Posts Tagged Collaboration and Communication

This cookie is worth a fortune

I had lunch with my wife today at a local Chinese restaurant. House special spicy beef – insanely hot.

We were discussing collaboration all through the meal because we’re nerds.

I opened my fortune cookie and we both cracked up:

Teamwork makes the dream work.

As Yul Brynner said many times in The Ten Commandments, “So let it be written, So let it be done.”

What’s the best fortune you’ve received?

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Getting the most from your team

Let’s say you have embraced inclusion as a core business practice and created an environment that embraces the full spectrum of diversity. How do you get the most from this powerful asset?

An article in Harvard Business Review entitled Putting Your Company’s Whole Brain to Work, available for purchase HERE, provides some guidelines for getting the most from a diverse team:

  • Understand your own profile first so that you approach issues and problem solving objectively.
  • Develop teams that represent different cognitive processes and perspectives.
  • Create environments and guidelines that capture the full value of the team’s diversity.
  • Participate in and lead the process with this full set of objectives in mind.

Great advice.  And it just goes to show that a lot of what we’re doing today builds on skills developed in the past.  This article is from 1997, but much of the advice was as relevant in our parents’ and grandparents’ business endeavors.

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The importance of diversity to collaboration

When forming a group to tackle a project, most teams follow a simple script.  The core constituents draw up a list of the skills and knowledge they think they’ll need to be successful, and then they start calling acquaintances that have the appropriate attributes.  In many cases, though, the way that people build networks can be self-limiting.

Marshall Van Alstyne, a Professor at Boston University and an expert on information economics, made an observation on this phenomenon while describing to Computer World some of his important research:

…there’s evidence that the diversity of social networks really matters, not just the number of people. People have a tendency to build social networks by talking to people like themselves. That’s fine, but it doesn’t increase information diversity. You need to talk to people who aren’t like you. That’s not always easy, but it will increase the diversity of the information you have access to.

So, while building your social networks you should make a special effort to look for people who are different from you and actively seek to diversify the pool of people with whom you regularly communicate.  By doing this you will increase two important components of a successful networker: betweenness and reach.  Marshall used this diagram to illustrate:

Betweenness And Reach
Constrained vs. Unconstrained Constrained vs. Unconstrained

Illustration courtesy of Marshall Van Alstyne.

But having different information is only part of the equation.  A diverse group of individuals will not only possess more diverse data, they will also have different perspectives on the challenge itself, as well as differing cognitive styles that guide the the way they understand and solve abstract problems.  This diversity, leveraged correctly, can increase the collaborative quotient of the group.

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What’s your view of collaboration?

Practically every executive I meet with these days wants to talk about collaboration.  The interesting thing is, in most cases it quickly becomes clear that what they really want to discuss is optimising delegation.

While moving from “command and control” to “communicate and collaborate” is the stated goal of many leaders, you don’t see very many of these actually relinquishing command.  Most think they are collaborating when in fact all they are doing is spreading the responsibility more widely.  And in that case, to quote an old expression, “Unless you’re the lead dog the view never changes.”

One of the potential benefits of improved organisational communication is the power of democratising the business. Today’s use of collaboration as a buzzword is eerily reminiscent of the “empowering the worker” jargon of the 80s.  A lot of companies talked about it, but only a few led the transformation and capitalised on the benefits.  To those few the strategic advantage became huge.

So it’s interesting to talk to business leaders today and hear them talk about change, and it’s fascinating to discuss new technologies and innovative business process, but at the end of the day, more often than not, the real transformation of their organisations will only occur through a careful self-analysis by these executives, and an actual commitment to personal transformation.  Because unless they are truly willing to trust the team they’ve built, and distribute not only responsibility but authority, it’s all just academic.

What does collaboration look like to you?

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What if you held a productivity revolution and nobody came?

We had a lengthy discussion about this a couple of years ago when the collaboration banner first got run up the flagpole as the emblem of the corporate new world order.  At the time I was pretty adamant that the actual term we were searching for wasn’t collaboration.  I felt that collaboration was too restrictive in it’s context.

I admit the term collaboration translates well to the corporate world.  I mean, you want people working towards something when they’re on the clock, and if it’s a common goal that benefits the company, more the better; however, I think that you leave a lot on the table when you restrict your view to the co-labor perspective of group activity.  Clearly progress is important, but some of the most interesting ideas, innovations and relationships occur spontaneously — not when someone is diligently pursuing a collaborative goal, but rather when they are participating in a socially active environment.

