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Thursday 28 February 2019

How to develop collaborative meta-relationships 3

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

Focusing on people and relationships

Far too often, the starting points of many collaborations are things not people. Things that are made or written down appear first and are put first in people's minds. This causes many difficulties: difficulties that can transform a promising cradle of new thinking and innovation into a dreadful basket case of deadlines and dead ends.

That new IT system that joins everything up: it breaks everything down. That agreement between organisations: it causes disagreement between people. That rationalisation plan: it leads to irrational outcomes.

But what if people were put before things? What if a collaborative initiative was perceived as a social construct (a supportive space within which people were encouraged to interact and cooperate) rather than as a mess of systems and agreements (a complex maze within which people struggled to find a way forward or, at worst, a way out)?

People would ask different questions. That new IT system: how will it sustain and build relationships and trust between people? That agreement between organisations: how will it affect the existing and future understandings between people? That rationalisation plan: how will it enhance people's effectiveness?

And the answers gained to the above questions, together with other related insights and actions, would protect and enrich existing and future relationships between people and help create an innovative collaboration capable of great progress and achievements.
The above mentioned answers, insights and actions are likely to include the following: 

Making space for and prioritising "in the same space" face-to-face interaction

Collaborations will acknowledge the importance of "in the same space" face-to-face interaction and prioritise it. They will ensure that it happens early on within different and informal spaces (and in each partner's space), and they will ensure that it continues regularly throughout their lifetimes.

Collaborations will place a high value upon "in the same space" face-to-face interaction because they know that their progress and ability to achieve goals will depend first and foremost upon the relationships and trust formed between individuals.

Collaborations will also recognise that they are formed of multiple social spaces (formal spaces, informal spaces, each partner's space, and their shared working spaces in the office and in the field) and that meeting regularly within these differing spaces will help partners gain an enhanced understanding of not only the collaboration and its work but also each other's contexts, perspectives, pressures and priorities. This enhanced understanding, together with the recognition that partners are willing and able to visit each other's space and invest time and effort within it, will strengthen the relationships and trust between partners.

Lastly, collaborations will accept the sometimes significant cost of prioritising "in the same space" face-to-face interaction because it is an investment in creating the enhanced relationships and trust that are the foundations of superior collaborative performance. ICT will, of course, be used to manage these costs: some meetings and communications, because of time and resource constraints and practicality, will always need to be done virtually and online. ICT will not, however, be allowed to replace human interaction simply because it is relatively inexpensive. Collaborations will always be mindful of the mutual face validity (the personal credibility and trust derived from spending time in the proximity of others) that human interaction enables.

Tailoring tools and approaches to the individual

The tools and approaches collaborations use when working and problem solving with partners will be flexible and creative. This will ensure partners are able to tailor the tools and approaches to their needs and preferences and express ideas, thoughts and opinions easily and in ways meaningful to them.

A tool with the above characteristics was used as part of a study examining collaborative working amongst different types of nurses and between nurses and other professionals, patients and carers. The tool, called a Pictor Diagram, required individuals to create visual representations of their experiences of collaborative working within specific situations. The tool required the use of arrows and colours: the arrows indicated how an individual perceived relationships amongst the different actors involved; the colours indicated how an individual perceived the roles of the different actors involved. The tool was flexible and creative because it allowed the arrows to be used in any way that made sense to the individuals, and it allowed the individuals to use any colours to represent the various actors. This approach encouraged exploration and comparison of personal experiences and perceptions. It also enabled the study to gain insights into how different types of nurses experienced collaborative working with each other, other professionals, and patients and carers.

To read a detailed account of this study and its use of Pictor Diagrams click here.                       

The way in which collaborations record their progress and achievements will also be tailored to the individual. In addition to creating an objective and impersonal record of their activities and achievements, which will be part of their project management and evaluation methodology, collaborations will maintain a chronicle that filters through the prism of personal perspective their journeys and achievements. Partners will be invited to contribute personal stories and experiences, so splitting the bland white light of official reports and jargon laden records into the separate emotional colours of partners' human reactions and interactions.

The stimulating spectrum of differing perspectives offered by the above chronicles, tools and approaches will encourage partners to share in each other's experiences and empathise with each other's feelings. The colourful mix of personal stories and insights will also help others with whom collaborations interact gain an enriched understanding of collaborations' work, partners and context. This will contribute to the gaining of allies and the strengthening of support for collaborations' activities and aims.

Focusing on pairs and keeping teams small

As well as focusing upon developing their individuals and teams, collaborations will focus upon developing pair-based relationships. These relationships will be encouraged within collaborations and with others from elsewhere (the latter helping to enhance inclusivity). This will be done through coaching, mentoring, using paired insider/outsider evaluation teams, and pairing with those who have similar or complementary roles in partners' organisations.

