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Monday 13 May 2019

How to develop collaborative meta-relationships 4

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 upon and managing emerging collaborative processes 
  • Developing supportive personal habits of thinking and behaviour
  • Developing a supportive culture

Focusing upon and managing emerging collaborative processes

Collaborative processes emerge (both naturally and by design) as people interact and form relationships. Seeking to manage these processes by doing the following things will encourage and support the development of meta-relationships:
  1. Identifying emerging collaborative processes by using visual tools adapted to your needs.
  2. Co-creating unique artefacts that will facilitate the emergence of mutually understood and agreed collaborative processes. 
  3. Encouraging self-governing processes and rules to emerge from within collaborations.
  4. Making time and space for personal thought and reflection within the collaborative process.
  5. Identifying the signs of the key symptom of ineffective collaborative processes and addressing its cause.
  6. Managing the process of collaborative growth.
The outcomes of the above actions either directly improve personal interactions and relationships or contribute to creating conditions within which effective collaborative relationships and, eventually, meta-relationships can form.   

1. Identifying emerging collaborative processes by using visual tools adapted to your needs 

The collaborative processes that emerge from the interactions between partners will not always be immediately recognisable. Those that arise naturally from day-to-day interactions rather than being formally co-created and agreed, either becoming informally agreed "given the nod" ways of working or habitual (often unhelpful) approaches individual partners use when interacting with specific partners or types of partner, can develop and establish themselves beyond a collaboration's conscious awareness.

To bring these informal understanding and habits into a collaboration's conscious awareness, they need to be seen clearly. Then, partners can form an accurate and shared picture of the way they are working with each other and identify and address snags that have appeared within the collaborative system (as well as strengthen and encourage informal practices of proven worth).

Rich pictures and pictor diagrams (which are a visually engaging type of sociogram) can be used to highlight the above mentioned understandings and habits. If some aspects of these tools can be co-created and owned by all those that use them (as was the case with the pictor diagram example given within the above link), then the benefit to the collaborative process will be three-fold. In addition to being able to identify and address snags and identify and encourage informal practices of proven worth, partners will (through the task of adapting the tools to their specific needs and preferences) enhance their interactions with each other and their ability to assimilate differing perceptions and ideas; the act of co-creating ways to enhance their understanding of their collaborative relationships and process will, of itself, enhance their collaborative relationships and process.           

2. Co-creating unique artefacts that will facilitate the emergence of mutually understood and agreed collaborative processes

As well as adapting existing tools and techniques to their needs and purposes, partners can co-create unique artefacts (tools, checklists, techniques, etc.) that will help them address their collaboration's specific requirements and challenges.

The close collaboration required to co-create these artefacts, plus the positive feelings and enhanced self-esteem associated with having taken the opportunity to contribute something not only unique but also useful to the collaboration (and most likely to others outside of it, so enhancing its reputation and perceived worth) can positively transform partners' interactions and relationships; increased mutual trust, and with it partners' increased willingness to welcome each other's interdependence, can hugely enhance overall collaborative effectiveness.               

The artefacts created do not have to be complex. Indeed, some of the most effective can be very simple. Such an artefact was co-created during the DREAM-IT programme in Mongolia. 

This programme, which sought to identify how best to encourage the socio-economic development of Mongolia through the use of information and communication technology (ICT), brought together key players (donors, recipients, project members, and evaluation experts) to collect, discuss and analyse evaluation findings concerning the effectiveness of DREAM-IT's various projects.

During this process, the expertise, experience, perspectives and ideas of all those involved eventually (and unexpectedly) combined to create a checklist for the planning and implementation of innovative projects.

The evaluation findings had found that projects that needed to be significantly innovative had not performed well and that, if they were to improve, they would need to be worked with and managed differently. The checklist, which was created by Mongolian researchers (with significant input from the other key players mentioned above) encouraged new collaborative and management processes to develop and embed themselves within the DREAM-IT programme of projects: funders began to use the checklist to work collaboratively with applicants who were requesting support for innovative projects, and leaders of innovation focused projects began leading and managing in ways appropriate to the planning and implementation issues associated with working creatively to achieve innovative goals. 

In addition, the sense of having contributed to creating a practical and useful tool that would significantly enhance the effectiveness of the programme bolstered the confidence of the local Mongolian managers and researchers and motivated and encouraged everyone (including governmental and international partners) to continue developing their collaborative relationships and processes.

3. Encouraging self-governing rules to emerge from within collaborations

The mutual trust and interdependence essential to developing meta-relationships can also be encouraged by creating an environment where partners rely on and encourage each other to act appropriately. Partners can create this environment by resisting externally imposed and policed rules and agreeing and implementing self-generated and self-governing rules.

