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Secrets to achieving collaboration

Even the best organisations have trouble harnessing their resources across internal boundaries in a way that customers truly value and are willing to pay for.

Most organisations suffer from a lack of coordination of processes and systems that allow employees to improve their focus on the customer by harmonising information and activities across units.

Sometimes this is due to the organisation structure, technology or processes but mostly it is about wrong thinking. Change the thinking of your managers and silos miraculously disappear.

It's about changing attitudes, building trust and challenging some widely held world-views about competition, reciprocity and connectedness within the organisation. I have found that the best place to start is our Desilonisation Program. With a tiny investment in Desilonisation, changes can be made in enough heads to achieve a tipping point that infects the thinking of the whole organisation.

Some of the secrets to success are:

1. Find a BIG Sponsor.

When I say "BIG" I mean someone who is prepared to put results ahead of personal power or looking good.

If the Desilonisation Program is run within an organisation the Sponsor will ideally be the Chief Executive. I have in mind someone like Geoff Bascand (Chief Executive, Statistics New Zealand) or Charlie Schell (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry). Geoff is someone his people trust to do the right thing whatever the personal cost. Charlie's small team is better than 98% of all the other organisations in Gallup's world-wide data base.

Sometimes a really BIG second or third level manager is able to sponsor major change. Chris Harvey, Child, Youth and Family is a good example. Chris sponsored Desilonisation with frontline supervisors and it spread upwards from there.

If the Program is run at a Sector level, it's best if the Sponsor is recognised and respected in the Sector for fairness and getting things done. This is why Murray Dudfield, even though he took a back seat, was so important to the success of the CIMS Project. Murray has been officially recognised by the Queen for his services to the Sector.

The Sponsor also needs to invite people to come together, provide seed funding and welcome people at the start. Then a wise Sponsor takes a back seat (or at least a neutral seat) in public.

2. Use a neutral facilitator

Use a neutral facilitator who believes in the power of collaboration. They need to understand the laws of networks including weak ties and Metcalfe's Law. They need to help people see that the world is far more connected than most of us realise and that human nature evolved to be collaborative rather than competitive.

The success of the facilitator has more to do with the thoughts and expectations they bring than to do with their industry knowledge. I'm sure people are able to read our intentions far more than most of us realise. When I go into a project, believing that people will end up trusting each other and working towards a good goal that's much bigger than any of them could have achieved on their own, I am never disappointed. If I go in with even the slightest doubt, things go wrong. I'm not sure whether people pick up on the body language of confidence and "we can do this", or whether they can read your thoughts. However it happens, people pick it up at some deep level and things happen that others cannot believe. Sometimes people say, "How did you do that? We've been arguing for years about this and it seemed so easy!"

3. Pay attention to how you setup the meetings

Sit in circles with no one at the head. Get rid of tables, people hide behind them and in the process keep thoughts to themselves. We are hardwired to communicate face to face around the village circle.

Always have a set of ground-rules about trust, openness, listening and not talking over each other. Get the participants to police these ground-rules themselves. I often take a police officer's hat to a meeting. I ask for someone to "wear" the hat until they find someone who breaks a ground-rule, then that person "wears" the hat until they find someone else who breaks a rule. Often the hat passes backwards and forwards all over the room, usually to hearty laughter.

Laughter, fun and movement are important also. I sometimes have an award for "The Most Outrageous Idea.' It's not because I want the outrageous idea but because it creates an environment where people relax and think differently. Often, it's also the trigger to the most useful idea of the day. Movement is important because it gets blood moving and people touching each other in subtle ways. Koosh balls help to dissipate nerves.

4. Start with the positive

Most strategic partnership processes I've come across recommend starting by focusing on key issues within the organisation or Sector. This may have a place, but it's certainly not where you should start. I'd prefer to start with what's working. Use an Appreciative Inquiry approach. Keep it positive. Expect lots. Get them talking and sharing stories. Often many of the good ideas needed have already been tried somewhere in the Sector. As people listen to each other's stories and experiences these emerge naturally. And as they do so they are accepted more readily than if someone was trying to 'push their barrow.' They think, "I could do that too." "I have not got all the ideas." "If I listen better I could learn from her."

Build on what's common. We are all human and there's so much more that binds us together than what separates us. Yet often we focus on what's different.

Ask people to give. They could give their experience, their knowledge, their contacts, their resources their time and their support. Giving is vital because the act of giving increases serotonin levels. Serotonin is a hormone responsible for pleasure and happiness. Giving increases the levels of serotonin in the bloodstream of the person receiving the gift and in the person giving the gift. But most of all, every person who witnesses the act of giving is affected in the same way. People with higher serotonin are physically different and certainly act differently. They become helpful, cooperative and more willing to connect.

Focus on values more than rules. Rules say, What can we do? Values say, What should we do? Rules live outside of us. Because of this we spend much time and effort trying to get around them. Rules come about in reaction to past behaviours. Rules respond to behaviours they don't lead them. Rules don't govern human progress they govern human past.

5. Start with managers

Start with managers. Managers are nearly always the problem. The work of Barry Oshry shows this experimentally. Managers set the scene throughout the organisation. No amount of talk at lower levels will make any difference if managers are not walking the talk. The key message we need to get managers to understand is that it's not the individuals they should manage as much as the space between the individuals. When managers start to see the spaces between individuals they start to notice energy, communications, trust, and feelings that they simply didn't see before.

I have found the best results come when you work with managers and good front-line people. Managers are amazed at what their people can do when expectations are high and they are given a chance.

6. Don't stop when the Desiloisation Program is over

Desilonisation will change attitudes and build trust but don't stop when it is over. Chris Harvey and others have regular "Refresher Programs". You can use project teams to improve processes so they run more seamlessly across internal boundaries. You can rotate people around units, encourage Action Learning Groups, and examine what gets measured and what gets rewarded.

Bruce Holland
Virtual Group Business Consultants
Phone +6421620456 or Skype Bruce.Holland
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