What Collaboration Requires

I had the opportunity last week to attend the Business Marketers Association conference in Denver and had a great time. I facilitated some conversations around collaboration, and was so interested in the perspectives from the participants.

We quickly listed out a few things that collaboration requires: trust, courage, good communication, a valid unit of analysis, and a ‘reason for being’.

Trust, courage, and good communication all fall in the ‘willing to say the hard things, talk through the tough moments, and get to the breakthrough moment.’ We talked about strategies for that, and how important it is as a collaborator to stay oriented towards positive intentions and respect even when there is disagreement. As one person said, “without disagreement, there can be no agreement – but sometimes it seems like we aren’t allowed to disagree”.  That’s death to collaboration in my opinion.

The unit of analysis point was simply the point that not everything requires a collaboration. If in basketball every player came together to collaborate on how to best dribble the ball, the game would never get played!  But when everyone collaborates on how to win the game, it works really well.  Collaboration has to happen at the right level, for the right problem.

The reason for being was similar in that people talked about how they were told at work to ‘collaborate better’ when there is no structural reason for them to collaborate at all. When functions are discrete and efficiency is the most valued behavior, there is no reason for collaboration, nor is there space for it in the day. Collaboration requires that people have the context, interest, and need to work together for a common goal.

I hope if you are a collaborator, or if you want to have more / better collaboration in your organization, you will take some of these points, apply them, and see what happens then!


Cultivating culture with intention

Growing companies are taking an increased interest in how to build culture with intention. Starting with the recruiting and on boarding process, they are looking as much for fit as for technical skills.  Thanks to the success of places like Zappos and DaVita, where culture is almost an obsession, we have seen the influence of culture on driving revenue, customer experiences, and employee retention.

The difference between these companies and others starts with intention. Culture is no accident – it is defined, understood, and reinforced continually at companies that use culture to drive results. The leaders in these organizations know how to build to suit the culture, and success comes first from within. It is almost an organic application of design thinking, because it forces management to ask a different set of questions when developing a new product, market, or service. Rather than starting with the technology, putting culture first creates a natural sequence of designing customer and employee experiences first, and then following with technology solutions that support that direction.

If you are in a growing company or division and you want to create culture with intention, consider how you personally understand and model the culture you’d like to see. Remember Kouzes and Posner’s disciplines of leadership – ‘model the way’ is core to everything leadership should do. Culture emanates not from what leaders say but from what they do – the decisions they make, the priorities they set, and the way they orient towards customers and employees. If you start innovation processes, operational solution sessions, or product development by asking ‘does this direction support us having the culture we want to have’ and ‘can we successfully develop this and be in alignment with our cultural commitments’, you will be on your way to building a culture with intention.

Are your strategy signs confusing?

A few months ago I posted a sign from a local bagel shop that I just thought was humorous and a little confusing.  I have a hobby, born with the acquisition of my first iPhone oh so many years ago, of snapping pictures of signs that make me laugh.

It occurred to me last week as I walked through a client’s offices and looked at the signs on the various walls and cubical divider that we often send confusing, unclear, or even funny signs to employees about strategy. Strategy is tough to articulate in non-tactical terms, and much of the value of ‘doing strategy work’ comes in the discussions people have while debating, discussing, and setting strategic direction.  It can be hard to translate all of that experience into a simple diagram. In the last few years we’ve seen ‘journey maps’, graphical renderings, and colorful cartoons or videos take the place of the powerpoint ‘boxes on a slide’ approach. For some people, those approaches work great, for others not so much so, as is true with most types of communication.

I’ve come to believe that for communicating strategy, diversity is critical. Posters with colorful adventures on them showing airports or race tracks or hiking trails are great. So are linear boxes on pages and everything in-between.  The challenge is that you need different versions to connect with different people, but the story behind them needs to be the same. So focus on the storyline – what’s the narrative you want everyone to absorb and know about the pictures you are creating? That narrative is what will be used to contextualize anything you put out there, so getting it right is critical to engaging employees in a common strategic direction.