All collaborative initiatives need rules to govern their activities and the behaviour of their partners. If these rules are imposed and policed by external agencies, they can hinder progress. This is because rules imposed from outside a collaboration remove significant responsibilities from partners: they disempower partners. If rules are generated and policed from within a collaboration, they are likely to support progress. This is because rules generated from within a collaboration give responsibilities to partners: they empower partners. These responsibilities include two of great significance: responsibility for personal behaviour, and responsibility for developing relationships with others.

The effects of this shifting of responsibility are clearly illustrated by this example from Nepal. Here, government authorities imposed rules for managing forest resources upon the people who lived in the forests. Responsibility for the management of forest resources having been removed from the local population, an "every person for themselves" attitude emerged that endangered forest resources and frayed and cut relationships between government representatives and local people (and between the local people themselves).

Later, the government authorities having realised their mistake, the people who lived in the forests were invited to create their own rules for managing forest resources. Responsibility for managing forest resources having been placed upon the local population, a "we're all in this together attitude" emerged that safeguarded forest resources and encouraged local people and government authorities to form mutually beneficial and interdependent relationships; collaborative meta-relationships had begun to develop between government representatives and local people, and between the local people themselves.   

4. Making time and space for personal thought and reflection within the collaborative process

Collaborations require different types of time and space to be incorporated into their processes. The need for formal and informal time and space was previously dealt with here. In addition, collaborations need to ensure that their processes offer each partner time and space for personal thought and reflection. There are two reasons for this:
  1. To ensure collaborations benefit from each partner's unique expertise, experience, perceptions and insights, etc.: before offering ideas and other contributions that are likely to add value to and help progress a collaboration's work, each partner needs personal time to become familiar with the relevant context and compare and combine his/her expertise, experience and perceptions with those of others.     
  2. To ensure that relationships between partners are permissive and interdependent rather than restraining and cohesive: being willing and able to provide each other with some personal space (alone time) to think things through is one of the key foundations upon which mutually respectful and supportive relationships that accept difference are built; not being willing and able to provide each partner with the personal space to think things through is one of the key causes of mutually restrictive and demanding relationships that are intolerant of differences between partners.                  
Creating permissiveness and interdependence underpins the previously described characteristics of meta-relationships: it is the nutrient that feeds their growth. Two characteristics benefit from this nutrient particularly strongly: being tolerant of challenges to each other's long-held assumptions and preferred ways of doing things, and (because creating mutual trust and interdependence requires partners to work together closely and, as a consequence, get to know each other well) making decisions and taking action based upon knowledge based realism rather than assumption-based idealism.

Some collaborations have ensured there is time and space for personal thought and reflection by separating personal work from collaborative work: they have given each type of work defined time periods during the day or week and separate spaces where each can happen. 

The collaborative wiki approach does a similar thing: contributors can write and edit content privately and without interruption, with the process of collaborative peer review and comment following separately.             
5. Identifying the signs of the key symptom of ineffective collaborative processes and addressing its cause             

Always be on the lookout for the key symptom of ineffective collaborative processes: overcompensation. Overcompensation, in the following three forms, can seriously hinder or prevent the development of collaborative meta-relationships:

1. Hyper-vigilance

This manifests as excessive monitoring, checking and box ticking that makes partners feel they are not trusted (that someone is always looking over their shoulders). This will mire a collaboration within burdensome meetings and bureaucratic processes that can often slow and sometime stop activity and progress.
2. Redundant communication and activity 

This will manifest alongside and within hyper-vigilance but is differentiated from it by an excessive focus upon repetition: repetitive checking and repetition of processes, with each repetition done by a different partner; excessive restatements of a collaboration's rules and directives; sending and receiving excessive emails about the same thing. 

3. Blind carbon copying

The unnecessary use of the blind carbon copy can be particularly corrosive to collaborative processes and the relationships they support. This is because it introduces an unhealthy element of stealth to a collaboration's activities and processes that insidiously erodes trust by creating an environment of uncertainty and suspicion. 

Those sending blind carbon copy emails will inevitably have their perceptions and behaviour affected by what they write; those receiving blind copy emails will be similarly affected by what they read. This will lead to people interacting with each other according to the scripts of hidden missives rather than the visible "here and now" stimulus of each other's words and behaviour. 

People will sense this inconsistency between what is being said and done and what is being thought and perceived, and they will become uncertain of each other's motives and actions. These uncertainties will cause misunderstandings, which will increase hyper-vigilance and redundant communication (consequently inflaming the overall symptom of overcompensation).

