Archive for Policy

Collaboration: What to do about Politics and Power Plays?

What makes the difference between a collaboration that results in brilliant, new thinking and the ugly opposite: more entrenched, polarized, stuck thinking? One of my readers asked me recently, how do you deal with politics and power plays in collaboration? This is such a great question because it gets at the heart of exactly what makes the difference.

Let’s start by looking at what “politics and power plays” are. Simply put, they are some of the ways people get what they want. They are the way some people work when a clear, open process to get what they want doesn’t exist.

The more vested someone is, the more important it is to them to know how to influence decisions that affect them. And the more extreme their behavior will become in contexts where this is unclear, inaccessible or both. We want to be heard, and if it’s important enough, you and I will go to extreme lengths to be so, even if we look manipulative, rude or downright crazy to everyone else.

Every one of us has experienced areas of life where the way things work is murky, overly complex, and badly (if at all) communicated. Think neighborhoods, schools, municipalities, banking, the office, the tax code, even the produce section at your local grocery store – who is deciding produce selection and what criteria are they using, anyway? Do you take what you can get, or try to influence the process through the suggestion box or a visit to the manager? And if that doesn’t work, do you take your business elsewhere, throw your weight around, or jump up on your soap box?

So, if we all have the capability of extreme tactics to get what we want, what hope is there for collaboration? When we want to use collaboration to get something important done, like develop a plan for sustainable water use, or design and implement a major fundraising event, or develop new office policy around flex time? Won’t these efforts be killed every time by politics, power plays or people just giving up?

The hope comes from understanding these dynamics, what causes them and what to do about them. First, those managing the collaborative process need to remember that people come to the table because they care. They want something. And that’s a good thing. Second, since we want and need vested people in the room, we should anticipate that for them to participate in a productive, effective way (instead of resorting to more extreme behaviors like power plays) they need to understand a few key things:

  1. the scope of the collaboration – what is being addressed and, just as important, what is not?
  2. the role of those involved in the collaboration – is it to frame the issue, to develop recommendations on it, to provide expert knowledge, or…?
  3. the governance process – how will the issue(s) ultimately be decided (what, who, when)?

So, at the beginning, these questions are carefully considered and decided. Let me emphasize: this work happens well in advance of the start of the collaborative effort. These are NOT issues to “wing it” on or to address as you go! Then, communicate the decisions (referred to a “process parameters” or “rules of engagement” or whatever term best fits your situation) as an explicit part of the invitation to participants. Surprisingly, most people are pleased to see that this has been thought through.

Next, re-emphasize the process parameters at the first session, and at all subsequent sessions as needed (e.g., when the collaboration is open and new people come each time, review at each meeting is essential). And all while the collaboration process is underway, it must adhere to the scope, role and governance process as decided. This may seem terribly obvious, but the number of times I have seen people transgress their own process (scope of work, bylaws, charters, job descriptions, etc.) is both stunning and remarkably self-defeating.

People can accept rules and parameters, which are essential to well-functioning group process, but not if they change without warning or reason. And disregarding them wholesale is even worse.  Managing the collaborative process in a way that honors agreements is exactly like a personal relationship: people trust people who do what they say they will.

And this trust is fundamental to achieving great things from collaboration. It’s simple: if people are always worrying about how something is getting done (process), they have less energy to focus on what is being done (content). In collaboration, the goal is to get the collaboration participants fully engaged in the content so that great outcomes can result. The more participants distrust or don’t understand the process, the more they will focus on it – with some people resorting to those negative behaviors that cause collaboration to fail. In countless such efforts, I have experienced the most seemingly aggressive and manipulative participants shift to invaluable members of the team simply because they come to trust the process.

By the way, this is not to say that process parameters can’t change – in multi-year collaborations, there is often a need to re-think them: scope may need to expand or contract, roles shift, governance change. When this occurs, giving participants the heads up well before changes are made and the opportunity to give input is the way to maintain credibility.

