in collaboration with Jennifer Jackson from Jaxzyn,
and Darren Hill & Alison Hill from Pragmatic Thinking
Dougal Jackson (aka Dougs)
Director / Creative lead
Dougal draws on a background in design and branding to bring a unique approach to a corporate landscape typically starved for creativity. He holds an unwavering belief in the power of ideas, and human-centred design as a tool to connect with people at all levels of an organisation. With partner, Jen, he helms Jaxzyn — building a global reputation as an employee experience company that goes beyond typical, bringing highly effective strategy set alight by strong creative. He considers himself lucky to have worked with leaders and influencers of Fortune 50 and ASX listed organisations. Recent work includes helping steer the brand and direction of PepsiCo EHS — inspiring 200,000 employees worldwide to pursue positive; re-imagining how environment, health and safety and corporate social responsibility might look in the future at Mattel; and guiding creative strategy for change, culture and leadership programs for McDonalds, Suncorp, Telstra and Coca Cola.
Jen Jackson (aka Jen)
Director / Strategic lead
Jen believes in the difference-makers and visionaries, trend-setters and forward-thinkers, influencers and leaders. Her work as strategic lead at Jaxzyn (an employee experience company) extends, elevates and executes the ideas and vision of these rare few, to move the many — the 1.3 billion people who shape our world’s largest organisations. She’s helped leaders at forward-thinking Fortune 50 and ASX listed businesses to make a difference — increasing engagement, forging culture, facilitating change, and communication that connects, informs, inspires, motivates and resonates through every level. Jen balances business objectives, strategy and performance with a deep understanding of what works at the frontline. She champions human, and fights for work that considers people first and foremost. Above all, she has an unwavering optimism and unrelenting drive for possible in all that she does, and all who she works with.
Alison Hill (aka Ali)
Director / Psychologist
Alison is a registered Psychologist with a wealth of experience in working with both organisations and individuals going through transitions. As a skilled trainer and facilitator, Alison works closely with individuals and teams from executive level to frontline, ensuring that behaviours shift towards achieving business strategy. She also helps organisations improve their internal processes for managing maternity transitions. As a proud and passionate working mum herself, Alison understands the opportunities and challenges for both the individuals involved, and businesses they work for. She’s the co-author of the essential management book, Dealing With The Tough Stuff, and Managing Director at Pragmatic Thinking.
Darren Hill (aka Daz)
Director / Behavioural scientist
As a Behavioural scientist, Darren has a legitimate license to study people for a living. Creepy, yet it also helps him genuinely make a difference to the difference makers. The work he does at Pragmatic Thinking (a behaviour and motivation strategy company) sees him working with influential folk inside ambitious organisations — from lean startups to Fortune 50 and ANZ top 20 companies — to drive contemporary work practices. He’s penned several books, including the best-selling Dealing With The Tough Stuff, and delivers keynotes from Melbourne to Kuwait, and plenty of places in between.
It seemed like such a simple question:
But within that question — many more questions:
Do we really need collaboration on every project?
Who should be involved?
Should everyone be involved, and at every stage?
Does collaboration really facilitate a sense of ownership?
Does collaboration really breed innovation?
Is there a silver bullet: a process, model or formula?
So. Many. Questions.
Speaking of questions, I’m not entirely sure how this quarterly topic became collaboration. I think Jen and/or Darren told me we should all work on it together, which would be typical of both their collaborative processes. No arm twisting required, however — how the possibilities shimmered! Four lone wolves collaborating on a piece about collaboration? So layered! So avant-garde! Such potential for genius, or at very least (or perhaps best-case scenario) — magnificent failure. No-one likes the straight-forward story — give us adversity! Give us conflict! This project offered the possibility of both, with the opportunity for learning also.
The four of us working together is nothing new. We’ve pooled skills on culture, leadership and engagement programs for PepsiCo, Suncorp, Telstra, and McDonalds, to name a few. I could predict the dynamic before we began. Darren would employ his fast and furious approach: “Give me model!” and “I want box! With cool things in!”, he would bellow belligerently — daring anyone to challenge him. The other alpha, Jen, would stamp hooves and lock horns, before finally submitting to the more dominant bull, and skulking off into the undergrowth. Alison would compile pages of clever things that she would never share, what with the extroverts trampling the grass in vulgar displays of dominance. And me? I’ll be the first to admit I often do not play well with others. Combine high introversion with low self-esteem, but also seemingly incongruent ego, and I’m a seething chemical reaction destined to implode. I’d most likely sit there in quiet judgement, giving bad face and passive-aggressive commentary, before doing whatever the heck I pleased anyway.
Yes, certain fun times ahead.
This quarterly follows a slightly different format from previous (lest we habituate!). Scroll south for five topics exploring aspects of better collaboration, paralleled by the chronicling our own collaborative experience over four catch-ups. The latter we executed in symposium format. Not the bastardised, mind-numbing conference format though — oh no! This is the way the ancient Greeks collaborated — taking discussion out of the usual work environments and into a social setting, combining food with wine and witty repartee (more on this later). Following each symposium — a reality check. Each of us would take an individual survey on the symposium just passed. An opportunity for review and self-reflection; a time to recognise and reward individual performances, while evaluating the performance of the group; a chance to learn and grow from our experiences. Also, a means for a little good-natured banter. I hoped no punches would be pulled, nor quarter given. I intended to show them neither.
Prepare yourselves for a rambling tale — topsy-turvy; tangents ahoy! I have no idea what may happen next, but given the individuals involved — it’s sure to be good. To slay this many-worded, multi-headed hydra, we’ll chop it down and present each part weekly. The schedule — as follows:
As always, we fascinate more to the chase than any clear-cut solutions, and snort scornful at the prospect of solving collaboration in a mere two months. Rather, we approach collaboration with a bent based on our combined expertise in employee experience, behavioural science and psychology, communication, culture, and leadership.
What do we learn? Do many hands really make light work? More importantly though — what goes wrong? Are friendships shattered beyond salvage? Does Jen spend more time in the pack, or off in the undergrowth? Does Ali get the chance to drop knowledge? Does Darren get his model? Do I finally learn to subdue my seismic instability and work with others, or erupt volcanic — laying waste to relationships in a hot molten fury?
Come satisfy your morbid curiosity…
Barefoot Barista (cafe), Palm Beach
Date & time:
20 April 2016 at 12:30pm
Loose discussion around ideas, possibilities, outcomes, and lunch.
It all began with lunch, which is always an excellent place to begin. With the dizzying possibilities of a new quarterly focus, food, and coffee combined, we arrived fifteen minutes early. The Hills were thirty minutes late, which was anticlimactic.
When they finally arrived, Daz dove straight in — just as I feared he would. Actually, to be honest, I’d secretly hoped he would so I could fire a few cannonballs at him in the post-session survey. Unfortunately it was all pretty decent content, so that dampened the gunpowder a little. Jen seemed quieter than usual, and Ali surprised by squeezing at least eight words edgeways — all of them insightful. I didn’t surprise at all with a curious approach* — ears open, mouth closed, eyeballing the others over slow-cooked pork while they all pushed salad around plates in perverse defiance of superior menu choices. Together, we took a leisurely stroll through a series of loose conversations that sauntered between camping, staffing, brewery openings, happiness in Kuwait, and of course — collaboration.
