In recent years I have worked on some fascinating assignments which involve getting people together to…

• agree their priorities
• manage a large-scale change
• deal with stakeholder demands, or
• decide between a range of alternatives and then take a particular course of action.

In one case I was brought in because a committee of disparate participants had to decide on a particular supplier, and they couldn’t reach agreement. The conversation kept going in circles, with the few loudest voices dominating and the remaining folk quietly keeping their heads down and their contributions to themselves. This had gone on for some months without resolution in sight.

In another case an organisation was dealing with a large-scale change, but the participants kept getting side-tracked by discussing every contingency they might need to deal with, and so kept going down rabbit holes and losing their overall direction.

Another organisation needed to get both content and methodology out of the heads of its leadership and into the organisation at large, and then use this to influence key stakeholders.

In each of these cases, people had to come together to pool knowledge, gain a shared understanding of their situation, make decisions, and then use this to move their organisations forward.

Expressed more succinctly, to borrow a favourite phrase from Peter Drucker, it was to weld individual effort into joint performance.

I’ve been fascinated for years by human collaboration, initially as a student of social philosophy, and then as a consultant and facilitator, where joint deliberation is front-and-centre. And I’ve gleaned a few useful perspectives along the way. Here’s some of what I’ve learned…

Pin Down the Problem
Where the problem being dealt with by a group is well formed and understood by all, joint deliberation can focus on progressing the issue at hand. That was the case with the first example mentioned above: the issue was simply: Which supplier should we go with? All I had to do as the facilitator was provide an agreed means by which that decision was made, and then implement accordingly. Of course there was some discussion about what that process would be, but once agreed it was simply a matter of executing it.

On the other hand, where the problem is not well formed or understood, the conversation then has to be: What, exactly we are talking about? What problem are we trying to solve? What is the issue at hand?

Conversations about these kinds of fundamental issues are par for the course in collaborations on values, strategic goals, and organisational culture.

Pinning down the problem often turns out to be more difficult than first expected, in part because of the complex and multi-faceted environments in which many organisations operate, and partly because a really thoughtful treatment of a problem typically unpacks a whole constellation of issues rather than just one…

Is the problem under-resourcing? Or poor allocation of existing resources?

Is lack of communication due to under-developed communication skills? Or the result of long-time organisational ‘siloing’? Or a culture where staff don’t feel comfortable speaking up?

Symptoms and causes are thus often jumbled together, and participants' seemingly conflicting perspectives can arise because they are talking about different ‘links’ in the same problem ‘chain’, rather than because their points of view are fundamentally diametrically opposed.

Unpacking symptoms from causes, probably using some form of root cause analysis, is incredibly useful here. And even more important is the discipline to refrain from jumping straight to ‘solutions’ before the problem is properly scoped.

Agree and Adopt a Structured Approach
Another important ingredient of a collaborative effort is having a structured method to resolve the problem at hand: a programmed approach is needed if any collaborative effort is to succeed. Without this a collaborative effort will be a lottery, with meandering conversation and an only accidental prospect of accomplishing what needs to be accomplished. Good luck with that.

It requires discipline to agree the process to be used in a workshop, in the same way it requires discipline to define the problem and unpack symptoms from causes.

To some, it may seem that talking about what we’re talking about, and then talking about how we’ll talk about it, is a bureaucratic indulgence that is as painful as nailing one’s body parts to the floor. You can hear the complaints: what are we wasting time on this for!? Enough with the navel-gazing … get in there and do it! Just fix it! Stop faffing around!

Yeah, right. You were doing that before, and how’s that working out for you? That’s why you were going around in circles.

Just calm yourself, define the problem, and agree on a means of collaboratively solving it. Diagnose the illness before you prescribe the medicine.

The time upfront spent doing that more than pays for itself. Trust me.

Set the Rules of the Game
This structured approach extends not only to the method applied to solving a problem, but more broadly to the ‘rules of the game’ about how that method will be applied.

Here’s what I mean: in the second case I mentioned at the beginning of the article where participants were trying to deal with change but kept going down detours to manage every single conceivable contingency they might encounter, I agreed with them a set of business rules that focused on dealing with the principal cases most likely to be encountered in practice. This was a straight application of the 80/20 rule (80 percent of results flow from 20 percent of causes) and it freed everyone up to deal with the most likely cases and progress the change at hand.

Other contingencies were not neglected however; they were captured in a parking bay and later added to an issues log for subsequent deliberation. The change effort could then proceed on a best-endeavours basis, unimpeded by having to deal with every conceivable eventuality.

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So: define the problem, adopt a structured approach to solving it, and agree how you’ll apply that approach.

Certainly, my experience suggests these are vital elements in welding individual effort into joint performance.

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Attention Asset and Infrastructure Managers: Here's How to Strengthen the Case for Increased Maintenance Spending
Do you know how to use analytics to help prevent the deferral of maintenance? The secret lies in relating the cost of planned maintenance to that of reactive maintenance: that information can then be used to make stronger funding bids and more robust business cases for maintenance. I’ve published an article on this topic in the latest issue of the Asset Management Council’s magazine The Asset – click here to read a copy.

Warm regards,

Director I Michael Carman Consulting

PO Box 423, Croydon Park NSW 2133 I M: 0414 383 374

© Michael Carman 2018