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Monday 30 March 2020

How to develop collaborative meta-relationships 6

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
  • Creating a virtuous loop between the development of an effective collaborative culture and the development of meta-relationships

Creating a virtuous loop between the development of an effective collaborative culture and the development of meta-relationships

An effective collaborative culture will emerge from a fabric of interpersonal interactions that is rich in meta-relationships. This type of culture will have the following six characteristics: 

1. Collaborators will capture and share many rich and diverse stories about people, key relationships and associated significant happenings

The above is not surprising given the emphasis meta-relationships place upon sharing and face-to-face communication. 

The following stories will be amongst those captured and shared:
  • Stories about the unexpected: the chance encounter that led to an important relationship; the unexpected contribution that proved immensely valuable; the outsider who surprisingly emerged to take the lead. 
  • Stories about taking risks and being speculative: the people who were brave enough to break taboos to form new relationships; the innovators who were willing to take leaps of faith to find new solutions. 
  • Stories about key turning points: the point at which partners began to trust each other and work together effectively; the moment of truth that acted as a catalyst for collaborative progress and success.
There will also be precautionary tales: tales about selfish partners who took and exploited; tales about villainous partners who bullied or sabotaged; tales about misunderstandings and conflicts caused by geographical or temporal separation; tales of secret discussions and deals done behind partners' backs; tales about assumption, prejudice, exclusion and eventual rebellion; tales about collaborations fading away.                                      

2. A collaboration will display and use symbols that are human in scale and focus, and the most powerful of these symbols will be multi-dimensional and interactive: they will be symbols that people can see, hear, feel, touch and use; they will be symbols with which people can interact   

The most common and obvious symbols will be pictures that convey implicit or explicit messages about collaboration. These pictures will usually show a group of people involved in a joint task and be often accompanied by a strap line or slogan emphasising the value of collaboration.  A little less commonly used, but still obvious in its message, will be a "pregnant symbol" denoting nurture and growth (and implying, of course, the close cooperation needed to achieve them).

Job titles will be not only functional, indicating a person's role and responsibilities, but also  symbolic; job titles that include words such as "partner", "mediator", "facilitator", "broker", etc., will symbolise the collaborative nature of people's day-to-day work. It is likely, however, that official job titles will be rarely heard during day-to-day interactions within a collaboration. Commonly, collaborators will emphasise their informal approach to relationships by being on first name terms with each other.   

Also, people's positions within a collaboration (the titles and roles and responsibilities people take or are given) will be deeply symbolic. Prominent positions for specific people and groups, the precise natures of these positions being dependent upon a collaboration's purpose and focus, will deliver powerful messages about inclusion, engagement and overall collaborative intent. 

Women, business people, entrepreneurs, academics from various disciplines, local politicians, representatives of religious and community groups, people with lived experience of the problems a collaboration is endeavouring to address: all of these people, given the correct context and carefully and intentionally positioned within a collaboration, have the potential to become unambiguous symbols of a preferred way of dealing with people and doing things.      

The above symbolic positioning of people within a collaboration is an example of a multi-dimensional interactive symbol: the people in these positions will be not only seen but also heard, and they will be people with whom others can interact.

Because these multi-dimensional interactive symbols impact people through multiple senses and in multiple ways, they are very powerful. Within a collaboration, they can be numerous and diverse. Here are five examples of where they can be found:

The language with which a collaboration communicates. Mutually agreed ways of describing key terms, concepts and processes, etc., will be consistently and routinely used. More generally, a collaboration's language (both spoken and written) will be accessible and engaging to internal partners and external stakeholders and other beneficiaries alike. This co-created and inclusive language, which will continue to evolve as various partners come and go and existing partners develop their relationships, will become a multi-dimensional interactive symbol of collaborative culture that gradually embeds itself within the minds of partners and proceeds to influence perceptions and actions.

The location, layout and style of accommodation a collaboration occupies. Where feasible, accommodation will co-locate key partners. It may also be embedded within a key partner's or stakeholder's community or locality. 