Be cautious of over investing in the artifacts and under investing in the narrative. Part of why I’ve seen clients do exactly that is simple – the artifact creation can be largely outsourced, but understanding the narrative requires executives to spend time learning the message. By extension, it also requires executives to align with the narrative, because they need to speak it out loud over and over as consistently as possible, so it exposes any remaining personal agendas or disagreements.  But let’s face it – if those exist, the strategy probably won’t work anyway, so you may as well get them out on the table.

Video is a great way to coach executives to share narratives – having executives essentially do practice sessions similar to a practice interview that gets filmed and reviewed is a meaningful way to help create consistency in the narrative. People might not like it, but it will get results around a critical investment you’ve made in developing your strategy – don’t let all the hard work and expense go to waste just because people don’t like to be coached on how to explain things!  Try it and see what happens….

Do you know how to have generative conflict?

Workplaces today tend to discourage conflict. They teach people “communication skills” for how to say a “soft no”, or how to reduce or avoid tension, or how to give bad news a “positive positioning”, or how to convince people that what is happening really is good for them – creating a need where one did not exist. It can sound a lot like marketing!  All of these skills are nice to have in your communication toolkit, but I would suggest that we run the risk of losing the ability to generate radically new ideas through conflict.

Radically new ideas rarely emerge from a pleasant, comfortable vibe. They tend to emerge in tension filled, difficult, sometimes crazy environments where people are pushed to their limits intellectually and emotionally at times. It is through conflict that we collectively create new solutions that no one has considered before, because it is often the impetuous declarative, the arrogant position, the loopiest idea, or the most dire circumstance that often moves a group to the generation of something beyond the thinking of any one individual.

People generally don’t want to live in conflict filled environments where they are continuously pushed beyond their limits, but I would suggest that in the work environment, there needs to be a safe and accepted place and way for conflict to happen. If we lose that competency, I fear we collectively run the risk of mediocrity in our solutions to tough problems and our ideation of new business solutions.

I’d suggest that the ability to have generative conflict is a skill we may need to teach in business communications today.  I see generative conflict as having a few distinct characteristics:

  1. It allows for passionate, loud, and politically incorrect discussion.
  2. It is contained to environments where everyone understands the goal of producing a radically new solution to an identified problem.
  3. It is not ‘the norm’, but it is an accepted problem solving approach where people know the language and style will be different from everyday communication.

Generative conflict is useful when it meets three specific conditions:

  1. The need for it emerges from a passionate disagreement about a fundamental and important and specific business decision – setting a new strategy, creating a new product, offering a new service, entering a new market, hiring or firing key personal, investing in research and development, etc.
  2. The power levels between the individuals involved is somewhat level, although not necessarily equal in terms of hierarchy.
  3. The conflict interaction stays on-topic and is not a personal or threatening attack.

Generative conflict does not mean a free-for-all where you can say unkind things, attack an individual, or exercise positional power in inappropriate ways. But it does mean that you can speak your mind – if you think someone is wrong, you can say “I think you are wrong” rather than having to come up with something like “when you say things like that it makes me wonder if perhaps you don’t have all the data, or I haven’t done a good enough job of explaining….”

It isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for every environment or situation. But when we think about companies that have managed to break down barriers in technology and deliver amazingly innovative products to the market, nearly all of them have stories of rough and tumble conflict driving the innovation process. Maybe we should learn from that and work to integrate some of that approach into some of the ‘communication processes’ we are developing and teaching.


The risk of ‘catastrophic success’ in a hyper connected world

A Slate writer, Farhad Manjoo, recently created quite a challenge for a young American garment manufacturer, American Giant.  He wrote an article that waxed poetic about the quality and design of their product – so much so that the company was overwhelmed with orders. His readers flocked to the site and orders quickly spiked.  American Giant produces all of its apparel in the United States, creating a high quality, mid-range price line, and they are worth checking out, but expect to wait if you want a hoodie – current backorders are at least weeks if not longer. This is a case study on “catastrophic success” – where sudden demand outstrips supply so significantly it challenges the entire business model.

American’s in particular expect instant gratification – . We live in a world where a game in the app store can go from one of millions to The One overnight, and the biggest challenges to scale are servers and pipes. But the realities of manufacturing a real, tangible, physical object like a garment remain what they are – cotton must be processed, dyes must be applied and set, cloth created, pieces cut and sewn.  Reconciling production challenges with the reality of trends, spikes, and the speed with which things ‘go viral’ and then fade away is a challenge for any company looking to manage a pipeline.

