Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

The power of collaboration or how to get traction in 3 easy steps


Have you ever found yourself struggling with a big idea, an analysis or a report?

As in: parts of it are clear in your mind but there are gaps and grey areas?

Sometimes I can get traction (make progress) by doing a “brain dump”, i.e. just get the ideas on paper or a white board then re-arrange them by editing. Sometimes I need a “jump start”.

Sometimes, when there are a lot of ideas which are not particularly well defined or prioritized that is more challenging (especially when I am under pressure to produce quickly).

My first “go to” approach, if I am working alone, is to find a thought partner, i.e. someone who thinks similarly (not the “same” but can flex between leading and following) and is always prepared to debate, extend and build together.

Once you have a team consider some of the following tips, tricks and techniques.  Do you have others?  Please share in the comments section.

Recently, I was asked to collaborate on creating a plan to develop an organizational capability.  We had some good data, some internal and some external, and we were sharing opinions and developing pieces of analysis really well BUT we were all over the place.  One of us wanted to discuss topic A, another wanted to develop a list, and some of the time I just wanted to review a piece of our research.  It was like we were throwing spaghetti at a wall and nothing was sticking.

Here is what we did to get traction faster:

  1. We set up a collaborative on-line workspace where we could upload all of our relevant reference files. This ensured that we all had the same documents (and same versions of documents).
  2. We agreed on an output and very high level data architecture, aka a PowerPoint and some key slides. We agreed on couple of similar presentations to use as a starting point.
  3. One of us volunteered to set up the Webex, one of us agreed to scribe the changes live on the call. (I have also done this live in Google docs where everyone could edit the document at the same time – now that is fun).
  4. We immediately began our joint “brain dump”:
  • Switching between the thumbnail view (so we could see all the slides in the template) and slide view (where we could see the content) we flew through and deleted irrelevant slides
  • We zoomed in on key slides and modified the content and structure to suit our ideas
  • We added place-holder slides for information (some we pulled from previous slide decks) we thought we would want to add or modify later

An hour later we had a reasonable first draft.  We loaded that into the on-line workspace and invited a few other colleagues to join us there and to review the first draft.  Now that’s a “mind meld”.

Another approach I have seen work (but everyone must be in the same “room”):

  1. Give everyone a set of large Post-it notes (say 3”’ x 5”) and have them write each idea on a separate Post-it. Let the ideas fly – capture every one (good, bad and ugly).
  2. Then agree on some main topic headings (everyone is a bit warmer now, having both thought it through and captured their key thoughts) and post these on the walls of the room.
  3. Ask everyone to add their own Post-its (ideas) under the more relevant heading.
  4. Walk the “gallery” of ideas just absorbing and understanding the ideas.
  5. On the second walk thru, invite people to group similar ideas (Post-its) together (still under the main heading). You might even be able to identify new sub-headings at this point.
  6. Solicit volunteers to take photos, scribe the content and compile a first version of the deliverable.

This works great for really big groups.

Of course these are the mechanics of collaboration.  It really does start with knowing and respecting each other.  And we have to develop the habits of (and comfort level with) speaking aloud, flexing to both contribute and to leave room for other people’s ideas, asking questions to “unpack” ideas, listening to understand, and a ton of other “soft” skills.

What works for you?

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4 Comments so far
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Hi Gail – I think a really important idea that I would love to see EVERYONE apply more often is the ability to move between being a leader and being a contributor. This is an important life skill, not just work collaboration skill.

Sometimes you need to drive, sometimes you need to let others drive. Letting other drive isn’t always about who is smarter, who is right, who has the right framework. It can be about giving space, giving positive reinforcement, allowing others to expand their thinking and skills.

Comment by Faith Fuqua-Purvis

One method I’ve used is to have everyone in the room to talk for 2 minutes – timed and sometimes 1, sometimes 3. Others listen – no interrupting- and can take notes on to post its of what they think the main points are if each talk. It’s important that everyone says what they think, they don’t have to build on earlier talks. Then the collected post it’s are analysed to look for common areas. The main downside that if one of those speakers is considered to be “more important”, their contribution gets more attention, but this method can very quickly help the group focus on salient points.

Comment by Avril Gold

I’ve had some success with mind mapping software to collaborate and organize ideas. I’ve facilitated sessions live in a meeting room while projecting the mind map on screen and also through a web meeting while desktop sharing. It’s easy to “get ideas down” and then group, re-group, supplement, etc. I’ll sometimes use the software to organize my own “pinball” thoughts. Some mind mapping software (more $$$) is also terrific for creating work breakdown structures.

Oh, and I agree with Faith’s comment above! Edgar Schein’s “Humble Inquiry” comes to mind.

Comment by Gwen Alegre

Hello Faith, Avril and Gwen. Thanks so much for adding your insights and tips! Faith, dead-on with this one. Sometimes I have had to coach strong leaders before the meeting on this – you probably have too.

Avril, I have not tried this but I like it. I will keep it in “my pocket” – thanks!

Gwen, I am a fan of mind maps too and use them often for myself. And, of course Schein sets the pace for us with inquiry 🙂

Thanks for taking time to share your great tips! I am sure others reading here will appreciate them also.

Comment by Gail Severini

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