Between bites, expectations were expressed for what this collaboration might become. No mention of boxes from Darren, yet, though I’ve heard murmurs of potential collaboration models already. Sure does love a model, ol’ Dazza. I chose to ignore his subtle attempts at psychological seed-planting, for now. Yes, the path ahead is still delightfully hazy, and I intend to keep the Pragmatic Thinking crew from becoming overly pragmatic, just yet.
However, while we wallowed in possibility, that’s not to say we didn’t sketch out a plan. In deviation from the usual script, I was elected project leader. Ordinarily I’m loathe to lead, introversion and all that, but this quarterly is my bloody party and I’ll darn well host it as I please. The first flaunting of my role was to lay down the rules: the symposium format; the post-session review. These ideas were readily adopted, and the surveys answered with delightful disrespect. Yes, the responses certainly enlightened — each valuable insight wrapped in withering honesty and language that would make the crassest mariner blush.
So far this is better than I could ever have hoped, though the sceptic inside still fears it's only a matter of time before inevitability comes crashing.
With the food and festivities out of the way — we move to the formalities.
Collaboration, by definition is the action of working with someone to produce something. This very article, for example — a product of collaboration. Given that 1.3 billion people head off to work every day, ostensibly to produce something for their organisations, you might say collaboration is an inherent part of every business.
A recent study in The Harvard Business Review found that the time spent in collaborative activities at work has fattened by over fifty percent in the past two decades. It’s no coincidence that this increase in collaborative work mirrors the escalating complexity of business. Larger scale projects; more complicated problems; tighter timeframes: these things require bigger teams with specialised skill sets and diverse backgrounds, often spread across the globe. There’s more pieces than ever to come together smoothly for success — an intricate logistical and managerial dance.
There’s no shortage of evidence demonstrating the fruits of great collaboration. Peek beneath the skirts of any success and you’ll almost certainly discover a great group. Even in cases where an individual claims the spotlight, behind them — a talented team who’ve collectively elevated the vision. Research supports the link between collaboration and performance. People working in high-performing teams have been proven to achieve better results, find better solutions to problems, spot mistakes faster, and even report higher job satisfaction than individuals working in isolation. Executives also identify a noticeable improvement in profitability when employees are encouraged to collaborate, and collaborate well.
Then, there’s innovation. With technology continuing to accelerate exponentially, and upstarts and start-ups recklessly disrupting the established — many organisations are looking towards innovation to avoid irrelevance. Because effective collaboration shapes the environment needed to connect seemingly unrelated ideas in ways that haven’t been done before, or re-purposed for a different context, it provides the ideal catalyst and climate for innovation.
For an organisation, department or leader to thrive, they need to influence not only how their people work, but the way they work together.
But, it’s not that easy.
Yes, despite being social creatures, collaboration seems to come with surprising difficulty. We’ve been told we’re all beautiful and unique snowflakes — and we certainly are. Put us in a group however, and all those wonderful individual quirks, backgrounds, values, drivers, and emotions also make for a fraught and challenging exercise in leadership, requiring skills spanning communication, psychology, behavioural science, motivation science and group dynamics.
We might also wag an accusatory finger at our traditional education system for making matters worse. When it comes to education, I tread lightly. There’s many bright minds at work in this complex field, and polarising but equally plausible points of view abound. One school of thought popularised by Sir Ken Robinson is the notion that we’ve been educated out of collaborative behaviour. Throughout our formative years we’re educated in groups, but constantly evaluated, recognised and rewarded on our individual performance. Arguments for the effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of this system aside, it seems reasonable to assume it wouldn’t foster a particularly collaborative mindset.
The focus on the individual continues through tertiary education and into employment. Here, we’re hired on our own merits, and continued to reap rewards and recognition as individuals. Yet suddenly we’re thrown into groups — our performance tethered to others. Often underprepared — proficient in our profession, but not in the specialised skills required to work effectively as a group. Yes, after years of being encouraged to put ourselves first, we’re suddenly told it’s really about the team. Work together! Collaboration is crucial! This all presents a particular and peculiar conundrum for leaders who need to balance a collaborative approach to achieve results, with the individual savvy needed to progress up the promotions ladder.
It’s little wonder that collaboration myths and mystique blurs into hazy half-truths like unicorn and yeti. It’s no surprise we sometimes fail spectacularly at performing as a pack.
On that cheerful note, we press on.
Warehouse No.5 (co-working space), Burleigh Heads
Date & time:
12 May 2016 at 1:00pm (1.30pm)
Assumptions, myths, pitfalls, and bagels.
The week following the first symposium was a glorious time, full of follow-up research and snide comments to Daz and Ali about tardiness. Yes, I quite enjoyed being on a high horse about punctuality for the first time in my life. Alas — short-lived. Our second symposium saw us return to form and running late. This delighted the Hills, who capitalised with several text messages escalating in obnoxiousness.
We finally arrived at the co-working space to further heckling. Hilarious. Fortunately the combination of a great space, good coffee, and satisfactory bagels inspired. The session that followed can best be described as trying to umpire four simultaneous games of ping pong, each with multiple balls. Ideas were flung with enthusiastic abandon: hard, fast, and from all which-ways — curve balls everywhere. Your old pal here struggled to get all the points down, keep up with tangents, keep us relatively on track without jumping too far ahead, and ensure that we discussed a few key points around MIT’s research into collective intelligence (more on that in topic 4).
Jen encouraged me to give everyone a glimpse of quarterly progress so far. Presenting incomplete work gives me terrors, so I revealed it reluctantly. What if they hated it? Worse — what if someone suggested improvements? I shuffled uncomfortably and watched their reactions. Fortunately for everyone, appropriate expressions of approval all round. Smiles; relief; potential crisis averted.
Discussion also ricocheted between several other interesting but completely off-agenda topics, including one particularly amusing hypothetical that considered what an army founded on inclusive collaboration might look like if everyone jumped into a brainstorming session before storming an enemy bunker. Fascinating? Certainly — however my obsessive need for logical structure compels me to exclude it from the following topic, and slide it slyly into a more relevant place (topic 3).
We rounded off the symposium exhausted — overwhelmed by the number of topics considered and the scope of the material still to cover. Or perhaps it was just post-carb sleepiness? Regardless, we forge ahead boldly, together, with enthusiasm, and so far, sadly — without hint of conflict.
It’s a situation played out time and time again: in a generic boardroom bathed in fluoros — tense silence. Someone just dropped the c-bomb.
“We all need to Collaborate better, so we can really Innovate. Now, who’s got a Good Idea?”
There’s only one place this meeting is going, and it sure ain’t anywhere good.
Mis-used and abused; wheeled out once in a while, dusted off, and fired haphazard at whatever problem happens to be standing in someone’s way. Here are a few of the collaboration myths we hear most often, and the potential pitfalls and consequences of collaboration gone sideways.
Remember back in topic 1 when we delighted at the revelations contained in collaboration’s definition — the action of working with someone to produce something, if it’s already slipped your memory. Yes, there’s no denying collaboration is essential, it’s simply the way we work these days. However, how effective the collaboration is depends entirely on the way we consider it. More on this notion sprinkled throughout topic 2, 3 and 4, and wrapped up in topic 5.