The layout of the accommodation will be open plan and ergonomically sophisticated: there will be informal "mingle areas", personal privacy and "thinking time" areas, and (of course) collaboration areas.

In addition, the accommodation's layout will explicitly respect professional and disciplinary space by ensuring each partner's working area is designed to meet the demands of his or her discipline (e.g., by providing additional and appropriate space for partners' specialist equipment, etc., or by providing space where partners can safely store and discuss information that they are required to treat as confidential).  

The symbolic messages associated with the above aspects of accommodation will gradually embed themselves in not only minds but also muscle memory, positively influencing partners' day-to-day collaborative activities.         

The style and approach of meetings and events a collaboration attends and to which it invites others. Meetings and events will exhibit the following characteristics:
  • There will be time set-aside for informal interaction.
  • Openness and transparency will be the default position for all meetings and events. When confidentiality is required, the reasons for it will be made clear. Overall, confidentiality will be the exception that proves the collaborative rule.
  • Inclusivity will be favoured rather than exclusivity. Where exclusivity is needed (e.g., where a small group of key partners needs to be created to expedite decision making), its process of creation will be open, transparent and jointly agreed.
  • Engagement and interaction will be encouraged through the use of creative and participative techniques and approaches (e.g., Doughnut thinking, Two Circle Thinking, Six Hat Thinking and Open Space Technology).        
  • The style and manner of the chairperson of a meeting or the leader of an event will model and encourage the above characteristics and, therefore, be deeply symbolic of collaborative culture. He or she will, through his or her personal behaviour and approach, encourage openness and demonstrate transparency of decision making and action: he or she will clearly explain the reasons for decisions and actions, and why confidentiality may occasionally be necessary (and the areas and issues it will affect and in what way). The majority of a chairperson's or event leader's role will focus upon encouraging involvement and dialogue, mediating disputes and conflicts, and brokering relationships and agreements (including informal and formal trades).  
The above characteristics will become multi-dimensional interactive symbols of collaboration that positively influence partners' interactions at significant moments: points in time when key relationships are formed, crucial decisions are made and important actions implemented.  

Internally generated and co-created rules for working together and achieving things: rules that delineate the "collaborative way". These rules will focus upon how resources should be shared, how people should treat each other, how results should be achieved, and how people who break the rules should be reprimanded and punished. It will not be unusual for some of these rules to be unwritten and informal and policed through social interaction and personal relationships. 

Rules will be simple and few rather than complex and many, focusing upon key aspects of a collaboration's activities.

The above rules will act as multi-dimensional interactive symbols that strongly influence partners to not only "do the right collaborative thing" themselves but also ensure others do likewise. 

Commonly owned and co-created resources, which become significant artefacts of the collaborative culture. As collaborators work together, they will co-create new resources (e.g., analytical techniques, specialist equipment, new knowledge and theories, etc.) to improve effectiveness and help achieve outcomes. These resources will, reasonably quickly, become multi-dimensional interactive symbols of collaboration. Their daily use and management (the latter being about ensuring not only continued maintenance and updating but also continued common ownership and accessibility) will emphasise that they, and other things produced collaboratively, are precious in three ways: firstly, because they help a collaboration achieve its purpose; secondly, because they are of significant and often equal value to the people who worked together to produce them; and thirdly (and most importantly), because they provide powerful and motivational evidence of the synergies made possible through collaboration.  

3. A collaboration's power will be distributed amongst the wider network of partners, and a collaboration's sources of power will be diverse

Power will be imbued in the network of partners; this network will be empowered and able to get things done and solve problems, and leaders will develop within and emerge from it. This process will encourage web networked rather than star networked power to develop: power and the ability to get things done will be spread throughout the majority of individuals and organisations in the network rather than focused upon one or two star players who pull the strings or to whom all network paths lead.

This webbed network of partners will pulse with diverse sources of power that can be tapped into as required. Partners possessing the power to broker, bridge divides and make trades; partners possessing the power of essential expertise, experience and skills (and the credibility to make others appreciate these things); partners possessing the power of the pioneering spirit (the risk takers, the creative and innovative); partners possessing feminine power (the empathetic, the intuitive and emotionally literate): all these people (and many others with differing sources of power) can step forward to take the lead and express their unique powers as and when beneficial to the collaboration.

