Podcast Ep20 – Lisette Sutherland – The 5 Ingredients of Successful Collaboration

This is the twentieth 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:   Welcome to the Collaboration Dynamics podcast, with me today is Lisette Sutherland. Now, Lisette, would you introduce yourself, and what you do in relation to collaboration please?

Lisette:   Sure, and it’s great to be here. Thank you so much, I’m usually the one on the other end so it’s really fun for me to be the one being interviewed. Like you said, my name is Lisette Sutherland and I’m running a company called Collaboration Superpowers and what we do is we try to inspire remote teams to great things by telling stories and giving workshops about the best practices and tips on what remote teams are doing these days. I can give you a little bit of a background on how that started and how I went down this rabbit hole because I think it’s a somewhat interesting story.

Judy:   Please do.

Lisette:   About 11, 12 years ago I was helping to build an online project management tool and it was a very interesting tool. I was extremely enthusiastic about it, the whole team was, but it was really the reason why the tool was being built that was so interesting. And that was because the CEO of the company didn’t want to die. Very literally.

To the public he was creating this tool so that people could have an online project management tool globally across distributed teams but subversively he was doing it because he wanted longevity scientist to be able to collaborate and solve the problem of aging. He thought this was a problem that could be solved and if he could just get the right people together that we could solve this issue.
I was so struck by the idea, it was like this ‘ah-ha’ moment for me, like ‘Oh my God, if we could get the right people working together regardless of location, think of the things we could do.’ We could solve aging, we could solve global warming, all these cool things that teams could do. I could never look back, for some reason that idea struck me and inspired me and here I am today talking to people about remote work and just being completely obsessed with the idea.

Judy:   It is quite amazing what could happen, isn’t it?

Lisette:   Yeah, the potential I just find so exciting.

Judy:   I’m also very curious, is that CEO still with us?

Lisette:   [laugh] He is still alive, yes. Sadly, the project management tool they were working on went out of business overnight because of an outside, very unfortunate circumstance. It was an investor who was doing something illegal and got caught. So, sadly the tool went out of business. Really a tragic, tragic story but these things happen in the software world.
The CEO’s with us, the tool is not.

Judy:   And of course, other online project management tools are available.

Lisette:   Right, hundreds, hundreds.

Judy:   [laughs]

Lisette:   Luckily for him there’s hundreds of other options people can be using.

Judy:   But it’s not the software you’re into these days?

Lisette:   Well, you know I am a bit of a tool junkie, I will admit that. I have to be careful in my workshops not to just present a thousand tools that people can use for various reasons. I think you’re right, on remote teams the main challenge ends up being at the human level. It’s still the basic, how do we create a safe environment so that people feel safe enough to experiment and innovate and communicate with each other and let each other know what’s going on. That seems to still be the part of the remote space, I think.

Judy:   We’ll come back to that in a second. Now, as you know, I’m working in similar territory and one of the things that I do in my work with groups is talk with them about their metaphors for working at their best and collaborating at their best. One of the questions I always ask my guests on this podcast, when you are collaborating at your best, you are like what?

Lisette:   Oh man, I love these metaphor games but it’s always the weirdest things that come to mind when you ask. For me, I think of, I’m a gazelle. I am off and running. I’m just running fast and it’s sleek and it’s sort of effortless. When I’m at my best there’s no time to even look back. You’re just off and running. [Laughs]

Judy:   Off and running. Is there anything else about that gazelle when it’s off and running?

Lisette:   It’s doesn’t actually relate. I just feel that when we get remote working right, when I get remote working right or when I’m working on a team that just feels really good, there’s a magic element about it. So, that doesn’t really have anything to do with the gazelle but for some reason doors seem to fly open. Maybe that’s it, the doors are flying open as the gazelle runs through. Things are happening, people are connecting, information is flowing, and we’re doing great things together, whatever it is that we’re working on. That for me is the ultimate. You’re in group flow, somehow.

Judy:   So group flow and the doors are flying open as the gazelle runs through and there’s a magic element.

Lisette:   Right and I might be one of the most scientific people you’ll meet, so I hate even using the term magic but I can’t think of anything else that describes it. There’s just something otherworldly when a remote team, or any team really, is getting it right and is doing great work.

Judy:   I’m tempted to ask more about the magic if I didn’t think it would be slightly uncomfortable to ask about magic when you said…

Lisette:   Oh feel free. [Laughs] Feel free, let’s dive in, I’m not afraid.

Judy:   When it’s magic like that, how do you know? What lets you know that it’s magic?

Lisette:   I think, there’s an element of joy that I experience and when I work on teams, it just seems to be that it’s not work that we’re doing. It’s somehow that we’re living and that we’ve come together for this purpose and there’s just this joy in working on it and achieving it and everybody’s taking pride in the work that they do. That’s the feeling I get from this.

