Who Owns the Problem? You Do

Every problem deserves someone to get it fixed. If the owner of the problem is unclear, it’s your job to fix it or find someone to fix it. That might be unfair but it’s the only sure way things improve.

Today browsing the social feed I saw a rather disappointing statement:

We hear this kind of statement a lot:

  • “If only someone would do something”,
  • “why doesn’t someone fix this?”
  • “management should have addressed it”
  • “politicians should be solving this
  • “I’ve known for years someone should do something”

We can sit and bemoan the state of leadership globally (I do often), but it rarely contributes to the solution of problems. What does drive solutions is people taking up their agency to act and encouraging others to do the same.

If there is a problem with no person obviously working to solve it, then the burden falls on the person who can see the problem to work on it. Rarely you might be the only person who can see that problem or deliver that solution because of your unique skills, situation or perspective. Often, everyone else might be waiting for someone to show leadership, declare the need for work and start. I’ve seen many situations where it only took someone to say I think we should fix this for solutions to be found. Even more often, the person whose job it is to fix that issue might have other issues and just not be accountable enough. They aren’t going to change with wishes. They need the pressure of action and conversations to see the need to contribute their help.

Many of you might feel it is unfair to ask you to act because you are adversely impacted by the problem. It is. Ending that unfairness requires action. There are plenty of problems of structural or societal or power inequality, that can’t be solved by the actions of one person. They probably won’t be solved quickly. They also won’t be solved if we wait. Everyone can play a role, even if that role is just going looking for someone else to help or describing the problem in a way that enables others to take action.

If you find a problem that’s not being solved fast enough for your liking, either help or bring in the people who can help. It is that simple. If we all take up this accountability to fix or find the fixer then things improve rapidly. Importantly, in this process we also discover a whole bunch of agency and a whole lot of learned helplessness disappears.

Passionate and inspiring leaders aren’t wishing for a better and waiting for problems to be solved. They are creating solutions through action and accountability. That energy and activity is what engages others and changes the world.



I often talk to senior executives about the challenges their organisations face creating value, coordinating work and achieving strategic goals in a rapidly moving digital environment.  Those challenges commonly fall into 3 categories:

  • Awareness: Do the employees in the organisation know what they should know? Are we making use of information effectively and in a timely manner?  This challenge is often summarised by the wish ‘If only, we knew what we know’
  • Alignment: How do I know that the effort in my organisation is going to creating value and high value work aligned to strategic goals? How do I enable employees to autonomously solve alignment issues? This challenge is often summarised by the wish ‘If only, we could get alignment without the meetings’
  • Action: How can I benefit from my employee’s position on the spot to solve problems and put information to use? How can we react faster and better to the opportunities around us? How do we engage discretionary effort and make things happen at scale? This challenge can be summarised by the wish: ‘If only, we didn’t wait for instruction’

I have previously described three patterns of human interaction that help address these key issues for senior executives:

  • Chat helps create Shared Information
  • Conversation helps create Shared Understanding
  • Collaboration helps create Shared Work

Shared Information solves Awareness: An organisation that has robust chats will have a wide sharing of information among employees. It is never possible to create complete information awareness, but we can foster an environment in the organisation of what McChrystal calls ‘Shared consciousness’ in his book Team of Teams. Having transparent sharing of information and context building chat across a public network, increases the likelihood that information will be available for employees to pull into their work when and where they need. This is because chat both helps surface this information such that others can find it and it also develops an organisation index of expertise and authority that individuals can leverage to find information effectively.

Shared Understand solves Alignment: Once issues of simple awareness and status of goals are removed by creating a shared context, most issues of alignment are issues of a lack of shared understanding. People are not testing their understanding of the goals and the impact of their work in conversations that would identify the tensions and enable them to adapt to better alignment. When there is misalignment, the issue is rarely one of better broadcasting of information, it is usually how well the recipients are understanding the messages and its connection to their work and its value.  Increasing the pace and volume of conversations that reconcile these tensions when small and improve the mutual understanding is essential to developing more effective alignment and sustaining that alignment as things change.

Shared Work solves Action: It’s hard and risky to make change on your own. Collaborative work brings people into action and shows them the potential of their work to drive change and benefit others. Increasing the volume of shared work, addresses agency, fosters better experiences for employees and customers and ultimately creates an environment in which a breadth of innovation is fostered.

We can see how Chat, Conversation and Collaboration mature across the four stages of the Collaboration Maturity model in the following chart:

  • Connect: bringing people together can start some chatter and enables the initial conversations around people and alignment.
  • Share: Chat is now well developed and the sharing in the network helps develop alignment. People are beginning to be inspired to action by the sharing going on, but this action may not be visible or be in other domains.
  • Solve: There is a rich environment for awareness and the potential of networks to solve issues of alignment is being explored well. The benefits of problems being solved is inspiring an increasing level of action and engagement from employees
  • Innovate:  Effective innovation requires all three to be operating at a high level and the ability to bring the whole organisation’s systems to bear on challenges and opportunities. This level of collaborative performance requires a high level of trust to have been created through the experience of growing maturity.

