This is the thirty-sixth 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. My name is Judy Rees and with me today is Nadja Schnetzler. Hello, Nadja!
Nadja: Hello Judy!
Judy: Great to have you here! Would you like to introduce yourself and say the kind of things you get involved in in relation to collaboration?
Nadja: I’m a Swiss-based person. I live in Switzerland with my family in a city called Biel where watches are made, like Rolex or Swatch. I’m an inspirator. I like to inspire other people to do things differently. And I like to be inspired every day. I work in three fields mainly: innovation – that’s where I come from originally. I got interested in collaboration over the last 5 years. That’s today my main topic. Also I do a fair amount of communication projects, because for me communication is the glue that binds it all together.
Judy: That sounds very exciting. I gather you work all over Europe and even further afield?
Nadja: That’s right.
Judy: When you are collaborating at your best, who are you collaborating with?
Nadja: I’m collaborating with extremely different people and extremely different groups. Sometimes I collaborate in projects with other people, with freelancers from my network, with my clients, with people I know well and people I do not know at all. Sometimes I collaborate with teams I accompany over a longer period of time and help them collaborate better, but become part of the collaboration for a while.
I also look at collaboration everywhere I go. I tend to think that I also collaborate with friends when I do a project with them that is not at all work-related. I like to collaborate with my family in finding ways in how we can communicate with each other better and have good time together that makes sense for everybody. We’re four extremely individualist people in our family. There’s also a kind of collaboration there.
Judy: When there’s such a variety, this question is possibly a difficult one, but I’m still very interested in your answer. When you are collaborating at your best, you are like what?
Nadja: I am like – not sure I know the English word for this – these things you can buy at a fair, that you can blow into and then they turn with the wind, that are operated by wind power, and are very colourful. I really don’t know how they are called in English, so I’m a bit of at a loss, because that’s really my metaphor there. A kind of a spinning wheel.
Judy: I find myself torn, because wearing my clean language hat I wouldn’t normally fill in the words, even if the person I’m talking to is a non-native English speaker, but I think I’m going to cheat and say I think I would call that a child’s windmill.
Nadja: Exactly! A windmill! Very colourful, rainbow coloured windmill that is operated by a lot of different power and is turning effortlessly.
Judy: It’s very colourful. It’s turning effortlessly. Is there anything else about turning effortlessly like that?
Nadja: It’s really that you feel that there is a lot of good energy, and you don’t need a lot of additional effort to make the wheel turn or make the wheel go round. Everything feels just natural and nice.
Judy: It’s feeling natural and nice, and you don’t need a lot of extra effort, and it’s turning effortlessly, and it’s very colourful. What kind of colourful?
Nadja: I think because I have to do with so many different people, and I really love people, and I’m interested in their stories, and their bright and dark sides that they carry, because I think you have to always look at the full person. Because I have to do with so many different people, I think that’s what makes it so colourful. By having projects and collaborations with so many different kinds of people I think that I draw my energy from them and can also give it into other contexts where people maybe don’t have the experience that I have or the variety of collaboration methods and circumstances that I see just by doing so many different things.
Judy: It’s colourful like that. There are different stories, different people. It’s turning effortlessly. Is there anything else about that windmill?
Nadja: If I think about it, it’s not a lonely windmill. It’s there, but it’s in a kind of windmill farm. It’s surrounded by other windmills and sometimes it’s very small and insignificant, and part of the process. Sometimes, it’s very big and in the centre of attention, and taking on an important role. It can change its size I guess.
Judy: And what determines whether it’s big or small?
Nadja: Just the context of what’s happening. Sometimes I have to be a leader or an expert in a project. Sometimes I have to be just a part of a process, just like a tiny wheel that turns with the others. Maybe like sunflowers that turn towards the sun together. There are smaller ones and larger ones, and they play different roles.
If we can step into different roles and acknowledge that depending on what context I’m in, I might have a different role, I’m comfortable in this role at this moment, then collaboration becomes really really successful.
Judy: That’s one thing that leads to really successful collaboration – that comfort to be able to step in the different roles at different times. Is there anything else that needs to happen for collaboration to be like that, very colourful child’s windmill turning effortlessly, like that?
Nadja: I think it’s most successful if everyone can really show up and be themselves, and be their very best with all their positive and not so positive sides. And showing up for me means really also letting others see you as you are – with all those positive and possibly also negative sides, because only if we know the other person a bit better than just as colleagues. If it’s “Oh, this is just a colleague of mine”, it means I separate my private life and my work life. And I think that’s a load of crap. We have to collaborate really well. We have to know the other person a little bit better, especially also in virtual contexts.
