Category Archives: Collaboration

Stakeholder engagement sucking

I liked Dan McQuillan’s Social Engagement Sucks slideshare. (click here if you can’t see it above.)

Stakeholder engagement is a management cliche in dire need of some shaking up and Dan takes some good swipes at it here. I especially liked

Engagement is a platitude that avoids issues of power

That makes sense to me straight away; it’s so often code for “does my bum look big in this?” I think he nails it here:

Corporates and NGOs see themselves at the centre surrounded by buzzing stakeholders.

The most exciting thing about social media is that it’s peer-to-peer, not just a new conduit for for established power to patronise us.


So Viv and I are going to run a workshop together on May 13th in Sydney organised by the excellent Matt Moore (no relation).

We’re calling it Crumbs! and here’s the blurb on Matt’s site. I suppose this is the nub of it:

We’re going to reveal our own prejudices about facilitating change and innovation which emphasise letting go of the effort to be spectacular in favour of being open to surprise and attentive to small ideas instead of chasing grandiose visions.

I can pretty much guarantee it won’t be death by powerpoint and will be genuinely interactive.

I was going to say this is a Beta version of the workshop but I think it’s a case of perpetual Beta, and builds on the one I’ve run before called Notice more, change less.

Watch this space for iterations in Copenhagen and London…

Podcast: The tyranny of excellence

Update cue twilight zone theme. Interesting coincidence here’s Hugh‘s cartoon of the day:

Viv McWaters and I are developing a workshop called Crumbs! We look at how creativity is not about big ideas and sudden leaps of insight. It’s much more incremental, and involves closer attention to the detail of the present and how we relate to it.

We’ve decided the tyranny of excellence is one of the things that can get in the way of collaboration and creativity.

There may be contexts, like manufacturing, where the pursuit of perfection and processes like Six Sigma can be effective. But when you get humans involved, it all becomes more complex. Then a lot of striving for excellence is counterproductive. In fact, the demand for excellence is often a code for “do it my way”, and its pursuit is quite destructive to working relationships.

Viv and I recorded a podcast to expore this with our friend David Robinson. David’s a theatre director who now works with with organisations on managing diversity.

It’s definitely not an excellent podcast… and it did get me thinking some more about the topic.

Click to Listen Download the Podcast (25m, 23.5 MB)

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Show notes

This isn’t a transcript, just a rough guide…

0.00 Introductions

0.20 David: improv theatre notion of putting down your clever and picking up your ordinary. The things people judge as their most ordinary is the source of their greatest gift.

1.30 D talks about the notion of the anit-hero inside our head, the criticial voice, and how it’s polarised with the hero, the part that wants perfection. The search for perfection creates this enormous monster in our inner dialogue that yaps at us all the time.

3.20 Johnnie: Allowing ourselves to be ordinary can make it easier for people to have a relationship with us.

4.10 D talks about Parker Palmer‘s distinction – in his book The Courage to Teach – between being an expert and having a real engagement with a subject. Being expert locks people out. The idea of mastery, doing what you do to get better at it, never assuming that you know it all.

5.20 D reflecting on the relationships we create with others or ourselves when practicising. So being ordinary is not a diminishment at all; it’s a place of presence.

6.10 J: The distinction between advocacy and enquiry. Being excellent links to advocacy; enquiry, living with questions, allows more relationship. The “In Search of Excellence” myth.

7.20 J: There can be more surprises when we allow ourselves to really notice what’s going on than when we’re trying to be remarkable.

8.10 D: Cult of excellence comes from industrial age thinking, a factory model. Need now is to show up with what we bring and not just as consumers with what we demand.

9.40 D: excellence is an arrival word, sets our a place to get to; mastery is a process word – you never get there, you continually work on improvement. You don’t become masterful if you’re trying to be clever.

10.40 Viv on the pressure created by the urge to be perfect and how it gets us stuck. Why do people resist just trying things and making mistakes?

11.50 D: the education system reinforces the idea that there is an answer and it is outside of me somewhere. If trainers are expected to get perfect scores in sessions this negates the power of the work. Getting to places of discomfort is important.