Judy:   Everybody’s taking pride and there’s a purpose. You started talking about a remotely collaborating team, is there a difference when it’s a face to face team and a remote team, for you?

Lisette:   No, not at all, not at all. I’ve worked in offices together with a team where it’s been this feeling. In fact, when I started working on that online project management tool, we all worked together in an office. That was a magical experience but I’ve then started working remotely for the same company and other companies since then where there’s just been this element of joy on working on the team. There’s very little conflict. Like I said, people are helping each other out. Information seems to be flowing.
We’re symbiotic. It’s like we could do this or some things alone but doing it together enhances each other. And I like that term symbiotic because I think that really in a successful organization or a successful remote team, we’re helping each other succeed wherever we can and that’s, to me, where the joy comes from and the magic happens.

Judy:   And the joy, and the magic, that’s with you with the gazelle. What about the other people? Does everybody got joy going on?

Lisette:   It’s farfetched to say everybody on the team is [laugh] is in this blissed out magical euphorical state like I am. [Laugh] But it does seem to be universal. There’s very few people who are not, at least in my experience. I’m thinking back to the office situation, also the remote teams, there’s always going to be some sort of conflict that you’re working through but I think when it’s working and you’re helping each other that conflict is not really conflict, it’s more a challenge that you’re facing together. And I think that when you get that then, I have not noticed others being unhappy when I’ve been in a blissed out state, in particular. I think that blissed out state comes from because everybody is working so well together. There’s a team aspect to that that’s important.

Judy:   I suppose the next question is what needs to be in place for that blissed out state to happen?

Lisette:   There’s a number of ingredients that I think that need to be in place for that. One is, there has to be a safe environment to be able to try things out. You have different cultures who have different forms of communicating and in different cultures there’s different ways of asking for what you need. Or maybe it’s not okay to ask for what you need in some cultures. So, you have to create an environment where people can overcome that cultural barrier and feel safe for asking or discussing what they need to discuss.

So, that’s easier said than done. There’s no magic bullet for that. But definitely having a safe environment is part of having the ingredient.
The other is to encourage experimentation. So, encouraging people to try things. You push this button and what happens then? Or you combine these two ingredients that you normally wouldn’t do that but what happens when you do do that? So, there has to be this sort of element of playfulness, and I don’t mean being wacky, I mean a safe environment where experiments can happen.

And then, the bringing together of multiple disciplines is also very crucial. It’s not just the developers that are sitting together but you’ve also got the marketing folks and the HR folks and the people that know about water and the people that know about lawns and you have everybody sitting together. You’ve got multiple disciplines working on the same problem. I think that’s another critical component.

Judy:   And that multiple disciplines piece, I’m guessing that’s easier to achieve when you’re working remotely than when you’re in the same building.

Lisette:   Oh sure, because you can bring in people. When location’s no long an issue, then asking for who you need or getting the people that you actually need to solve the problem sort of  becomes easier, in that sense.

Judy:   So that’s why the longevity scientist could collaborate?

Lisette:   Right, because you could get the guy from Italy talking to the guy from Santa Barbara California and you could get them together on one platform talking, sharing files, exchanging ideas.

Judy:   The three things you’ve mentioned is overcoming the cultural barrier so that people feel safe to say what they need, encouraging experimentation and playfulness and bringing together multiple disciplines working on the same problem.

Lisette:   Right.

Judy:   Is there anything else?

Lisette:   I would add two more things to that actually. One is I would have somebody who is a connector. I don’t know if you can point to one person and say you will be the connector but it’s helpful when there’s somebody there who’s overseeing what’s happening and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you need to talk to this guy because you kind of are working on the same things and you guys should just talk and know that each other exist’.

Or for example, I recently, inadvertently without it being intentional, I’ve interviewed a number of people who were doing outsourcing in different places in the world and I thought, ‘Oh, I should introduce them to each other’.  Maybe they would be competitors but I bet because they are working in completely different areas of the world that they might have a reason to collaborate together. So, a connector would be another ingredient.
And the last one is something that definitely can’t be manufactured, but if you could have somebody that is super good at what they do, sort of the master of what they do.

Like the Jimi Hendrix of music, where people are like, ‘whoa, where did that guy come from?’ That’s somebody will generally just inspire and delight those around them and to me that also helps build sort of this community of… It’s not something that people need to follow but people love when there’s this maestro amongst them. That would be the other ingredient that I would add to this mix.

Judy:   That kind of maestro and a connector and multiple disciplines working on the same problem and an atmosphere which encourages experimentation and playfulness and overcoming the cultural barriers so people feel safe to ask for what they need.

