Category Archives: Working with Groups

Making decisions AND collaborating

I’ve just been reading Morten Hansen’s Collaboration:  How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results, and thinking about obstacles to collaboration.  Hensen argues pretty convincingly that a bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration at all, and names four key barriers that he’s seen in his extensive work.

But in this case, what’s on my mind is a barrier which he doesn’t directly name, but one I believe he alludes to when he presents the argument that collaboration does not imply, nor call for, centralization of decision-making.  In my experience, one of the reasons people resist collaboration is a misunderstanding regarding the relationship between collaboration and decision-making.

For me, collaboration is co-laboring, working together towards a common goal through a jointly developed structure, usually with some form of shared resources and responsibilities.  Decision-making is, well, the process of making decisions along the co-laboring way.  Two different, albeit connected, processes.

However, at least in some circles (and probably not so much in the corporate settings that have been the focus of Hansen’s work), collaboration seems to have become entwined with ideas of consensus or non-hierarchical participatory decision-making.  And in some ways that makes sense.  Collaboration requires building mutual respect and trust, an ability to compromise, a shared stake in the effort, and good communication. Participatory decision-making generally highly values full participation, mutual understanding, inclusive solutions and shared responsibility … clearly fairly closely aligned with the critical factors related to collaboration I named above (fyi, see Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making for more on those values and the participatory approach).

But collaboration actually requires a great deal more than good relationships and communication between partners and an ability to build mutually beneficial approaches to problems that arise.  In my last post, I talked about the Wilder Collaboration Factors Inventory, a list of the factors that research has shown influence successful collaborations.  And their list of factors is absolutely not limited to the “warm and fuzzy” factors – they name “clear roles and policy guidelines” and “skilled leadership” as critical factors (among others) … both of which could arguably be associated at least as much with hierarchical, leader-focused ways of making decisions as with participatory approaches.  (Not to mention that it is absolutely possible for a strong decision-making leader to nurture respectful relationships, communication, buy-in and effective work handling conflicts.)

If we imagine a group working together collaboratively, their clear roles and guidelines will have to include decision rules to help them make decisions that support the attainment of their mutual goals and vision.  Depending on the cultures of the collaborating individuals and organizations, those decisions could be made by the person-in-charge, a committee or sub-group, or all partners.  And if the decision is made by more than one person, they might use some form of voting, some element of chance or some form of unanimous agreement (consent, consensus) to make the decision.

These decision structures probably exist somewhere along a spectrum of participatory and hierarchical decision-making models; which decision-making rules or models a group uses is a topic for another post, since each has advantages and challenges.  (And if you’re interested in a blend of the participatory and more hierarchical structures, check out sociocracy, which involves consent-based decision-making of circles within a hierarchy (www.sociocracy.info).)

But regardless of the decision-making approach, the collaboration leading up to the decision point, and/or the collaboration used to implement whatever decision is made, may well be vital, creative and impact-full, helping the group achieve results it could not have imagined from the sum of individual efforts.  And in fact, building in clear expectations regarding how (and when) decisions will be made in the collaboration is part of what will make the collaboration successful.

So by all means, let’s collaborate when it makes sense … and make decisions in ways that make sense for our group, giving ourselves the wide range of options for doing both.

Your experiences, reactions, thoughts?

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Filed under General collaboration, Working with Groups

Collaboration standards

I just can’t ignore the synchronicity when the same topic pops up in different settings, all around the same time.  We met with an organization recently about supporting them in developing a planning retreat, and our wide-ranging discussion touched on standards of excellence.  Not too long after that, I was talking with a local leader that works with nonprofit organizations and small businesses, and he also mentioned the subject.  And it turns out there are some great resources out there for evaluating how we as organizations or individuals are doing, and aiming high in our performance and service (see Independent Sector’s list of standards for a great start).