Having said all this, the above webbed network of diversely powerful partners is eventually likely to coalesce around a hub or platform of key partners who can guide and lead the collaboration and provide the required stability and resources, etc.

This process of coalescing, however, will strengthen rather than weaken the networked, diverse and emergent nature of collaborative power. This will happen because the collaborative network will push partners towards the platform and, where and when necessary, pull them away from it; the ebb and flow of the network sea will cast partners as leaders upon the platform and sweep them off as necessity dictates. The platform will become a dynamic and powerful manifestation of the power of the collaborative network.                    

4. A collaboration's organisational structure will be flexible and constantly evolving rather than inflexible and pre-designed, and it will consist of small and simple components that emphasise individual people

Organisational structures will constantly evolve from within the wider network of partners. The components of these structures, like individual bits and pieces of Lego, will be small and simple; they will, as the above mentioned platform of key partners demonstrates, consist of small numbers of people and have very clearly defined functions.

Having a small number of people within each component (be this a dedicated team, committee or task force, etc.) will help develop effective personal relationships, and the clearly defined function of each component will help ensure not only effective communication and timely action but also smooth co-ordination and, where necessary, rapid integration of components (much as individual bits and pieces of Lego will readily interlock to create new shapes and structures).

Additionally (and superior to the abilities of Lego), placing a small number of individuals within each component of a collaboration's organisational structure will help external people and organisations put a name to (and become familiar with) a face. This will facilitate effective communication and co-ordination with external people and organisations and, over the medium to long-term, help forge new relationships and alliances; individual people (their names, faces and actions) will become proactive elements contributing to the evolution of a collaboration's organisational structure rather than passive elements impeding it.

5. A collaboration's assurance systems will focus upon the quality of partners' relationships, the level and quality of partners' contributions, the quality and effectiveness of current and emerging collaborative processes and structures, and the amount and effectiveness of partners' novel thinking and innovation        

Assurance systems will seek to ensure that relationships between partners are diverse and inclusive in terms of not only knowledge, skills, expertise and qualities but also genders, sectors, communities and cultures, etc.    

The amount and quality of face-to-face interaction will be monitored and its value and effectiveness evaluated. Of particular interest will be the balance between formal and informal face-to-face interaction.   

In fact, the quality of all personal communications (face-to-face, telephone or written) will be carefully assessed to ensure they result in appropriate and timely action rather than inappropriate and untimely action.

The quality of the communications and relationships with those external to a collaboration will be given significant attention. In particular, care will be taken to evaluate the influence a collaboration has on key external people, organisations and stakeholders, etc.

Partners’ contributions towards common and co-created resources will be noted, acknowledged and rewarded, as will non-monetary or “in-kind” contributions (e.g., knowledge, expertise, services, equipment, accommodation, etc.) that partners are willing and able to offer. Indeed, all contributions that help a collaboration achieve its purpose will be noted, acknowledged and rewarded, however fleeting and informal they may be; the welcoming attitude of a partner organisation's staff member, a timely expression of support, or the offering of a seemingly trivial resource will always be noted and appreciated, if only with a short and duly recorded few words of thanks.

All collaborative processes (especially those designed to engage, involve and encourage dialogue) will be constantly monitored and evaluated. Three aspects will be given particular attention: the interactions, transactions and other actions within a process that are crucial to its success (i.e., its "moments of truth"); the processes emerging from within a collaboration; and the internally generated rules and ways of working that support these emerging processes.

In addition, the efficiency and effectiveness of the structures that emerge from within and/or develop around a collaboration will be constantly assessed.   
Innovation will be recognised and rewarded and its effectiveness evaluated. Specific behaviours (such as pioneering, risk-taking, and identifying and exploiting unexpected or chance opportunities) will be searched for and rewarded.

