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Monday 19 November 2018

How to develop collaborative meta-relationships

I have described meta-relationships and why they are essential to effective collaborative working in a previous post.

Here, I will describe how you can develop meta-relationships.

Meta-relationships can be developed by doing the following things:
  • Being inclusive
  • Balancing formality with informality
  • Focusing on people and relationships
  • Focusing on process
  • Developing supportive personal habits of thinking and behaviour
  • Developing a supportive culture

Being inclusive

Being inclusive is about ensuring that potential partners and others who could add value to a collaboration's work have the opportunity to become suitably involved. It is also about ensuring these people feel comfortable and confident about being involved.

To develop the inclusiveness of your collaborative initiative do the following things:

Reach out

Reach out to potential partners who could contribute to a collaboration's work. When doing this be prepared to take a leap of faith and speculate.

To do the latter two things effectively, it is important to think imaginatively about what potential partners may be able to contribute to a collaboration; they may be resource poor in a traditional sense but able to offer other things of value (e.g., personal experience of an issue, credibility within a community, or expertise in an historically under-valued occupation).     

Here are some specific approaches you can use to reach out to potential partners:
  • Use the Snowballing Technique: always ask existing partners and contacts if they can identify other people or organisations that could contribute to a collaboration's work. Reach out to not only potential partners but also the "families" of potential partners: their surrounding networks of contacts. (Also see creating ever-increasing triangles of trust and influence).
  • Ask the following questions: Who is not being invited to work with a collaboration? Are there any people or organisations that existing partners feel very uncomfortable about including in a collaboration's work? Why is this? Are the reasons valid? Or are they based upon unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting (e.g., adherence to outdated traditions, an instinctive need to maintain power, inaccurate stereo-types, false assumptions, etc.)? Should these unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting be challenged? Would reaching out to these previously "untouchable" people and organisations provide significant benefits to a collaboration (e.g., enhanced perceptions of a collaboration's inclusivity and credibility)? (Also see challenge taboo triangles
  • Search for a collaboration's relationship blind spots. Sometimes, potential partners and other possible contributors are hidden within unacknowledged relationship blind spots that cause people and organisations to be consistently forgotten and overlooked (e.g., not consulted, not asked to contribute, not offered a seat at the table). These blind spots are often the outcome of unspoken "ugly laws": unspoken negative perceptions of others (based upon inaccurate assumptions and superficial prejudices) that strongly encourage the exclusion of specific people, communities and organisations, etc. Find these blind spots and bring them to the attention of a collaboration. Explore why they exist and how curing them could be beneficial for all concerned.            
  • Create easy access points. Create real-world and virtual access points that partners and potential partners can access easily and feel comfortable using. Place real-world access points in areas convenient for and known to the people you are trying to reach. Also, ensure that access points are staffed by credible people who can offer accurate information and reliable services. Locate your virtual access points within social media and other areas of the Internet that your partners and potential partners use often. Create a regular series of scouting meetings that offer potential partners and others with an interest in a collaboration's work the opportunity to attend, gain updates about a collaboration's work, offer observations and suggestions for improvement, and contribute ideas about how they may be able to help.
Doing the above things will increase the likelihood of creating or recognising opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration. They will also help a collaboration avoid relational lock-in. 

Reach in
Inclusiveness is about not only reaching out but also reaching in: reaching deep into a collaboration and its partners' parent organisations.

Ensure that all levels of a collaboration and all levels of partners' parent organisations are aware of a collaboration's work and have appropriate opportunities to comment and become involved. Strongly encourage staff at all levels of partners' organisations to collaborate with those above and/or below them and with their peer groups and opposite numbers within partner organisations. This will help ensure a collaboration does not become marginalised and eventually trapped within the cracks and spaces between partners' organisations, bereft of understanding and support and uncomfortably squeezed for time and resources.

Whenever a team is tasked with encouraging others to collaborate, check it is collaborating well within itself; ensure the team is modelling effective collaborative working to those it is seeking to influence. Is it sharing knowledge, insights and experience between team members? Are team members given opportunities to comment on and add value to each other's work? 

Once again, identifying and addressing relationship blind spots can help ensure a collaboration effectively reaches into and engages with itself and its partners' parent organisations.  Are any of a collaboration's (or partners' parent organisations') people repeatedly overlooked or forgotten? Are they repeatedly excluded from meetings and other events? Are these people from particular organisational levels or professions? Or are they from specialisms that are perceived (often incorrectly) as isolated from the mainstream of a collaboration's or partners' organisations' activities.          

Mix it up

Mixing it up is another way of increasing the inclusivity of a collaboration. It also helps realise some other benefits of inclusiveness: the freshening-up of perceptions and approaches and the enhancement of creativity and innovation.