Traditional business projections typically follow either a steady growth, a spike and level, or a cyclical chart. Sometimes they can plan for an anomaly – for example Roots, the Canadian manufacturer who designed clothing for the Olympics could get ahead of that spike because it was predictable. Viral hits are something new for manufacturers, especially those that don’t come from a planned campaign or something like a major sporting event. Companies want to balance investment in infrastructure with long range revenue projections, so building production capability to meet the possibility of a sudden viral hit is tough for a company that has long lead times for commodities like cotton.

American Giant seems to be taking it in stride, and according to Manjoo has restructured to address the sudden viral hit and a revised ongoing business plan. Check out this follow up article for insight regarding how it all played out. It is both a great success story and an interesting case study for any internet based manufacturing company that can’t move at the speed of the internet.

holocracy – fiction, fad, or for real?

Seems we are hearing a lot these days about “holocracy”.  Its alliteration might stir up some fiction in your mind, with thoughts of Orwell, Roddenberry, or even Golding coming up. But it isn’t any of those things in the business world.

The Zappos announcement at the beginning of this year kicked off a media storm about holocracy “getting rid of managers” and doing away with hierarchy.  If you listen to much of what the media is writing, you would think that Zappos and other companies considering this type of structure are going to a free-for-all type of environment, an “anything goes” lark of a work environment where there is no accountability or structure.

If that were true, I’d place my bets on holocracy being a fad.  But, if you look at the actually well established constructs of a holocracy, you will find that much of what the media is portraying is incorrect.  Within this type of approach, there is most definitely structure, hierarchy, and accountability. The “Holocracy Constitution” does justice to the extent to which governance and structure is embedded in the assumptions of a functioning holocracy.

While Zappos is making news these days with this somewhat new term, there are companies that have been modeling this type of approach for decades. W. L. Gore might not call their structure a holocracy, but back in the 1950s when it was founded, it took a very different approach to hierarchy and management that it has sustained throughout its history. If you want to know if a company like Zappos can take this route and thrive, check out how Gore has done it (here’s a great Fast Company article) in a sustainable way.

I think that as the media hype settles down and people start to pay serious attention to the alternative approach a holocracy provides while also attending to a very human and social desire to organize around social structures, we will find that the ideas are here to stay.  It is a well thought out “social technology” that goes far beyond a surface thought of getting rid of managers and hierarchy. Whether older, larger, more established companies that have been in traditional hierarchies with autocratic or overwhelming bureaucracy can turn to something more distributed is certainly a good question, but don’t dismiss it too quickly as an idea, especially for start-ups or targeted divisions or groups within larger companies. I think it is here to stay, in some form or another, and as a viable alternative hierarchy to the often bloated and suffocating hierarchies of companies today.

Want to get something done? Try using a name.

Names are incredibly powerful connection tools across cultures. They establish boundaries, they indicate relationship power structures and levels, they build intimacy, and they serve to bring someone closer to you, even in small ways.

Consider the difference between someone referring to you by an old and familiar nickname as opposed to your surname, or Mr. or Ms. so-and-so.  Your relationship to that person is immediately apparent to those around you and it is reinforced between you. And yet, it is easy to fall into a rhythm in relationships both personal and professional where we forget to use people’s names. Whether face to face, over the phone, email, or messaging services, we sometimes simply bypass the initial greeting these days, and throughout the whole conversation never once use a persons proper name or even a nickname.

Using a name is a powerful connection device that serves to remind, reinforce, or build a relationship.  Give it a try – for one day, make a point of using people’s names at least once in every interaction. Notice the checkout person’s name at the grocery store and use it in a sentence (‘Thanks, Joe, have a great day’). When you order your lunch, take note of your server or checkout person’s name (‘Laura, I’ll have the chicken salad’). When you get home from work, use your significant other’s name in a sentence (‘Matt, what do you think we should do for dinner?’), and with a co-worker try and use a name at least once in a conversation (‘That’s a great point, Mary, here’s what I think….’).  You may be surprised to find that it takes some effort to put a name into what is a routine interaction, and also at the results – people stop and really look at you, they pay attention to what you are saying in a different way, and it often leaves them with a smile because they have been recognized in a special way. Often, you get better service, more attention, and higher response rates from people with whom you have both close and distant relationships.

