the freedom to vote depends on responsibilities that reside in the norms and practices of a democracy. The way we work depends on norms and practices in our organisations which are more dependant on good behaviour of the community than rules, policy and enforcement.

Much of what we do each day depends on more on community norms and good behaviour of others than the forces of hierarchy law and power. When bad behaviour is rampant, the forces of power are surprisingly ineffectual and often easily coopted. In the end, the wider community must often do the work of reigning in the excesses. In the end, the good behaviour of civil society benefits us all, even if it makes for incovenience at times.

So this Gravy Day, I am wishing we all get ‘good behaviour’ in our organisations and wider communities. See you in July.


We lost our refuge.

A year of bushfires, lockdowns and disruptions has shattered our ability to find refuge.

First the holiday resorts that are our summer escape caught fire causing Australians to flee back to cities choked by smoke. Then in lockdown our homes became our workplaces, logistic hubs, technology data centres, webinar broadcast operations, schools, boardrooms, and crisis centres every hour of every day. The usual distractions of social media and entertainment became a scene of new anxieties.

A year of exploring the power of boundaries became the struggle to find any. People tried digital detox, deleting apps, gardening, home renovation and other efforts to create new places of isolation, safety and reflection. I found some refuge in my poetry collection and it seems others did too. Poets have prepared deep reservoirs of human emotion and human experience within which we can take comfort, find understanding and begin to process the changing world.

However each of us can find refuge we need to discover that place. Life depends on light and shade. Always on is indistinguishable from always off. Refuge is where we recharge, recover, reflect and renew. Refuge is where we plan and prepare. Refuge is where we wait in difficulties to come forth and support others with change, care and compassion.

As we head into a different kind of holiday season, may you find some refuge from the stresses and the strains. A new year awaits.

Silence, Love and Guilt

Yesterday I saw a tweet from a campaigner on a social issue that said ‘Silence is complicity’. I recognised the passionate sentiment. I felt the fierce anger that not everyone has joined in on your personal quest to change the world. I know the despair that others don’t have the urgency that you have and the frustration that much of what passes for inaction in our world is at least apathy, if not complicity.

However, I would hope a social campaigner had a little more love and compassion about the challenges of speaking up. These are not ideal times. For many watching, your passionate quest is beyond their personal capacity which is devoted almost entirely to survival. Is someone’s focus on their own needs first complicity? Yes, there may never be ideal times to tackle Monsters at the Gates, but each person must choose their own cause and actions. Purpose, engagement and sacrifice cannot be imposed. They demand agency.

We need too a recognition that if the obligation lies on everyone to speak up about everything all the time we lose the effectiveness of voice. Too many voices too often is not persuasion, it is chatter. I can add my voice, but will it drown out one more important and less well heard? Our partisan and angry world is an outcome of lots of voice and the ability for people to choose their own bubbles. The other importance of love and compassion in those advocating for change is to recognise that we achieve far more with engendering connection, engagement and enthusiasm than by fostering othering and guilt.

So much has passed this year that calls for change, that guilt is an easier response, especially for those with the love and compassion to notice. As my life returns slowly to a Covid normal, I look at the wider world and have all kinds of feelings of guilt. People are suffering unnecessarily. Can we do more? Yes. Should we do more now? Now that is a question that varies with time and circumstances. We should have the compassion to accept in ourselves and others that people will make the choices which make their best contributions to the world.

Nobody improved the world with guilt. For now, I will remain silent on that issue as with so many others. I will bide my time to make a mark. If that makes me complicit in a long list of evils, then that is how it must be. I will still hold out hope for change, love for others and keep a little compassion for myself.

Feels Like Work

We easily lose sight of what is work. As our days fill with messages we can feel like we are working but the real progress escapes us. Make sure you are advancing the work that needs to be done.

Demanding Attention

In the ancient days of the 1980s and 1990s the artefacts of a busy day was memos. In this millenium, work has been defined by email which has become for many a form of workflow, even the only form of workflow. Inbox Zero advocates have driven people to see productivity in moving everything that comes in by email to out. In this process we handed our productivity to the service of others.