But around the same time I also re-acquainted myself with another resource that’s particularly relevant to standards of excellence and our work building collaborations.  The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation has an inventory, available free on-line, that uses published research to identify twenty key factors for successful collaboration.  Their list of factors is particularly geared towards community-oriented collaborations, but I believe it could easily be adapted for business projects or teams operating in just about any setting.  You can check out the full list of factors on their website, but today I particularly wanted to highlight three of their factors for successful collaboration:

DSCF1661abc1) Concrete and attainable goals and objectives – Identifying why we collaborate and what we hope will be achieved through that collaboration sounds obvious, but can we get very specific and very realistic about how we will know if our vision and purpose have been successfully carried out?  Especially when funding is tight (and when is it not?) and there are such frequent calls for evaluation and research-driven solutions, we need to be able to clearly state what makes our work together so important, and how we’ll know that it’s leading to the results we seek.  Can you plot an achievable path between where you are now and your measure of success, so that tomorrow and next week and next month you know where you need to be, and so that when you do evaluate you’ll be able to clearly demonstrate concrete steps that taken together meet your goals?  Collaboration is about results, not just how many meetings or how frequent the communication or how many stakeholders you bring together – it’s a waste of everyone’s precious time and efforts to not develop a clear sense of where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

dreamstimefree_2477992) Collaboration perceived as being in each participant’s self-interest – Perhaps that sounds like it’s feeding into an overly individualistic and self-centered approach, but I am convinced from the work I’ve done developing collaborations that without participants’ commitment and genuine belief that participating in the collaboration makes each member better off than they would be by themselves, the collaboration will be lackluster at best.  Just thinking that collaboration is generally a good idea, or that we “ought to” participate in a collaborative group (for status, because our bosses say we have to, or because other good people are doing it) isn’t enough to inspire us to really take action, or to get over the resistance to adding one more meeting or “to-do” item to our busy schedules.  We have to care to collaborate, and care not just about the outcome, but also the process and the other people involved (more of the Wilder factors) … and that caring has to come at least partly from having our own needs met through the collaboration.

dreamstimefree_54273) Multiple layers of participation – “Everyone” in your office, organization or community is affected by this collaboration, broad participation by a cross-section of stakeholders is important, and direct democracy is good … so let’s just open this collaboration up to anyone who want to come to our meetings, hmm? Well, maybe, but then again, often maybe not.  Very large group meetings can be difficult to facilitate, and challenging for participants as well, particularly if there isn’t a shared vision for the project.  Adults often work better in small groups, where there’s space to hear of the unique knowledge and experiences that each person brings to the table (and time for introverts like me to think through what I want to contribute before I start speaking).  And while the initial enthusiasm for a particular project may be high, a successful collaboration requires that over the longer term the individuals involved develop relationships and trust with each other … another thing that’s tough to do in a very large group setting.

But this factor isn’t in conflict with the desire to have all key stakeholders involved … it just speaks to how we do that.  Maybe the primary vehicle for your collaboration is a monthly meeting with empowered representatives from key groups to disseminate information, gather feedback for the collaborative to consider, and make decisions that move you towards your collaborative goals.  But your group may also conduct an online survey to gather all stakeholders’ input once a year, hold a couple community events during the year, check in periodically with key leaders who don’t have time to participate in regular meetings or events, and work intensely with certain community partners on one aspect of the collaboration.  By creating multiple layers and means for collaboration, we honor what each contributor has to offer and still keep our collaborations focused and streamlined enough to function effectively.

So how excellent is your collaboration, and how have you worked with these or other factors? And what experiences have you had with using standards of excellence?  Would love to hear from you …

PS – One quick note here.  It’s that time of year when resolutions, perfectionism and dashed expectations, and all-or-nothing improvement campaigns can appear at your collaboration party. Another of the Wilder collaborative factors is about working at the appropriate pace for your group … as you work with these or other standards of excellence, celebrate the excellence you’ve achieved, pick one or two places you’d like to seriously (but playfully) work on over the next six months, and be kind to yourselves along the way. Cheers!

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Filed under General collaboration, Working with Groups

Water-wheel adventures in collaboration

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop about a month ago on a new site for on-line collaboration (http://www.water-wheel.net) … as the developers explain, “a platform and forum for experience and exchange, expression and experimentation, … it draws together different people, practices, places, media and modes of expression, there are no borders or boundaries …”

Truth be told, I was a little hesitant since my usual old-school focus on collaboration is between people working together in person, and it generally doesn’t involve technology, at least as a focus.  But I am glad I went (and drove through one of our first snow storms of the year to get there!).

First off, experiencing Waterwheel reinforced for me the importance of creating conditions for collaboration that allow a broad range of stakeholders to engage, regardless of where they are geographically, their economic status (the service is free, and btw, I’m not getting anything for writing about it), or their particular area of expertise.  In the case of this particular platform, their theme is water, and they envision and have seen in practice that scientists, performers, academics, environmentalists, students and anyone else interested in the theme all participate.