Here’s another ol’ myth debunked in the definition (the action of working with someone to produce something). The word most worthy of your eyeballs here, is action. Yes, collaboration is an action — a process — not the event or tool it’s often treated as. This is important. Great collaboration rarely turns up only for one-off meetings or annual all-in days — it’s an ongoing affair. A process, you ask? A culture, we suggest — and detail in topic 5. And while we’re banging away at semantics, it’s also worth noting that there’s nothing in the definition to suggest any inherent problem-solving (or any other benefits) to collaboration — these are dots we’ve joined, and expectations we’ve assigned.
Collaboration sure does equal innovation — ahh but haul the reins before galloping towards conclusions, Kemosabe! We made briefest mention in topic 1 of how collaboration can provide the perfect climate for innovation, however it isn’t necessarily a given. Coaxing the ideal physical and psychological environment for innovation to occur involves numerous considerations. In topic 3, we’ll peel back multiple layers of tin foil to find out what made Warhol’s Factory a hub for innovation, as well as acid-fuelled debauch. We’ll also peer into the English coffee houses to discover why, behind those deceptively traditional facades, new ideas brewed prolific. Finally, we’ll identify the factors involved in assembling the right mix of people, and establishing the psychological safety required for ideas to flourish, in topic 4.
It’s obvious that the smartest group would be made by corralling the smartest individuals, right? Nope! In recent research into the collective intelligence of groups, psychologists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon University & Union College discovered that the individual intelligence of team members had only minor correlation to the overall smarts of the team. Google’s Project Aristotle confirmed — apparently one plus one does not equal two, would you believe? Don’t take our word for it though, we’ll tuck into both their findings for what makes a high-performing group in topic 4.
Among the most common collaboration assumptions: every person needs to be involved at every stage. The truth? Fattening a team with unnecessary bodies throughout the process merely drags out deadlines and delays delivery — administering slow and certain death by committee. It’s also an excellent means of diluting good ideas — smothering strong, singular messages in the attempt to incorporate numerous (often contradictory) points of view. Advertising is one of the few industries to commoditise an effective collaborative environment— albeit and ironically, in remarkably uncollaborative fashion at times. To take the briefest of peeks behind their mysterious drapes: teams are composed only of people with the skills required to produce the desired result, and group contribution occurs only at certain stages of the process. Curiosity piqued? We expand in topic 3.
There’s no denying, give folk the opportunity to contribute, and there’s potential for peevishness if their idea isn’t implemented. However, this is by no means unmanageable. We can pre-empt angst by setting group objectives, clear expectations around individual roles and contribution, and engineering a group free of fear and uncertainty. Again, we turn to advertising to suggest process in topic 3, and research into psychological safety to shape the right environment in topic 4.
Do people value something they’ve been involved in more? They certainly do. Research by Duke University reveals there’s a value distortion towards things and situations in which we’ve had involvement. Good news, right? Get everyone involved! Alas, when we involve every person at every stage, we smack headlong into the issues penned previously, compounded by the discontent that may arise if ideas aren’t included. Once again, the solution lies in presenting the right opportunities, expectations, and environment for contribution. We’ll cover ownership in more detail, specifically the Duke University findings, in topic 4.
Here’s a truth: when faced with big decisions, particularly when there’s substantial risk involved, we often turn to others for assurance. Here’s another certainty: ask a hundred people for their opinions, you’ll get a hundred different opinions — many contradictory; often irrelevant. Not ideal — poised on the brink of delivery; fully invested; more confused and less confident than we were before. Yes, there’s few ideas worse than spending months on a project, finishing it, then seeking feedback just before delivery. The solution isn’t to exclude people from the process however, but knowing when and how to involve them. Also, and perhaps more importantly, being aware of the times to cup the proverbial cajones, and back ourselves. More on this notion peppered throughout topic 3, specifically in advertising and artist collaborations, along with the evidence for why focus groups are a truly terrible idea in topic 4.
Next, we tuck into slightly heartier fare. All the examples, research, and notions just mentioned? We cover them thoroughly. Bibs on — learnings aplenty.
Ocean View (holiday apartments), Rainbow Beach
Date & time:
14 May 2016 at 7:00pm
Current best practices, research, and red wine
Our third symposium went down in Rainbow Beach, a small beachside town just north of Noosa and slightly south of Hervey Bay. It’s a downright magical place: clear water lapping white sand below cliffs dripping rainbows (Rainbow Beach, the name — so adorably literal!). You come here to get cozy with nature, and bask in serenity in the only truly Australian way — belting along beaches in diesel-belching boxes. Here, magnificent displays of unspoiled wilderness and unbridled boganism abound in splendid symbiosis. The timing of the holiday also seemed fortuitous for our third symposium: best practices and current research on collaboration.
We’re nothing if not thorough in our investigations, so it was inevitable that at least one session would involve libation. We certainly libated liberally. This wasn’t entirely planned, mind — I’d actually envisioned us sitting around with a nice bottle of pinot and making intelligent conversation. Instead, everyone got a little over-excited and the best I got out of the session was a nonsensical metaphor about three small boats. Yes, in proper holiday spirit, Jen, Daz and Ali popped the first cork before lunch, and everything went steadily downhill from there. I snuck a nap at three and hoped when I woke up that sanity had returned. It had not. By around seven o’clock, several bottles of wine and numerous cervezas deep, I realised that if we were going to have a symposium, it would best be sooner than later.
I actually can't remember much of what happened. I was hoping I'd look back at my notebook and discover profound genius, but to be honest it looked like the incoherent ravings of a bunch of lunatics. For example: at least three separate notations about gin. I’m not sure if Darren really wanted me to include gin palaces, or was proposing a switch to spirits. There’s also what looks suspiciously like the sketchings of a model. Note to self: must remain wary at all times.
[left] Springing the symposium on Ali & Jen [middle] Daz seemed enthusiastic though [right] Now, however...
But to the results — what did we discover? Group gin drinking aside, what examples of are there of collaboration done right? Who’s doing it well, and who did it well in the past? Most importantly: what processes might we steal from them? With the catastrophic collapse of the collective this time around, it all falls to me.
It’s a mighty big world beyond the boardroom, what might be learnt about collaboration by leaving the office? Are there examples of effective collaboration outside corporate? Are there things from the past that could help in the future? Yes, yes, and most definitely.
The ancient Greeks sure knew how to do collaboration right — coming together to drink, eat, and discuss philosophy, politics, poetry, and topics or issues of the day. Traditionally, symposiums were overseen by a symposiarch, whose foremost responsibility was to decide how strong the wine would be. This important decision hinged on the purpose of the symposium. Were serious discussions required? Add water to wine; limit the intake. Celebration? No water; no limit. This is a key piece of information I really wish I’d known before Rainbow Beach.
Symposiums weren’t limited to civil discussion however. Alternative entertainment included bawdy singing competitions where one person began a song, and another improvised the ending. Yes, this is the lengths folk went to to stay entertained while waiting a few thousand years for The Voice to come along. There were also rhetoric contests, birthing our modern-day usage of symposium to describe any event where multiple speeches are made. If you’ve attended a typical industry event recently and suffered through several thousand bullet points, you might agree that we’d all benefit from less water in the wine.