13.40 V: Testing and measuring in education and the expectation that teachers, faciltators, the person at the front of the room has the answers and will be liked.

15.30 V: Facilitator as disruptor, asking awkward questions.

16.00 J: Organisations have this idea the everyone should be aligned as if they are all the same. Groups should experience friction and discomfort.

17.30 D: We brief clients to expect disturbance.

18.10 D: Collaboration isn’t about easy agreement nor is it always about voices being equal

18.50 V: Sometimes we’re asked to generate consensus when actually one person is going to make the decision.

19.30 D: You need obstacles to make stories move forward. Red Riding Hood needs the wolf. Hobbies are all about creating obstacles, it’s the obstacle that creates the engagement.

20.55 J: What often marks our a satisfying group… is not that everything is solved, but that there’s a willingness to go on together. Perils of neat looking pseudo-agreements and “commitment ceremonies”.

22.00 J: Some of the best Open Spaces end where people aren’t that clear what has been achieved but do sense that something useful has happened. They suspend the requirement for a neat and tidy ending in favour of a willingness to live with ambiguity and carry on.

23.10 D talks about the permitted messiness of Open Space.

23.40 V: the importance of valuing relationships instead of trying to be someone we’re not.

24.20 J offers a suspiciously neat and tidy closing comment.

Communities of practice

I went to David Gurteen’s Knowledge Cafe last night. It’s a mercifully simple and conversational format much in the style of World Cafe. The theme was the future of communities of practice.

I was struck that in some organisations, enthusiasts for informal networking are still having to deal with pomposity from senior management. The latter are still resorting to the old canard of worrying about “talking shops” being a waste of time. In my experience, for such people the only difference between a wasteful “talking shop” and an “important strategic discussion” is where in the hierarchy it is taking place.

Richard McDermott, who kicked off the event, talked about Fluor, where on the technical side of the business, the commmunity of practice has effectively replaced the standard management hierarchy. (He’s got an article on this in HBR this month.)

Quite a few people, including me, thought social media would mean communities of practice would likely become more porous, informal and outward looking.

The perils of small worlds

I’m still mining Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius for insights; the more I re-read it the more useful and powerful I think his research is.

One nuggest he reports is the study done by Brian Uzzi of Northwestern University and Jarrett Spiro of Stanford. They studied the community of creatives – directors choreographers composers etc etc – that put together Broadway musicals. They looked at them over a time period of over 40 years from 1945. They basically established measures of creativity based on both critical acclaim and financial success. They laboriously assessed the social networks each year to create a “Q score”. Essentially, the higher the Q score, the greater the density of social contact between individuals in the Broadway community.

In years when Q was low, so was creativity. When Q – i.e. connectivity – rose, do did creativity.

But here’s the kicker: at a certain point, if Q kept climbing, creativity actually went down. This suggests its possible to overconnect, and for a community to become constrained by its relationships rather than stimulated by them.

I think there’s a moral here for anyone who aims for idealistic systems in which everyone is supposed to have access to everything and everyone. This idealism may end up as a form of totalitarianism, lacking diversity and randomness.

I found their reseach in this pdf, titled Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem

Massively collaborative mathematics

Keith Sawyer highlights an article from Nature. It describes how a complex mathematical theorem is solved by massive collaboration hosted on a blog. Here’s a key point that Keith identifies from the piece:

For the first time one can see on full display a complete account of how a serious mathematical result was discovered. It shows vividly how ideas grow change, improve and are discarded, and how advances in understanding may come not in a single giant leap, but through the aggregation and refinement of many smaller insights.

Keith’s own research emphasises that the notion of the lone genius and the sudden leap of insight are actually quite misleading representations of the creative process. A lot of the time, I see groups of people straining for insights or the big idea, and/or engaging in subtle power struggles to do with whose idea it is. Both of these are probably just blocks to the more natural emergence of new ideas.

Relationships before ideas

From the time we were little children my brother.. and myself lived together played together, worked together and, in fact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussions between us.