Second, the platform created with this technology promotes a variety of different media, presented dynamically.  Some participants in Waterwheel events (“taps”) use audio, others video, some live performance or talk, some drawing, some uploaded printed materials, etc.  I like the idea that since we all learn and discover new things in different ways, a platform like this can cater to varying participant preferences and needs.

Third, it was nice to be reminded about the “live” quality in collaboration, the dynamic interactions that you can’t script or entirely orchestrate through previously agreed-upon structures and processes, the co-development of “truths” on the spot as participants in an event create content in the moment to be shared and improvised on by other participants.

And fourth, I enjoyed this demonstration of the Open Space Technology idea that those who need to be present are – whoever shows up for their open events is who participates.  In our overwhelmingly busy world, it can seem hard to find our tribe, challenging to find an affirmation for our own individual contribution to the world.  And it was fun to see that technology expands that possible circle of support and collaboration, far beyond the folks I might normally turn to.

There’s still something so critical to me about being together in person and appreciating human warmth and touch and full-person interaction, without the filter or limitations of a technological device.  But technology is one tool that really can support collaboration, and I have to admit that I’ve thought of and mentioned this site to several people (and now you readers) as a resource.  Sometimes we can use a little technological help to make our collaborations even more successful!

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What if .. we were motivated to collaborate?

In our post-election world, it seems challenging to imagine a truly collaborative “working across the aisle” while we collectively grapple with the dismay that half of this country “isn’t like me,” “doesn’t get it,” and “is just wrong.”  (Check out the recent This American Life show on political divides – whew, sobering.)

Makes me think about what motivates people to collaborate, and to consider whether there is anything we can do to strengthen our political resolve to work together with our differences.

Motivation can be based on internal or external factors.  On the internal side, we often feel motivated to do something 1) because it meets a personal need (for example, getting food on the table or doing something that makes us healthy), 2) because it feels good to do it (it’s fun, fulfills a duty, shows altruism, etc.), or 3) because there is a strong sense that a personal need is not being met (for example, unfair working conditions, threats to human rights or pollution of our common resources.)

External motivation usually comes in the form of 1) acquiring or maintaining status (reputation, social connections, etc.), 2) receiving financial compensation or other concrete benefits (for example, getting money or access to services, or cultivating networks that will lead to getting more funding or business in the future), or 3) being included in a group (for example, going along with what we think others are doing or want us to do.)  We may also feel more externally motivated to do something when it seems easy (there are support systems and tools, and the way forward is clear), and when we see leaders doing the same thing.

So, using these factors, how are we doing in the political sphere on the internal and external motivation to collaborate?  Not too surprisingly, the current scene looks discouraging.  In terms of external motivators, the financial pressure to adopt particular policies or practices and the peer pressure to maintain party loyalties are forces working against collaboration.  Similarly, it’s easy to imagine that our elected officials want to maintain their high-status positions, the financial perks, and the potentially lucrative and secure positions they’ll get once their political careers are over … and that those benefits often come at the price of working within the contentious, non-collaborative status quo.

And while there is some potential prestige from working across the aisle, it’s not easy – there aren’t easy channels or venues for cross-party collaboration, and very few political leaders to emulate in that arena.  You could argue that the current threat of a “fiscal cliff” provides some incentive for working together, but it doesn’t sound like that’s resulting in anything more than the same tired, positional soundbites … could it be that the perceived threat isn’t strong enough to inspire collaborative action?

So what’s got me intrigued is whether folks like you and me can do anything to influence politicians’ perceptions of their internal or external motivations to collaborate.  How about recognition or appreciation for any even slightly collaborative action or statement by our representatives, and some fun way of expressing that recognition or appreciation? Depending on who it is, what can we appeal to in order to push for a more collaborative approach … a sense of duty to their constituents, the satisfaction of “helping,” a strong sense of fairness, the reputation as a person who gets things done, etc.?

And on the external side, would a grassroots collaboration campaign diminish or counteract the powerful financial incentives towards the status quo?  What if we made it clear that we wouldn’t re-elect folks who don’t collaborate, that business and other support for their campaigns comes at the price of committing to cross-political divide work?

What if we trained all our young people in the art and science of collaboration, and tested based on our ability to work well on teams and in groups?  What if we awarded an annual collaboration prize, offered scholarships for the study and application of collaborative strategies, created financial incentives for sharing knowledge and using interdisciplinary teams?

