This is the thirty-fourth in a series of podcasts where Judy interviews people who have a track record of successful collaboration. This series is for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of real-life collaboration, especially collaboration among creative, intelligent, free-thinking individuals who are geographically dispersed.
The interviews go well beyond the obvious, as metaphor master Judy Rees explores the hidden thinking that inspires collaboration that works.
Judy: Hello and welcome to the Collaboration Dynamics podcast. I’m Judy Rees and with me today is Adrian Reed. Hello, Adrian. Would you introduce yourself please?
Adrian: Certainly. My name is Adrian Reed. I work for a niche consultant firm called Blackmetric Business Solutions. I guess the best way to describe my role is as a consultant or business analyst – I help embed change in organisations, help organisations become more effective and help them to focus on their strategic goals and get change progressed, whether that’s people process, organisation or IT change.
Judy: I can guess from what you’ve just said what kind of collaboration you’re involved in. But what kind of collaborations would you see yourself as involved in?
Adrian: It really varies. It could be anything from collaborating with the CEO and the board, helping them to define the vision, mission, objectives and strategy of an organisation. Particularly with smaller organisations that is something that is very enjoyable. And I enjoyed doing (it) very much. But it’s right down to working with stakeholders across a business unit, and actually often beyond one business to figure out how you orchestrate a process, how you get inputs from end of the business, you transform it into whatever the business is producing, you get it out the other side. A whole range from varying stakeholders internal and external.
Judy: That scope sounds very interesting. When you are collaborating at your best, you are like what?
Adrian: That’s a good question. I think for me there’s a lot about the group, about being part of a cohesive group. There’s something about that group having a clear shared goal for collaboration. What I mean by that is I think collaboration doesn’t work well when there are three or four groups or stakeholder communities that are on the face of trying to achieve the same thing, but actually they are trying to subtly pull in different directions.
I think a clear goal for collaboration or the thing that the organisation is trying to achieve is so important. I think there’s also something about almost cultivating a climate of collaboration, because there are situations where perhaps the organisation or culture might mean the people don’t speak up.
I think that when I’m collaborating at my best, or when myself and the people I’m working with are collaborating at our best, there’s like a level playing field. That’s probably a better way of describing it. A level playing field where anyone would feel empowered to raise ideas and challenge, having the audacity to challenge.
I think, along with collaboration, having that ability to respectfully challenge anyone, whether it’s the CEO, or a senior executive, but to say, “Actually, I know we’ve always done it that way, but could we consider doing something different? Could we consider doing it in a new or a different way? What about if we did, what would that mean? What would the impact be?” Having the ability to take different perspectives and to change mindsets or to challenge mindsets.
Judy: Some lovely metaphors in what you’ve just said! The one I think you settled on it’s like level playing field. Just to play with that metaphor for a moment – what kind of playing field is a level playing field?
Adrian: It’s an interesting metaphor, isn’t it? The actual thing that comes into my mind when I say that is an American football playing field, which is curious because I’ve never watched, seen or cared about American football. I have no idea why that image popped into my head, but I think there is something about the egalitarian nature of collaboration. The ability for everyone’s view to be heard and ideally for it to be facilitated in some way so that everybody’s view can be heard. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll be a completely democratic decision if the decisions are being made. But there’s something really important in that I think for everyone having the ability to have their air time, to have the opportunity to be heard.
Judy: So, everyone having the ability to have their air time and an American football playing field.
Adrian: Yes, it’s a curious combination, isn’t it?
Judy: Is there anything else about that American football playing field?
Adrian: I don’t think so. I think that’s the visual metaphor, which sprang to mind. The other interesting thing I guess playing with that metaphor is certainly in my mind, whether American football fields are really like this, but in my mind you have this sort of crowd around the edge of an American football field.
I guess in some extent collaboration is sort of like that. You’ve got the players on the field. If we are collaborating, we’re players on the field, collaborating as a team for a common goal. And if you’re playing American football, you’re trying to achieve a particular goal. But there are people in that wider ecosystem that you actually have to consider. If you’re performing sport, sport is ultimately a performance – you want people to watch. If you are collaborating in business, you often have people that aren’t part of that direct collaboration that actually have needs and wants. That might be the customer. It might be that you are in a regulated industry and there’s someone, metaphorically sitting on one of those seats looking at you as a regulator.
You’ve got that wider ecosystem around the edge of the American football field to use a metaphor. And you even have the fast food vendors selling hot dogs and beer. They are part of that ecosystem as well.
That collaboration beyond what seems to be the immediate goal, but also the ecosystem surrounding it as well.