In summary, politics and power plays, as well as other challenging behaviors, show up in collaborative processes when there is:

  1. lack of clarity about the scope and intent of the collaboration
  2. lack of clarity about the roles and other process parameters of the collaboration
  3. weak or ineffective adherence to process parameters during collaboration

The good news is that, understanding this, you can see unwanted behavior not as a threat or failure, but as a terrific signal that it is time to re-look at and/or re-clarify these. And remember, basic sincerity about all of this goes a long way in repairing any mis-steps.

For a follow-up piece to this one on addressing challenging behavior in collaborative process, see The Gift of the Skeptic.

Coming Together on Collaboration

“Collaboration” is a term, like most, with a mixed bag of meaning. During the Second World War, the term “collaboration” was decidedly negative, referring to those who sided with the Axis powers in carrying out atrocities. Interestingly, one of my clients actually defined “collaboration” as “working with the enemy.” Collaboration, at its best, does, in fact, mean working with those who think differently – so if that difference is perceived as inimical, his definition is correct.

In common parlance, however, “collaboration” is often used interchangeably with “coöperation,” a fairly benign connotation. This is okay, except for the loss of the more active working together aspect that collaboration implies. To be cooperative, I can simply make you aware of what I am doing and walk away. To collaborate, you and I must engage.

And for many who have actually taken part in collaborative processes, the term may have nearly as negative an association as the WWII version, in that those experiences can be time-consuming, rabbit-trail chasing, unproductive and frustrating.

These three meanings represent, in fact, the range of how “collaboration” is typically understood: something threatening, bordering on betrayal; something fairly benign requiring little effort; something idealized, but in practice, a disaster.

Despite its variability and imprecision, “collaboration” is still, in my mind, the best term for the act and intent of working together toward a common end. And I will accept some imprecision since what I mean to convey by “collaboration” is a commodity in urgent demand today. Indeed, collaboration is being called for in nearly every realm: the environment, economics, technology, health, governance and politics. And the reason to me is plain:

  • From a collection of diverse viewpoints comes a broader, more complete understanding of the subject matter.
  • From this greater understanding, new awareness, perspectives and ideas naturally emerge.
  • From this incubator of new thinking, comes innovation – entirely new ways to address problems that before seemed insurmountable.

And now, because we are in the midst of so many confounding, complex, and potentially game-changing issues, we need innovation like crazy.

So how does getting a bunch of different viewpoints (maybe even conflicting) together make for fuller understanding? You might think it’s just the opposite: that the more people agree, the easier it is to delve into the matter and break new ground. I think this does work in those situations where we want to understand something in greater specificity and detail. That’s why specialists deliver papers to a small group of similar experts: so they can get feedback on the rarefied view they are seeking. And that’s extremely useful, but what I’m talking about is when the experts are stumped, when there is no expert yet because we’re still grappling with just seeing the thing.

When the subject is something not at all specific yet, but rather involves multiple areas of expertise, it is complex for just this reason. It is cross-disciplinary and requires an integrative or generalist view to see all its corners. Things like climate change, renewable energy, global recession, food supplies, ocean health, water quality, air pollution, and pandemics, as well as the governance structures needed to address these issues, are all examples.  It is my experience that the outsider, the newbie, sometimes even the seemingly simple-minded can ask a question that opens up possibility in ways no seasoned expert can do.  Or one expert asks a question of an expert in another area, and that enlivens the thinking of both. The very presence of a rich body of experience and perspective, even if seemingly oppositional, is what opens up thinking.

I have witnessed this time and time again. The dynamic that takes place is clear. When the human mind pulls up out of specificity toward a broader view, more of a thing can be seen – just as when a plane takes off and suddenly one is no longer looking at the runway, but now seeing it as a small track in the expanded landscape. My view from seat A and your view from seat B may be quite different, and we need each other to create a complete view of what is out there. This is what convening a group of diverse thinkers can mean: achieving a view that is fuller, richer, and perhaps, even new in ways before unimagined.

How does collaboration lead to innovation? From the broad view, made up of so many different parts, new connections are made. Ideas bump up against unfamiliar ones, making us reconsider long-held beliefs. Our “habit thinking” is challenged – what we know becomes uncertain, doubtable, and now the way is paved for the possibility of the new.