What if we made our elected officials mention one thing they liked about their opponent’s proposal before they offered a criticism, made them identify one positive attribute of that opponent, told them they had to check to make sure they’d understood what the other person said and count to three before they responded?

What if we paired up supposed opponents and asked them to draft three options they could live with for every policy challenge?  What if we all had to come up with fifteen options for resolving any problem, without criticizing a one, before we could talk about choosing a solution?

Kind of fun, don’t you think?  I like this “what if” game – it feeds my creativity and inspiration, and yes, it motivates me!  So join the collaboration party – what are your collaborative “what if’s,” what motivates you?

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Filed under Activism, Conflict, Social Change, Working with Groups

Valued services, valued people?

Awhile back I went to one of those marketing seminars for small businesses, and had two or three interactions with the person conducting the workshop in which I tried out my elevator speech – you know, the short, hopefully interest-inspiring description of what we or our business does. This workshop leader didn’t understand what I said — didn’t get it AT ALL, tried to replace my words with a couple job descriptors that weren’t accurate, rolled her eyes (literally) and finally shrugged in frustration and moved on to someone else.  Which seemed to bring her relief – the other participants were business people who sold products she recognized, doctors with specialties we all knew the words for, even service providers whose services we all would have known where to find in the phone book.

I’ll spare you the mini-roller coaster ride of my reactions to the experience – suffice to say, it was a good opportunity to reflect on giving and receiving feedback, to practice and further refine my spiel, and to do some thinking about ways we trainers empower (or disempower) participants.

And this incident also raised for me today’s issue of categorizing people and things, and the value we attribute to others based on those categories.  In the case of the workshop, I sensed that the person conducting the workshop thought that since I didn’t fit into a “doctor” or “widget-producer” box, what I was doing was not worthy of pursuing.  But whether that’s true or not in this particular case isn’t as important as the degree to which we all attribute value on the basis of categories.

In our daily interactions, we often want people and what they do to fit into categories.  We ask people what they do or where are from, we want to know what social groups they belong to.  If I write a blog post like this one, I will generally avoid making it “uncategorized,” as if there’s more legitimacy to a post which clearly fits into the themed boxes I’ve created.  We avoid “miscellaneous” deductions in our tax returns, don’t submit general resumes (tailoring them instead to the specific job), discredit generalist liberal arts degrees, and look askance at people whose job history involves lots of different kinds of work.  And don’t get me started on how hard it has been in the past to explain my Foreign Service “generalist” background and how I might still be as capable at a particular job as someone who specialized in one area over the last twenty years.

This happens on a larger societal scale too – we want people to pick one out of some specified number of race or ethnicity categories (don’t get me started on that either), we prefer to think about only two gender options, we assign citizenship and nationality affiliation as if sub-national, ethnic group or cross-border cultures didn’t exist, and when war and violence threaten, all too often we’ve seen that it becomes a matter of life and death where we fit in terms of religious or ethnic affiliations.

To some degree, our desire for categories is helpful.  We depend on our friends and allies, people “like us,” and, like a club password or membership card, knowing where someone falls in terms of a particular category helps us sort that out.  And categorizing things can be a form of shorthand, helping us not have to re-learn new things all the time (I may have never eaten a rutabaga, but knowing something about other root vegetables, I can make some guesses about whether I’ll like it, how to prepare it, etc.).

And we process information by comparing it to what we know, so until we understand something that is outside what we know, we understandably and sometimes wisely treat it with caution.  We ask children to not talk with strangers, we don’t eat forest mushrooms we’re unfamiliar with, and most of us don’t try to drive in a new place without some orientation or a map.

But sometimes we can get pretty fixed on categories and on what we think we know, to the exclusion of things that don’t fit.  In some cases, there are personal consequences — think of the kid who didn’t eat vegetables growing up and who as an adult “doesn’t like vegetables,” missing out on the delights of fresh kale, corn, beans or squash.  Or the person (like me) who said “I can’t sing, I’m not a singer” and missed out for years on the sense of community and connection from participating in community singing. Or someone forced to choose a job or profession, who then misses out on pursuing the other interests that really were equally important to them.

But beyond the personal costs, being fixed on the known categories also has societal consequences, some of which I believe are really detrimental to our world.  Here’s why:

1) It’s distracting.  While I’m busy trying to figure out what category you belong to, I’m not working with you to solve a tough problem, collaborating to create a better future.

