A different approach to collaboration

Photo by D’Arcy Norman

In a post on HBR.org Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer investigate the relationship between collaboration and performance. They claim that not only does collaboration allows performance, but performance allows for collaboration. When people are feeling a sense of achievement and progress, they are more open to collaborate. That is why Amabile and Kramer advocate celebrating small wins, as this is a way to keep people in the team or organization energized to collaborate:

So, not only is collaboration critical to high performance, but maintaining high performance can be important to keeping collaboration going. Previously, we have talked about the importance of small wins — modest but meaningful successes along the pathway to achieving a major goal — in maintaining high performance and subjective well-being. They can also help workers maintain effective collaboration. When organizations support and celebrate small wins, employees feel like winners; the mistrust and conflict that can accompany losing will be avoided. Without those interpersonal problems, it will be much easier to achieve consistent and effective collaboration. [Emphasis added]

While I appreciate the approach of small wins and the importance of the feeling of progress for motivation and individual performance I think a focus on the effects of performance on collaboration might prove detrimental to effective collaboration.

In most business settings today, especially in knowledge work, performance is an emerging synergistic property. That means it cannot be directly predicted. It cannot be taken apart into specific check-list steps. It is uncertain and ambiguous. Innovation for example, emerges out of the interaction between team members and does not originate from the actions of one individual.

In such an environment, focusing on performance is futile. It is a classic case of Obliquity. The goal of performance can only be achieved indirectly. While this seems like semantics, it represents a different approach to collaboration. This approach doesn’t see temporal performance as an indicator for success. Instead, this approach sees continued long-term relationships as the basis of excellence. It celebrates small wins, not because they represent performance success, but because it means the process the team is engaging with is effective. In that respect it will celebrate small losses the same way, in the celebrated mythical approach of Thomas Edison – “I did not fail—I just learned 999 ways on how not to make a light bulb”.

When this approach is implemented – and there is no attempt to claim that it is easy to do so – the focus of team leaders is the relationship between people in the team. That means that the tensions produced by failure are constantly revealed and discussed even before failure occurs. Failure is an expected result and part of the process continuing of toward excellence. It is not that good performance hides tensions and allows for collaboration while everything is working. Instead, true collaboration actively and consistently attends to the undercurrents that facilitate the emergence of performance.

Reading the comments to Amabile and Kramer post suggest that their approach is resonating with many people. What does it say about organizations’ approach to collaboration? Is the dominating approach pushing us to draw the wrong conclusions and prescriptions about how to manage collaboration? I think it does.

What do you think?

Elad

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What is your team’s creed?

I was watching Stanley McChrystal’s TED talk the other day. He gives an interesting perspective of leadership and learning the deal with the challenges of modern management in a very hierarchical style organization like the army. This is one issue he discusses:

And you have to watch and take care of each other. I probably learned the most about relationships. I learned they are the sinew which hold the force together. I grew up much of my career in the Ranger regiment. And every morning in the Ranger regiment, every Ranger — and there are more than 2,000 of them — says a six-stanza Ranger creed. You may know one line of it, it says, “I’ll never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.” And it’s not a mindless mantra, and it’s not a poem. It’s a promise. Every Ranger promises every other Ranger no matter what happens, no matter what it costs me, if you need me, I’m coming.

When we talk about culture and the norms of the team that are a part of that culture we always need to consider how these norms are maintained. What is your team’s creed? What do you stand for and do you talk about it every day? What do you actively encourage – not as a blind command coming from above – but by a passionate belief emerging from below?

Elad

Interaction waste management systems

Photo by kyz

Waste is a natural part of many processes in life. Our body produces it all the time. Many chemical reactions have a main product for the reaction and waste-like by-product. Philosophies like Lean focus on eliminating non necessary waste and reducing the necessary waste to a minimum in business settings (the classical classification is to seven types of waste: Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Wait, Over-processing, Over-production, Defect).

Relationships and people interactions are also creating waste. Hurt feelings, frustrations, misunderstandings, tensions and negative affect are some waste by-products of any human interactions. Put a group of people to work together and you will no doubt have some of these to different degrees. However, while we have process in place to eliminate actual waste –in our bodies, homes and businesses (hopefully), it is not so common to have systems in place to take care of this interaction waste.

We all know what happens then – the waste accumulates until – in good cases – it blows up in one big explosion. Some people try to rationalize and claim that these things need to build up and that the big explosions are beneficial. “We had a big talk yesterday about all the tensions we had in the last few months and cleared everything up. I feel great!”.

Really?

It is like saying that instead of taking the garbage out regularly from your apartment you will hold all of it until there is no room and then take it all out at once. Yes, in the end the waste will be cleared, but what has this process done to your quality of life?

In a recent Freakonomics podcast called: “The power of poop” the emerging medical process of “fecal transplants” was discussed. Yes, you read it right. Doctors are taking feces from one person and transferring it to another person. It turns out that this process helps cure a wide range of diseases, some of which traditional medicine hasn’t been able to deal with. According to researchers, this works because the sick people waste management system is all screwed-up and by putting back a functional system (some good bacteria) you can re-create balance in the waste system that affects the whole body.

And if it works for our bodies, why wouldn’t it work for our interactions? What kind of interaction waste management system do you have for your team? how frequently is it being activated?