Here’s a table to reflect how each stage can be mapped.

Aware Aligned Action

This discussion to date has been agnostic of the tools you might choose to conduct chats, conversations and collaboration. As I have noted previously, these human behaviours relate to patterns of human interactions but can be mapped to a range of features of different collaboration tools. Different features of different tools address the various elements of awareness, alignment and action to differing degrees. Most importantly your tool will have significant impact on the shape of what is known and what is unknown. This can be a critical issue in awareness, alignment and action and the resulting value created (a topic for a future blog).

In addition, you will always find users whose preferences differ and they seek to execute the behaviour in unusual ways to suit their perceptions and needs. At times there may be a need for chats, conversations or collaborations to improve awareness, alignment, and action for these users.

Most important in achieving the goals that management want to see from these tools are key questions that must be address in the adoption of any new work behaviours:

  • what is the culture of the organisation now and what does it need to be for success?
  • How open and transparent can we be with information?
  • How well shared is the information, understanding and work of the organisation to begin?
  • What is the pace of change and adaptation?

The key challenges of management can be easily and effectively addressed by encouraging adoption of both inner and outerloop work tools and the use of both in combination. Designing and supporting that adoption in organisations requires a focus on the human change that will ensure success.

Unrealistic Ambitions

Your ambitions don’t have to match your expectations. What’s realistic is not a limit to what should be attempted. Knowing your ambitions are unrealistic but pursuing them anyway enables growth, learning and can support happiness.

Happiness and Expectations.

Rachel Happe shared this great advice on Twitter:

Happiness is often shaped by the gap between expectations and reality. Too often people lose touch with what’s actually going on and their expectations become unrealistic.

This is never truer then when people are enthusiastically promoting change. Enthusiasm can often drift into an unwillingness to listen to others concerns and a certainty of success that is unfounded. Enthusiasm often creates unrealistic expectations.

Remaining engaged with the community around your work and listening actively to their views is critical to keeping a realistic view of expectations. This engagement is where you will find the real barriers to you success and the opportunities to be leveraged.

Expectations and Ambitions

Unfortunately, many take the view that their ambitions should be what is expected (or less). Unwilling to fail or be disappointed they set their ambitions in the safe and comfortable zone of expectations.

However, expectations are rarely a single certain outcome. They are usually a wide probabilistic range. The safe zone gives up a lot of improbable but still possible territory. This is where ambition and expectations can safely diverge.

I’ve struggled with many people at work and in life generally over the idea you can have extreme ambitions and moderate expectations. There is always someone in the team who will say ‘that’s unlikely. What should we bother?’ This is usually met with ‘If it is likely, why should we bother?’ The zone of discomfort where our ambitions exceed our expectations is where we start to grow and realise our potential.

Many people think ambition must equal expectation but that is a path to either unhappiness or underperformance. Lift you expectations to unrealistic ambitions and you will be disappointed. Sink your ambitions to what is realistic and you won’t grow your potential or create meaningful change. The status quo isn’t what you are seeking to reinforce.

It is important to note I’m not advocating the unrealistic expectations that come to those with privilege. People may be ordained to have high expectations. Effort in the circumstances, fair or unfair, determines who succeeds. Failure is real and likely. As I have suggested before change agents need to be wildly optimistic and have the cold hard clarity of reality before them. Privilege and all the systemic barriers to success are good reasons to separate our ambitions and our expectations. Sustained effort, happiness and growth comes more easily when ambition and expectations are managed separately.

What’s realistic is not a guide to what should be attempted. What’s realistic is telling you what will happen most likely based on averages. Your efforts have a chance to change that. Set yourself some unrealistic ambitions but hold realistic expectations and you will balance happiness and surprising success.

Don’t Make It Easy

Don’t make collaboration easy. The greatest value comes from tackling the hardest and most complex challenges.

Confusing Ease and Adoption

A lot of the focus of community managers promoting adoption of collaboration solutions when starting out is how to make it easier for employees. Rightly, community managers want to make it easy for employees to make sense of the solution and to create a positive and harmonious environment that doesn’t attract opposition from the at times hostile organisation.

However, an excessive focus on ease can undermine a community. Adoption of new ways of work requires a sense-making process of how to integrate the new ways of work into ongoing patterns. Make it too smooth and people may not have to think about what changes.

Worse too much comfort can undermine the clarity of the purpose of the collaboration. If all conflict is whisked away, if only good news is discussed and only easy things are done, employees will soon abandon the platform because it doesn’t ‘feel like work’.

Adoption is far more about delivering employees an opportunity to be clear on the purpose and value of collaboration than it is about making it easy for them. Go too far in doing the work for your employees and they won’t bring their participation or their biggest challenges.

Hard Work is the Valuable Work

Organisations need collaboration solutions to address challenges and to realise opportunities that can’t be delivered by the usual silos and processes. Fixing things outside of the system is not easy but it is the most valuable work your collaboration network can do.

