How do we learn to play well in the sandbox? – An invitation to a conversation

A few colleagues and I got into a deep conversation the other night as we discussed what it might look like if we included “dialogue and interaction skills” into school curriculum beginning in Kindergarten through University.  Can you imagine how we might interact differently with each other in our families, communities and organizations if we were taught early on how to build stronger relationships? How our ability to address domestic and international issues would change if we enhanced our engagement and communication skills each year as we progressed through school? This could be a real game changer for society, especially in today’s new world where everything we do is interconnected.

However, if you’re reading this you likely did not have the good fortune to learn these skills in school and have been left to your own devices. How do we learn to have “conversations and interactions that matter” to give all of us a stronger sense of unity and purpose.? Perhaps it is our responsibility to drive this organically from a grass roots level and be socially responsible beings? What if we started a community of learners and shared “effective engagement methods” with each other through blogs and discussion forums? We could continue to develop our skills by learning from each other. For example, here is one approach to designing effective interactions that might come in handy – This strategy comes from Charles Holmes, colleague and strategic partner in our Collaboration Centre at Kingbridge:

“Successful interactions depend on how well we design processes that engage, connect and mobilize individuals, families, communities and organizations to create their desired futures. When the end goal is to develop a shared vision whether it is with one other person or with a group of people it is important to create a supportive environment where the right conditions can exist for authentic, open and respectful conversations to take place. This is especially important when diverse perspectives need to surface and be understood allowing many voices to be heard.”

Because we are social beings, and we understand that everything is interdependent and interrelated here is another simple approach to build a stronger sense of community which also creates great interactions – Develop neighbourhoods or ‘front porch’ style exchanges like we do in our home communities. This method, which comes from colleague and strategic partner Michael Jones quickly connects people in ways that can help them see how their strengths add value to what the group is trying to accomplish whether it be innovation or problem solving. This provides each person with a sense of purpose and belonging allowing the group to mobilize around change initiatives with more passion, clarity, speed and precision.

John Abele, owner of Kingbridge and I are so passionate about this topic that we would like to spend the next few months engaging in dialogue via this blog platform with others out there who are equally as passionate about this subject. If you would like to be a part of this community of learning, please let us know by leaving a comment below. For those of you interested in engaging we would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to Michael Jones and Charles Holmes who practice this type of work all over the world. They are great friends and strategic partners in our Collaboration Centre and have agreed to join our learning community. Michael and Charles recognize that building connections for the future involves creating communities of belonging, where people are drawn together in authentic and at times challenging conversations. It is in these conversations that people begin to see and share strengths or gifts that we see in each other. These gifts are discovered thorough stories of experiences and places that hold meaning and significance for us – experiences and places that have shaped our lives. These stories are infinitely practical, in that they illuminate ideas and insights that can lead to new possibilities for innovation and ways of being together in community. Michael and Charles recognize that the vision for the communities we create together are often not found in the “flashlight world” of spreadsheets and strategic plans, but are more likely to occur in the complex and subjective “candlelight” conversations that bring to light our aspirations through embracing a world of imagination, possibility, mystery and surprise.


Finding the Right Language

We may all speak English, but “language”, in this case, refers to how we communicate to find common understanding.  And that’s hard.

It’s not just academics versus business people.  Different businesses have different languages.  Different departments within businesses have different languages (finance versus sales versus R and D, versus production, etc.).  Children and adults have different languages.  And, of course, different disciplines within the sciences speak and think differently.  We tend to think that when we’ve made a point the other person obviously understands it.   But they’ve actually heard something else.  We all have our special tribal language.

It takes a special skill to be a translator, negotiator or bridge builder between different tribes.  One strategy is to constantly rephrase the same point in multiple ways.   Another is to turn it into a story with a debriefing at the end that explains some insights about the conclusion.  Sometimes it helps to start with a story whose conclusion is not so obvious and then carefully lead the group through the logic of why things turned out the way they did.  Malcom Gladwell does this very artfully in most of his writing.  He loves to have you jump to the wrong conclusion and then explain why.  That way you get surprised and are more likely to remember the point that he was making.  Employing the right metaphor or multiple metaphors with the right timing, humor, confidence and humility is part of the skill.

Good leaders must be masters at communicating in a way that is understood by many tribes.  It is their job to make sure they are understood individually and collectively about organizational goals, principles, issues and values.   One of the best ways to do that is how one deals with a problem, challenge or crisis.  These are teachable moments.  They are real time stories where everyone is listening.  In describing the problem and the strategies for action, the leader can express values, process and desired outcomes (how success will be defined).   They can create a mindset that defines expectations and can inspire small groups to do better as an organized team than they would have as individual tribes.

This is the job of great sports team coaches.  It’s what a symphony conductor does.  It’s what business leaders do.  And it’s what Research and academic leaders do.  Finding that right language is part of the magic of great leadership.