Ironically, I wouldn’t have remembered to include the often-used sporting metaphor, had it not been for my sports-loving cohorts. One point for collaboration! For me, team sports have always been a confusing array of handshakes and nonsensical locker room rituals. I grew up surfing and snowboarding, which probably explains my lack of team spirit. It’s only recently that I’ve dipped a tentative toe into the strange world of group exercise, and I’ll admit that the parallels with collaboration in a corporate context are clear. Communication; working together for a common purpose; knowing your role and expectations, and those of your teammates: these are fundamentals for teamwork, whether inside an office or on the field. There’s also the fascinating phenomenon of the star player. While these prodigies may be more individually talented than anyone else on the field, court or pitch, it’s not a given that their team will win the game. Behind each individual — a team. For every Michael Jordan, a Scotty Pippen or Dennis Rodman. Such insight and sports-specificness from a non-sportsman in that previous sentence, can you believe? Don’t. I stole it.
Andy Warhol’s New York City studio gained notoriety through the sixties and seventies as a hangout for artists, musicians and amphetamine users. Given that colourful mix, it’s not surprising that it was known for wild parties, artistic experimentation and collaboration — the lines often blurring between the three. Whether intentionally or otherwise, Warhol brought a mix of people into an environment that provided the perfect physical and psychological climate for innovation. In addition to ideas and inspiration, The Factory also provided a safe place for artists to experiment without risk of failure or fear of judgement. Perhaps it’s greatest impact however, was in productivity. According to musician John Cale from the Velvet Underground, “It wasn’t called the Factory for nothing. It was where the assembly line for the silkscreens happened. While one person was making a silkscreen, somebody else would be filming a screen test. Every day something new.” Not only were artists working in The Factory more creative, they were also more prolific in their output.
Of all the breeds of collaborations, there’s arguably none more volatile than artists working together. Combine large yet often incongruously fragile egos, and the result is either brilliance or catastrophe. Whether it’s Walt Disney and Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat, fashion designers, musicians, dancers, artists and designers continue to be drawn to the possibility that the intersection of talents (within and between disciplines) might yield something more than what they could achieve on their own.
For artists, the search for an idea is generally the time when collaboration proves most beneficial. This is the reason most seek a muse or network (like The Factory) — to inspire, support, and sound ideas. Yes, the reclusive stereotype is often only half the truth. Many artists are actually very social, absorbing their surrounds and soaking external stimulus — until it’s time to create. At this stage, most prefer solitude while producing their work. The presence of anyone else, let alone another artist with strong or conflicting creative opinions can prove precarious. Occasionally this friction can serve to strengthen the work. Other times though, it merely dilutes the individual strengths — homogenising the work, or breeding angst and/or crippling self-doubt. For every example of effective artistic collaboration, a tragedy can be found to contradict it.
You could search far and further and not find a better example of how creativity can be systemised, and collaboration harnessed, than in advertising. The industry takes an intangible and transforms it into a commodity, and manages to do it despite artistic temperaments and monumental egos. So, how do they manage the impossible?
Let’s begin with a quick overview of agency structure: suits above, sneakers below. Upstairs it’s all partitioned business as usual, while the party’s downstairs on the open plan floor. The bulk of the agency, the creative department, is composed of small teams — usually partnerships between an art director (visual) and a copywriter (words). The best partnerships are usually long-term, and frequently see them move between agencies as a pair, not as individuals. Depending on the size of the agency, there may be one or more creative directors overseeing several teams. The creative director bridges the divide between creative aspirations and business objectives.
Now, on to the process. One of the biggest misconceptions about advertising is that every project is one big rollicking collaboration that everyone works on. It’s not. The collaboration process in advertising is remarkable uncollaborative in many parts, which may just be the reason it works so well. Generally a project will begin with a briefing and an all-in. This is a variation of the well-known brainstorming session, facilitated as a safe environment for flinging ideas without fear of judgement. Following this session, an art director and copywriter take the best ideas and develop them under the eye of a creative director. This is when things turn dictatorial. Not to say it isn’t a team effort, but during this time the creative director has the final say. He/she fights ruthlessly for the best possible execution of the idea, protecting it from from management, account service, other creatives, and even from the client. Thick skins are required, as creative directors are not typically known for their sensitivity in delivering feedback. However, come industry awards, recognition is given to the team, not to individuals.
Originating in Italy in the 16th century, salons gained popularity in Early Modern and Revolutionary France during the 17th and 18th centuries. The salon was a hosted gathering, partly for socialising, but also with the intent that polite conversation would increase the intellect and refine the taste of those in attendance. It certainly seemed to work. The combination of intellectual conversation and reasoned debate in a social setting held particular appeal to writers and artists, and played an integral part in the cultural and intellectual development of France.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, breeches-deep in the Age of Enlightenment, the English coffee houses became hubs for information sharing, ideas and innovation. For the relatively cheap price of a penny, customers bought a cup of coffee and gained admission. Like modern cafes, coffee houses provided a relaxed social atmosphere to meet for conversation and commerce. They paralleled the rise of coffee culture, replacing beer as the morning beverage of choice. This not only proved to be a solid lifestyle choice, but sparked a collective caffeine-fuelled stampede towards knowledge and open-mindedness. This was demonstrated in their approach to diversity and equality. Anyone could participate in a conversation or debate, regardless of social status, class, rank, or political views, as long as they were polite.
The coffee houses also served as distribution hubs for the news. Runners did the rounds of the coffee houses to report major events, and daily gazettes were distributed. Political and philosophical discussion around the news further contributed to coffee houses being considered as alternatives to universities for learning and sharing knowledge.
Co-working may seem like a relatively recent notion, but there’s elements that hark back to the salons and coffee houses of centuries past. Now, like then, people are drawn to working in a flexible, collaborative and social environment. If there’s a pin-pong table — so much the better.
The exact demographics vary depending on location, but most comprise individuals working in a diverse range of industries, specialisations, projects, and towards various objectives. Despite these differences, members often express a strong sense of community and shared purpose. Interestingly, research has shown that this feeling of belonging remains constant regardless of whether a person chooses to socialise.
Socialising certainly isn’t compulsory (great news for introverts!), but simply being around others seems to make a difference. This is likely the result of a phenomenon in psychology known as the social facilitation effect. This finding shows that the mere presence of other folk engaged in similar tasks can increase our motivation and performance, particularly when the task is individual and can be judged on its own merits. In 1920, Floyd Allport conducted an experiment that revealed people working individually at a shared table performed better on a range of tasks compared to when they worked in isolation. Similarly, Norman Triplett found that cyclists with a pacemaker covered each mile around five seconds quicker than those without. Neither experiment involved co-operation or competition, but both revealed the benefits of being near others.
Co-working communities encourage a culture of collaboration — it’s normal to help each other out. There’s no obligation, but many members take the opportunities to lend their unique expertise to the community, and feel valued through their contribution. This feeling of worth, along with the lack of the usual expectations and politics found in many workplaces provides a psychologically safe environment (more on this in topic 4).
There’s also the desirable element of flexibility. People can choose the exact structure of their day, from the hours they work to how they work — be it in a quiet space to focus, or a more collaborative space to interact. They needn’t even go there if they aren’t in the mood or issues arise.
The armed forces might not immediately spring to mind when considering collaboration, but perhaps this is merely a misconception that good collaboration can’t involve rules. The military manages to construct a ridiculously efficient machine considering it’s built from such a complex assortment of parts. A cross-section of the armed forces reveals a massively diverse demographic in almost every aspect: socio-economic background, education, ethnicity, age, and specialisation. The foundations for bringing everyone together? A strong sense of community and purpose; clarity around objectives, roles and expectations; a hierarchical framework of rules, order, respect and discipline. This brutally medieval structure sure doesn’t sound like the way we hear modern organisations talk about collaboration, but oddly — it works.