A collaboration's previously mentioned focus upon capturing and sharing rich and diverse stories about people, key relationships and associated significant happenings will, by highlighting and acknowledging lessons learned from experience and past successes, help assure continuing and improving effectiveness in all the above areas.           

6. A collaboration's rituals and routines will emphasise sharing with people, including and involving people, celebrating and rewarding people's contributions, championing a collaboration and its work, and interacting with people informally and face-to-face  

Recording and sharing the previously mentioned types of stories; appointing champions who promote and support a collaboration's work; celebrating not only success but also the people who contributed to it: these things will be regular high profile rituals that take place within a collaboration.

Most meetings and all high-profile conferences and events will set aside time and space for ritually celebrating diversity and inclusion. These ritual celebrations will be low church rather than high church: they will encourage participation and informality and the joyful expression of a shared belief in the power of including and involving the many rather than the few.

Day-to-day, collaborators will habitually use first names when introducing and addressing each other, eagerly meet face-to-face in the informal margins within and between formal meetings and events, happily give the benefit of the doubt, quickly offer a helping hand, and openly share and explore each other's ideas and mistakes (as well as each other's feelings, enthusiasms, intuitions and intentions).

In addition, collaborators will regularly and enthusiastically reach out and across to potential partners and other contributors who may be able to offer new insights, ideas and resources, etc.

The world view that underpins the cultural characteristics  

The world view that underpins and reinforces the above cultural characteristics is based upon the belief that effective collaborative working is only possible when supported by good quality personal relationships (i.e., personal relationships that are diverse, trusting, honest, respectful and beneficial).  

Creating a virtuous loop between the above culture and meta-relationships 

The clear emergence of the above cultural characteristics will strongly indicate that meta-relationships have been developed. It will also help them continue to develop, so creating a virtuous loop between the emergence of the above culture and the ongoing development of meta-relationships: the one will help create and reinforce the other.

If the above cultural characteristics are non-emergent or weak, a collaboration will need to create the collaborative environment that enables them to emerge and gain strength. This environment can only be created by meta-relationships, so a collaboration must take action to develop them. 

There are six key actions to do first. Once these have been done, and strongly followed-up with the other previously described actions that encourage the development of meta-relationships, a collaborative environment will be created within which the above cultural characteristics can grow and strengthen.

The key actions, each of which is associated with one of the cultural characteristics described above, are as follows:

Encourage people to paint a rich picture of what they are thinking and feeling. Ask them to share experiences in addition to expertise, and feelings and opinions in addition to facts and data. This will help form the habit of story telling that underpins the cultural characteristic of collecting and sharing many rich and diverse stories about people, key relationships and associated significant happenings.

Encourage people to use others' words when communicating. This is the first step towards creating a co-created and inclusive language that will become a human focused multi-dimensional interactive symbol of collaboration (a symbol which people can see, hear, feel, touch and use). This symbolic language will encourage and enable similar symbols to be created.

Encourage people to be champions. This encourages people to take and express their power, and it is a first step towards creating diverse sources of power and distributing power amongst the wider network of partners.

Focus on pairs and keep teams small. This ensures that a focus is maintained upon individuals and their personal interactions and relationships and that, as a collaboration grows in size and complexity, existing significant and important personal relationships are easily identified and safeguarded and new ones of potential value are encouraged. This enables an increasingly complex and growing collaborative structure to not only maintain but also widen the network of personal understandings and relationships that are essential to ongoing success.

Be curious about and enjoy the journey. This will begin to embed an assurance mindset within people's minds. Focusing upon the unexpected, the apparent mistake or wrong turn, what has worked, what has not worked, memorable events and moments of truth, what each person has learnt about the other and about collaboration in general: doing all these things will focus minds upon what needs to be assured and controlled through monitoring, evaluating, acknowledging and rewarding.

Do not equate growing informality with diminishing respect and loss of credibility. Encouraging informality between people and dismantling traditional and organisational barriers of formality will begin to create a social environment that encourages and supports daily rituals and routines that welcome participation, the expression of feelings, and the joyful and enthusiastic celebration of shared values and achievements.

To read the first and subsequent posts in this series click here.

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