Community managers need to invite complex challenges into their communities and invite employees to contribute their best talents to their solution. Without the contribution of a whole organisation’s worth of ideas, insights and efforts the hardest & most complex challenges won’t be solved and as the community probes, senses and responds its way to a solution.

Complex challenges bring difficulties, failures and conflicts. If they were easy, they’d be solved by now. Inviting a community to tackle the big valuable issues means things are going to get hard and you need a community that is mature enough to have some grit and use its degrees of freedom.

Disequilibrium is a part of any change process. If you want the highest levels of value with scales and agile change then you will need a great deal of disequilibrium. The disequilibrium will facilitate change and new perspectives.

Don’t make collaboration too easy for your organisation. The best value and the best challenges will require some difficulty. Provide clarity on the work to be done and promote the passion and persistence to finish the job.

The Self-organising Disappearance

Self-organisation is one of the most common themes of the future of work. It is also the one most likely to disappear in the culture of organisations. Realising self-organisation takes more than new practices. Achieving sustainable self-organisation requires a focus on the culture of management and interactions.

The Self-organising Disappearance

Self-organisation is everywhere. Also, it disappears as fast as it is advocated.

Nobody was going to have a manager. Holacracy was going to bring self-organisation to all organisations but has ended up a niche practice at best. Agile is about enabling self-organising teams to deliver the projects they choose in the manner that best makes sense for them. However in many organisations agile is the way that project teams take orders in fancy new meetings. Open plan workspaces were to enable the new flat organisational models of the future but we just got the funky furniture and the negative impacts on productivity. Enterprise social was to enable widescale self-organising of collaboration but still we spend our time talking about the importance of senior leadership engagement. We could go on.

One issue is core to the failure of self-organisation in many of these approaches. We sold a new work practice that is predicated on a new culture of work, but we left out the culture change. The traditional management culture of efficiency, allocation, command and control embraced the new practices where required, but managed out the threatening and risky self-organisation. When culture is our expectation of how to behave in groups, that expectation will shape any fancy new process or practice.

In many cases, this was deliberate. Fearing that self-organisation was scary or difficult, advocates didn’t promote that element of the hot new practice. Leaving culture change to later is leaving culture change out entirely. In other cases, the scope of the implementation project was not wide enough to allow for sustainable change. Self-organisation doesn’t coexist well with traditional top-down budgeting, human resources and performance systems. Leave those out of scope and they will slow win back control. Many of the new practices were also complete systems that had been developed over time in a specific context. Imposing the practice without the context led to all kinds of inevitable adaptation opening the door to adaptation to suit traditional cultural models of management.

The Power of Self-organisation

Self-organisation is still a key part of enabling organisation to adapt in a digital age.  More businesses face the challenge of moving beyond the predictable repeatable process of work.  As they do so, they discover that top down process centric approaches to work are barriers to adaptation.

The pace of adaptation accelerates when organisations can engage all their employees in learning and initiating change. Self-organisational practices enable employees to quickly identify, test and adapt without waiting for management decisions to change processes, budgets, goals or team structures. Moving decision-making closer to the customer and closer to the edge of the business enables that decision-making to be more responsive to changing markets.

Importantly, self-organisation is also how organisations begin to tackle the pervasive lack of engagement and waste of human potential in traditional bureaucratic structures of management. Coordinating change in one’s own work enables a more direct line to purpose and the value of the work. It enables people to change their contribution to teams to better align to their potential and their growing capabilities. Our organisations come together to better leverage collective human potential. Once that was best done through the management of information and resources in a hierarchical bureaucracy. The challenge now is how we organise for the next level of performance in a competitive fast changing digital market.

Realising Self-Organisation

As noted above, there are many practices that foster self-organisation, but we often miss how they challenge our traditional management practice. Hierarchical decision-making, efficiency orientation, resource allocation through budgeting, inflexible processes and policy and tight metrics are how we ‘do business’. They are the cultural expectations we have of how things are done and they are rarely challenged or considered in organisations. It is for very good reason that any new change in an organisation is met with the questions “who authorised this?” and “do you have budget?”

Introducing self-organisation into your organisation should not be about throwing out the existing culture and incorporating another culture whole. That’s not how culture change works. People don’t embrace new cultural expectations because they are mandated. They are embraced through a process of adaptation, story telling and experience. New rituals are one part of that process but the practical experience of change is what is more powerful in shaping expectations.

Stepping into changes in the way management is done in your organisation also creates new risks. Existing management and their power structures will be rightly reluctant to embrace new risks and lose control of mitigating them at the same time. Organisations that want to move in the direction of self-organisation do so by building foundations for new ways of working that go directly to these anxieties in management.