Following on from non-corporate examples of collaboration, we stick our snouts into the wonderful world of psychology and neuroscience, where smart folk have conducted devious (yet non-invasive) experiments on groups. Did we learn anything from their recent research into collaboration? Oh my oath we did.
Over the past century significant progress has been made in measuring intelligence of individuals, but what about the intelligence of a group? Is there a collective intelligence that can predict how well a group may work together, and the results it’s likely to achieve? Turns out, there is.
In 2008, some clever psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Union College conceived an experiment. They assembled 699 people, divided them into small groups, and threw them several activities that required collaboration. They then did what researchers do — collated the data and looked for the patterns. The first thing they noticed was that teams either excelled at every activity, or failed dismally at all of them. Secondly, and more surprisingly: the intelligence of individuals had only a minor correlation to intelligence of the group. In fact, often the opposite was true. The higher the education of the team members, the more difficult it appeared for them to work together. The more experts in a group, the more likely it was to dissolve into non-productive conflict, or grind to a deadlock.
After examining intelligence, they went on to look at other factors including leadership, diversity, motivation, and familiarity. None were clearly correlated with collective intelligence. They dug deeper, and finally hit pay dirt. They discovered that every high-performing team exhibited two quite unexpected things: high average social sensitivity and equality in conversational turn-taking.
Social sensitivity is the ability to intuit how others feel, based on tone of voice, expressions, nuances and other nonverbal cues. As long as a team has the expertise to solve the problem, researchers found that the groups with a higher average social sensitivity worked together better, and outperformed groups with a lower score. When working as a team, it seems that EQ trumps IQ. Even more interesting though, was the impact of females in a group. In general, women test half a point higher than men in social sensitivity tests, so it makes sense that groups with more women also demonstrate a higher collective intelligence. Also worth noting: social sensitivity translates virtually, making it an important factor even in groups that work together remotely.
Conversational turn-taking is exactly what you’d expect — the way in which group members share discussion. It didn’t matter how the conversation was structured, as long as everyone spoke roughly equally the collective intelligence of the group was higher. In teams where one or two people dominated the conversation, collective intelligence decreased. It’s likely that conversational turn-taking is closely linked to social sensitivity, as group members who are aware that someone is being left out would be more likely to make the effort to draw them into the conversation.
Both average social sensitive and conversational turn-taking can be wrapped into a phenomenon known as psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines this as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.
It’s a little different to trust — focusing more on the group than an individual. For example, psychological safety is a belief about a group norm, whereas trust is a belief one person has about another. Psychological safety is how an individual thinks they’re viewed by the group, while trust is about how an individual views another individual in the team.
It’s a climate that gives people confidence that the other members of the team will accept them for who they are, and won’t embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up or making mistakes. It’s a culture that doesn’t treat people as robots, nor expect them to leave their life or personality at home. It’s an environment where people feel comfortable showing emotions, sharing feelings, and expressing personal concerns from time to time. It allows for difficult conversations without fear of a negative response.
Edmonson suggests that our irrational fear of what others may think might not be so illogical after all — it’s simply a result of evolution. Several million years ago, back when we were sitting around in caves contemplating survival, saying something silly held a higher likelihood of being killed or kicked out of the tribe (the latter having the same result as the former). There’s probably still people in our team we’d like to kick out of our cave, but we’re far more civilised and emotionally intelligent now. However, from worrying about what other kids think of us at school, to fitting in at college, to getting along with co-workers — we’ve never really conquered our fear of rejection. We’ve become almost hardwired to be terrified of other peoples’ opinions, and it’s become a real barrier to working with others.
So, how do we shape a psychologically safe team?
Leaders can begin by creating clear structures where everyone understands their role in the team, and what’s expected of them. Participatory and inclusive management techniques can assist in involving everyone. Effort should also be made to cultivate camaraderie amongst members.
In addition, Edmonson outlines three key approaches:
Frame work as learning problems, as opposed to execution problems: Set the context for uncertainty, and the need to work together to achieve a great result.
Acknowledge our own fallibility: Prompt people to contribute by letting them know we might’ve missed something.
Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions: Encourage input from every member of the team by asking enough questions that there’s an opportunity for everyone to respond.
For a team to achieve their full potential, Edmonson recommends facilitating psychological safety along with accountability. Leaders who hold their employees accountable for excellence without creating psychological safety can cause anxiety. Facilitating psychological safety without holding people accountable for performance can produce a team that chooses comfort over excellence. The combination of both psychological safety and accountability is required to building a high-performing team.
In 2012 Google’s People Operations department set out to build the perfect team. They called this quest for efficient collaboration, Project Aristotle. Over several years they conducted 200+ interviews, peered at 250+ attributes, and throughly poked and prodded 180+ teams. They also hit the books — plowing through 50+ years worth of academic studies on teams and collaboration.
Like everyone before them, they struggled initially to find any discernible patterns or evidence that the composition of a team made any difference whatsoever. Many of the results were conflicting. Some teams socialised outside work, others didn’t. Some were hierarchical, others weren’t. The most confounding instances were the teams that had nearly identical norms, but very different levels of effectiveness.
Eventually though, building on the research done by MIT, Carnegie Mellon University & Union College, Google made a breakthrough. Three years after setting out, they identified five dynamics shared by each of their high performing teams:
Psychological safety: Confidence to take risks and speak up without fear of judgement.
Dependability: The ability to count on other team members to do great work and deliver on time.
Structure and clarity: Clear goals, roles, and execution plans.
Meaning of work: A personal connection to the work being undertaken.
Impact of work: A belief that the work being done will make a difference.
Of all the dynamics, psychological safety was by far the most important, heavily influencing the other four. Re-examining their teams confirmed their results. Teams filled with individual talent, where collaboration was optimised for efficiency but discouraged social interaction and conversational turn-taking, often performed poorly. In contrast, teams that seemed inefficient at first glance, where members spoke over each other, took tangents, and socialised instead of remaining focused on the agenda, performed far better. People on teams that exhibited strong psychological safety proved less likely to leave Google, more likely to innovate, brought in more revenue, and were rated as effective more often by their leaders.
Ironically, in their search for efficiency, Google discovered that many of the factors that create high-performing teams and effective collaboration, weren’t about efficiency at all — they were far more social in nature. There were distinctly human elements to the best teams. However, this revelation presented a whole new challenge. Telling software engineers to work a few more hours would’ve been easy, suggesting they be more sensitive towards their colleagues was almost inconceivable. Google needed to build a scalable algorithm for communication and empathy — a system to promote human connection. Their solution was relatively simple. By adding empathy and sensitivity into charts and reports, it made them easier to talk about. Feelings are far easier to discuss with technically-minded folk when you can point to the data.
Google has since developed an in internal tool called gTeams: a 10 minute check-in to monitor how well a team is doing in each of the five dynamics. Groups receives a summary report of their performance, in-person discussion around results, and tailored resources to aid improvement. In the past year over 3,000 people in 300 teams have used gTeams, and the results have been impressive. Teams that implemented a new norm, like starting a meeting by sharing a risk taken the previous week, improved 6% on psychological safety ratings and 10% on structure and clarity scores. Google has managed to create a framework that makes collaboration and team performance measurable, quantifiable, and more importantly — able to be improved upon.