The approaches described in the previous blogs of this series will, of course, help address the three intimately related causes of the above symptom: lack of understanding, lack of mutual support, and lack of trust between partners.

Doing the following three things will be particularly effective:

1. Creating opportunities for face-to-face in the same space interaction that encourages informality, openness, and the spontaneous sharing and discussion of problems and ideas.

Bringing partners together (well away from the formal meeting room environment)  encourages them to relax, mingle, get to know each other personally, and begin sharing their thoughts and feeling and problems and ideas. This enhances mutual understanding and appreciation between partners and helps partners feel comfortable enough to begin relying upon and trusting each other. As partners increasingly rely upon and trust each other, they will decreasingly engage in hyper-vigilance, redundant communication and blind carbon copying.
2. Co-creating and co-owning collaborative processes and practices.

Jointly creating and agreeing collaborative approaches will achieve three important things: 1. it will increase transparency (partners will know why processes and practices have been put in place); 2. it will motivate partners to use the agreed collaborative processes and practices; 3. It will encourage partners to motivate each other to use agreed collaborative processes and practices. As transparency of processes and the motivation to use and encourage their use increases, partners' hyper-vigilance, redundant communication and blind carbon copying will decrease.  
3. Making informal understandings and ways of working explicit and clearly visible. 

Using the previously mentioned rich pictures and pictor analysis to make informal understandings and ways of working explicit and clearly visible will help partners describe and share their thoughts and feelings about working together. This will highlight assumptions, perceptions and beliefs (a significant number of which having been planted by blind carbon copy emails) that have been stealthily and often negatively influencing partners' decisions, actions and interactions. As explicitness and visibility of understandings and processes increases, partners' hyper-vigilance, redundant communication and blind carbon copying will decrease.                    

6. Managing the process of collaborative growth

As a collaboration develops, it will usually grow in the following three ways:
  1. In size
  2. In complexity
  3. In influence
To ensure a collaboration's continued and increasing effectiveness (and the ongoing development of meta-relationships) the above types of growth need to be carefully managed.

1. Here are the three main issues to address when managing the growth in size of a collaboration:
  • Moving from co and close locations to multi and wide spread locations.
  • Gaining additional partners, stakeholders and beneficiaries.
  • Managing the increasing number of boundaries between different spaces and different times.         
Over the lifespan of a collaboration, a small and tightly knit group of partners working together in the same space or very nearby each other can develop into a large and diverse group of partners working at different times to each other in multiple spaces and widely spread locations.

Whilst growing in size in the above ways, a collaboration needs to safeguard and enhance its effectiveness and the quality of its relationships by ensuring it maintains a village feel and structure.      

The characteristics of a village feel and structure are as follows:
  • Villages are composed of small distinct units: houses, pubs, churches, church halls, shops, doctors' surgeries, dentists, community halls, police stations, libraries, post offices, etc.
  • Each unit has a clear and distinct function.
  • In addition to the community halls mentioned above, there is usually common access to some other type of resource: common ground that villagers can use for grazing of cattle, or greens that villagers can use for social events, etc.
  • The above units and common resources are, by design or natural development of villages over the years, positioned for ease of access and inter-communication.
  • There is an informal feel and family structure within and to some extent between each of the above units.
The small size of the above units, the access to common resources, and the informal feel and family structure of day-to-day village life all combine to encourage an emphasis upon  relationship building and making progress through mutual understandings.

A collaboration can adopt and adapt the above village characteristics to ensure its growth in size is beneficial rather than problematic. By keeping its internal teams small, ensuring these teams are given distinct identities and functions, and giving each team a recognisable place that is accessible (either through physical proximity, regular face-to-face interactions or, as the collaboration grows in size, the supportive use of technology), a collaboration will encourage and maintain the informal family feel and interdependent structure that supports communication and cohesiveness and the development of meta-relationships.
Providing commons within a collaboration (i.e., space and resources jointly owned by and available to partners) will encourage partners to maintain and reinforce a sense of shared ownership and joint responsibility. This will help safeguard a growing collaboration's village feel and sense of community. 