From years of working with groups on solving big problems, I have learned that when a group is certain it knows something for sure, it’s often time to get some outsiders in the room to challenge the certainty. In fact, we do this all the time. When we’re facing a persistent problem, we talk to others; we seek their take on it. We do this to open our thinking, get new perspectives, from which we can see things differently – and find a new solution.

So it makes sense that when our collective understanding of the way things are is not getting us anywhere, the best course of action is to convene a diverse group to engage the issue. From this opening of the mind and the view, come new ideas. And these ideas may not even be new (not much is), but may be new applications of an old idea, or a new combination of ideas, or a new context for an existing idea.

All of this is innovation – and often, innovation is not a big bang, but rather a tweak that results in a big effect. That’s just what we’re looking for. Real innovation comes from NEW thinking; not just deeper thinking into one area or defense of the same thinking, but entirely new ways of seeing and talking about the subject at hand.

So, that’s the case for collaboration.

The harder part is, once we agree we want it – and it seems suddenly that a lot of us do, how do we go about doing it?

How many times have I heard of people desiring collaboration, who go into a process with every intention of collaborating – playing nicely and working with others who may or may not share the same viewpoint or experience – but who come out of it battered and bruised, or simply bored to death from the sheer weight of conversation, of giving the floor to so many differing perspectives? And the whole enterprise often ends up in nothing. Lots of time, money and intention burned up on the altar of collaboration, until people just withdraw to go it alone. Too often.

This matter of how to make collaboration meaningful and productive is for another post. Stay tuned.

Governance: Getting Beyond Power

Since the word “governance” is so variously understood (and misunderstood), I will start by defining it: simply, governance is the structures, roles and processes by which decision-making is accomplished. Governance exists anywhere decisions are made by groups of people – whether in organizations, governments, even families.

Okay, you might be thinking, but what about power? Isn’t governance really about power? That is a common way people think about governance, and it’s understandable because, think about it, decision-making is considered power. “I am the decider” and all that. But what I hope to convey and focus my clients on is not the power grab that governance discussions so often devolve to (not a very evolved modality, to be sure), but rather consideration of how best to design governance so that decision-making in an organization is effortless, effective and clear.

The idea here is that decisions should flow like water – they should be the product of decision-making made easy by optimally designed governance. The same kind of optimization we want in an irrigation system or healthy watershed. We don’t want water impeded, stagnating, or flowing in too small trickles (or too big floods) because all this leads to bad water quality. The same principle applies to decisions. Decisions are, after all, the life blood of the organization. All action is driven by them, and if decisions are made badly (without the right input, at the right time, on the right subjects), the resulting action is likely to be ineffective.

So, governance is like water pipes, or an irrigation system, or a watershed of rivers, streams and cascading waterfalls, all engineered to deliver clean, abundant water. Good governance creates optimal decision-making, which results in desired decisions.

It is surprisingly easy to know if an organization’s governance is effective or not. When governance is well-designed, it works; when governance works, decisions hold, drive effective action, and make for institutional resiliency. When governance isn’t working:

  • decisions don’t hold (they are second-guessed or ignored)
  • there is duplicative decision-making – different entities addressing the same decisions (causing not only extra expense, but also confusion: a key source of low morale)
  • and lack of trust develops between decision-making fiefdoms, causing institutional weakness

In my 20 years of work with executive leadership teams, most clients initially seek my expertise in strategic planning and high level problem solving. Out of these processes, I noticed early on that many organizational problems originate with a lack of clarity and agreement around decision-making. I also found that there is a nearly universal short-coming in leadership capability regarding governance, i.e., how to talk about it effectively, understand how it works, and know how to design it so it works optimally.

Governance is generally equated with either the org chart or an architecture of rules (the area of information technology, being newer than most other business support areas such as HR or finance, deals more explicitly with governance as a result). Both the org chart and the rules are indeed part of governance, but only represent a small portion of the total governance picture. And, interestingly, this fractional approach to governance can be a bigger problem than little to no governance awareness at all because in this case, governance is built in a lopsided manner, with loads of detail in some areas and next to nothing in others. This leads, not surprisingly, to confusion. To help organizations surface governance, if it is indeed a problem, my strategic planning model includes an evaluation of it as part of an overall organizational capacity assessment.