2) It’s disempowering.  I got a touch of this in the workshop, and others get a far worse dose every day … if what I do doesn’t fit, does that mean I or my group are unimportant, can’t contribute, are not worthy of attention?

3) It’s unrealistic.  The fact is that we are all made up of many different identities, and we’ll never be able to adequately capture who an individual or a group is with one or even a hundred labels.  We have to be able to recognize multiple realities and aspects simultaneously, and to recognize that those labels and boxes change over time and look different depending on the eye of the beholder.

4) It’s hubris.  Who are we to decide that it’s all knowable, that by collecting just a little bit of information we’ve got individuals or groups or the world figured out?  And do we really think that we know ourselves so well that nothing inside us is uncategorizable, not yet known?

5) It’s growth-inhibiting.  When I exclude new and uncategorizable people or information, I miss out on the chance to learn something new.  I deny the possibilities inherent in cross-pollination, in deep exchange, in knowing someone else’s story and learning from their experiences.

So, maybe you agree that getting too stuck on categories can be harmful.  But we still do it, even when we know it’s not helpful.  Perhaps it’s out of fear of the unknown or fear of change (better the devil you recognize and can categorize).  Or perhaps we do it based on a desire for the sense of security or stability from going along with what “the group” thinks or believes about categories, or because we’re really afraid that we don’t fit in but don’t want to rock the boat by raising the issue.

Some of it is just ingrained impulse or prejudice which we haven’t learned to work with, and some of it might be plain old resistance and pain from the past (did that leader of the workshop have a bad experience with organizational development folks in the past, have a difficult time in the mediation of her divorce, etc.?)

And maybe it’s as if we’re all operating on the idea that “value” is a commodity for which you only qualify if you fit into a category.  As if what we do or who we are matters only if someone’s figured out a hierarchical system to describe it or if we’ve literally checked the boxes to acquire it.  So that we require these categories to help us decide what’s important – we’re overwhelmed by input and require something to help us filter out what or who matters.

That last idea is really sticking with me this morning – it’s scary.  I’d like to think that I’d use other means to determine if something’s important or has value, or that I’d just assume that everything and everyone has intrinsic value … and yet I know how very often it probably has been about whether they’ve checked my boxes.

My partner has a wonderful way of saying to me when I come home, “you matter, you matter.”  Makes my day and has pulled me through many a tough time.  Maybe we all want to matter, to be valued … and that desire has to pull us through our over-focus on categories to a place where there’s value inherent in our being, in our activity, regardless of category or label.

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Filed under Intercultural, Social justice, Working with Groups

Caring, class culture and needs

Great book by Betsy Leondar-Wright

I had nearly completed my last entry about groups that care … and I stopped short.  The bump in the road?  I was “geeking out”, as a friend of mine calls it, delving back into anti-classism resources for a project I’m working on, and came across this web page on class cultures (I really admire the work of Betsy Leondar-Wright, and recommend her book, Class Matters:  Cross-Class Alliances for Middle-Class Activists).

I’m familiar with Barbara Jentsen and Jack Metzgar’s chart comparing professional middle class and working class cultures, but as I was re-reading that chart, I flashed to my draft post and how hopelessly “middle-class” it seemed, focusing as it does on individual satisfaction and downplaying the importance of having any job, any income for food, housing, medical care and other necessities in this tough economic climate.

Which brought me to an old debate about hierarchies of needs, and whether it’s legitimate to focus on these “higher” needs of individuation, meaning, etc. when “basic” needs have not been met.  I’d like to believe that we all need to have all our key needs met, and that regardless of which class culture we find ourselves in, calls that everyone’s needs be met are legitimate or valuable.  And yet I couldn’t help thinking of people I know who have been out of work for two, three years now, and how concerns about care in our work environments would have to be considered a luxury, at best something only to be addressed once you have a job or income in the first place.

So what’s my responsibility here?  I can only authentically tell my story, can’t pretend to completely understand what it might be like to be out of work, facing basic survival needs.  I can’t dismiss, ignore, or downplay the importance of class in determining the focus of anyone’s attention, or the role of class, and discrimination based on class, in creating the circumstances that I and others find ourselves in currently.  And, to be an ally, I must continue to increase my own awareness of class’ impact on our world and my own work, and I must work to ensure that other voices are heard.  I’ll keep focusing on my class-related awareness with my project, and ask a couple working-class friends to bring us their views on this question of caring.  Wish me luck, stay tuned.