Names matter, and even though we now have caller-id and other clues to knowing for ourselves who is connecting with us, acknowledging the interaction with a name will create a stronger connection and often better quality results. Try it, and see what happens then.

Five Miles


Remember Boston – The power of imagery

A year ago two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon. Four people were killed, hundreds were wounded, and thousands of lives were changed forever. Today marks the anniversary, and in taking a moment to remember, I visited Robert Fogarty’s amazing website, Dear World.  Robert uses images in pictures and video to capture the essence of what people want and need to communication.  Their stories are told so simply and so powerfully in his work.  It is a wonderful reminder that often in communication less is more, and that stories transcend in our memories.

Check them out and take a minute today to remember not just Boston, but those around the world who have been just going about their lives only to be caught up in something that has nothing to do with them. What they do then is astounding in its resilience, its hopefulness, and its testament to the power of the human spirit.

Robert Fogerty’s Dear World Series on Boston Survivors Robert Fogarty's Boston Pictures


Truth or power – can you tell the difference?

Today we have more transparency and access to information than ever before. Sometimes it is overwhelming, other times it is wonderful to have so much at our finger tips. It makes us feel we have all sorts of ways to find”the truth” about almost anything.

It is still challenging to find ‘the truth’  though, and perhaps it is bound up in the way we cling to a belief in “the truth” – a single, finite, ultimate truth about something that is “the last word”. Is there ever really a single truth, a final statement? Think about all of the truths that have been debunked or modified over the centuries as the political power structures have changed. Try to imagine for a moment the truths we believe in today that will seem quaint or even harmful in years to come.

Nietzsche said that “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” It may be tough to accept that our fundamental beliefs, our most deeply held truths, are influenced by functions of power. When we challenge power structures, we challenge truths, and that can be dangerous business. But, if we can’t be at least open to the possibility, our worlds are very narrow.

One of our biggest challenges as humans is to really see power at work in our worlds and to acknowledge how it influences our beliefs, what we hold to be true. We naturally tend to view truths provided by powers that privilege and reinforce us as ‘correct’ and truths provided by powers that challenge, disrupt, or threaten us as being ‘incorrect’ or ‘not true’ and we look for evidence to support that.  Science is as susceptible to this influence as any truth-making machinery ever invented, even with the controls it has in place – the constraint Nietzsche describes is everywhere.

Perhaps we can’t escape it, but don’t be afraid to question the ways in which power influences your interpretation of what is true and not true. Be bold in examining how your own power is supported by what you choose to view as true. It can be scary to think about what happens then – once you’ve stripped away some of the reassurances and gotten below the surface, but it can also help you to develop whole new views, attitudes, and approaches to the world, which is pretty cool to do.

From Crystal Coast Optometry, here's an optical illusion that will challenge you to think about how your eyes can deceive you from the truth - are the dots really moving?

From Crystal Coast Optometry, here’s an optical illusion that will challenge you to think about how your eyes can deceive you from the truth – are the dots really moving?


Are you a curious person?

A few posts back I talked about curiosity feeding innovation (see here).

I think that people who are known for innovation are naturally curious not just about their specific areas of expertise but about the world at large. They talk to people, they take an interest in what others do and think, and they naturally expose themselves to new ideas.

If you want to develop your curiosity, start with your immediate surroundings. What are three things in your  world that you take for granted, that you don’t understand, or that you might have wondered about? Maybe it is what the person three offices down really does, or how WiFi really works, or if those three different kinds of fuel at the pump really matter for your car. Whatever it might be, pick one and spend just a few minutes investigating and learning.  It doesn’t take signing up for a semester long course or some other big commitment to develop your curiosity – it can be as simple as asking a few questions every day. Soon enough being curious will be a habit you can’t live without, and wait until you see what happens then!

The other day I was curious about this sign at the local bagel shop. When I went in I had to ask….. wouldn’t you  ??

Do you drive through, or do you park? Hmm…..

Do you drive through, or do you park? Hmm…..