A cornerstone of the governance approach I take is starting with a strategic evaluation of the types of decisions being made and how the organization currently groups decisions into specific “decision sets.” The way decisions are grouped is a simple but profound element of governance that often gets little or no attention, when, in fact, it is the originating governance element. This is so because we only need all that governance spells out to produce a decision. It is the decision that is the product of governance, not the power of the person(s) making it.

Decision sets are so part of the fabric of an organization that they can become invisible. More often than not, it is the way decisions are grouped that has become outmoded and/or so entrenched that stagnation and stove-piping is the result. This may seem too insignificant an issue to make a real difference, but in fact, the way decisions are grouped affects every part of governance and decision-making in an organization. The review of current decision sets prompts a rethinking of how decisions could be more optimally arranged to foster the type of analysis, in the right timeframe, with the expertise needed to produce robust and lasting decisions in the organization.

A simple yet illustrative example involves decisions about money. Many organizations group decisions about how to allocate financial resources together in the same governance process; however, if annual budget decisions are made in the same environment as long-term investment decisions, budget decisions will generally trump those pertaining to long-term investment. The general principle here is that in addition to the type of decision being made (funding), the timeframe it relates to should also be considered when grouping decisions. Putting decisions with vastly different timeframes together can cause the shorter-term to overshadow the longer-term (squeaky wheel syndrome). The idea of developing governance structure that considers the timeframe of decisions is a simple one that can have a substantial impact on improving decision-making in an organization.

This approach to governance evaluation and redesign can be considered strategic governance, as opposed to what is normally done: start with the org chart and shuffle people (and budgets) around. (“Reorg fever” is often a symptom of a lack of leadership understanding and capability around governance.) My approach to governance does address the org chart, because ultimately decision-making needs to reside with chartered entities that have clear authority and accountability. However, doing the higher level definition and structural work early on keeps the governance conversation from devolving into a power grab, and makes selecting the most appropriate decision-making entities much more obvious (based on expertise and stake in the decision set, as opposed to mere position inside the organization).

The result is governance that serves the organization, rather than a few well-positioned individuals. Sound like a good idea?

Net Neutrality: Who Should We Be Most Afraid Of?

The idea of open, accessible, unmoderated forums for discourse and exchange inspires me. Afterall, that is what I do for a living: I design processes that enable many people to engage in collaborative decision-making. That technology could push this process open even further, to many more people, to a borderless conversation, a churning think tank for innovation is a possibility I dream of. For this reason, I have been an increasing proponent of the growing internet trend toward social media.

I remember my first impressions of social media sometime around 2005, which were based on some vague awareness of Friendster or MySpace as being something for kids, akin to an electronic yearbook. Seeing absolutely zero utility to me and my world, I successfully ignored whatever “social media” might refer to. Some time later, I developed a more-than neutral impression based on the press and an episode of Law and Order that thinly disguised the Meghan Meier suicide case in its storyline. My neutral impression then became tainted by the sinister. I still, however, dismissed social media as largely irrelevant. (It’s plain to see, I have not been in the early-adopter crowd.)  I finally found my own personal application: communicating with my niece and nephew, then in their mid-teens, and set up a Facebook account.

Of course, before Facebook, I used Google and soon after discovered Wikipedia, both of which quickly became indispensible to both my work and personal use. YouTube came later, and I say with some chagrin, I have yet to post a video of my own. However, that’s not far off.

In the past year, I have watched, with the rest of the world, as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have skyrocketed in prominence. Not only are they growing exponentially in users, but (and perhaps more importantly) they are also now celebrities themselves of film (“Social Network”), revolutions (Egypt), and new industry (social media technology and marketing). I have felt increasing enthusiasm over what these portals portend as possible…access, information, sharing, borderless society, innovation on a grand scale. And I have excitedly expanded who I follow on Twitter to open my world of ideas and awareness, which has meant more YouTube, more Googling, more Wikipedia visits, more trafficking in the social media world.