The trend towards work/life integration further marginalised the term collaboration in my opinion.  Most of the social networking that normal people do outside of their offices isn’t classic collaboration, it’s a manifestation of their participation in the human drama.  I mean Wikipedia and YouTube are great examples of the power of the group to accomplish interesting things, but isn’t the creation of value mostly an accident in these kind of mashups?

The term participation, to my way of thinking, casts a wider net.  First, the concept of participation is more inclusive of not only business, but personal and social endeavours, and secondly it captures the added benefits of serendipitous and spontaneous value creation.

Alas, collaboration had already become too sexy to ignore, so the horses were hitched to that wagon and off we went in a cloud of dust.  Still, I often stop to wonder where collaboration would be without participation.  What if you held a productivity revolution and nobody came?

I was just looking over a new report by some folks I have a lot of respect for at McKinsey entitled Six ways to make Web 2.0 work, when I noticed something interesting.  The word collaboration is practically absent in this report, and instead it looks to have been blasted with a shotgun loaded with participation pellets.  Nice.

Well, maybe participation doesn’t have the cachet that collaboration does in the current buzzword bingo halls, but I still think it more accurately captures the ultimate value of the social networking movement in business.

What do you think?  Do you wake up each morning thinking about how you can use collaboration to be more productive?

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I hate you; let’s collaborate

I really enjoy Michael Sampson’s email updates, which are always entitled Working With People You Can’t Be With.  Michael is a font of information, but something about that title makes me wistful.  It conjurs up an image of lonely workers plugging away in dejected solitude while pining for the companionship of their peers.

Of course that’s just me indulging my silly imagination, but it made me think of something else the other day.  We need pointers for Working With People You Don’t Want to Be With.

We’re all pretty gregarious and tolerant folks, or so we’d like to think, but there are always one or two co-workers that just rub us the wrong way.  Maybe they’re condescending know-it-alls, or intolerably messy, or they occasionally take exception to your constant Monty Python references… the details don’t matter, you get the point.

Because of the increasingly flexible nature of today’s collaborative work environment,  these folks will get pulled into our gravitational field now and again.  And that’s a good thing, more often than not, because diversity is a key ingredient of a tasty innovation stew.

So what do you do if you’re thrust into the crucible with someone you can’t stand?  Or, viewing the challenge from a more positive perspective, how do you manage your personal feelings in order to increase the collaborative quotient or potential of your team?  Here are a few simple ideas:

  1. Set clear objectives for the project.  Once the objectives are clear the context of each individual’s contribution is more obvious and small personality flaws are easier to overlook.
  2. Take the time to evaluate assumptions.  Get the differing perspectives out in the open early, and work to align the major points of view.  The more hands pulling on the same rope, the better.
  3. Focus on the positive.  If the program is valuable, and it’s in line with your personal goals, expand your perspective to include the benefits each contributor brings to the table and recognise individual achievements as wins.
  4. Count to 10.  The advice your mum gave you is still good.  If you find yourself stewing, take a breath and think about the situation.  Is what you’re feeling relevant to the project?
  5. The right tool for the right job.  You don’t always have to work literally shoulder-to-shoulder.  Use applications and tools that allow members to participate effectively yet in non-confrontational ways.

Your personal potential is directly tied to the satisfaction you derive from the task at hand.  Relax, have fun, and keep the big picture in mind.  Who knows, it’s possible that you have more in common with your annoying co-worker than you think.

And now for something completely different…

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Are we raising our children to be prosperous?

For fun, I just did an image search for the term prosperity.  80% of the pictures that were returned depicted cash, gold or other symbols of wealth.  But, as I noted before, wealth is only one dimension of overall well-being.

There is a ton of advice out there for teaching children the value of money.  How do we teach our children how to value the importance of being happy and productive?

It starts by fostering creativity. And I fear that in many cases we may be short-changing our youth in in that regard through the quest for competitive advantage in academia.

An education system that focuses on results rather than process, as might develop in an environment where standardised testing is the primary measure of success, for example, can overlook the fundamental skills of critical thinking and analysis in favor of repetition and memorisation.  While the short term effect might be adequate scores for the institution, long term we may unintentionally teach the children to focus on arbitrary goals at the expense of original thought.

Aileen Journey muses about this in a recent guest article on the Slow Leadership site.

In content-based, traditional education, the use to be made of the information is not as important as the fact that it gets into the child’s head and stays in long enough to take a test or write a paper. Process is learning how to think, how to approach an issue, how to analyze a problem and come up with a solution. Given the way the world works today, the process of being able to find information is likely to be more important than having that information already sitting in your head. That’s as true of management learning as it is of grade-school classes.

That’s certainly relevant, but I don’t think it goes deep enough.  Traditional content-based education doesn’t stimulate enough introspection either.  Children are taught by syllabus, by outline, by deadline and test.  In the rush to get to the result, a passing grade, they aren’t given enough time to evaluate the context of the quest.