Elad

Patience

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I was watching an amazing talk by Dan Myer on how to give math classes a makeover. Watch it! It’s worth your ten minutes. I won’t ruin it for you. However, I liked one of the main starting points for his talk. Here it is:

David Milch, creator of “Deadwood” and other amazing TV shows, has a really good description for this. He swore off creating contemporary drama, shows set in the present day, because he saw that when people fill mind with four hours a day of, for example, “Two and a Half Men,” no disrespect,  it shapes the neural pathways, he said, in such a way that they expect simple problems. He called it, “an impatience with irresolution.” You’re impatient with things that don’t resolve quickly. You expect sitcom-sized problems that wrap up in 22 minutes, three commercial breaks and a laugh track. And I’ll put it to all of you, what you already know, that no problem worth solving is that simple. I am very concerned about this, because I’m going to retire in a world that my students will run. I’m doing bad things to my own future and well-being when I teach this way. I’m here to tell you that the way our textbooks, particularly, mass-adopted textbooks, teach math reasoning and patient problem solving, it’s functionally equivalent to turning on “Two and a Half Men” and calling it a day.

I feel this on myself. When is the last time you looked at something new and asked yourself – how does it work? And sat to think about it and find out by trial and error. Kids start out being really curious. A small child really wonders how things work and sets out to try to understand things, usually by trail and error. Along the way, we lose that. Seth Godin wrote:

We often forget to teach kids to be curious. A student who has no perceived math ability, or illegible handwriting or the inability to sit still for five minutes gets immediate and escalating attention. The student with no curiosity, on the other hand, is no problem at all. Lumps are easily managed.

Same thing is true for most of the people we hire. We’d like them to follow instructions, not ask questions, not question the status quo.

Godin and Myer talk about the same thing. And I think that our “impatience with irresolution” is not only an issue in studying math problems. It represents a problem in our business world and a problem with how we manage people and relationships. As I have written before a couple of times, people think in events and not in processes. We sometimes neglect to see the long-term effects of how something happening right now can affect the future. It is another facet of short-term thinking.

So, managers don’t invest in the little things, don’t resist the temptation to give answers , strive for efficiency instead of effectiveness and use too many rules that don’t require our employees to develop and use judgment.

We need to re-integrate patience into our lives. As Myer says, it starts with the way we educate our children. But it continues with the way we manage our businesses.

Elad

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See me, I am here

Photo by EmilyGrace Photography

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Susan Scott writes in Fierce Leadership about an African greeting:

I’m reminded of the African greeting sawu bona, which means, “I see you.” The response is sikhona, which means “I am here.” The order is important. It’s as if until you see me, I don’t exist. Raking your eyes quickly over someone’s face is not seeing them. So if you want to see your customers, really look at them. What takes mere seconds can make people want to return again and again.

An interesting concept that is not only relevant to customer service but generally to dealing with people. Yes, you are looking at your peers, employees, partners or teammates every day. But do you actually see them? Do you actually acknowledge how each of them is different? Special? Unique? Do you actually make them feel like they exist?

And the ball goes the other way around. When people look at you, do they see you? How do you make sure they do? How different, special and unique are you?

Elad

Spreading positivity

Photo by tango 48

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A short paragraph from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard:

In a more exhaustive study, a psychologist analyzed 558 emotion words – every one that he could find in the English language – and found that 62 percent of them were negative versus 38 percent positive. That’s a pretty shocking discrepancy. According to an old urban legend, Eskimos have 100 different words for snow. Well, it turns out that negative emotions are our snow.

This reminded me of an experiment I heard about in a Judgment and Decision-Making class. People were shown different words. Some were positive (Baby, Fun, Happiness, Kitten, Smile, Sweet, Friend) and some were negative (Fear, Bomb, Rude, Thief, Shark, Cancer, Weapon). Each word was shown for 13.3 milliseconds. They were then asked two questions:

  1. What was the word?
  2. Was it positive or negative?

Most of the people could not recognize the words. However, they were able to determine much more accurately, if the word was negative than when it was positive. One possible explanation is that by evolution, we are wired to better spot negative and threatening things. If you miss that berry on the tree, that’s a shame. If you miss the Saber Tooth Lion lurking behind you, you might die.

But we shouldn’t let the fact that negativity controls our language and sub-conscious to allow it to control our lives. It just means we have to work harder. To think more closely on how we say things. To make an effort and look for the sliver-lining, the bright spots and the part of the glass that is half full.

We are not in the Savanna any more. There are no lurking lions. We are dealing with people who feed off relationships. Positivity is a contiguous thing but so is negativity.

What are you spreading? I sure hope it’s positivity germs…

Elad

Relationships

Photo by Katerha

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I just finished reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck and it is hard for me to relax. It is an amazing book that I think everybody should read. The sooner the better.

This quote from it blew my mind in ways that relate to this blog:

In his study of gifted people, Benjamin Bloom included concert pianists, sculptors, Olympic swimmers, tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists. But not people who were gifted in interpersonal relationships. He planned to … But no matter how hard Bloom tried, he couldn’t find any agreed-upon way of measuring social ability… as a society, we don’t understand relationship skills. Yet everything is at stake in people’s relationships.

Relationships are hard. And because people are cognitive misers that are wired to avoid hard work and solve complex problems we gravitate towards the things we can easily understand, measure and gather information about. Money, numbers, performance. But relationships – they are elusive, hard to understand and quantify. But the fact that we can’t measure something does not mean it is not worth time, effort and attention.

Some people think that we can manage without relationships. “Everybody just needs to come in and do their job. If not, they will lose their job. We can manage without relationships”. Can we? Really? I don’t think so. As one of my professors is fond of saying: “You don’t manage people. You manage relationships”.

I don’t claim to have all the answers to the issue of relationships. I do agree with Dweck that they are a fundamental part of our lives and our business. And I think we should devote more an effort to understand and improve them. If reading Mindset has taught me anything, is that you can improve and learn if you try hard enough.

Elad