The endowment effect is a phenomenon in social psychology that explains the subjective nature of ownership. It finds that people often assign an inflated value to the things they own; why we often ask much more for an item we’re selling, than we’d be willing to buy it for. It’s a theory closely related to loss aversion, where we perceive the pain of losing something as greater than the pleasure of gaining something*.
The most cited research on the endowment effect is a study by Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch and Richard Thaler. These three gave participants a regular old mug, then offered them the opportunity to sell it, or trade it for a pen of equal value. They discovered that the proud owner of the humble mug usually asked around twice as much as the amount they (or others) were willing to pay.
More recently, Ziv Carmon and Dan Ariely from Duke University conducted their own research on the endowment effect. They discovered the perfect experiment lay right on their doorstep. Because of the small basketball stadium at Duke, the number of tickets available for each game is far less than the number of students who want them. To solve this problem, the university developed a selection process that over time turned into a tradition. About a week before a game, students begin a campout in front of the stadium. To ensure everyone remains in their tents, officials blow an air-horn at random intervals, and anyone who doesn’t check in within five minutes is kicked from the waiting list. Even at the end of a week spent in tents, there’s still no guarantee of a ticket. The last chance then, is to win a raffle.
Shortly after raffle results were announced to a final four game, Carmon and Ariely called students who’d entered the raffle under the guise of ticket scalpers. Their findings were fascinating. Students who’d missed out on tickets were coaxed into coughing up an average of $170 for the opportunity to attend. However, the students who’d won tickets refused to part with them for less than an average of $2,400. Yes, those who’d won tickets valued exactly the same item (and experience) around fourteen times higher than those who’d missed out.
You’ve most likely experienced the endowment effect yourself. If you’ve ever tried on something in a store and absolutely had to have it — endowment effect, right there. Researchers from Ohio State University found that our desire to purchase can occur just 30 seconds after touching an object. You’ve been warned.
* You might just remember we briefly touched on this nasty little bias towards negativity in our last quarterly.
Teams have certainly bulked up considerably in the past decades. Only 10 years ago, the typical group size was around 20 people. Today, technology and has allowed project teams to stretch beyond 100. However, this scale presents significant challenges to effective collaboration.
Large groups are more difficult to co-ordinate, harder to manage, and have higher potential for loafing. Social psychologist Max Ringelmann found that participants in a tug ‘o war contest put in half the effort when they were in teams of 8 than they did when competing alone. Unfortunately, when contributions are additive and individual efforts are difficult to judge, some slackers can be tempted to coast if they’re not held accountable. Smaller teams are often more efficient, more agile, easier to manage, and individual effort is much easier to identify.
So, what’s the ideal team size? There’s no prescription, one-size-fits-all solution, but the following numbers often present similar scenarios. Groups of 2 can be agile and creative, but often lack resources. Pairs require a solid commitment from both people, which is why business partnerships are often compared to marriages. Teams of 3 can be awkward, with the potential for one person to feel excluded or forced to take sides. Groups of 4 can be prone to splitting into pairs. It’s only around 5 people that the real feeling of a team begins. Between 5 to 8 people there’s diversity of skills and perspectives, without losing the sense of individual contribution. From 9 to 12 people things become challenging again. Attention on individuals usually decreases, and meetings risk becoming long, noisy, or irrelevant to certain individuals. A study from the 1950s found that the ideal size of a committee is 7, and this doesn’t appear to have changed much from then.
There’s also the consideration of Dunbar’s number. This theory suggests there’s a cognitive limit to the number of people one person can maintain a stable relationship with — a limit directly related to the size of our neocortex. Research indicates this number is somewhere between 100 and 250, though 150 is most commonly used. How does this theory translate to a corporate application? Well, Gore-Tex limits each of their factories to 150 employees. Is it a co-incidence they’re rated as one of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work for? Our gut says no. It sure seems reasonable to assume that limiting events and teams to a number where people can really get to know one another would improve collaboration, as well as the overall employee experience.
None of this is to say large companies can’t achieve high levels of collaboration, it simply requires effort to create the right environment.
Diversity, tension & conflict
If you really want to sizzle your grey matter most tenderly, take a look into some research on the impact of diversity on collaboration. To say the results are mixed — well, it’s like watching a game of tennis where the balls are opinions.
One of the few things folk seem to agree on is that diverse teams prove more prone to tension and friction. Tension, friction and conflict aren’t generally words you’d associate with good collaboration (or anything else good for that matter), but according to psychologists, they aren’t necessarily adverse to team performance or good collaboration.
Research by J. Richard Hackman, professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University, found that when conflict is well-managed, and focuses on the team’s objectives rather than each other, it can produce better, more innovation solutions than groups without tension. Hackman uses his research on symphony orchestras as evidence. He discovered that orchestras with friction between musicians usually played better than orchestras whose members were more amicable towards one other. Homogenous groups might prove more harmonious, but they’re also more likely to be content with average performance and exhibit a tendency towards groupthink — consensus for the sake of avoiding conflict.
Diversity certainly provides the variety of skills and perspectives required to solve increasingly complex business problems. The challenge though, is people tend to work together more easily when they personally identify with other group members — when they feel they’re alike. Perceived differences can include nationality, age, profession, ethnicity, education, socio-economic status, and political views. So, basically — anything.
It’s also inevitable that friendships and sub-groups form within teams, usually between individuals with similarities. This is particularly pronounced when groups are composed of strangers. Psychologist Doris Fay investigated this phenomenon in the United Kingdom’s healthcare system. Like Hackman, she found that diversity was an advantage, especially for sparking innovation, but only when there were processes in place to prevent internal division. These include establishing psychological safety, imbuing a common sense of purpose, ensuring everyone feels included and respected, and facilitating effective communication between team members.
So, those are the challenges, but what elements of diversity are most worth considering?
Let’s start with the big picture. Visionary types are great for brainstorming and creative problem solving, but when it comes to execution it’s worth having at least one analytic thinker on the team who’s focused on the details and execution.
A balance of extroverts and introverts also makes for a better team. Corrine Bendersky and Neha Parikh Shah from UCLA conducted an experiment examining the influence of introverts and extroverts on a group. They divided a few hundred MBA students into teams of 5, and fed them a steady diet of group assignments over ten weeks. The introverts started slowly, rating lower in influence compared to their more extroverted collaborators. By the end of the quarter, however — a different story. The introverts’ status had soared while the extroverts’ standing had fallen. Most introverts could probably tell you all this, but the more extreme of our brethren would rather keep working by ourselves in the corner.
Teams also tend to benefit from a mix of men and women. MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and Union College proved this in their research into collective intelligence, and a 2012 study by Credit Suisse examining 2,400 organisations found that the strongest performers tended to have at least one female on their boards.
So, there you go, and go ahead — for complex problems, assemble a big ol’ motley crew: idealists and pragmatists; logicians and philosophers; introverts and extroverts; men and women. Manage them right, then bask in the benefits.