Lisette:   It’s easy right? [Laugh]

Judy:   When you’ve got all those ingredients then you’ve got that magic, that joy, that blissed out?

Lisette:   I would say it increases the statistical likelihood that you’re going to have the joyful, magic, blissed out state but if you have all of those things, there’s no guarantees. There’s never any guarantees but I would say if you have those things in place the likelihood is higher.

Judy:   You were saying earlier that you tell stories about successful remote working. How common is that blissed out kind of state in remote working? Is it something that’s generally achievable or is it a very rare phenomenon?

Lisette:   It’s more and more common but it’s still really hard for a number of reasons. I do think it’s growing though and I think that if people want to make it work, they can make it work. So, there has to be a desire to really want to make it work. And I’ve seen a lot of articles about companies that say, ‘okay, we’ve tried remote working at our company and it didn’t work’. And then you look further down and what they’ve done is they’ve said to their employees, for two weeks you can work from anywhere and we’re just going to try it out.

So people go, of course, to far off exotic places, they do all kinds of things and no contingency plan has been put in place and of course it doesn’t work because you’re going to run into every problem in the book. So this is a sort of non-deliberate attempt to make remote working work and then they come back and say, ‘Oh we failed, remote working is not for us.’ I think, “Of course this experiment didn’t work.”

I think when people want to make it happen, they can make it happen. It’s just a matter of how. It’s not to say it’s not challenging. When you listed that list of ingredients, I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s impossible.’ [Laugh] It’s impossible to get all these things right but it’s not impossible because I’ve experienced numerous times of great teams. It just takes an intention from everybody to really make it work.

Judy:   And of course, some skills and practice and planning and all those basic things that need to be in place for anything to happen in an organisation or in the business world.

Lisette:   Right. There’s a lot we can simulate. There’s a lot we have to simulate from the co-located office space to the virtual space in order to make that work. You have to have managers that are good at managing, for example. It can’t just be anybody. Management is a skill. So, just like you were going to hire a developer you should hire managers that have those skills. All those same rules apply.

Judy:   Yes, it’s interesting. That example reminds me of various occasions where an awful lot of people are thrown into the deep end of management and not given any serious training.

Lisette:   Right. You get people that are trained technically and they’re very good lawyers or they’re very good bankers and then you make them a manager and they’re really bad managers because it’s a totally different skill set.

Judy:   I was doing some reading recently and I think there’s actually a possibility that being really very good at a technical skill potentially makes you worse as a manager.

Lisette:   [laugh] I can believe it, yeah.

Judy:   Because your brain has habituated to a different way of working.

Lisette:   Right.

Judy:   To a highly technical way of working. Most ridiculously oversimplified to say that it’s focused on tasks rather than people. But it’s something in that territory that basically a good manager needs to have a large element of people focus as well as task focus whereas somebody who’s technically highly skilled usually is very task focused.

Lisette:   Yeah, I would agree with that. I would agree with that and when you take that and put that in the remote world, then it’s even more important that you get the right people with the right skills. If you have communication problems in a co-located space and you try and go remote, in my experience and from talking with other teams, you’re just going to amplify whatever problems you were having in a co-located space.

Judy:   Who would you point to and say, ‘They’re doing it well.’ ‘They’re doing this successfully.’

Lisette:   WordPress is the obvious choice. I mean, WordPress is just taking over and they’re doing it great. They’re employees are happy, the spinoffs that they’ve made from WordPress, people are… You know Slack, a lot of the employees that worked with WordPress originally went to Slack and you see that a lot. Of course, the other obvious answer is Buffer. Every employee of Buffer is writing about how much they love working remotely to Buffer. So, those are the obvious examples that I would point to.

But, there’s many other smaller examples that maybe others haven’t heard of. There’s a company called StarterSquad that I interviewed. I guess they’re not really based anywhere, they have people working from all over and what happened was they were a team that had been brought together by a client and they didn’t know each other at all. And when the client work ended, they loved working together so much that they said, ‘Well, okay, the only thing we don’t have is a client so how about we get ourselves some clients and we’ll just keep working together as a team.’

And thus, the company StarterSquad was born and they sort of work as a company of entrepreneurs where they’re each in charge of bringing in business and getting various work done. So, all of them have all of the roles. They’re all business developers, they’re all managers, they’re all developers. It’s a very interesting company. I think, you think people like that, wow, that really doing it right.

Judy:   Oh, that takes me off to another area of interest to me which is the actual structure of the organisation. What you’ve just described, StarterSquad sounds like they’ve got a very particular kind of organisational structure. Very flat hierarchy.

Lisette:   Indeed.

Judy:   I suspect that a flat hierarchy organisation lends itself more to remote working than traditional hierarchical structure.