These are the words of Wilbur Wright, describing his lifelong collaboration with his brother, Orville, cited by Keith Sawyer in his book, Group Genius. They’re a striking description of a relational way of thinking about innovation, and are a sharp contrast to so many approaches which seem riddled with linearity and control. Keith explains:

The Wrights didn’t experience a single moment of insight; rather, their collaboration resulted in a string of successive ideas, each spark lighting the next.

I used to talk a lot about relationships before ideas, and these quotes remind me of that principle.

Incentives, innovation, community

I just posted about Umair’s suggestion about a mega-version of the netflix prize. I’ve been involved with some of NESTA’s many open innovation projects (here’s Roland on one of their latest.)

It occurs to me that I and others sometimes make a default assumption about incentives and competition when setting these things up.

This morning I’ve been reflecting on various things I’ve blogged about before challenging these assumptions. Here’s the breadcrumb trail.

1. I think back to Dan Pink’s TED talk. My summary when I watched it first was:

He reports studies that show that offering incentives will increase performance for routine tasks. But for activities that require creativity or problem solving, the bigger the reward, the worse the performance.

2. Way back in 2004, Curt Rosengren spotted this stunning research.

In one experiment chimpanzees were given canvas and paint and immediately began to apply themselves to make balanced patterns of color, somewhat reminicent of certain forms of modern art, such as abstract expressionism. The significant point about this experiment is that the animals became so interested in painting and it absorbed them so completely that they had comparatively little interest left for food, sex, or the other activities that normally hold them strongly.

Then in part 2, they started rewarding the chimps for their paintings. Guess what?

Very soon their work began to degenerate until they produced the bare minimum that would satisfy the experimenter. A similar behavior can be observed in young children as they become “self-conscious” of the kind of painting the believe they are “supposed” to do. This is generally indicated to them by subtle and implicit rewards, such as praise and approval, and by the need to conform to what other children around them are doing.

3. In 2006, I linked to this Economist article (now paywaled) about Eric Von Hippel. Here’s a key snippet: (I can’t resist pointing out that you can read this little bit for free at my own blog while the Economist thinks it’s smarter to deter you from reading it at source)

At the heart of most thinking about innovation is the belief that people expect to be paid for their creative work: hence the need to protect and reward the creation of intellectual property. One really exciting thing about user-led innovation is that customers seem willing to donate their creativity freely, says Mr Von Hippel.

4. In February, I pointed to Sig asking

Does a small shareholder in a large corporation feel the ownership? Would you feel the ownership if some little clique of managers has taken charge of the whole thing, informing you occasionally through Wall Street Journal or an annual report while jetting around on your penny?

and suggesting

True ownership on the other hand has meaning, balances short and long term purposes and yields true pleasure. It binds, it drives, it makes sense, in short it’s basically human – but only ownership that transcends the legal meaning of the word.

5. This in turn reminded me of what I wrote about work I did with James on user-led innovation.

James made the point the other day that part of the new paradigm for marketing is to really allow the possibility that your customers are intelligent. It’s worth listening to them because they actually know more about their needs* than you do. You know your product… they know about their lives. If you want to spend a fortune trying to be more clever than your customers, well good luck. On the whole it might be cheaper and easier to assume they have some idea about what they need and want. And then ask yourself if you’d like to hear their feedback straight, or muddled up with the hired voices of a few carnival barkers your agency has recruited? *BTW this knowledge may not be explicit so it won’t come out in focus groups.

I’m basically challenging the whole research model of incentivising researchers to incentivise customers to hypothesise about your brand/product.

6. I also dug up this great post from Rob in 2004: Trust – Identity, Social Capital, Motivation and Blogging You really should read it all but here’s a taster, referencing Alfie Kohn’s stunning book, Punished by Rewards

So as work has got more boring, most have brought in more rewards. Kohn’s central idea is that extrinsic rewards put the focus on the reward and not the substance. We work at school to get a grade on a test not to learn. We work to get the bonus rather than to serve the customer – as we push harder to get the reward we annoy the customer. After all we are not working for them but to get our bonus and they can tell.