Geography is often considered a major challenge for modern organisations, however it may not be quite the problem we think. Technology has gone a long way to solving many of the problems faced by dispersed teams. In 2009, Cisco surveyed thousands of teleworkers about working remotely. Surprisingly, 69% claimed that their productivity was higher when they worked remotely, and a hefty 83% claimed their communication with team members was either unaffected or enhanced by working remotely. In the same year, Professor Frank Siebdrat investigated the performance of 80 software companies, and discovered that dispersed teams often outperformed teams in which everyone was based in the same location.
However, just because team members might not be in the same building, doesn’t mean they’re taking care of themselves. Out of sight, but never out of mind. Not only do all the same factors that promote strong collaboration apply — more effort needs to invested into them to ensure a cohesive group. Communication becomes a crucial consideration. Team members should feel connected, included, valued, supported, and aware of progress. Rallies and rituals are key, using the myriad of technological options for virtual catch-ups and conversation in an informal context. There’s also evidence to support the importance of getting a team together physically at the start, middle and end of a project, if possible.
It’s also worth remembering that social sensitivity translates virtually, so it remains a consideration when assembling a team.
Finally, an aspect of collaboration that’s relatively cut and dried — leadership. We’ve already discussed the importance of facilitating psychological safety, and considering collective intelligence over individual intelligence when forming a team. It’s also important to establish role clarity and task ambiguity. Co-operation has been shown to improve when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined, yet the team is given latitude on how to achieve the task.
When choosing between transactional and relational leadership to facilitate good collaboration, the best option — is both. Typically, task orientation works best early in a project, with a shift to relational leadership once things are underway.
It may seem obvious to clever folk like yourselves, but it’s worth noting for thoroughness that studies have confirmed in organisations where senior executives model collaborative behaviour themselves, teams tend to work together better as well.
Longevity & familiarity
According to our old pal Professor Hackman (from diversity, tension & conflict), the longer individuals stay together as a group, the better they do. The research is unambiguous. Be it a football team or a woodwind band, teams that stay together, perform better together. A 2006 study found that heart surgeons performed best when working in their residency, surrounded by their usual team. When the same surgeons operated in other hospitals with unfamiliar teams, their performance decreased.
MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory also identified casual conversations outside formal meetings are one of the most important contributing factors to a high-performing team. Their research revealed that informal interactions can account for one third of the differences in productivity between groups.
All this seems logical. By working repeatedly with the same people, we build trust, get to know individual strengths and weaknesses, have shared experiences to draw on, and develop unspoken habits, norms and rules that leads to a mutual understanding. All very good reasons to foster relationships and build teams that stay together.
Involvement, input & ownership
The old adage: too many cooks in the kitchen — such truth. But involvement isn’t only about chefs and sous-chefs; indians and chiefs even — it’s about who’s involved, and when.
Scroll all the way back to topic 2, and you’ll find listed in the assumptions and myths: everyone needs to be involved at every stage of a project, everybody who contributes needs their ideas included in the final outcome, and people will be more likely to buy-in and have ownership if they’ve been involved. While you’re there, cast eyeballs quickly over the pitfalls: drags out deadlines and delivery — death by committee, and dilutes strong ideas through attempting to incorporate too many contradictory points of view. These all skip hand-in-hand.
To begin — bloating a team with redundant bodies is a fine way to pave a path to ineffective collaboration. Instead, include only the people who need to be involved. Not only the folk with the skills or attributes needed, but also the ones with the emotional intelligence to raise the collective intelligence. Ensure clear-cut roles, set the objectives, give them the tools, then let them work it out.
Considering Carmon and Ariely’s research into the endowment effect, we know there’s potential for folk to place more value on things they’ve been involved in. When buy-in or ownership is genuinely needed from folk outside the working group, it’s crucial to facilitate involvement at the right time, and in the right way. The right time certainly isn’t at the end when the work’s been finished — it’s at the very beginning. The right way isn’t simply whipping out our work and waving it at someone, it’s taking the time to give them the context first.
We also tend to involve others when we’re seeking validation and assurance. Sometimes it’s even under the cunning guise of seeking feedback for improvement! This is fraught, because when it comes to opinions — everybody has one. Most of them are irrelevant too, particularly when the opinion-giver isn’t the target market, doesn’t understand the context, or hasn’t been involved in the process. Yet we usually listen anyway, then dilute ideas in the attempt to keep everyone happy, or lose ourselves in a sea of self-doubt if the feedback doesn’t flatter.
Then, there’s focus groups. Commonly used to brainstorm new ideas or validate finished work, and another truly terrible way to involve people and seek feedback.
The problem is not so much the tool, but the way it’s being used these days. Sociologist Robert Merton first conceived the focus group to gain insight into behaviour. Ironically, even Merton expressed contempt for how focus groups came to be misused. They were never intended to produce a definitive answer, only ideas and possibilities for further research.
Perhaps the biggest problem with focus groups is that they’re an artificial and unnatural construct. None of us make decisions surrounded by a bunch of strangers while being led in a moderated discussion. These environments are highly influenced by the group dynamic. They favour the extroverts and alphas. They’re prone to being led by the facilitator to validate a subconscious or even a desired outcome. They also have near to no psychologically safety, meaning most participants are unlikely to give honest opinions for fear of being judged. These things all pave a well-worn path to groupthink, and some very dubious conclusions.
The greater flaw though, is a definite bias towards the rational. A critical focus on the features and benefits often completely excludes the far more powerful emotional drivers behind our choices. People have complex, conflicting motivations which mix in unpredictable ways when making decisions. These unconscious thoughts are often the most accurate predictors of what people will actually do, however they rarely emerge in a focus group setting.
People also lie. There, we said it. They fib for status, to avoid conflict, to create conflict, or for any number of other seemingly illogical and unpredictable reasons. Yes, they say one thing in a focus group, then leave and do exactly the opposite. Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman claims that “the correlation between stated intent and actual behaviour is usually low and negative”. His research supports his claim, with 80 percent of new products, services, movies and television shows validated by focus groups going on to fail within 6 months.
Steve Jobs was a famously staunch advocate against focus groups. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It’s an opinion supported by the early teething problems of the Sony Boombox. Sony rounded up herds of teens, corralled them into focus groups, and asked them what colour they thought the Boombox should be. The answer, unequivocally, was fluoro. Certainly not black. Six months after release, the shelves remained bent below Boombox rainbows. So, Sony tried again. Once again, they herded up the children. Once again, the unanimous answer was “not black”. This time though, focus group facilitators laid a cunning trap. When the sessions had finished, participants were offered a Boombox in the colour of their choice. Any colour at all. They all chose — black.
All this goes to show that we humans are fickle, unpredictable creatures that can’t be trusted to give helpful opinions. Children especially. When seeking feedback, a far better alternative to focus groups is a good old one-on-one conversation. We may not necessarily get the validation we seek, the answers may be completely irrelevant, but at least we’ll get an honest opinion. Then we can chose to ignore it.
Dust Temple (cafe), Currumbin
Date & time:
27 June 2016 at 11:00am
Creating cultures of collaboration, and coffee.
I’ve really done it this time — bitten off too big a topic and fated to choke. No amount of Heimlich manoeuvring is bringing me, or this quarterly, back. So much research still to sift and simplify. Words keep on doubling then tripling, this quarterly is too darn long already and still the sentences keep multiplying. The further we go, the further away the finish seems. Are these symposiums be revealing a little too much… personality? Overwhelmed, unsure, and still unwilling to ask for help. It’s probably because of my ego — I hate to admit defeat.