And in this journey into the new world, I have become vaguely aware of the growing concern about it. But it wasn’t until I attended a seminar on the First Amendment that I thrust myself into inquiry of exactly what is up. Well, a lot is.

For starters, there is a fundamental change in how ideas and communication flow. Fifty years ago (1961: the year I was born), Americans were happily ensconced in the TV era. This new mass medium had trumped radio and was being debated by then FCC chair, Newton Minow, as “a vast wasteland.” As a result, TV was mandated to provide programming aimed at the public good. I was raised in the age of  the ubiquitous cop show and rising sitcom, free from explicit violence, sex and bad language. Commercials for liquor and cigarettes disappeared in the mid-60s,  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street gained in popularity, and the Fairness Doctrine was enforced. TV was nice, news was smart, and channels were few. And that’s the difference: there were few speakers, speaking through a handful of regulated distributors, to a mass audience.

With the onset (or onslaught, depending on how you view it) of cable, TV changed: many, many speakers, many barely regulated distributors (remember, FCC jurisdiction stops at airwaves), to a mass audience. And we began to see explicit sex, graphic violence, and hear profane language, all the more shocking since it was coming at us out of the previously known “bland box.” And then with the arrival of the internet, the number of speakers proliferated infinitely. We are now they: bloggers, tweeters, posters, commenters, and on and on. We have gained an open forum, so open sometimes it feels too open, like when I happen across some porn site or rabidly violent one, or a blog that is scathing in ways that make me uncomfortable and sad. We have lost our intermediaries – the media no longer can be counted on like dear old Walter Cronkite to bring us news we can trust, now we must sort it out for ourselves; we have lost our protectors – the FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine and now it seems like a true anachronism with its goal of ensuring a diversity of viewpoints in the midst of what often feels like a free-for-all. But most important of all, we have also seen a massive decrease in media distributors, or rather, in the number of them.

Think about it. Google owns YouTube, Facebook has supplanted MySpace and Friendster with 500 million users, Murdoch owns TV and newspaper, and Comcast owns cable and AT&T. A few distributors for what has become the most massive communications infrastructure the world has ever known. The question is, are these owners of telecomm channels (or “pipes,” as they are called) more like utilities or more like content providers? And who even cares? Well, you and I should.

Enter net neutrality. The idea is that the FCC should assert its authority to keep the pipes open and accessible - to ensure a diversity of viewpoints can be expressed. In other words, should Comcast be able to decide to whom they give access to cable programming or bandwidth? Should Google be able to screen or limit searches? Should Murdoch be able to cover only the stories he cares for, or what’s more, lie about those he does not? The idea behind net neutrality is that purveyors of access, such as Comcast broadband or Sprint or Google, should have to offer that access fairly. They should not be able to exercise their preference. Sounds reasonable. They are, after all, providing access to huge numbers of people through their monopolies. But the problem is that the FCC only has jurisdiction over public resources, that is airwaves (and also, interestingly enough, phone lines, because they are considered “common carriers”). So, while they can tell telephone and network TV companies to be even-handed, they don’t have the authority to dictate to the owners of cable lines, broadband or otherwise. Nor do they have jurisdiction over Google and its search engine. Makes for some interesting concerns now, doesn’t it?

And even if we decide (and by “we” I mean Congress) that we do want the FCC to regulate net neutrality for us – to stand between us and the big media pipe owners – what will that mean for freedom of speech? Will the government stray further into regulation of cable, the internet, and Google? And will that regulation be for our good or to our detriment? Was TV in the 60s, 70s, and 80s really representative of the diversity of viewpoints in this country? Hardly. But I sure feel right now that the big pipe owners need to be held to account by somebody so that they don’t get the idea that they are arbiters of what we know or don’t. However, then I got to thinking, what the heck is the difference anymore between government and big business? Is the line that bright? Can one watchdog the other? And the real rub is, who I want to watchdog whom is dictated by whomever I am most afraid of in any given context or in any given moment. Now that’s something to think about.