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Collaborative Behaviours and Skills
(originally published on LinkedIn)
Embrace healthy conflict
By now it will have become evident that a collaborative model of working necessitates a new set of behaviours and skill-sets. It's not about everyone getting on and agreeing, or nurturing a "no conflict" environment. In fact "healthy conflict", where a diverse group of voices have the opportunity to wānanga (meet, discuss and deliberate) issues is key to successful collaboration. Note, I differentiate between "healthy" and "unhealthy" conflict - the former builds strong foundations for successful collaboration, whilst the latter breaks down trust and good will. Sadly, the later is still way too prevalent - often in a passive-aggressive form and through mis-use of power. We need to be courageous and call it when we see it happening; often we know in our gut what we need to do, but we ignore it.
Be prepared to be challenged and feel vulnerable through a collaboration process, it's just going to happen - at some point you're going to feel pretty uncomfortable. However, when we stick with it that's when the growth comes and we hit those magic "aha" moments. I am a Persian Kiwi, so a good discussion is in my Middle Eastern DNA, but not so across New Zealand, where we have a dominant "conflict averse" culture and a palpable "tall poppy syndrome". In this environment it takes an intentional choice and some effort to embrace healthy conflict, enable diverse opinions and celebrate others' successes. "No mud, no lotus."
Key collaborative behaviours and skills
Through my research and practice I have been able to identify some key behaviours and skills for collaboration and collective impact, that warrant investment of time and training. Here is a brief touch point on some of them - in no particular order, so as not to give more weighting to one or other. They're all important and it's for each of us to decide where we need to focus in any given season of our lives, individually and corporately. This is not an exhaustive list - just a starting point.
• Active Listening - It takes time and effort to develop this skill. There are essentially four ways of talking and listening: downloading and listening within our own story; debating and listening to each other from the outside; creating and breaking down the boundaries; and, reflecting - listening to ourselves reflectively and to others empathetically (based on Adam Kahane's work). When we are creating and reflecting, we provide opportunities to move into a new future.
• Common Language - In a collaborative environment we have to be explicit about what our words and actions mean. We need to be alert to the water cooler conversations, listening to the interpretations of conversations and alert to what's being said in the ever so frequent "pre-meeting" and "post-meeting" chats! We can't afford to "assume" others mean the same as us when they use the same words.
• Continuous Communication - Communication has to be beyond a process and tick box exercise. Key messages need to be agreed, communicated in a timely manner and in a style that's relevant to the context and culture. Often we need a portfolio of approaches (words, drawings, hard copy, soft copy etc.) and in my experience, here the specialists add significant value. Additionally, the digital environment offers us new opportunities to communicate more efficiently. Collaboration software is evolving continually and it's well worth experimenting with a number of options (I use a variety).
• Adaptive & Flexible - Don't hold on to anything too tightly in a collaborative endeavour. Be open and prepared to adjust, adapt and at times totally re-steer. We've talked about growth mindsets vs. fixed mindsets before; creatively exploring the issues, problems and needs provides the environment to discover new opportunities for the future.
• Empowering/Open to Sharing – In this sort of environment, we are comfortable with celebrating others' successes. We give credit where credit is due and leaders move organically into a coaching & mentoring capacity.
• Strategic Value Creator - Collaborators focus on ecosystem value creation. They look and work beyond personal responsibilities, respectfully and collegially engaging as wide a variety of "voices" as possible. They have the ability to connect the big picture strategic perspectives and decisions to implementation (service delivery and product development). It's a unique behaviour and skill set that drives collective impact.
• Champions for Change - Effective collaborators are the champions for change and those that keep a collaborative initiative on track. When researching successful collaborative efforts Ryan et al., working with the project Better Connected Services for Kiwis, identified three clear roles in successful collaborative efforts: “the public entrepreneur” (individuals who drive change / new ideas, despite the rules and often under the radar); “fellow–travellers” (those that support the public entrepreneur); and “guardian angels” (leaders that sponsor and support). If we consider how Moore’s strategic triangle (see earlier article) might play out in a collaborative initiative, the roles identified by Ryan et al. seem plausible.
• Trust and Power - It's unlikely to come as a surprise that trust and power are key factors and oft talked about. It's essential to focus on creating trust environments and relationships, as well as reducing reliance on power and hierarchy of roles. Developing deep trust takes time and effort. Collaboration drives us away from vertical organisational structures and towards horizontal organisational structures. Though still emerging and evolving, collaboration frameworks encourage devolved decision making and empowerment of identified collaborators.
• Stewardship - Stewardship and understanding "Kaitiakitanga" (guardianship and conservation) are an integral part of collaboration in NZ and closely tied to an ecosystem approach to value creation. We need to take an inter-generational perspective and ensure sustainable futures, by "cherishing" all that has been entrusted into our care for our time here.
We have to give due consideration to sharing resources and developing shared backbone structures. To reduce bias and enable new opportunities, it's recommended to have an independent provider for all backbone and secretariat services (i.e. not one of the collaboration delivery partners). Mostly my observation has been that whilst maximising opportunities for people, sharing capabilities and stewardship of resources is generally a key driver for a collaborative initiative (often under the umbrella of "shared services"), very few give the necessary time and investment for planning and capability development needed up-front to ensure success, and often one delivery partner will want to keep control. One way to think of it is an "independent partner" for delivery of backbone structures and secretariat - this seems to work really well. As my vicar indicated this Sunday ....even Jesus and the apostles needed people behind the scenes to enable their success! Too often we forget the "invisible" servants and leaders that are integral to collaboration success.
Cultures of Collaboration
As we encourage and invest in collaborative behaviours and skills, change will happen organically. Slowly and gently we will see nudges in culture and new ways of working becoming the norm.
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