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Here are a few starting points that we will explore in future posts:

  • Accountability & Alignment: Most organisations claim to have an accountability culture. Few do. Often if they do, it is a culture of individual accountability at the expense of collaboration and alignment. Successful self-organisation requires individuals, teams and the organisation to get used to a dynamic process of managing changing accountabilities and aligning work to strategic goals and purpose. That dynamic process is as much about peer accountability as it is top-down. Organisations need to get get used to new hard conversations. Accountability and alignment must work together to support self-organisation.
  • Measurement & Transparency: Letting people manage their work doesn’t mean ignoring that work. Improving the management of work and learning what works involves a commitment to measuring well and using that measurement for the improvement process. Another shock to most traditional organisations is that self-organisation usually requires increased transparency of performance information to support the culture of accountability and alignment.
  • New People Experiences: Many self-organisation efforts fail because employees won’t embrace the new freedoms of work. Why? Because traditional people experiences mean that these new freedoms are risky. Until performance, job design, remuneration, learning, working approaches and career paths support the goal of greater self-organisation employees will be sceptical to be the only ones taking risks.
  • Degrees of Freedom: Self-organisation doesn’t have to be total. Organisations should adapt their own approaches based on the demands of their market, organisation, business model and strategy. Enabling the right degrees of freedom for employees to create change aligned to strategic value creation is the start. Organisations can then adapt their approach as their culture matures into new ways of working and as the results are delivered.

Do for, Do With or Enable

When managing the value of collaboration or other future of work activities, it is critical that we enable employees to exceed our expectations.

As a marketer, I came across research in many domains that highlighted that people have diverse preferences for the experience of choice and control. Some people like things done for them, some people like things done with their active participation and decision-making and then there are those who want to do it all alone.

Do it For Me

The practice of collaboration is maturing across organisations. Community managers and adoption specialists increasingly understand that we need to move beyond ‘do it for me’.

In the early days when the technology was new people found prescriptive approaches useful. They still demand them in psychologically unsafe environments because following an order is a form of thoughtless safety.

There will always be some part of the population that has a preference to be told what to do. However, this group probably won’t be the source of your greatest value creation.

Do it With Me

The Value Maturity Model of Collaboration above recognised that co-creation of value is a key part of effective collaboration. Employees want to work with others to break the shackles of traditional management and create new value.

Community managers must plan for this agile co-creation process. They need to leave activities and engagement open enough that it appeals to those whose preference is ‘Do it with me’. In this way, collaboration is an exercise in collective sense-making.

Enable Me To Do It

Much of what is said about generations is myth. However the highlighting of preferences for self-service and control in younger generations is an expression of the ‘I’ll do it streak’ in the whole community. The era now increasingly validates this choice and control and leaves us questioning the hierarchical command and control models of work and management.

Organisations need to enable the degrees of freedom for employees to do their own thing in creating value aligned to strategy. A key part of the approach to collaboration is deciding where these degrees of freedom are required and building employee capability to take advantage of it.

Independent action and agency is an important part of how people realise their potential. We come together in organisations to realise human potential more effectively than as individuals. Your collaboration plans should take account of all three segments – do it for me, do it with me and I’ll do it. This requires organisations to have a clear plan to align people around purpose, develop psychological safety and enable degrees of freedom in their employees.

Post #1000: How a thousand blog posts changed my life

I was pondering what to cover on the 1000th post on this blog. Rachel Happe responded to my query with an excellent suggestion of a topic:

So here goes a wandering meditation on what I’ve learned on a multi-year journey of blogging.

The History

First, a little history.  I began blogging about 4 years before I published my first external blog post. When I worked for a large financial services organisation, I convinced one of the admins of the new SharePoint site to turn on a blog site for me. My goal was to blog every day about something I had experienced or learned in the day.

At the time, it was the only one in the organisation and there were a few risks in putting my voice forward which I mitigated by keeping the audience small at first. That blog was soon magnified by the network reach of a growing Yammer network. Quickly, other executives, usually far more senior, started their own blogging.

I created my first external blog on the predecessor of this site on Tumblr (seemed like a good idea at the time) a year before I left that organisation, which is around 6 years ago now. Three years of practice internally had helped me refine my approach and I wanted to share more externally, not just to the closed community of an organisation. About 3 years ago, I migrated all those posts to this site on WordPress and have continued to post consistently since, still trying to post daily much of that time.

Discovering my Voice

The first lesson of this experience was discovering that I had my own unique voice. I also learned that I should embrace my own way of writing, focuses and messages as a strength.  Success came when I said my thing, not when I tried to ape others.

When I started blogging, I read many ‘how to blog successfully’ articles. I experimented with the advice, but my own voice prevailed. Ultimately, I rejected much of their advice. I found I couldn’t blog on only one topic. I couldn’t use SEO keywords. I couldn’t tie my posts to current events consistently. All those suggestions are great if you want your blog to be like others. I wanted to say my piece.