With these somber thoughts, I entered our final symposium feeling — I imagine — like a general on the brink of being beaten. Brave resignation and readiness to fall onto a sharp blade to absolve my shame. I hadn’t called for help, yet still I clung to the feeblest hope that the others would come riding in unbid and save me from my self-wrought fate. Yes, if someone could just help me land, gut and fillet this leviathan so I can just move on with my life, that’d be nice.
Out of my own head and into the Dust Temple. Attempted small talk with the owner, Isla. Failed. Attempted small talk with Hills. Failed. Noted through my misery that everyone else seemed horribly cheerful and enthusiastic. Daz threw several thousand new ideas into the mix. Al added a few hundred more, along with the latest issue of BRW complete with collaboration on the cover. The sight of further research coaxed a tear from my eye and into my flat white — the salty taste of self-pity lingered. All these ideas and energy would've been so wonderful a few weeks earlier. It’s entirely my fault it isn’t. Jen, aware of my fragile state, tried her best to move things towards some sort of resolution. Failed (valiantly).
Unfortunately, some very good ideas were birthed from the session. There was the suggestion of a progress breadcrumb throughout the article — an excellent idea that I suspect will never make the final execution due to time constraints (edit: it didn’t).
Despite every effort to wallow, it was actually great to catch up. So much potential in this topic, I only wish I knew how to finish it off at a standard to match. Should I have emailed progress through earlier? Probably. Should I have blown the horn to rally my cohorts for symposium IV earlier? Definitely. Is it all too late at this point? I don’t even know. Before I knew it we were wrapping up and heading out, at which point Ali pointed out I’d left her BRW on the table.
Following on from the previous word-fat topics, let’s endeavour to summarise with as few sentences as possible.
The common thread we’ve seen strung from definition, through myths and into the research, is evidence of collaboration as a process — not a tool. It’s not the hammer nor the wrench, it’s how all the contractors work together to construct a building. Enough with flagellating metaphors though. Regardless of what we want to produce: a product or service done better, cheaper, or faster; more innovation; shared knowledge; increased connection with work — it all boils down to people working together better. And that, friends, we suggest comes down to culture.
A culture of collaboration is a people-centric culture. Performance, quite contrarily doesn’t mean becoming efficiency-driven robots, it’s a celebration of human. A culture of collaboration is shaped by leadership, communication, branding, and a shared sense of purpose, amongst other factors. It considers psychological safety and accountability as core pillars. It’s not a quick fix and forget, it’s a work in progress.
We’re not going to wrap this quarterly up with dot-point summary though, that’s for sure. You’re clever enough to take the detail you need from the research without summarising other people’s work into seven top tips to collaborating better. Instead, let’s come at the conclusion from our own experience. What findings did we confirm? What did we see through a lens of employee experience, engagement and communication? Are there conclusions we can draw?
Let’s begin by asking The Big Obvious Question:
For this quarterly, did we achieve more together than I would’ve on my own?
Without hesitation — yes.
This collaboration was always going to be challenging. Despite our familiarity, we’re four strong-willed individuals, each set firm in our own ways of working. But despite our differences, the group produced something more interesting than I could’ve on my own.
The real fascination was how closely our collaborative experience mirrored the findings. What was intended to be primarily a humorous narrative to weave through the research, with perhaps a few loose parallels to justify it, turned into its own unique case study. It sure would’ve been a different symposium experience had I not had cohorts.
The informal symposium format created an environment where ideas ran rampant. Perhaps a little too rampant at times, but it certainly sparked some pivotal discussions. The agenda topic provided a loose structure for conversation, with plenty of latitude for tangents — of which there were many. Yes, no agenda ever held this lot back, but knowing the topic in advance gave everyone the opportunity to prepare. From a completely selfish standpoint, having regular touchpoints also kept me inspired, motivated, and moving forwards.
In terms of process, I defaulted to the collaboration method I felt most familiar and comfortable with — the advertising/artist model (described in topic 4). This is the way we work at Jaxzyn. Our project team comes together early, in a safe space for generating ideas and exploring possibilities, then execution is driven individually with support from the group. It works well for us, but how the other three felt about this process — we’ll wait till the epilogue to find out.
The post-session surveys were by far my favourite part of the experience. They provided a delightful snapshot of ideas, and the group dynamic at every stage. It was fascinating to see the unique perspectives, and the often entirely different things that each person took away from the same session. It’s such a simple tool too — one that can be easily wrapped into project process, or used as a regular ritual to keep a finger on the pulse of a group. It isn’t a traditional performance review though — oh no — it has to be human. It should give the opportunity for humour, honesty, fallibility and vulnerability. It should be shared shortly afterwards, and in as engaging form as possible. As ridiculous as awarding an MVP was, it provided the opportunity to acknowledge and recognise contribution, even if it was a blatant appreciation of one’s own efforts.
The survey responses also revealed a high level of psychological safety within our group. When people are completely comfortable calling you various objectionable names, and letting you know in no uncertain terms exactly how you messed up — that’s safety. It certainly helped we knew each other well before the experiment, and we wouldn’t suggest that every team jumps straight into straight-up sledging. No, that takes time to build rapport and trust — incremental steps towards that sort of gleeful savagery.
While we’re discussing the surveys, I should really take this opportunity to apologise to the others. None of them, not even Jen, knew I would use their responses verbatim. Heck, neither did I. I’d always intended to use extracts as features… up until about an hour before releasing part one into the wilds. Perhaps it was for the best, to ensure their comments remained raw, honest, unfiltered and uncensored. We can all agree — they most certainly were. Still, there’s no doubt discovering their answers had been included in entirety after they’d been published would’ve been a truly wonderful surprise. They dealt with the airing of their laundry like champs.
But enough of the backslaps and high-fives — what went wrong?
If I’m to be particularly honest (and I never beat bushes) — leadership was lacking. Despite my best efforts, I still default to running as a pack of one. Yes, although I set the structure and framed the piece as a learning exercise, I could’ve definitely established clearer roles for individual contribution, and painted at least an abstract picture of what the outcome might look like. This probably would’ve been much easier if I’d any notion of where we were going myself.
There’s also conversational turn-taking to consider. Oh yes, certain faces featured prominently and regularly in the ‘who talked most’ and ‘who talked least’ sections of the surveys. Given that this pattern wasn’t unexpected, and confirmed in the first couple of symposiums, I regret not facilitating equal contribution from everyone. This would’ve been relatively easy using a method like conversation tokens, which ironically was suggested by the chief instigator of conversational hijacking during symposium I.
So alas, we finish our experiment with lukewarm leadership and petty conversation-monopolising as our most savage offences. A sad anticlimax really — I truly expected (and promised) more. Still, I think we’ve grown and learnt: cultures of collaboration, psychological safety, collective intelligence, post-collaborative journalling — clear paths paved towards better collaboration.
Perhaps success is enough to satisfy after all.
And so it comes time to say farewell — but one last thing before we part. In topic 5 I shared my conclusions, but what of the others? Did our collaboration work as well for them as it did for me? What did they learn? Did they thrill to the experience? What shade might they cast on my character?
Despite the potential for irreparable damage, the final words of this quarterly go to them…
What of the often-mentioned, frequently-hinted model?
Ho — you thought I’d forgotten?
This model’s for you, Daz.