And a final note on why I share all this?  I believe that building awareness is a continuous, ongoing process, and any time we become complacent, we risk either hitting this type of bump in the road or losing track of key issues.  Collaboration requires that we recognize and value each others’ stories and strengths and challenges, and this is is my small collaborative step for today.

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Filed under Activism, Intercultural, Social justice, Working with Groups

Organizations and groups that care

I’ve been talking with various colleagues and friends who believe the organizations or businesses they work with don’t recognize or value their contributions, and more generally that they don’t CARE about them as people in a holistic sense.  Their frustration is not necessarily that they’re not getting paid enough, not getting recognition or appreciation, or not being included – but that they feel powerless to pursue the things they care about, and that their co-workers, supervisors and others not only don’t listen but on some deeper level don’t care that they be satisfied or engaged in activities which are meaningful to them.

An organization is made up of people, and so if we’re acting with some integrity, taking responsibility for the state of our organizations, we each have to look at ourselves and our own role in creating or strengthening a work environment where we and others do (or don’t) feel cared for.  And yet, a group is more than the sum of its individual parts, so it can be tempting to think that our individual reflection and action is meaningless or unsubstantial in the face of the group’s social norms which may seem to preclude caring.  Or that it’s not the purpose of a group to be caring.

Which brings me to a deeper issue … to what degree do groups or organizations or businesses exist for their own purposes or mission, and to what degree do they exist to serve the people who make up those entities?

I’ve mostly experienced working within groups where the organization or business mission is primary .. individual participants or workers or members are expected to toe the cultural or social line in favor of achieving the group’s mission and/or continuing to get the paycheck or other benefits from their work, regardless of what they think about the mission.  So either due to the threat of losing your job or because you agree with the “end” and can accept this group’s “means,” you’ll do what’s asked and go along with a culture that at best de-emphasizes, and perhaps at worst ignores or actively works against, individual employee or member interests or needs.  And if you don’t agree with the means or the end, and you are lucky enough to have other employment options, you’ll move on to somewhere else where you’re willing to accept the rules of their game.

But I worked in one organization where there was quite a different culture, where it seemed to me that the group was created by its employees with a strong desire to serve their needs, and serving those employees’ needs was as (not more) important as serving clients.  So when the organization needed to adapt to new financial circumstances or consider new programming, individuals’ contributions were not just input into “how” to make the change dictated by the organization, but were the substance (the “what”) of what those changes would be.

Even when all the employees might agree that a particular focus or program might help the organization, or that there might be a market for a particular service which would help their mission or financial goals, if no one would feel satisfaction or pleasure in doing that work, it wouldn’t happen (at least at that time).  Don’t get me wrong, the organization is pushing for social change, clear about its mission, and acting in a coherent manner to achieve its mission.  But it’s doing so based on what individuals within the group care about, and the group as a whole cares deeply that its employees feel satisfied and fulfilled.

Is it clear how radical these ideas seem? It’s not just about participatory decision-making (a process), or getting buy-in for something already determined by some other part of the organization or business – it’s a question of how we conceive of the goals and objectives of the groups and organizations we are a part of, and the degree to which individual vs. collective needs and interests are considered in the work of that group.

Food for thought, welcome your comments …

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Filed under Social Change, Working with Groups

Collaboration: knowledge sharing

So there you are, five hours into work on that new project, only to find out that your colleague already did that same work or had information you spent a lot of time trying to collect.  Or maybe you were talking with someone about your organization’s or business’ less than satisfactory outcome to a tough problem, only to find out that this person had another piece of the picture or a different approach to the question that you’d never considered … and this person was none to pleased that you never asked them for their input in the first place!

Sound familiar?  It’s pretty common in our individualistic, competitive, put-out-the-most-recent-fire world that information critical to achieving our collective objectives isn’t shared … despite lengthy and unproductive meetings, or talk of more and better communication.  It’s ironic that as individuals we’re so thirsty to be heard, to have someone value the information or contribution we have to make.  And yet, in our organizations we seem to expect that individuals should already know what’s needed, and, if they have to ask (god forbid), they should ask targeted questions of the “expert” to get at the minimum they think they need to respond to the problem of the moment.  (And don’t you dare suggest another meeting!)