When I started blogging, I was trying to replicate some of the posts of those I admired. People like Stowe Boyd, Lois Kelly, Harold Jarche, Euan Semple, Jen Frahm, Seth Godin, Esko Kilpi, Catherine Shinners and Susan Scrupski were role models for me. However, if you look at the work of those remarkable bloggers you soon realise that I couldn’t copy them. The world doesn’t need clones. It needs diversity. I needed to speak in my own way and do my own thing. When I stopped copying and started being me, I enjoyed it more and the engagement lifted.

Discovering my Purpose

When I began blogging consistently I had no idea what I wanted to do with my career. Exploring my ideas and passions on the blog became a way for me to discover and refine my purpose.

Discussing ideas on the blog, led others to raise questions and make suggestions. Purpose doesn’t exist for you alone. Purpose is about the impact you have on others and the change you enable. Expressing my purpose and putting it into action in that way helped me to refine it through the work.

Putting my Intent in the World

Putting my intent into the world through the blog and through the social engagement that it fostered solved what I wanted to do next. When I saw my perspectives and ideas were unique, could add value and be valued by others, it helped me to develop the confidence to build a consulting practice.

The reputation fostered by putting this intent forward has led to work and speaking opportunities that helped reinforce my purpose and give me the chance to practice. The consistent practice of blogging has also been a way to refine and learn in that work.

Connecting with Communities

Blogging has been a path to meet others who share my purpose and to exchange ideas with them.  My practice on the blog led to a wide engagement with the Yammer Customer Network, meeting the Change Agents Worldwide community, becoming a leader of Working Out Loud week, joining the Yammer MVP community, engaging more deeply with Learning practitioners around the world, working with healthcare communities, joining the Responsive Org community and many more.

Blogposts became the topics of discussions on twitter chats and forums around the world that led back to new interactions and relationships that enhanced my practice and my networks. Not all of those interactions were situations where people thought my posts were right, but I have been lucky to largely avoid the ire of others for what I have said.

Reflecting, Learning and New Practice

In a busy world, time to reflect on what we do is a gift. Communities to share that reflection process are a blessing. Learning new ways of working and being able to share new ways of practising that work are the benefits.

Over 1000 posts, I have learned a lot about myself, my work, my relationships and my world. Some of the biggest and most personal learnings don’t show in words on this blog. They were side benefits of the work. Others are here but the personal learning has been spun into its organisation context and buried back into a richer and more human approach to the work I do.

This blog has a small audience. There are probably more posts, than consistent readers. It is not a numbers game. I won’t win any awards. There are many posts with only a handful of readers. I once found a post that only I had read. I blog mostly for myself. Many of my posts are a process of working out new actions or exhorting myself to improve my practice. Put that intent out there and it helps you to deliver against it.

A System for Daily Practice

To even go close to write a post every day, I had to build a system to enable that to happen. That system was built around a few key elements:

  • the habit of writing: I sit down most days with my first cup of coffee and I write. The coffee is the trigger and when I was a consultant and not every day was booked blogging was my trigger to start work. That’s how I start my day and my goal is to publish a post at the end of each writing session
  • working out loud: to publish in one session you can’t be a perfectionist. You have to embrace that the post is a part of a journey, not the end point. It also allows for you to revisit or develop posts later in further blogposts.
  • a format of a post: to publish in one session you need to have a simple idea, developed, supported and expressed concisely usually in around 500 words. Larger ideas are broken down into their components and played out over a number of days.  I’m not always the best editor of my own work but this length allows time for a few read throughs and amendments before publishing.
  • a pipeline of ideas: I take notes continuously on paper and online. I’ve always compiled long lists of ideas for candidates for blogs, even if it is just a title that I save in WordPress as a draft post. When I am stuck, I work through that list, edit an abandoned draft or use some of those ideas as inspiration for a new topic.
  • looking for connections: I accumulate connections that enhance the pipeline of ideas. When you have a post in the pipeline, you inevitably see other materials that are relevant and can be related. The connections are there, but we often don’t go looking.
  • inspiration: Picasso is reported to have said ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working’. I agree. The practice of writing daily made it easy for inspiration (or even suggestions) to find me.

New Attention

I am much more attentive to the world around me, because I write consistently. I know I need to feed the pipeline of ideas, to research connections and to have material to share. When I see interesting work, I follow and I engage with those people because it helps me to learn.

Attention only happens with focus. The topics that this blog addressed helped me to focus on a narrower range of areas that I want to learn and to write. My reading and conversation tastes are eclectic, but focus helps me to find relevant gems in even widely divergent domains,

In an era where we are easily distracted, focus and attention is a gift. It is also the only way to get things done.


Writing is a humbling task. There are no perfect words and no perfect ideas. No matter how long or how well you do it, the next page starts blank. You can learn some tricks of writing, a pretty vocabulary and some flowery grammar, but you have to do the work.

The post of which you are most proud will be ignored. The post that was a late night rant of frustration will strike a chord with others. The perfect idea will seem stupid the next day. The post that took weeks will never be published because it never resolves the right way. There will always be spelling and grammatical errors. Jokes will be misunderstood. You will hate editing your own work. Whatever happens the next day you get up and write again.

