Saturday, 22 October 2016

What it really takes for Smart Collaboration

Business cases for smart collaboration abound, yet genuine creative collaboration in business is remarkably rare. As Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School Heidi Gardner PhD points out in her forthcoming book Smart Collaboration, people need to collaborate across a variety of specialisations as well as personal and cultural differences for them and their businesses to really garner the dividends of smart collaboration.

What’s needed is both the logical business case and the interpersonal skills to work effectively with people who are different from yourself - as well as organisational structures that support collaboration and reward collective work products.

What struck me in Heidi Gardner’s Harvard Business Review webinar this week was how strong the business case is for collaboration. Thanks to Dr Gardner for making the case so clearly and backing it with solid data - true cross-silo collaboration in professional services firms

  • Grows corporate revenue exponentially with the number of business units serving the client
  • Increases professional billing fourfold
  • When an individual departs, collaborative teams have triple the client retention rates of lone rangers.

So what stops most organisations from actually reaping these collaboration benefits?

Many would-be collaborators set out with great intentions, and then crash on the rocks of negative group dynamics before they or their organisation really get the multiplier effects of breaking down the silos. In the webinar, Gardner identified some of these barriers - for example blame or the assumption of blame - that arise when the people you are collaborating with look, feel, behave and think differently to yourself.

It shows up as irritation with the very difference that is needed for collaboration to be creative. People start talking about how "they" (the different others on the would-be team) have their priorities/facts/ideas/culture/values wrong, or how "they" don't really listen properly to "us." Actually working in a monoculture can be attractive for the very reason that it is soothing to be amongst people who think and act in the same way.

In my experience, both as an entrepreneurial CEO and as a systems coach, would-be collaborators across silos need more than just a business case to get past these barriers to collaboration. Many need to vent about the above frustrations first. Once they get that off their chest, they need support to open up to the value of those different perspectives, priorities and ways of being from the other silos. And for sure, they need to be convinced that those "others" are also listening to them in an equally balanced way.

The good news is that the relationship systems skills needed to collaborate in diverse teams can be learned. Leaders need these skills to grow their businesses and reap the diversity and collaboration dividends Gardner articulates so clearly. I'm part of a global organisation dedicated to building greater Relationship Systems Intelligence among leaders and their teams, and it works.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Constellations - the language of relationship systems

Last week it was brought home to me just how important constellations are as the language of relationship systems (relationship system = an interdependent group with common purpose or identity). A group of relatively new ORSC practitioners was meeting on Skype, coming from a variety of dimensions of our world – working in the cities and the townships, in companies and the public sector.

It was the night before our local government elections. As each person checked in, it emerged that every single one had been using constellations in their work around the country.
Information Constellations are an ORSC adaptation of the work done by Bert Hellinger and Virginia Satir. They offer an opportunity for all members of a relationship system to "vote with their feet" on an issue,  creating a snapshot of the system at that moment
Here are some of the voices:
  • “With a community group working with stress and change, we used a constellation at the end of the day to help them check on their alignment.”
  • “We are going to Kimberley soon and we will definitely use constellations”
  • “In our diversity work, we found that constellations work really well for emotive topics, where people are scared to say the wrong thing in words. Simply moving to express themselves is deeply empowering.”
So much of our work is about seeing, feeling and hearing the system and revealing it to itself. And so much of what our country needs is for all voices to be heard. Yet we often lack a common language. Sometimes the power dynamics leave people feeling unsafe to say what they really want to say.

What touched us all on the call last week was how the relatively light, open style of ORSC informal constellations creates space for the delicate and vulnerable process of all people expressing themselves and being heard. And how it enriches our democracy to have more ways to be heard than only the (albeit precious) ballot box.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Ubuntu's roots go back a long way

We grew up in an era dominated by individualism and competition. These human traits have driven the accumulation of wealth, power and technological advancement and taken the world to a place where we stare into an abyss of global inequality and conflict. Many decisions are still being made on the assumption that it is human nature to be narrowly selfish. Yet a bigger picture, going right back to the original roots of our species Homo sapiens in Africa, reveals just how much we are hard-wired for both collaboration and competition.

August 2015 Scientific American
As this month’s Scientific American cover story highlights, there is direct evidence that Homo sapiens’ success in colonising the earth, moving out of Africa from about 70,000 years ago, depended on our ability to collaborate beyond kinship groups. Our early ancestors here in South Africa found good reason to shift from individualistic hunter-gatherer mode: during tough climatic conditions about 100,000 years ago they banded together to defend rich shellfish deposits along the southern coast – and as we know, eating these “brain foods” in turn supported their development.

An international research team linked to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University provide a strong case that it was those early humans who were able to collaborate in this way who survived. Only by banding together were they able to make the most of this unusually rich source of food. Once they added projectile weapon technology to their collaboration breakthrough, our ancestors were successful in their rapid expansion out of Africa to colonise the world.