Judy: That’s interesting. In that ecosystem, right down to the hot dogs and beer vendors, is that the same or different to people pulling in different directions you mentioned earlier?
Adrian: It’s different, but there are some similarities. When I was referring to the people pulling in different directions, to draw a metaphor what I was referring to is the people who are taking part in the collaboration. That would be like you’re – and unfortunately I don’t know the names of any of the American football positions, but if they thought they were playing on different ends of the field. If they thought they are on one team rather than the other then that would be a problem. So the people are actually taking part in the collaboration.
Of course, building on that idea, part of the reason that people sometimes pull in different directions or why there can be conflict or differences of opinion is because you’ve got that eco-system and the external factors playing out on a collaboration situation. There’s a linkage in there for sure.
Judy: By the way, I’m really pleased that you don’t know the names of any of the positions of the American football field. I had somebody on this podcast the other week, whose metaphor was all about baseball. He knew all about baseball, and I know nothing about [baseball.
Adrian: I guess there really is a level playing field between us.
Judy: Exactly so. So that ecosystem – there are people on the outside, there are the hot dog vendors and the beer vendors, and the regulators and all of those people in that external ecosystem. And there are the people on the field. And the people who are collaborating on one team – they have to take into account all these other people. The thing you don’t want them to be doing is being on the other team.
Adrian: Yes. That’s true. I think however, in a collaboration situation it’s interesting, because there’s not necessarily another team that you are competing against. It doesn’t have to be that adversarial conflict situation, but you would all be on the one same metaphorical team. That’s certainly true.
That’s not to say that you don’t want to… It’s important to encourage, or I feel it’s important to encourage surfacing of differences of opinion.
Judy: I was going to ask you about that. When you were saying earlier that it’s important to be able to challenge and to have the audacity to challenge, how does that play out on the American football field?
Adrian: It’s an interesting one. It probably doesn’t fit with that metaphor, curiously. But if it were to, I suppose, playing with the metaphor, it perhaps might be that actually the team are in the dressing room before the big game, and they are discussing the game plan. Actually, okay, there might a coach or someone who is a specialist in a particular manoeuvre, but because they’ve got that shared goal, if one of them says, “Actually, let’s try this brand new strategy,” I’d imagine there would be the opportunity to have that discussion. And the decision would be made.
Perhaps, without wanting to labour the metaphor, perhaps that would be the place where that ability to challenge would come into it.
Judy: And for that, you said you need a climate of collaboration. What kind of climate is a climate is a climate of collaboration?
Adrian: I think the level playing field is an important part of it. Also to some extent, there are the physical nuts and bolts, the physical logistics. Having the tools and space for collaboration. It never ceases to amaze me, for example, organisations that don’t have the tools for virtual or physical collaboration. There aren’t enough meeting rooms, for example. It is a problem.
There’s the space that is physical, but there’s also some kind of mental space for the collaboration, where it’s really easy – and I was guilty, we are probably all guilty of this. We are getting drawn into the busy work of daily life. There’s this opportunity to collaborate on X or Y, but there’s all this other stuff. And this stuff is really cloudy. Sometimes to collaborate you have to break through that stuff. What’s really curious is because everyone has got their stuff, that can mean that collaboration starts quite cloudy. Actually, collaborating well is about creating that concise reason, that goal.
I hope this is making some sense, Judy.
Judy: Yes. People are in that stuff, and it’s really cloudy. Collaboration means breaking through that stuff. For that to happen it is about creating that shared goal.
Adrian: It’s about creating that shared goal, but also having focus. I think that often collaboration requires conscious focus. I think a lot of time people talk about collaboration, but almost just conflate it with conversations. But actually for me really productive collaboration is something different where every party has to be really quite keen, quite committed to actually collaborating and putting a lot of energy into it. If there are all these other distractions going on, if there isn’t the space mentally and physically for collaboration, then what you can get is quasi-collaboration, where people might come to a meeting, but none of the actions get done and it fizzles out. And it fizzles out like a damp squib.
Judy: That’s how you know whether that’s collaboration or quasi-collaboration – whether the actions get done or whether it fizzles.
Adrian: That would be one test. I think also the quasi-collaboration you can get when people turn up, but they don’t really turn up, or somebody doesn’t feel empowered or committed to collaborate, they are not inputting. It’s almost like collaboration requires a net input, rather than output. People have got to put more in in sum than is taken out. Whatever it is you are collaborating on, it’s almost like it gets that. If everyone puts more energy in, more energy than they are taking out of collaboration then the net energy that gets put in, gets transferred to whatever product or process or project you’re working on.