Rob talks at length about alternative ideas of community. And just the other day, Rob told the remarkable story of how the town of Todmorden is working to become self-sufficient in food.

In under two years, Todmorden has transformed the way it produces its food and the way residents think about the environment. Compared with 18 months ago, a third more townspeople now grow their own veg; almost seven in 10 now buy local produce regularly, an
d 15 times as many people are keeping chickens…

Ok, breadcrumb trail complete.

Of course, I’m not saying incentives are always wrong, and I’m certainly not dissing open innovation projects that use them, especially when the incentive is really money to support the further development of the idea.

But let’s be careful with those incentives folks, we may actually be wasting our money and destroying creativity rather then supporting it. And do incentives and competition create community or undermine it? And I refer back to Roland at NESTA’s mantra: Conversations first, then relationships, then transactions

Born Social

Keith Sawyer reports on a new book by Michale Tomasello Why We Cooperate. Studies of infants suggest that the urge to help others is innate, and not learned.

Tomasello’s book presents data showing that infants as young as 18 months old try to help others. For example, if they see an unrelated adult who needs help picking up a dropped object, they help right away. From the age of 12 months, if an adult pretends to have lost an object that the child can see, the child will point to the object. Eighteen or twelve months is too early for such behavior to have been learned from parents. As another piece of evidence, Tomasello reports that children don’t begin to help more after they’re rewarded for helping–which suggests it’s not influenced by training.

As kids get older, they start to become more discriminating in their help, as norms are learnt.

You can file this under nature vs nurture, I guess. Before norms, and I would say underlying them, is this innate willingness to help each other. I think so much management convention, based on incentives and “motivation” and control, blinds us to our natural desire to get along.

Organisations create elaborate mission and value statements to support some notion that what holds everyone together is a shared logical purpose and/or set of beliefs. Usually, they’re pretty long-winded and wildly aspirational and don’t seem to represent the grainy reality of organisational life.

Sometimes, facilitators start groups with some activity where the participants list a set of norms for the day. It’s the same idea. Personally, I cringe at such things.

I suspect that any group of people is held together by a much humbler choice, simply to go on together, for now. If we can avoid the temptation to legislate beyond that, I think we might get more of a glimpse of something holding us together that’s actually more powerful than we realise.

Innovation with a capital I

I’ve been enjoying James Gardner’s blog, especially since he moved from his bank to the Department of Work and Pensions. I get the sense that with this move he’s able to speak more clearly about the issues of supporting innovation in organisations.

His latest post Innovation Backlash recounts the catch-22 in which Heads of Innovation find themselves.

The innovators have no clout when their diaries don’t have meetings with senior people. They know they can’t “deliver” (they are scared the backlash will take out their projects) so they only commit to things which are small enough not to get noticed. Of course, being small, they are also not worthy of the attention of senior folk, so no meetings get set up.

I wonder if the problem is partly the expectation that people with innovation in their title must drive innovation. That so easily puts them in a bind where they’re supposed to be powerful but often in practice aren’t. It also may reinforce the notion that innovation is something to be organised from above by specialists, and that it is a grand thing, not the sum of a series of small ones occurring in day-to-day conversation. It becomes Innovation with a capital I.

I fondly remember John Jay’s brilliant essay on obliquity. Here’s the set up:

Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim. The name of this idea? Obliquity.

Jay focuses particularly on profits, and how companies that ruthlessly pursue them end up losing them. I can’t help thinking the same may apply to Innovation.

I somehow think that framing Innovation as an exercise in successfully wielding power is not the right approach. I think networking technologies are allowing a lot of innovations (some you may like, some you may not) to emerge peer-to-peer where the drive is a sense of tribal enthusiasm rather than delivering on a corporate goal. Often the sort of stuff that established hierarchies want to put a stop to… in which case, where does your head of Innovation stand if his aim is get top-level buy-in?

Using this fabulous scene from Casablanca is an exaggerated rhetorical ploy and a shameless oversimplification – but it captures something of what I’m trying to articulate.