Writing is a perpetual reminder that life is a process of mastery. We make each effort better than the last. We build on what we do and we learn and we do again. A little humility helps.


Writing a lot helps bring clarity. It helps you to express ideas in simple jargon-free language (mostly). It exposes when your own ideas, your expression, or your own goals are muddy.

With the tools available to us, it is easier than ever to write a lot and say nothing.  That is particularly the case when all you do is paraphrase others. Clarity of the value that you add and how your view is different is important. Sometimes people are craving a clear stand. Be brave enough to be wrong.

The ability to clearly express and simplify an idea in a single sentence so that you can share it with others is the greatest challenge. I know I have made a difference when someone finds that sentence and highlights it.


I am the beneficiary of much privilege. You can see the privilege in the assumption that anyone wanted to read my writing when I started.

The process of blogging and engaging with wider communities has helped me to understand that others don’t start from the same place or get the support that I got to write. I am now far more aware that my experience is not universal and that others need help to share their voice, to benefit from and to feel safe doing so. I can’t be aware of that and be neutral, so I see that as something I want to address in my ongoing work. If work is to be more human, then everyone needs to feel able to realise their human potential.



Post #999 – How to have Meaningful Work Conversations Online

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I invited suggestions for the last posts before the 1000th post on this blog and Cai Kjaer suggested the great topic of how to have meaningful work conversations online.

This is a topic that has been underexplored so let’s dive into a long post to breakdown some of the elements and suggestions how to improve the interactions in your community. I don’t propose that this is a comprehensive response to the topic. What follows is my tools and approaches for managing meaningful online conversations. If all you want is a short post with some tools for conversations online, jump now to step 5. Before we answer the question, there are a few preliminary topics to consider. 

Step 1: What’s a meaningful conversation?

Mark is right that a meaningful conversation could be widely interpreted. I interpreted Cai’s tweet as using meaningful in the sense of significant to the participants. That lifts us out of the realm of light weight information exchange or chatter and into the realm of conversations or collaboration. Because we are looking at conversations and collaboration, I will be using a range of concepts from adaptive leadership, effective conversations, coaching, collaboration and other domains to guide us in how to foster an meaningful discussion.

For this post, I will use a definition of meaningful conversation in line with the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration. A meaningful conversation is one that the participants or the wider organisation see as delivering value to them personally or to the purpose of their work. Value in this context is not limited to monetary value. It is value as the one or more participants or the wider community define it.

The value might be intensely personal or it might be something shared with others in the organisation.  These latter types of value include achieving an organisational goal that benefits external stakeholders, enabling an employee to grow and develop or helping a customer. Meaningful conversations are often those that create or deliver value to the participants in the conversation or to the beneficiaries of work. The conversation particularly will leverage the economic and non-economic drivers of value.

Step 2: What is your goal?

A successful meaningful conversation requires some kind of goal to measure success against. Something needs to change as a result of this conversation. Achieving progress in the change that you want to explore should be your goal.

Our organisations today already have many conversations without meaning, value or purpose. To have a meaningful conversation, you need to know the significance you want to deliver. Start with the end in mind is great advice and it applies in this context too.

The best goals aren’t capitalised nouns. They are specific changes to enable you to think about who best should be involved in the conversation and what kinds of value you might be looking to realise from a discussion. Starting a conversation about Employee Engagement in an online community is likely to be unproductive. Using employee input to design solutions to improve a specific pain point in the employee experience is much more likely to be productive.

The end should not be a specific predetermined outcome of the change. A meaningful conversation is one in which the participants have the opportunity to add value to the discussion in a generative way. Meaningful conversations are those where greater value is created than anyone expected going in.  If you know exactly what you want and you aren’t open to input, you aren’t trying to have a conversation, you are trying to deliver an order.

The goal should not be having the conversation itself. Conversations are great. However, in the work context people are busy achieving meaning and creating value. If you want to take their time, their input and leverage their potential, it needs to go beyond a conversation alone. Your meaningful conversation is only meaningful if it results in new value, new actions or new changes.

Step 3: Should the conversation be online?

Not every conversation is well suited to be online. There I said it. I’m not suggesting you start pulling out your ‘what to use when’ guides. I am suggesting you reflect before you start as to whether an online environment will be conducive to the participants, the participation and the value that you seek to achieve from the conversation.

Online conversations are often more asynchronous, lower bandwidth and less rich in context. We know participation can be an issue at many times but particular when the stakes are high. This means that they can be great for wider engagement, real-time interaction and less personal issues.

Online environments aren’t always a great environment for emotive issues, win/lose debates, situations that are highly stressful or where there is a large amount of context or confusion to address. One person’s speculation or thought leadership can feel to another like trolling. Meaningful conversations require participants who have trust and sensitivity to diverse others.

Step 4: Where online?