This mixing-up and freshening can be built into a collaboration's systems and structures by using matrix management

Matrix management creates teams and management structures that bring together people from different functions and specialisms from across an organisation or organisations within a collaborative initiative.

Within a collaboration, the matrix approach is certain to happen (at least to some extent) by default. However, the natural mixing of partners within a collaboration does not automatically guarantee the best possible mix of people from multiple levels and disciplines from across organisations; it will not address existing relationship blind spots, for example. For the best mix, there needs to be intention and design: intention and design that focuses upon ensuring habitually excluded and potentially valuable partners are given the opportunity to become appropriately involved in a collaboration's work. 

Taking steps to avoid the "Carousel Syndrome" can also help a collaboration "mix it up". This syndrome appears when a collaboration forms the habit of calling upon the same old faces over and over and over again.  Indeed, it is often not confined to individual collaborative initiatives: it spreads easily across multiple collaborative initiatives covering multiple issues; the same old faces become tagged with the search words "collaboration" or "partnership" or "joined-up working" and come round time and time again upon local, regional and national collaborative merry-go-rounds. Over time, the same old faces repeating the same old things will spiral a collaboration towards the depths of languid mediocrity.  

The Carousel Syndrome can be avoided by creating the previously mentioned "easy access points" and arranging the previously mentioned "scouting meetings". Additionally, a collaboration can minimise the negative effects of the Carousel Syndrome (and freshen-up its thinking and approaches) by compiling and regularly dipping into a wide-ranging and frequently updated database of potential partners and other contributors.                   
Identify and decommission your weapons of exclusion, including your language.

Either intentionally or (arguably most damagingly) unintentionally, a collaboration can exclude potentially helpful partners and contributors by using weapons of exclusion. By far the most damaging of these is language.

The language a collaboration uses is often heavily influenced by the predominant cultures, professions and disciplines of its most powerful partners. Words and phrases habitually used by these partners to describe key concepts and activities will often become the default currency of a collaboration's communication. This means that those unfamiliar with the concepts and assumptions underpinning their powerful partners' languages will quickly become disadvantaged, and likely feel excluded from the ongoing discussions and work of a collaboration. Habitual and unquestioned habits of speech will have become powerful weapons of exclusion.

To decommission these weapons, partners must be prepared to reboot their language. They will need to explore each other's key concepts and expertise, focusing on those aspects which intersect their professions and interests and are most crucial to their collaboration, and create mutually understood ways of describing and speaking about things.

Other (often inadvertent) weapons of exclusion lie in plain sight within and around the structures, processes and approaches of many a collaboration. Formal and traditionally managed meetings; large-scale conferences and the expectation of presentations; business style communication updates and consultation approaches (and the language they use and the form they take); assumptions and expectations about using and accessing email and other information technology; unshared and vigilantly guarded history and traditions; unfamiliar ceremonies and rituals; the long shadow of an overwhelming culture and assumptions about "the way things are done around here"; travelling to imposing institutional ivory towers or visiting other powerful establishment monoliths within usually inaccessible or inhospitable locations: all these things (singularly and in various combinations) can erode the confidence of partners unfamiliar with them, shrinking involvement and edging the least confident towards and through a collaboration's exit doors.   
Refashion your weapons of exclusion into tools of inclusion

Many of your tools of inclusion are, in fact, your decommissioned weapons of exclusion refashioned for benign use: language, refashioned as described above, becomes a powerful tool of engagement; meetings, tailored to the needs of partners and attended by partners trained and supported to participate and contribute, become tools of inclusive discussion and decision-making; communication updates, styled and tailored to the needs of all partners, encourage helpful reaction and response; practical, affordable, accessible, non-intrusive and intuitive information technology becomes a supportive platform for making formal connections and informal ties; sharing of history and traditions creates the possibility of a merged history that safeguards and builds upon the best of all partners' cultural worlds; sharing rituals and the reasoning and beliefs underpinning them helps reveal their power to reassure and unite people and encourage joint efforts towards achieving a shared vision; a powerful culture that exhibits humility and the willingness to embrace difference can become a strong role model for inclusive collaboration; moving out of your comfortable ivory towers or secure fiefdoms and setting-up-shop within the kingdoms and hideouts of your partners encourages respect that evolves into trust that encourages people to risk becoming involved.      

Include women
To encourage inclusiveness in a collaboration include women. Statistically, more women than men are good at social sensitivity. Social sensitivity is about being aware of others' views, feelings, contexts and situations and how our own and others' words and actions can impact upon these things. At the very least, through ensuring an effective balance of conversational turn-taking, a good level of social sensitivity within a collaboration will enhance the inclusivity of discussions and decision-making.

To read the next post in the series click here.    

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