Lisette:   Yes, I would absolutely agree with that because I think right now in the remote working field you’re getting people who are by nature more entrepreneurial in general and so when they’re not happy in the companies they’re working for, they’re going off and finding projects online, in other countries, wherever they can. Word of mouth. They’re not bound by location and so that takes a certain entrepreneurial spirit, I think. Or a freelancing spirit.

Judy:   As remote working becomes more common, maybe it’s the traditional hierarchy organisations that are really struggling with the implementation.

Lisette:   That is for sure because people are really bogged down in their own roles. They’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t to this other function’ or ‘I can’t contribute here because it’s not my role’ or ‘I don’t want to do it, it’s not my job’ kind of mentality. Whereas remote working, you have to be, one of my interviewees said you have to be everything from chief cook to bottle washer. You have to do everything.

Anything that’s needed you have to pick up the slack. That’s just how it works on a remote team.

I’m involved in this discussion of the flat hierarchy versus the networked organisation, the tribal organisation, or as they call themselves, liquid organisations, and I have to say, I love the idea, I love that it’s becoming more flat, but as I get more into this… I saw an interview with (22:27 Unknown) and John Kotter who wrote the book XLR8 and one of the things that John Kotter had talked about was you need both, you need both the network and the hierarchy because the network is going to allow you to experiment and innovate and do wacky things, put things together.

But, once you have something that works, then you want to repeat it and systematise it and that’s where the hierarchy can become useful because you need to scale it. Scaling something in a networked department becomes much more difficult than in a hierarchical environment.

I kind of like the dual operating system analogy that you need a little bit of both, depending on where your business is at. But certainly I’m much more of a fan of the networked. I like the idea of being chief cook and bottle washer. I like the idea of pitching in wherever’s needed. That’s certainly more my style.

Judy:   If somebody’s wanting to get started on remote working, an organization is looking at that and thinking where do we start, where would somebody start?

Lisette:   Well, I would say there’s a million places to start. Don’t let it be a manager top down decision. Have it be a team decision and I always say start small and iterate. Don’t send all your employees off to exotic countries and see what happens. That is not a small experiment, that’s not safe to fail. [Laugh]

Maybe start by putting all of your employees in a different room and having your conference call from the same office but from different rooms, so you’re simulating the remote environment. So, you can kind of see what’s going to happen when you go remote. Start there. Or take an afternoon off and everybody work from a different location and see what happens but start small and iterate.
Experiment. Experiment with all the tools and figure out what the possibilities are and try things out. In the beginning it’s painful because you’re like, oh not another tool. [Laugh] This is the fifth project management tool we’ve tried and we don’t like them. I say yeah, it’s going to painful in the beginning but just keep going because when you get it right, you get that magical blissed out stage and that’s very enticing.

Judy:   It’s worth it.

Lisette:   I think so. [Laugh]

Judy:   I’m sort of torn because we’re running out of time and there’s so many questions I want to ask you. What’s your big vision around remote working? You were saying at the beginning about the longevity project and that kind of thing. Where do you see this potentially leading?

Lisette:   You know my main motivation, one is of course that we’re solving very interesting problems that we weren’t able to solve before, so that’s a huge motivation for me. But, also, I really like the idea of people being happy at work and that it’s not a chore and it’s not a drudgery. It’s not something we have to do to survive. That work becomes something we do because we love what we’re working on.

When I see these numbers, these polls come around and they say 70% of the workers or 60% of the workers worldwide don’t just dislike their jobs, they hate their jobs. I can’t remember the poll that this came from but I put it in one of my talks. I thought, ‘Oh my God, 60% of people worldwide hate actively hate their jobs? That means at best they’re doing nothing and at worse they are actively working against the success whatever company that they’re in.’ and that is unacceptable to me, that just seems unacceptable.

What can we do to change that? I don’t know that remote working is the answer. Of course it’s not ‘the’ answer but I have to believe that we can do better than that. If I ran a company and I knew that 60% of my employees hated their jobs that would break my heart. So, I think my big vision is that people are happier in their work and we’re actually doing good in the world.

Judy:   Thank you very much.

Lisette:   That’s not too far out? [Laugh]

Judy:   It sounds fabulous. Thank you so much for that and now we really are starting to run out of time. If people want to hear more about what you do and find out about you, where do they get a hold of you?

Lisette:   collaborationsuperpowers.com. It has all the information you need. I’m also a big fan of Twitter so my handle is @lightling. It’s an old nickname.

Judy:   LightLing and collaborationsuperpowers.com

Lisette:   I hope to see everybody there.

Judy:   Thank you very much indeed. It’s been an absolute joy.

Lisette:   Thank you, I appreciate it.

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