2. Here are the five main issues to address when managing the growth in complexity of a collaboration:
  • Dealing with the increasing complexity of rules and procedures. (This can be addressed by regularly bringing partners and key stakeholders together to track and review changes and additions to a collaboration's rules and procedures. The key focus of this review should be to identify and challenge the reasons and motivations for changes and additions that add complexity to a collaboration's agreed ways of working. Do these reasons and motivation's stem from a genuine desire to improve collaborative effectiveness or from uncertainties partners have about each other? If the latter, any changes and additions will be examples of the previously mentioned over-compensation and partners will need to focus upon improving the quality of their relationships rather than adding rules and procedures that will merely serve to increase mutual uncertainties.)                
  • Dealing with the increasing complexity of communication (including use of information technology). (This can be addressed by regularly bringing partners and key stakeholders together to review the different ways in which they communicate with each other. This review should ensure, as was the case in the previous paragraph, that any increased communication or increased complexity of communication is being done for beneficial reasons. It should also ensure that a healthy mix of communication methods is being maintained as the amount and complexity of communication grows. The latter can be achieved by encouraging partners to use the place/time continuum of communication to review their overall communication approach and identify where benefit would be gained from communicating differently and with increased diversity.)            
  • Dealing with the increasing complexity of relationships and understandings. (This can be addressed by bringing partners together to do a partner and stakeholder involvement, attitude and relationship mapping exercise. A tool for doing this is described at Appendix F of the 5th Edition of "Sleeping with the Enemy - Achieving Collaborative Success". Once partners have completed this exercise, they can take action to address any problems that are emerging due to the increasing complexity of their collaboration's relationships. They can also, of course, take action to exploit any opportunities that are emerging due to the increasing diversity and richness of their relationships.)         
  • Dealing with the increasing complexity of discussion and dialogue. (This can be addressed by bringing partners and stakeholders together to participate in structured dialogue that seeks to not only manage increasing complexity of discussion but also encourage and exploit the sharing of differing perceptions and ideas. A simple and effective tool that can help partners achieve these things is the "Co-Counselling Method", which is described at Appendix G of the Fifth Edition of "Sleeping with the Enemy - Achieving Collaborative Success". Also, encouraging Flock Thinking by using the tools described here will achieve the same things.)          
  • Dealing with the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of issues and problems. (This can be addressed by bringing partners together to explore the ever-evolving big picture context of which their collaboration is a part and identify how various issues are combining and developing to complicate existing challenges and create new challenges. Rich pictures and mind maps will enable partners to do this task effectively.)   
When undertaking the above tasks partners must keep in mind that growth in complexity must be not only managed but also encouraged. This is because the challenge most collaborations face (which is to solve previously unsolvable problems) and the way they go about meeting it (which is to find new and useful ways to combine the differing perspectives and varied resources of a diverse and ever-evolving mix of partners and stakeholders) requires not only direction and purpose but also creativity and innovation.

This is why many of the approaches mentioned above are flexible, structured and participative: they are fluid and permissive enough to encourage complexity through the combining of diverse thoughts and ideas, directive and disciplined enough to manage complexity so that it progresses towards worthwhile outcomes, and participative enough to encourage contributions from a diverse mix of partners.   

3. Here are the four main issues to address when managing the growth in influence of a collaboration:
  • Maintaining and enhancing the relevance and helpfulness of a collaboration's influence.
  • Freshening and diversifying a collaboration's influence.
  • Dealing with the consequences of a collaboration's influence, both for itself and for others it sits beside and/or collaborates with.
  • Ensuring growing influence is transformed into sustainable long-term benefits within mainstream practice.          
The key to doing the above effectively is engaging: engaging early, engaging continuously, engaging purposefully, and engaging widely and creatively.

Engaging early and with key people, groups, organisations and other stakeholders already active within a new collaboration's area of activity (be this geographical, sectorial, vocational or professional, etc.) will help ensure a collaboration's efforts and influence are not only immediately relevant and helpful but also readily welcomed and supported. 

Continuously engaging with the above people and groups, etc., will help ensure a collaboration's activities remain relevant and helpful and welcomed and supported. It will also help enable the timely identification of any unforeseen effects and consequences of a collaboration's influence and encourage action to address them.

Researching people and groups, etc., active within a collaboration's sphere of influence and purposefully engaging with those most relevant and significant to a collaboration's activity will not only help achieve many of the above aspects but also, most crucially, help transform current and growing influence into sustainable long-term benefits within mainstream practice. Commonly, the latter is achieved by encouraging influential and relevant mainstream organisations and institutions to get involved in a collaboration's activities and identify how emerging insights and new and innovative approaches could be incorporated into widespread common practice.
Identifying the shifting views and opinions of all the people affected by and who can influence a collaboration's work by engaging widely and creatively, through the use of social media and innovative conference and meeting approaches (e.g., unusual suspects conferences and scouting meetings) will freshen and diversify a collaboration's influence. It will achieve the former by encouraging a collaboration to change the way it goes about its work and achieves its goals, so altering the nature and manner of its influence. It will achieve the latter by increasing the amount and different types of people and groups, etc., a collaboration engages with, so adding to the channels of influence available to it.

To read the next post in the series click here

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