Judy: That’s interesting. Everyone has to put more energy in than they are taking out. What’s left over gets transferred into the thing you’re working on.
Adrian: Yeah. And that’s the sort of metaphor. People would have their own specialities, their own special flavour of energy. You might get some people who are very energetic and enthused to inject a lot. Some people might legitimately only have little bit of time, but providing they can put in what they can put in, the thing still works. But the problem is I guess when you have – again it is a different metaphor – but if you have energy vampires that suck the life out of anything, it’s best to steer away from those if you can.
Judy: You need to steer away from the energy vampires. Everybody puts in more than they take out, with their own particular flavour of energy. And they go in with the conscious focus, because it needs more conscious focus. It’s not just going to happen on its own because of all that cloud of stuff.
Adrian: Yeah. But what certainly isn’t the case, collaboration I don’t think has to be a formal regimented process. I think the whole thing about the energy – it can be a chance meeting in an airport, where people just happen to be delayed, and they think, “Let’s have a chat. We’ve got a common interest in X. Let’s quickly write a paper or whatever.” It can be quite serendipitous like that. It doesn’t have to be a formal way, but if there’s a way of transferring those ideas, that energy, it’s what’s important.
Judy: A way of transferring that energy is what’s important. Part of that is the physical nuts and bolts, logistics, the tools, the space. Is there anything else that needs to be in place for that to happen?
Adrian: I think that there has to be the will to collaborate. That is implied by the energy, of course. There needs to be a clear view of the shared goal. To be more accurate, a view of the shared goal needs to be established. That doesn’t have to be at the beginning, but as part of the collaboration you need to co-create or decide upon the goal somehow.
Nothing else is springing to mind in terms of the metaphors we’ve talked about.
Judy: So when you’ve got all that, you’ve got the climate for collaboration.
Adrian: I think so. I think in organisational setting you’d also need – depending on what you’re collaborating on of course and rewinding right back and to the American football field – there needs to be an acknowledgement of that ecosystem, of the people sitting around the edge. It might be if you’re collaborating on something really big, you actually need the support of the people around the edge.
If you’re going to change the way you’re play American football, then you’re really going to make sure that the supporters are behind you. Otherwise, you’re going to have a very disappointing outcome.
There’s something about even if they are not directly involved, having that view on who’s impacted or interested in whatever it is that we’re throwing this energy and collaborating on.
Judy: What needs to happen for them to be involved?
Adrian: It’s not necessarily about them being involved in the collaboration. It may be. Again playing with that metaphor – American football players being aware that they are part of the ecosystem. Stepping back from that metaphor – it’s almost like when we’re collaborating, we need to ask the question “what ecosystem we are a part of?”
That’s going to be different for every collaboration potentially. Who else might want to be involved in this? Or if we create some output as a part of this collaboration, who is impacted by it? Who’s interested in it? And how do we as a team of collaborators involve, engage or at the very least inform them that this is happening? Do we need to get their input? When do we need to get their input? And how? And so forth.
Judy: There’s so much there … And we’re towards the end of our time. Just to backtrack through it – there’s all the other people who will be impacted, and the question of how to involve and engage, and inform them. There’s the acknowledgement that the supporters are needed. There’s the need for a will to collaborate. And collaborations don’t have to be formal – they can be serendipitous – a meeting in airport. Everyone needs to put in more energy than they take out. You need to beware the energy vampires. When you’ve got a quasi-collaboration, it fizzles out, and the actions don’t get done. Collaboration needs conscious focus. It needs the physical nuts and bolts. It needs everybody to be on the same team, and on a level playing field, and willing to have that audacity to challenge. When that happens, that’s collaborating at its best for you?
Adrian: Yeah, I think so. Actually that has strung itself together as quite a coherent whole for me. That’s a positive.
Judy: Amazing stuff. So, really interesting to talk to you. If people listening to this want to get in touch with you, how can they find you and who would you like to hear from?
Adrian: There are a couple of ways. As I was saying, the organisation I work for specialises in business analysis training and consultancy. The website is www.blackmetric.co.uk. If you’re in need of any services around that, do get in touch. I also have a blog. People describe me as a prolific blogger. I’m never sure if that’s a compliment, but I take it as one. My blog is www.adrianreed.co.uk. If people have enjoyed listening, it would be really great for them to take a look. There’s something like 250 articles on there now. Do sign up if you’re interested in business analysis and systemic thinking, and that sort of thing.
Judy: Brilliant! Thank you very much indeed. Much appreciated.