Focusing upon pairs, the space between individuals and teams, will help people get to know each other and build mutual trust. This foundation of personal familiarity and trust will make collaborations' internal and external relationships resilient and flexible enough to respond quickly and effectively to changing priorities and unexpected challenges.

Once these paired relationships have matured sufficiently, they may combine to form small decision-making teams. Because of their firm foundations of trust, these teams are likely to be very effective; team members will feel able to discuss tough topics and make difficult decisions, confident of their colleagues' support and follow through re. help and promised resources.

Additionally, well developed pair-based relationships with external people and organisations will enable collaborations to take advantage of the Inverted TARDIS Principle. Whilst remaining small on the inside (in terms of people, structure and systems, etc.), collaborations can use these relationships (especially those with influential people) to become large on the outside (in terms of significant influence and reach sectorially, vocationally, professionally, etc.).

Focusing on intensive and purposeful communication

Collaborations that value relationship development between individuals will encourage  intensive and purposeful communication.

Intensive and purposeful communication is person and outcome focused. It seeks to complete communication loops between individuals; people are expected to ensure that information, questions and requests are not only sent and received but also understood and acted upon.

Within collaborations that encourage intensive and purposeful communication, the phrase "I sent an email" is frowned upon and challenged when given in response to requests for updates about information sent and requests made. This is because the phrase indicates an incomplete communication loop: it strongly suggests the sender has not verified that the receiver has seen or even received the communication and, if it has been seen, there will be a timely and appropriate response. To ensure the communication loop is completed, the sender will be expected to show he/she has made meaningful contact with the receiver: that he/she has had an email, telephone or face-to-face conversation with the receiver to confirm the communication was received and ascertain the likely response.

Intensive and purposeful communication's emphasis upon making personal contact also encourages sharing rather than merely passing information. This sharing is of two types: 
  1. Sharing of not only information but also thoughts, opinions, perceptions and observations about information. This sharing enables a mutual understanding of the significance of information and the context from within which it originates and forms a part. It also encourages partners to discuss and agree how information may be best handled and used.
  2. Sharing of time. The sharing of time, however fleeting, supports the development of trusting and respectful relationships. This is because a person's time is recognised as valuable and, therefore, the sharing of it with others is highly appreciated. Those being given someone's time receive a strong message that they and their contributions are recognised and valued.
Clearly, intensive and purposeful communication takes time. Collaborations that realise their success is dependent upon the development of trusting and respectful relationships (both internal and external) will gladly encourage this time to be taken.

Making information technology support people and their collaborative relationships

Collaborations will ensure information technology supports people and their collaborative relationships. They will achieve this by doing the following:
  • Valuing people's existing relationships by placing them at the centre of information technology planning and implementation. Collaborations will identify existing informal and formal understandings and relationships between people and, where advantageous, ensure these are supported by the introduction of IT.
  • Tailoring IT to the needs and contexts of their people. Part of this will be about safeguarding the above mentioned existing relationships, but it will also be about ensuring IT supports people within their day-to-day environments. Will it be reliable, available and accessible within these environments and will people be able adapt it to their needs?
  • Pacing the introduction of IT so people are given time to become familiar with it and, importantly, ensure the understandings and relationships they value and depend upon are safeguarded.
  • Providing people with training that will enable them to understand IT, use IT, and confidently adapt IT to their needs and contexts.
  • Making IT intuitive and unobtrusive. Enabling people to blend IT easily and flexibly into day-to-day activities and interactions by making IT tools easy and natural to use.
  • Ensuring IT offers additional and easily accessed opportunities for face-to-face contact. As well as supplementing "in the same room" face-to-face contact, this will encourage the above mentioned intensive and purposeful communication. 
In addition to the above, collaborations will acknowledge that people must do the heavy lifting of relationship building (with IT taking a supportive role). This acknowledgement will not be an easy one to give because it runs counter to the centuries old assumption that technology exists to save labour by doing the heavy lifting associated with tasks.

The above assumption holds true for lorries, tractors, cranes, washing machines, dishwashers and microwaves, etc. It is not, however, an accurate assumption to make about IT.

The new information technology works in a somewhat different way. It is true that IT can save immense amounts of time by automating tasks such as record keeping and calculating, etc. It is also true that IT can speed up and facilitate communication. IT cannot, however, do the work of forming trusting and respectful human relationships and ensuring not only the effectiveness but also the quality of communication; it cannot reliably close the loop of dynamic human interactions.

To read the next post in the series click here

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