A common concern among leaders is the idea that they won’t be able to successfully change their mindset – the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” outlook.  Good news!  There is a large body of research called neuroplasticity outlining the brain’s powerful ability to change itself and adapt to changing environments. Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich’s research in neuroplacticity suggests that in order to be more open to others languages and find common understanding we need only to engage our brains differently.  In the below TED talk Merzenich looks at one of the secrets of the brain’s incredible power: its ability to actively re-wire itself allowing us to update our “Mindset”.  For several real world examples and stories about the endless adaptability of the human brain check out Norman Doidge’s best seller “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

Resiliency in Leadership

Leaders and motivated individuals alike are becoming well acquainted with the new forms of technology and platforms for communication in order to be collaborative and inclusive but all too often the behavioral side of utilizing and implementing these actions isn’t considered a priority – an issue being addressed at the 2013 World Economic Forum themed “Resilient Dynamism”.  Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab says the theme was chosen because resiliency is the ability to adapt to changing contexts and withstand sudden shocks, both of which are increasingly common occurrences.  In addition Klaus asserts that either attribute — resilience or dynamism — alone is insufficient, leadership in 2013 will require both.

Author and leadership advisor, Don Tapscott described the Davos program as ambitious to the point of mind-boggling, and built on three pillars. The first is “Leading through Adversity,” which means boosting the resiliency of organizations, improving decision-making, and strengthening personal resilience. The second is “Restoring Economic Dynamism,” which means that we achieve inclusive prosperity, rebuild economic confidence, and encourage entrepreneurial innovation. The third is “Strengthening Societal Resilience,” which means reinforcing critical systems, dealing with natural resources in a sustainable manner, and establishing shared norms.
It can no longer be ignored that the world is changing, becoming more volatile and unpredictable, and making the traditional leadership systems and mindsets counterproductive to governments and corporations alike.  In order for organizations to grow sustainably it is imperative that leaders learn and embrace a new paradigm of behaviors including adapting to rapid change, encouraging collaboration both internally and globally as well as fostering creativity and entrepreneurialism.

Kingbridge offers programs that help leaders develop the behavioral shifts needed to move their organizations forward and adjust to current and future requirements of business and the workforce. To learn more visit our website.

Collaboration Across Boundaries

Boundaries like hierarchies, departmental disassociation, difference in expertise and even personal opinion consistently get in the way of collaboration. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to account for it so we can stop it from getting worse. These boundaries exist wherever there is any, shall we say “difference”, between collaborators. This could be a difference in rank, a difference in expertise, a difference in interest, or even a difference in personality, but regardless of the difference, it creates a boundary that must be overcome.

Minor friction between different personalities is to be expected – some people just aren’t great team players. In many cases though, there is a specific reason for this friction, and something to be learned from it. The disagreement you’re having is probably based on something else you actually agree about. Carl Jung would have something to say about this. You both want what is best for the company, and you both think you’re right, and you’re both missing a piece of the puzzle.

Hierarchies too. There are people in every level of an organization who presumably spend some percentage of their time thinking about how to make the company better, and because of their relative positions within the company, we can presume that they would have different opinions on how and what to improve. This conflict between so-called “managers” and “employees” could happen because front-line staff are better informed of a company’s daily activities than the managers and executives. Or just the opposite.

In most cases, the external conflict that arises between collaborators is actually because of a paradoxical internal conflict – collaborators both fundamentally agree and disagree. In this conflict there is opportunity. The subtle agreements underlying the disagreements are the foundation for a good collaborative team, but they have to be developed in lieu of the much more obvious disagreements. Each side has a chance to understand the other side, each has a chance to learn why this conflict exists, and learn from the other side.

Conflict across departments is the same story. Different expertise = different opinion = some fundamental disagreement somewhere. And yet you work in the same place. Some conflict in collaboration is good – it’s going to challenge everyone a little bit – especially when that conflict arises because of a shared desire or interest. Boundaries can be good too, because they point out the most obvious opportunities for development. Boundaries can be barriers to collaboration, but they also present the chance to build bridges.

Practice makes Perfect, so Start Collaborating

Collaboration is “working together towards a common goal”, but how do I know when and where to do that? Any situation that has a problem and a solution is a perfect opportunity to collaborate, and here’s why.

Collaboration works really well when all parties involved share the same goals, or face the same problems, and have some intrinsic motivation towards achieving or solving them. Goals and problems are motivating in and of themselves, because they create unresolved tension.

Goals present an “end point” that implies the journey or task is incomplete in some way. There’s a finish line, we’re just not there yet. Problems are the same way. When we see a problem, we instinctively look for the solution, and if we don’t see it, it sparks some inner curiosity that makes us want to find it.

Take brainstorming for example. Brainstorming inherently means people working together to solve a problem. It implies a high level of complexity, or why would it require a dedicated event with a guest list? It also seems to imply a degree of unknown-ness or newness that requires exploration by the parties involved.

Department or company projects are another great example. They create a finish line, but one that can only be reached as a team. This creates a twofold motivation. Individuals are motivated to collaborate because none of them can reach the goal alone, and the team is motivated to leverage those individual skills and assets.

This is only to say that these are great opportunities for collaboration, not that they always turn out that way. The motivation is the important part. Extrinsic motivation (compensation for achieving the goal) has to be balanced with intrinsic motivation, the latter being much more powerful.

Problems that need to be solved and goals to be reached are just such motivations, and it is in these situations that we should try to collaborate. Any situation that has a problem to be solved or a task to be completed presents an opportunity to collaborate with someone. If we start taking those opportunities every time they are presented we can become expert collaborators, meaning more collaboration in more situations. Practice makes perfect!