Why is this important? Because many people and organisations are so strongly influenced in behaviour, policy and decision making by the theory that humans are rational and narrowly self-interested. This idea must die, says Stanford University’s Professor Margaret Levi: “The overwhelming finding of experimental research confounds the presumption that, given the opportunity, individuals usually free ride. Indeed, most act according to norms of fairness and reciprocity. Many will make small sacrifices or forego larger returns, and some will even engage in costly action (up to a point) to "do the right thing."

We now have both the evolutionary and the contemporary confirmation that humans can and do benefit from collaboration. It is time we built on this foundation in workplaces and families by honing our relationship skills. Some practical implications:

  • In relationships of all sorts, focus less on what I want and what you want, and more on what the relationship between us wants;
  • In the workplace, give up the model of a single dominant leader commanding and controlling subordinates, and actively develop collaborative, innovative teams. This is not just a warm fuzzy nicey-nice approach. 

What is rooted in our ancestral strategy for success is that both relationship and results are important. We ignore either one of these at our peril.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Good for business: Generosity of Spirit

My Dad was an optimist about business. As a young radical, I remember explaining to him how wrong he was. And I still think business is not all sweetness and light. And yet, maybe thanks to Dad, I prick up my ears every time I hear a story about business that is generative and life-affirming. Here’s one: a business leader who identifies generosity of spirit as a must-have in hiring talent for his companies.

Turning a profit and turning around an old-media publishing company going digital got David Bradley featured in the Harvard Business School Alumni magazine (Dec 2014, pages 44-51). That is a great story in itself about finding talent and empowering them to recreate’s website till it “has come to the galloping rescue of [Atlantic] magazine.”

What struck me most was the sidebar to the new media story. As with most feted HBS alumni, Bradley has been hugely successful in business, not limited to digital media. Asked to what he attributed his success, he wisely said that he found what he was good at, stuck to that, and let others take care of the rest.

To spot talent, Bradley identified two key factors fundamental to business success: force of intellect and spirit of generosity. I was struck by the second factor: here’s a successful, canny businessman, and he says generosity makes for good business leaders. Yay! I agree. Good business, for me, is all about creating a better life for all, including oneself. The shortcut approach of greed is something that clearly creates a kind of success – but to what benefit in the long run?

And remember, Bradley doesn't just talk about business: the companies Bradley founded generate $1.5 billion in annual revenues, and he took Atlantic Media to consistent profitability after a five year average annual loss of $8.5m.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Putting the concept of "retirement" on pension

I heard an investment ad for on the radio this week "you only get 480 paycheques in the average lifetime - followed by 300 paydays with no paycheque."

What a crazy idea! This model is OVER and it is time to align our thinking and life planning for 21st century realities. If you add the 240-odd months for which middle-class children go without earning income to the above insurance salesperson's scenario, you get a situation where income earning is crammed into less than half a lifetime. While this may help sell pension investments, it lays bare an unsustainable life pattern for the 21st century.

As healthy life spans extend towards 90 years and beyond, the idea of retirement at 60 is exposed for the anachronism it is. Why in the world would we jam-pack our creativity and earning capacity into less than half of our lives? It can't go on and it won't.

Why would anybody design a business model in which you spend money for 90 years and only earn income for 40 of these years? And it is not as if people are at their smartest or most focused in those 40 years. Typically they are busy mating, raising kids, having marital dramas and very driven by ego concerns - a cocktail that certainly tends to force them to work for an employer but doesn't necessarily buy their full attention to their jobs.

In the 21st century, people continue to be creative, engaged and bringing useful wisdom and focus to the world way beyond traditional 20th century retirement age - and earning income as they do it. One of my friends recently started a very successful business at the age of 79 - and his business is thriving as he turns 81!

Last week I saw a financial planner whose nifty software suggested that if my wife and I stop working at 65, we will run out of money before we get to 90 years old; if we continue earning at half our current rate for an additional ten years then we can safely stay alive to 100 without resorting to bread-and-water or cadging off our kids.

In my lifetime the concept of retirement is already crumbling. In my children's generation the "portfolio career" is taken for granted. People in the 21st century work flexibly over most of their adult lives.

So it's time to put retirement on pension. What I wonder about is:

  • How will people's creativity make the most of the "portfolio career" where we design a mix of giving and taking throughout our lives instead of the mad rush of "wealth creation" jam-packed into the 30s, 40s and 50s?

  • Will this rebalancing of income and expenditure over the full lifespan lead to less craziness of inflated salaries at the peak of businesses?