If I Skype with you and I don’t know you have ten cats running around you, and you’re really fond of your cats – which is probably not the case that you have cats, but just as an example – and you are very attached to them. I think it’s important information for me, when I’m calling you at 4 PM and ask you to do something for me. Or if someone has children or an elderly mother to care for. All these things are part of the person and become part of the collaboration.
Judy: When you know more about the person, not only just the positive, but also the not so positive sides, what happens to the windmill farm?
Nadja: It can be better in sync. They can turn together better.
Judy: Part of me wants to ask you more about how they turn together. And part of me wants to ask all bunch of very practical stuff about how you decide, which things to share and which things to keep private. Which question do you think I should ask?
Nadja: I think both are really interesting. I think the second one to me is very important. Maybe I can give an example. It’s not a metaphor, but it’s an example. Every year I do one large project with 70 young people from all over Europe and a team of 10 coaches that do the project with them. They are a very large windmill and the 10 coaches around me are not much smaller, but they have to provide the method that we will work with these young people.
Over these three years that we’ve been doing this, I’ve realised that if every one of these 10 coaches is authentic, is really showing up and showing who they really are and not trying to do a kind of joint artificial thing that feels like we are agreeing on a method, which we are. We are using the same method, but everybody has their own style. If I think about all these different styles, what makes this interesting for these young participants – they are between 17 and 22 – is that they see that we respect each other as a coach team. We have fun together. We really value each coach’s expertise and specialty, and strong points.
That makes the young participants draw on all those 10 coaches, rather than just on their group coach. They might go and say, “Oh, Judith is really the one who can be very critical about something and we need this criticism now”, or “Rakesh– he’s the fun guy. He’s the guy that always will come and cheer us up if we feel stuck in our idea generation process.”
We’ve come to value these individual traits and also the parts that come with these traits, that are maybe not always pleasant. That doesn’t mean that you have to share everything about yourself, not that you share everything about themselves with anyone. But just showing a little bit more, being really authentic, not trying to copy someone else – that’s crucial.
Judy: That doesn’t necessarily mean revealing huge piles of dirty laundry to the person you are speaking to on Skype for the first time.
Nadja: No, not that kind of open. But letting the other person see more than just the professional side of yourself, letting them see behind the scenes maybe a little bit, letting them see some context about where you are and what situation you are in, because that is important information for collaboration.
Judy: When people in the collaboration do reveal a little bit more about themselves, then what happens to the windmills turning together better?
Nadja: I think that they can better provide the part of the energy that is needed from them at any given point. If you can see that the windmill next to you now has a lot of energy and is turning extremely well, but on a particular day, they might not, then you have to give that a little bit extra energy. Then the energy is distributed really well in this group. And everybody can contribute their very best at those times when they can, but can also not feel super bad about the moment where they cannot for whatever reason.
That distributes the load for everyone.
Judy: When the collaboration distributes the load like that and they are turning together, and your colourful windmill can change size, get bigger or smaller, and is turning effortlessly like that, what happens to innovation?
Nadja: I think the windmills, when they want to innovate, this team that may be working together might need to bring in additional people, other windmills of different colours, of extremely different colours to make that happen. In my experience, maybe the windmills that I was talking about now are the ones organising this innovation process, this process, in which ideas can be generated. Other windmills join this process in order to actually have ideas, and actually contribute something within this context, within this process that the windmills provided.
Because the more different perspectives we have, the more different opinions, the more different viewpoints and experiences, the better can we create ideas that are truly new and different. If the windmills always work together, and even if they are very authentic and colourful, at a certain point they will become quite dull, if they have to innovate on their own. They better expand this field and bring in additional very odd windmills to make this process more successful.
Judy: Is there anything else about these very odd windmills?
Nadja: The odder the better. I have these experiences where I bring together people to innovate, and I have this 13-year old teen, and the 55-year old CEO of the company. They do a kind of a group work together where they have to draw something. The CEO talks about shareholder value. And the teen just asks, “What is shareholder value?” And the CEO realises that he actually has a very different view of the world and has to acknowledge that others have different needs or different questions. Then something interesting happens. Then they can start talking to each other – “How do you see that? What would you do with our product?”