Don’t get me wrong; there is a definite need to teach basic skills.  But successful education should go beyond that to teach reasoning, contextual awareness and, increasingly, collaborative methodology.

Leading a productive and satisfying life requires maintaining a delicate balance between insistent forces.  If you are taught, however unintentionally, that success means the tireless pursuit of an unquestioned goal, or individual performance, then the critical skills necessary to maintain that balance in life might never properly develop.

Educators have a difficult challenge.  Developing curriculum that encourages not only process development but introspection and creativity is only part of the problem.  Coming up with ways to validate the process and demonstrate its value in a way that satisfies the government, taxpayers and parents is even more challenging.

Roger Farnsworth

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Alpha Inventions – random stimulation for the blog world

If you found this site because of Alpha Inventions, please make a quick comment and let me know.

Have you ever noticed how many of the best ideas seemingly come out of nowhere?  Some of the most productive brainstorming sessions occur when radical free thinking is encouraged and then the most interesting inputs are correlated later.   This process decouples the wasteful filtering that normally accompanies discussion and allows the team to push the boundaries of creativity.

An interesting web site created by Cheru Jackson called Alpha Inventions or alphainventions.com brings this meta-concept, called random stimulation, to the blog world.   The idea is to expose a wide audience to random blogs in a way that fosters creativity.  In Cheru’s words:

The purpose of Alpha Inventions is to connect bloggers with each other in a faster way, so there are no gaps in communication.

This is a very intriguing concept that creates a random collaborative environment.  Regular use of the tool could expand the collective knowledge base of the blogosphere in unpredictable and valuable ways.

Here’s a video that explains the underlying concept more clearly:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEH757Clo90]

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Directory Service, Please

Scott Schnaars commented to a blog the other day that one of his customers once queried, ‘Why can I find my best friend from second grade, but I can’t find an expert on international tax law in my company?’

Isn’t that the truth?

Scott was replying to Michael Idinopulos’ blog post, All Respect to the Company Directory, in which he talks about the necessity to create a central repository to replace the old mimeographed directories of yore. As he says:

What’s… interesting is that when true company-wide directories do exist, they’re a killer app. When I was at McKinsey, for example, over 75% of our intranet searches were directory searches. I’d be surprised if the number were much different at other companies.

In the last decade the joke around a lot of companies, when someone was looking for an answer, was to reply, “It’s on the web!” At which time everyone would giggle, knowing full well how hard it is to find that one bit of trivia in a corporate sea of data.

Nowadays the resource you’re looking for is much more likely to be a human resource and, given that, it might be more appropriate to say, “She’s on the web!” Having a functional company directory is a big step toward helping people locate that resource.

Roger Farnsworth

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Green Networking – Make a Difference

Being green in the age of IT seems to focus on two poles of the equation:

1. Using tech to avoid travel to reduce fuel usage.   Susan Harkins talked about that a couple of days ago, and

2. Improving efficiencies in the endpoints and data center, as in this CIO magazine article, to reduce energy consumption.

However, nobody ever seems to talk about the elephant in the parlor – the high energy costs of networking itself.  Although the folks at Cisco seem to be on the right track.

Last year at TED 2008 in Monterey, TED librarian Jay Walker pointed out an interesting fact. (At about 6:10 in THIS video.)  Moving bits around the Net takes energy, and lots of it. On average, sending 1MB of data uses energy equivalent to that in a lump of coal; sending 200MB of data – not even a decent-sized movie – over the Internet uses as much energy as burning an entire bag of charcoal.

So how can you help with Green IT? Use bandwidth wisely. There’s no need to get silly about it, but a few simple rules will help reduce your footprint.

  • Send shorter emails. Besides using less energy to transmit, research indicates that shorter emails that get to the point quickly generate faster and more effective results. Email also uses a lot less bandwidth than voice or video, and is often more convenient.
  • Use shared files to collaborate. There’s nothing more wasteful than sending large attachments to a distribution list. If your team is working on a document, spreadsheet or presentation, use a shared file to store the data and let the team access it as needed.
  • Choose the appropriate communication technology. High definition video conferencing is getting a lot of attention lately for its ability to make people feel better about not traveling, but is it really the most effective way to get your point across given its relatively high energy costs? And how many hours a week do you spend on useless conference calls?

Be smart.  Communicate wisely.  Determine the method of communication that’s most effective at getting the job done and use it appropriately.  And don’t just cut back on travel, feel good about saying no to an occasional wasteful, gratuitous, bandwidth-hogging e-meeting.

Roger Farnsworth

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