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Why a systems approach is essential in business coaching

Reading Marc Kahn's brilliant new book, Coaching on the Axis, I am struck by the crucial role of a systemic approach in ensuring that business coaching results in "the promotion of success at all levels of the organisation by affecting the actions of those being coached." Backed by a strong theoretical foundation and his wide and deep professional experience, he points out that 

  • "both the organisation and the individual [or team] being coached are clients" - coaches need to work constantly with the duality of organisation and coachee(s) as clients at the same time.
  • A lot of coaching has its roots in individual therapy which can lead to the coach identifying with the coachee against his or her organisation
  • Coaches need to work along the axis between the individual, his or her role in the organisation, and the organisation. In the world of work, "a person enters into a contract with an organisation to play a role ... to add value to the business ... and be rewarded by payment, recognition, job satisfaction and a sense of meaning and purpose."

I found fascinating Kahn's examination of role and systems theory in relationship to business coaching - building his "Coaching on the Axis" model that highlights the relational engagement between the personal goals, gifts and passions of the employee(s) and the organisation's goals and measures of success. Role theory really helps make clear that in a relationship, all parties influence both the design and the outcomes of roles. Systems thinking helps us see that "the idea that one exists as an individual outside of a system is ... untenable" as we all exist in layers of nested systems from the tiniest building blocks of atoms and cells through to the cosmic scale of the universe.

His recommendations for coaches to correct the misalignment between business and coaching are
  •  "Coaches need to release any bias in favour of the individual over the organisation, and adopt the notion of duality of client."
  • Coaches should "ensure they balance their theoretical focus in individual psychology with that of organisational and cultural theory."
  • Business coaches must "shift from the health and well-being mindset that is typical of psychology into a relational mindset focused on business performance and financial success."
Kahn's positions provide food for thought to any coach working in organisations, and useful business and theoretical underpinnings in particular to coaches working within the paradigm of Organisation and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC).

Update 13 October: Read my book review on Goodreads

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Virtual Team Coaching in Action

This is a case study of team coaching in a 'virtual team' environment - where the coach and the team members are scattered around the globe and all calling in to a teleconference line.

Some new skills are needed to work effectively in 'virtual teams.' We need to learn to work with people we never get to meet in the same room, build good relationships with them, and get the job done even though we are linked by little more than email, the internet and some form of phone or video connection.

In addition to entirely new skills, working effectively in teams via Skype, teleconferences and the virtual online world challenges us to get better at some fundamental task and relationship skills needed for all work - ramped up a few notches for the sometimes unforgiving nature of long distance communication.

Virtual Team Skills can be learned

I’ve been struck by the contribution to meeting these needs offered by the Organisation and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC) approach pioneered by CRR Global, Inc. (Disclaimer: as a consequence of this, I am the southern African partner for CRR Global in taking the work to South Africa in 2012)

To get a better feel for the ORSC approach, I asked one of the top CRR Global faculty members, Lori Shook, to conduct a brief demo team coaching session for a global virtual team that I chair as part of my volunteer work in the Mankind Project, an international men’s development organisation operating in eight regions around the world including Europe, Africa, Australasia and North America. With the permission of the team, we are publishing the recording of a demo session held in 2012 via teleconference spanning the UK, Belgium, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Most of the team members have never met each other “in the flesh” and are drawn together as volunteers to coordinate multicultural and diversity awareness and action in the organisation.

I invite you to listen to the demo coaching session, notice what Lori does to get into meaningful conversation with a team she had never met prior to the beginning of this call. Notice how she uses tools like
  • High dreams and low dreams for the team
  • Sharing our assessments of how the team is doing
  • Exploring the team learning edges  around change
  • Getting team members to explore their roles on the team and what works/what doesn’t work
  • Shared design of how we want the team to be.

Listen to the demo

Please click the "play" arrow above to listen online. Alternatively, Download podcast here or get it on iTunes

If you are a coach or consultant, you may also notice some of the ways Lori forged a connection across this tenuous phone link spanning three continents, with people she had never met before:
  • Mirroring back what she heard
  • Reading the emotional field
  • Education around some of the Relationship Systems Intelligence competencies - in this case the "voice of the system"

The team's feedback on their experience was positive and is included in the recording. In the team's next regular monthly Skype meeting after the coaching session, members commented that the impact of the team coaching sessions was to:
  • Open up different perspectives on what we need for success
  • Make clearer the different skill sets and visions contained in the team
  • Raise the sense of care for each other (by spending time focusing on our team rather than directly on tasks and outcomes)
  • Identify a surprising level of risk aversion in the team, and willingness to change this
  • Encourage us to go further in recognising and celebrating our not inconsiderable achievements.

Inviting your feedback

What is the impact of the coaching session recording on you? If you're a coach - what did you think of the way Lori tackled this session? She was "parachuting in" in the sense that she had just 15 minutes of briefing from me and had never met the team before - and did the entire session including briefing by phone. If you're involved as a leader or member of a virtual team - what struck you about the way this team operates and the impact of a team coach?