Call me an idealist, but imagine for a moment that the people you worked with recognized that you and they all had an important piece of a dynamic puzzle, and that continuous sharing of useful information with each other was fundamental to achieving your group’s objectives, improving products or services, and increasing employees’ or members’ sense of buy-in and empowerment.  Mmm …

Curiosity & play

So, what would it take?  I’m not an expert on action research, knowledge management or collaborative learning, but I think we have a lot to learn from all these fields to improve the knowledge sharing in our organizations.  And, just to get you started, here are a few of the ideas I’ve successfully worked with:

1) Bring in more voices – For example, at your next meeting include a supportive (open, not dismissive or “going through the motions”) go-round with input from every single person in the room about a challenging question.  Or ask stakeholders who haven’t previously been involved to come up with three criteria for what would successfully address the question, or at least ten possible (even if crazy) brainstorm ideas related to the issue.  Or try a mind map to identify related approaches or concepts that might inform the discussion.

2) Recognize and appreciate learning – Create specific times and spaces for sharing information (for example, include it in job descriptions, schedule specific time or resources available to support learning or knowledge sharing, do lessons-learned exercises, start a listserv, blog or lunchtime discussion group, etc.) and value the learning that is shared (express appreciation for learning and sharing efforts, identify the concrete effects of that knowledge and possible next steps, create rewards, etc.).

3) Be purposeful – Learning is great, no matter what, but with limited time and resources, you can collaborate more effectively by identifying the particular questions or issues that you want to learn more about, and the specific benefits you hope to achieve from that learning .. and then evaluate how you’re doing and consider what will give you a better chance of meeting your goals.

4) Recognize and leave space for resistance – Ours is a culture which values “experts”, and valuing everyone’s knowledge and input can feel like a threat to an “expert’s” status quo, a challenge to those unused to speaking up, and an inefficient way of doing business (“we already tried that”, “everyone knows that doesn’t work because …”, etc.).  So acknowledge the resistance, leave time and space for individual reactions, and patiently focus on creating environments where we learn from expertise, and still leave space for new ideas or approaches that may indeed better fit the current context than the old tried-and-true “truth.”

Collaboration requires this collective learning.  And in that spirit of collaboration, how would you add to this list of ways to strengthen knowledge sharing in your organization or business?

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Training for me or you?

So if you’re a trainer like me, occasionally you get carried away researching exciting new people or ideas, eagerly compile information on three different models or approaches, amass an armload of handouts and materials, and then trip into the training setting … only to be met by blank stares and a few looks of distress.

Might remind you of the need for that pesky old needs assessment.  You know, the one that would have told you that the goal of this group is not what you envisioned, that this group has a lot of participants whose preferred learning style is most definitely not abstract models, that this group doesn’t even recognize the issue your fancy models and ideas are addressing (awareness, attitudes – anyone?), or that this group really wanted some tools for a very particular type of situation which you aren’t prepared to address.

You, of course, are quick on your feet, and adjust your design on the fly … and sometimes we get away with it.  And sometimes we don’t.  And sometimes, at heart, we’re not sure we want to – because boy are those materials we pulled together awesome, these folks really need to get this.

Enter here, Paulo Freire and his critique of the banking model of education, where we trainers and teachers (or consultants, or managers, or …) fill the heads of our participants (or co-workers, or clients, or …) with what we care about, and implicitly, with our version of the current world.  There is implicit in the trainer or consultant role something which can suggest that we decide what others need to learn or develop.  And that doesn’t instill or nurture empowerment.

And so, fellow “experts,” let us put those handouts and models into our toolboxes, and close them up for a moment as we listen to those with whom we are working.  What do they want to come out of their interaction with us, and which of our many tools will best serve that purpose?

There is good info out there on needs assessments.  When I was co-teaching a course on Training Design, we used an excerpt of J. Barbazette’s Training Needs Assessment:  Methods, Tools and Techniques.  But there are some good resources on the internet, some of which look at needs assessments in a variety of non-training settings.  Check these out:

Any recommended needs assessment resources to add?  Welcome your comments and additions below.

And if you’d like support in doing a needs assessments in your organization or business, contact us – happy to see what we can contribute!

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Cultural fluency … beyond international business

From a quick look around the internet, you might think that cultural fluency was a tool wielded largely by international business folks.  I wouldn’t disagree that business success depends in part on cultural fluency, but I am disappointed that cultural fluency might be seen as limited to the business world and a few other realms like human resources offices and diversity organizations.  (Not to mention that “cultural fluency” might be (mis)-interpreted as simply knowing whether to shake hands, make eye contact, be more fluid with time or more respectful of the “big boss” … but that’s another story.)