The more varied these odd windmills are, the more you bring in people who are not necessarily knowledgeable about these particular company’s or organisation’s product or service, the more you can find new and different ideas.
Judy: When all that’s happening – the windmills are turning together, and the very odd windmills are coming in and there’s collaboration, and there’s innovation, and your windmill, very colourful, turning effortlessly, that can be small or big depending on the situation, and it’s that kind of windmill you blow and it turns, and you are an inspirator – is there a relationship between your windmill and you are an inspirator?
Nadja: Is there a relationship between the two?
Judy: Yeah, is there a relationship between the windmill and inspirator?
Nadja: Yes, I think the windmill needs energy to function. That’s the inspiration I need from all these different contexts, from all these different people. I’m really like a sponge soaking that up and taking that in. But I can also give that energy away. By getting this energy and getting these different experiences and being able to be so privileged to look into extremely different contexts and companies and organisations, and different teams, I can also give this energy away. I can inspire because I’ve been inspired. This is the relationship between those two.
Judy: Is there anything else about how that works?
Nadja: I can tell you when it doesn’t work. A few years ago I was determined to specialise myself in something, to specialise myself in a field, because I was not sure after 24 years of innovation in these extremely different contexts, if that was really something I was enjoying. There was nothing else I knew. That was just my life and I had this suspicion that maybe I would feel also good or differently if I would specialise in a certain topic. And I did this for 4 months. Then my best friend told me, “Can you please just expand your horizon? You’re becoming extremely boring.”
The windmill doesn’t work if it doesn’t get energy from very very different sources, my windmill. I need to soak in this bath with extremely different additions every day. I need to change the context. Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist originally. I’m a very curious person. And if my horizon is shrunk to one topic, I’m just not that person. I admire people who can go in depth about something. I’m more a jumper – I have to go from topic to topic in order to get my energy and to be able to pass that on.
Judy: I’m so empathising, because I’ve also used to be a journalist, but I’ve also spent a lot of time agonising thinking, “I should specialise, I should specialise” and hating it.
Nadja: Exactly. But I think it’s a special type of person. A lot of people do not really know what I’m talking about when I explain this to them. They say, “But it must be so exhausting.” But for me the other thing is exhausting – having to go in depth to something for a longer time is just excruciatingly painful, because there are so many things that interest me and I cannot pursue them at this point, because I’m specialising. It’s the worst thing for me.
Judy: When that’s not happening, when you are getting energy from lots and lots of different sources, then the windmill is spinning and it’s colourful, and it’s spinning together with other windmills, and the very odd windmills come in for the inspiration, for the innovation and all of that, and then what happens?
Nadja: It’s just a fantastic feeling. My son, he’s a composer. He’s a 16-year old composer and rapper. He feels like this when he’s on stage. And he tells me that when he’s on stage, he feels like this energy is flowing. For me it’s the same. It’s my stage, having these other windmills and having this energy. It’s just what I want to experience over and over again. If I don’t, I’m sad.
Judy: What needs to happen for you to experience it over and over again?
Nadja: I think I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I’m balancing my portfolio with many different things, not too many, not too few. If there is this balance, then I feel at ease. And I can get out of balance for many reasons. If I get out of balance, then the windmill doesn’t function so well, and I have to find this balance again. The balance can be making sure that I really have different projects, not too large, not too small, that I work with many different people, that I am changing topics, etc. If I don’t do that – sometimes I overstep my own boundaries – then I realise that now sooner and sooner and I can correct the path, and go back to this place where I feel the energy flowing.
Judy: We’re coming to the end of our time. People will be listening to this and they will be thinking, “I wonder if Nadja can help me with the project that I have going on?” What kind of people would you like to hear from? And how can they get hold of you?
Nadja: I have a website. It’s www.word-and-deed.org – very bad choice of website name, but there you go. Your own failures – it’s fantastic to see them over and over again.
Judy: Every day you have to write that out.
Nadja: People who really want to find me, they will be able to find me. I’m really interested in people who want to drive change for good, who want to change something – very small maybe, just in their team, maybe in their organisation, maybe in society – who are driven by the wish to change something and want to do this either by looking into innovation – generating good ideas, or want to improve their collaboration so that everyone in the team can be really heard, can really show up and contribute. I’m interested in clients like that. Just go to my website, drop me a line and I’ll be in touch.
Judy: Brilliant! Thank you very much indeed. It’s been really interesting talking to you. I wish you lots more windmilling.
Nadja: Thank you!