Just as not every conversation should be online, not every conversation should be public online. Reflect before you start on this meaningful conversation whether there are issues that might cause some people concern if this conversation is held publicly. We know that the best teams ensure that participants in discussion feel psychologically safe to participate and make contributions. You might want to choose a smaller group or a more private environment to maximise the value of some conversations.

Choosing the right place online will depend whether the conversation one that belongs in the inner or outer loop in your workplace, the culture of use of those tools in your organisation and the velocity of conversations and messages in those tools. It can be hard to try to have a meaningful conversations that requires though reflection and changing views while being bombarded with new messages, distractions and other issues. The culture in practice of your organisation and your own choices are the best guide to where it makes sense for you or the organisation. Don’t follow a ‘what to use when’ guide blindly for an important conversation.

Relevance of the place chosen matters too. Working out loud works best when it is a conversation about work in a relevant community with relevant people. The best place to have a meaningful conversation is where those conversations will be appreciated and people will want to be involved.

[We are the length of an average blog post and we have only just finished preliminaries. Great question, Cai. However let’s get to the ‘how to’ part of the answer]

Step 5: How to have meaningful conversation online

As I framed at the beginning of this post, this is not a definitive guide, but is instead a description of my practice in creating, sustaining and fostering these conversations. More work and research is required to build a complete picture of all that is needed. I would encourage readers to treat the following ideas as ingredients in their own experimentation, rather than a definitive recipe.

The Ingredient List

  • Have a Plan: Connect>Share>Solve>Innovate – The four stages of the Value Maturity Model can also act as a handy planning guide for meaningful conversations. Who do you need to connect? What information do you need to share? What needs to be solved? What can you do more, better, different or less?
  • When: The right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation. Conversations need to be timely. That may mean having a meaningful conversation when matters are hot. It may also mean having a more reflective meaningful conversation at a later stage. The question is when is the best time for this discussion to occur. There may be no perfect answer and if in doubt start now because currency is often the best context.
  • Are you ready? If you are seeking to facilitate a conversation, your state of mind, confidence and readiness is an important part of the discussion. Your inner state will influence others even if you never verbalise it, even online. Reflect before you start and understand your doubts and uncertainties. Ask yourself how you might use them in the conversation explicitly rather than be undermined by them. Sharing your vulnerability in the right way can be an important part of facilitating a meaningful discussion.
  • Be Inclusive: Great conversations are inclusive. Focus on what capabilities are required to ensure everyone can contribute their capabilities to the conversation. Opportunity to participate is not enough. For truly inclusive conversations, you may need to engage diverse voices on how best to be involved and actively invite the participation for those who may not otherwise speak.
  • Create a Context: Conversations don’t happen in isolation. They occur in a context. Two or more people who don’t share a context won’t be able to have a valuable or a meaningful conversation. That context includes such issues as shared facts, the rationale for the conversation, power, authority, status, safety and so on. The context needs to allow for the culture of the organisation. One way to rapidly bring in a context and lift above dry facts is to focus on beginning your conversation with some storytelling.  Storytelling is the human way of sharing context.
  • Love and Power: Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love is a reminder that meaningful conversations take account of both power and emotions. If you don’t deal with both aspects in your meaningful conversation it will fall over. Ask people questions that engage their emotions and encourage them to share how they feel. Make sure you have engaged and involve those with power and explicitly discuss the issues power presents in your conversation. You don’t want an utopian conversation.
  • Call Bad Behaviour: if you get disruptive, trolling or other negative participation, you will need to call it out and encourage others to do so too. Don’t hesitate to discuss how to make the conversation more productive while the conversation is underway. Change course if there is a better way. You may need to exclude people if the behaviour persists after warnings. Sustaining a safe and constructive environment for the conversation is important. As you invited the discussion, it is your responsibility to keep it safe.
  • Defer Action: In every conversation, someone arrives too early with an answer. The more senior they are the more likely they are to believe that they have the answer and that they want to act on it now. Facilitators know to structure discussions to allow actions to be decided later. We find better actions when we have understood more by discussion.
  • Framework for Discussion: In the book The Communication Catalyst by Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek, the have a conversation framework that I have found incredibly useful in high stakes conversations. That framework is to discuss in order people’s purposes, concerns, relevant facts and then agreed actions. Facilitating conversations in this order creates a process of alignment that helps people collaborate even where they have opposing views.
  • Manage the Disequilibrium: Adaptive Leadership reminds us that meaningful conversations are not easy ones. To foster a meaningful generative discussion, we need to encourage participants to feel unsettled, to reflect and to consider the system more widely. This means you will need to lean into some conflict and challenge to get people’s attention and shift them out of everyday transactional discussions. I know I am prepared for the disequilibrium when my fingers tremble at starting the conversation.
  • Jumpstart discussion: If you want to start a meaningful discussion online with lots of participants, it is valuable to have a few people you have invited in to get the conversation going. Mentioning people is one way to start this, but for really meaningful topics you may want to engage a small group of early participants to help set the tone and kickstart the discussion. Don’t tell them what to say, but do arrange that they will participate to make their own contribution. Give some thought to ensuring that this early group has some disequilibrium in it.  You will want disagreements and diversity of views. Watching a group of people engage in group think is not engaging.
  • Conversation meter: Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek also have a tool in the Communication Catalyst called the conversation meter. It encourages participants to reflect on whether their contributions to the conversation are on a rising scale from Pretence, Sincerity, Accuracy to Authenticity. Conversations below Accuracy are unlikely to be effective. Conversations from Accuracy up improve in effectiveness.
  • It’s not A to B in one transaction: A meaningful conversation is a relationship, not a transaction. Don’t expect a meaningful conversation to be over and done in one interaction. Allow time for the conversation to develop over phases. Good generative conversations include new insights and ideas generated from pauses and reflection.
  • Questions: A good generative conversation depends on great questions. Ask lots of questions, especially early on in the discussion. Keep asking questions all the way to the end. One of the forgotten elements in modern workplace conversation is asking questions to confirm understanding and to validate agreements. These are critical to the value of a discussion. As George Bernard Shaw said,