My angry faceLet’s look at a non-business example —  awhile back, I got pretty angry during a meeting to plan some upcoming events.  First knee-jerk reaction, I blamed “them” for being disorganized and difficult.  Next came blaming myself, wondering what I should be doing better.  And then (and when I’m lucky, this transition is quick!), I move out of the blame realm altogether and can get curious about what’s happening.

On the one hand, this meeting’s participants were individuals, with unique combinations of traits and behaviors and attitudes based on all the individual experiences they’d each personally had.  But thinking about this unsatisfactory meeting with that individual “personality” lens can leave me feeling discouraged … they’re just difficult people, we have a personality clash, it’s just the way that individual is (or was born) … nothing to be done, just grit your teeth and move on.

Lens, curiosityBut what if I considered one of those individuals from the lens of the groups they belong to, their social identities, their cultures?  Let’s imagine that one of the  (fictional) participants was female, about twenty years older than me, an experienced “expert” on the topic at hand, a freelancer, and has spent considerable time living outside of her home country.  Each of those groups (females, people of a certain age, experts in this field, freelancers, expats, etc.) has its own culture, which would give a very particular spin to how this person approached the meeting I was in.

And it might be that given the type of meeting we were in, her freelance culture was near the top of the list of possible influences she might have felt.  And what if I imagine that  her freelancer lens made her value networking in this particular setting?

(This is all supposition, mind you …  without asking, I would have no idea which of the many, many identities and cultural labels I might have been tempted to assign to the people involved would have been ones they embraced at least partially, or ones they thought were prominent that day during the meeting  … and which ones were offensive or completely out to lunch!  But I am certain that whichever cultures were in the room that day, they affected how we conducted our meeting.)

So how does focusing on cultures affect my attitude toward the situation?  For me, one of the first things that happens is that it depersonalizes the situation … oh, this is about culture, a culture is not right or wrong, we’re just each seeing a different part of the elephant (know that story?).

Then I can say, OK, so from her freelancer lens, those troubling detours about connecting with other groups make sense.   We can come up with some ideas about how we might approach getting her networking needs met … and then do the same for me (my technocrat self seeing a long agenda and not much time for the meeting was valuing efficiency and clarity of focus – so how might my needs be met?).

I could have extended curiosity and creativity to this person as an individual, but I might miss out on a piece of who she is (we are at least in part who we associate with, no?) and I personally sometimes need the shift in focus to get past the “difficult personality” obstacle.  And to the degree I have any information about a particular culture, a cultural fluency lens helps me anticipate what attitudes, needs or approaches I’m dealing with.  Even if I’m wrong in my reflections, going through this thinking makes me curious, more open to understanding what is going on for others and for myself.

Group, culture of duckiesIf we think of culture as the shared understandings of a group that shapes who we think we are and how we interpret what happens, then all of us are interacting with lots of different cultures every single day, in every setting.  There’s the culture of our book or social club, the supermarket or church, our work or volunteer place, our family, our socio-economic class, our gender … and the list goes on and on and on, far beyond nationality, ethnicity or color of ducky.

I recently gave a workshop on culture, conflict and identity, inspired in part by Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences by Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay, and co-authored by Tatsushi Arai, a professor of mine from SIT Graduate Institute.  Their inspiring and practical model of developing “cultural fluency” (greatly simplified, and as I understand it) involves:

  1. Building knowledge and understanding of other cultures,
  2. Recognizing the embedded meanings in our own cultures (and the impact those meanings have),
  3. Learning to express (and assist others in expressing) underlying cultural influences, and then
  4. Negotiating and acting effectively in cross-cultural situations.

I love that this book was written by a culturally diverse team, and that part of the book is grounded in their own experience of learning to work well together.  Just as they had to go through these cultural fluency steps to successfully publish a great book, I could probably improve my next meeting with my group by learning more about, and articulating the impact of, my and other participants’ cultures in relation to the meeting’s agenda topics.

Will I use my cultural fluency all the time with everyone I meet? Of course not.  And yet developing cultural fluency skills is critical to effective collaboration in whatever the setting, and practice helps, no matter whether it’s at a neighborhood gathering, talk with a partner, political meeting … or even in a business negotiation.

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