It was great to get such an excellent reaction to our blog last week – “Why it’s time to smash down the walls that damage and divide your business” – #SmashDownTheWalls – and one question arising from your feedback has been how businesses can use the opportunity of greater collaboration within their organisation to foster more creativity and practical innovation.
The answer for us lies in two principles:-
1) That the answers to most challenges almost certainly already lie within the imagination and talent of those working the organisation. They just don’t know it yet.
2) That there are clear ground rules for the way leaders and their so-called “middle managers” are allowed to work together to liberate 1).
I’ve always thought that middle managers get a terrible press. Squashed from above, prodded at from below – they are pilloried for stifling initiatives with a lack of imagination, obsession with process and general negativity. Yet my experiences of consulting on collaborative working initiatives is completely the opposite. Middle managers are usually ready, willing and able … yet not enabled by their leaders.
Recently we, working with our partners at 10Eighty, engaged a panel of 100 leading HR and L&D practitioners in the UK and internationally to show how businesses can harness the potential of collaborative working and learning. At the top and bottom of the organisation over half of senior managers (51%) and over four in 10 younger workers (43%) were seen as clearly understanding the positive virtues of a positive step change in working collaboratively. However, this figure dropped significantly for middle managers, with barely a quarter (27%) judged to have either the confidence or competence to apply it to their organisation.
Middle managers deserve our support, not ridicule, because their influence in liberating ideas and energy is critical. Most try gamely to collaborate with others in their everyday lives, but are rarely incentivised to do so by the organisation that employs them. And they don’t know how to talk about the business “value” of innovation to those they manage.
This “value” is that an intensified level of collaborative working promotes a “project mentality” – that is to say learning in specific situations or projects through sharing knowledge across the business. Enable middle managers to be bold and smash down the false functional barriers in their business and you increase their learning potential, energy levels and value to the business many times over.
By now most of you will have been back at work for a few days. Perhaps your initial optimism about the year ahead has waned a little. Maybe you have already looked around at your colleagues and your organisation and concluded, with a sigh, that it isn’t set up to succeed, in spite of all the grand plans and good intentions.
So let me suggest something radical. Don’t accept your surroundings as they are in 2017. Ask yourself instead which of the physical or psychological walls within your business – within hierarchies, between departments or functions – actually need to be in place. And if you can’t find a good reason, then do whatever you can to smash them down, without delay.
The truth is that in 2017 the cleverest organisations are finding that a step change in intensity in collaborative working is unleashing enormous gains in engagement and productivity.
There is nothing new about the idea of collaboration per se. Even so, almost all of us would admit that that we miss many opportunities every single day to collaborate more closely in the way we work and learn from one another.
- If we work on a project we learn from it, but do we instinctively share the knowledge we have with others?
- We talk to another person who has knowledge we could benefit from, but could another colleague be gaining from it at the same time?
- We go to conferences and hear great speakers, but how good are we at passing on their knowledge beyond those already in the room?
- And even if we are fortunate to work and learn in highly collaborative teams, do our sharing instincts extend to those outside our own organisational tribe?
We all “do” collaboration, but we can all do it better. In organisations, we work and learn in restrictive bubbles around ourselves or our immediate teams. Knowledge is clearly valuable for those inside the bubble – and it could be invaluable for others in the organisation. The alternative is a wasteful duplication of effort in the course of building knowledge.
Now things are changing – and quickly. Until very recently, the desire for greater collaboration within organisations was no more than a good intention, often stated but seldom realised. But something important has changed. The impact of technology – and the radical redesign of the workplace that it has driven – has raised the profile of greater “collaboration” to a competitive necessity.
We are moving into an era of “full-on” workplace collaboration where the rhetoric of yesterday potentially becomes the reality of today And in the process it will lead them to: a far more effective blueprint for organisational working and learning; A positive step change in employee engagement levels; and greatly increased levels of productivity. Many HR & L&D professionals now see the opportunity for collaborative learning but need help to exploit it. When it comes to accelerating the development of collaborative working and learning in their organisation, it is clear that they want to understand more and make the case for action.
I feel a great sense of optimism about 2017, in spite of meeting friends during the holidays who spoke of the year ahead with a near-apocalyptic sense of dread. Their concerns varied from the impact of the “Big Picture” (Trump, Brexit and so on) to financial worries and one or two more personal concerns. What struck me though was that their assumptions about what could happen were already creating the script for what actually would occur.
In truth we are all both optimists and pessimists several times a day, faced with different situations. My sense of optimism is deliberate and pragmatic, rather than wishful. Whenever something “happens to us” we have a choice to be optimistic or pessimistic.
There is of course no “right” way to react to any situation – and the different ways we feel make us what we are. What is more interesting is the way we come to our perspectives. The brain invents a “counter fact” to events that affect us – an alternate scenario our brains create to help us evaluate and make sense of what really happened. It could be “Well it could have been a lot worse” or “That’s pretty unlucky” or anything in between.
We have the choice over what counter fact we select, one that makes us feel either fortunate or helpless. This then goes on to influence far more than one’s attitude to an individual event. Those who pick positive counter facts are open their minds up to a whole range of subsequent perceived benefits to spur their motivation further.
Research shows that people with positive counter facts have more successful careers, relationships and even live longer. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology and author of “Learned Optimism”, noticed that people who bounced back from setbacks all shared a positive way of interpreting adversity or what researchers called optimistic explanatory style.
For this reason alone, I’m going to be doggedly, deliberately optimistic in 2017. What about you? Are you optimistic or pessimistic? And about what?