‘The greatest challenge in communication is the illusion it has taken place’

  • Explore Options: Questions can encourage people to look widely for solutions. Encourage people to explore the whole system in which they operate. Ask people for analogous situations and metaphors that might help foster new and different patterns of thought. Spend as more time on what can be done than on the barriers and historical issues. You want to help guide people to their degrees of freedom to act.
  • Don’t Panic: Meaningful conversations aren’t easy. Things can and will go wrong. You may want them to go wrong to cause disequilibrium and have reflection on why. Whatever you do, don’t panic if something bad happens. Pause, reflect, deal with it and move on.
  • It’s Never You: You want to have a meaningful conversation and nobody else does. Your meaningful conversation collapses in fights and name-calling. Someone tells you the great discussion was a waste of time and won’t go anywhere. People will attack you personally. Remember you are not the conversation. You are just the facilitator. Don’t take it personally. It’s never you. You are not your work. There will be other conversations and you can try again.
  • Work towards Value: Purpose, your goals of the conversation and the value that flow should be your guide in the conversation. There may be many byways and digressions but your role is to keep bringing the conversation back to these elements.
  • Finish with Action not more Discussion: You will learn more by doing. Make sure your conversation agrees some actions at the end and there are experiments to be run. If people can’t agree, then decide on some hypotheses to test in action.
  • Practice: The best way to have meaningful conversations online is to practice having meaningful conversations online. Engage people and learn by doing. The skills you develop across a range of online forums will help you to develop your skills in starting and managing these discussions. You will also learn to appreciate the best practices and things to avoid that you see in action.

Community managers getting to this point might reflect that what I have described above sounds a lot like community management. Do we really expect each employee or user to manage each conversation in this detail? Yes, if the stakes are high enough. If you want a meaningful conversation you must deal with the fractal nature of online communities. The large scale issues are reflected at a conversation level. Skilling up participants to support the wider group dynamics is a powerful part of highly effective communities.

Creating the right value in online communities requires people to manage the scale and value of conversations. Developing these practical skills is essential to organisations ability to learn and adapt. Most importantly, conversation are how we leverage the potential of the people in the organisation.

‘Markets are conversations’ – Cluetrain Manifesto

Nobody wants to be led

Leadership is a role and work. Nobody wants the boss but everybody wants someone to do the work. It’s your turn to do the work.

We commonly confuse the two meanings of leadership. Many people do so wilfully in pursuit of status. The human desire for social status takes priority over the hard work of leading. We need to accept that nobody wants the role, but everyone can do the work. Then we need to all get on with the work.

Nobody Wants to be Led

Having a boss or other hierarchical leader is overrated. Learned helplessness can be comforting for those who want to avoid conflict, anxiety and doubt. However, those negatives come find all of us and there being someone with the status of leader rarely helps.

A leader only makes a positive difference if they do the work. A leader who focuses on the status is a very bad thing. They will become focused on preserving and enhancing the status which means pain for everyone and makes the work a distraction.

Everybody Can Do the Work

The work of leadership is the work of encouraging others to realise their potential individually and with others. The work of leadership is not the hierarchical role of making decisions, allocating resources, having answers and holding power.

We all have the power to influence others to act, to learn and to grow. We all can contribute to the value of collaboration in our organisation. The work of leadership is hard conversation, creating tension, leveraging employee potential and creating valuable change.

This work of leadership is not without risks to us and to others. The work of leadership involves conflict with power and status. It also involves pushing against the system and all its inertia. The risks are not a source of our inability to act. They are just reasons why it may be hard and should shape how we act.

Do the Work

Having the ability to do the work of leadership is one thing. Doing that work without status is another.

People need to feel psychologically safe to make their contributions. People need degrees of freedom to make change doing the work.

Organisations need to invest in the capabilities and processes that support this work. Importantly, organisations need to ensure that the status of leader is not stopping the work of leadership – hard conversation, creating tension, leveraging employee potential and creating valuable change.