Now our days are filled with the relentless ping of chat. Across multiple channels, solutions, devices, our days can feel productive as we ping our responses back to updates, queries and discussions. These synchronous demands consume our attention and our time. Instead of conversations, they can become blizzards of tactical directions. Like memos and emails beforehand, chat feels like work. However, chat may not always be the most productive choice.

What is the goal?

Much productive work is either asynchronous or much more deeply engaged. We create best in iterative asynchronous loops that allow time for reflection, inspiration and experimentation. We achieve deeper understanding and solve problems in rich and long conversations that have the time and bandwith to get to the heart of issues, under the surface status. We help others by taking the time to really understand their needs and desires through conversation and collaboration. This is the work that creates sustainable value. This is the work that changes the trajectory of outcomes, businesses and lives.

Time and attention is required to move beyond chat to conversation and collaboration. Continuous chat can be a distraction from the real work that we need to do together to create the future. Make sure you haven’t confused the tool of work with the result. Make sure you allow enough time and space in your day to be truly productive.

Always Starting Again

Perhaps is a new and sudden way of being.

Like satisfaction not yet begun or some other kind
of kindness:

a more gentle one?

Adam Clay, Start This Record Over

Back in the middle of lockdown I wrote a post about the challenges and benefits of Starting Again. I read it again this morning. I realise now I missed an even larger point. Perhaps because I was stuck. Perhaps because starting again felt unrealistic when we were all stopped, I failed to point out:

We are always starting again.

Every day, every hour, every meeting, every call and every message is a chance to start again. Most likely, whatever history we are carrying into that moment is not even on the mind of others. People are busy, distracted by the own challenges and issues and juggling their own priorities. They aren’t holding your history with the reverence that you might like.

We have all had the moment. You are following up on the last conversation and the other party gives you a blank stare. Your critical opportunity has gone from their mind. Your offence has been forgotten. Whatever the significance to you, time has made it insignificant to others.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.


The flowing river of time washes away a lot. We have the chance to deepen connection, share more context, start on a better foot, be better prepared, make amends, to build anew, to improve and to grow. We get to try again, try harder, stop or change course. We learn and grow. So do our colleagues and counterparts.

We can use that onrush of renewal to make today special and different. We can reinvent, recreate and renew. Take the opportunity of starting again or it too will be washed away.

Leave me awhile and I will recover
In darkness and in night.
It was too soon for me to discover growth in the light.

Mabel Dodge Luhan, False Start


Remote work can interrupt the flow of work. Invest time and effort in understanding the barriers and blockages to productivity in distributed work.

In Kaizen and Lean productivity, there is a concept called Gemba, the place the work is done. These productivity disciplines exhort people seeking better performance to understand exactly how and where work is done. We may not fully understand the work with out experience of its locations, ebbs and flows.

Disrupted Flow

While remote work has many advantages, one disadvantage is an inability to observe the work in action and to see the frustrations. One of those frustrations is an interruption to the flow of work.

Working from home in a pandemic means interruptions are part of the course of our work. Deliveries arrive on the own timing. Parents need to look after children’s learning, meals and more. Tech support is self-service.

We also find that work can’t flow as easily because casual workplace conversations need to be scheduled as meetings. We have lost a flow of timely communication which chat can only partially replace. My experience has been that when a project is in flight, this flow of conversation finds a way, but if there are interruptions, distractions or delays, restarting the flow of communication & work takes huge effort. We have little shared time and context to found the flow of work.

Manage Flow

Managing the flow of work through interruptions and lack of communication takes effort. This will not ‘just happen’.

Teams need to think carefully about scheduling of meetings and events to allow time for uninterrupted work. Handoffs need to be worked on to ensure that they are effective and foster productive flow. Teams need to consider activities that are causing wait and delay for others to expedite effectiveness for everyone. We all need to be realistic about the life experiences that wrap around and through our work.

Teams need to create as much communication as they can to replace the informal discussions in the workplace. That discussion needs to be more than just chat and involve rich conversations and collaborations to solve the problems of work and share deep context.

The flow of our work influences our productivity. That flow also shapes our experience of frustrations and fatigue. delivering the workplace of the future requires us all to manage flow regardless of physical location.