Last week at our planning retreat, I wanted to make sure that the leadership team was able to talk openly and constructively about some chronic problems across the teams. I found an exercise from Mark Gorkin that helped do this in an amazingly effective way.
Before we started the exercise, I wanted to shift the way that people thought about frustration. In The Enemy of Engagement, Mark Royal and Tom Agnew assert, “The more loyal and engaged employees are, the deeper their frustration will run in the face of obstacles.” So instead of labeling frustration as bad, we labeled it as a sign of the most engaged and loyal team members. That made it okay to express the frustrations because it meant that you cared deeply and wanted to make things better.
With that framing, each person took a few minutes to identify sources of everyday workplace stress and conflict or to list barriers to more effective and creative team coordination. At each table, we spent ten minutes sharing our frustrations. Then came the creative and team building part of the exercise. We asked each table to draw their frustrations. They could make as many posters as they wanted in ten minutes.
Everyone jumped in with both feet. The teams were working together intently around their posters and there was a lot of positive energy as the teams brainstormed about how to communicate their frustrations in a visual way.
After everyone was done, we created a gallery and everyone looked at all of the posters. Then each group got a chance to explain their drawings. After the explanations, we took some time together to dive into the problem and talk about possible ways to make it better.
It was intense and uncomfortable.
And very productive and necessary.
We had conversations about frustrations that spanned years. Information and background was provided that gave the individuals and teams perspective and insight they didn’t have before coming into the room.
After talking with several different participants immediately after the exercise ended, I discovered that several people thought that getting into the specifics in a group setting felt like blame and was inappropriate. After discovering this, I immediately facilitated a discussion with the entire group about how we could have these difficult conversations with details without blame. Many people indicated that without specifics, the problem was theoretical and not clear. Through the exercise and discussion, we established norms about how we would talk about difficulties that allowed us to get to the specifics.
We still have room for improvement, but this exercise was a good way to prompt and practice having difficult conversations.
What have you done in your teams to hold difficult conversations that are healing and helpful?
Several weeks ago, I crashed on my bicycle when I slipped on a metal strip while crossing a bridge. I was rather lucky that I didn’t seriously hurt myself. I did earn a trip to the emergency room in an ambulance and got a single stitch in my elbow along with a bunch of bruises from my hip down to my ankle. But I could walk and was back on my bike the next weekend.
When others found out about my accident, many people shared stories about their accidents or near accidents on their bikes. However, the reaction to the accidents were very different. Many people talked about how they stopped biking because it was too dangerous and drivers were too distracted and rude. While others, like me, were back in the saddle as soon as we were able.
I have been thinking a lot about what is motivating me to continue to bike even though I have been hurt and know I could get hurt again. I have posed the question to several of my biking friends. Their answers included seeking a challenge, being addicted to endorphins, biking being easier on joints than running, and loving it. They also talked about what scared them about biking and that it was a constant risk-benefit analysis about how much they push themselves.
For me, I am happy when I am on my bike. I love to be outside, feel my own power, push myself, and be with friends. So, for now, it is worth the risk.
However, I have a lot of things I do when I am biking to reduce the risk of being hurt and increase my enjoyment. I avoid heavily traveled roads, I ride where drivers are expecting and considerate of cyclists. I seek out newly paved and smooth roads. I cycle with friends who are experienced and passionate about cycling. I carry spare tires and tools for when equipment fails. I travel to beautiful and remote places to cycle.
In technology, we are constantly venturing out to implement projects or initiatives that have transformative impact. The journey to success often depends on asking people to manage change. Much of the change that needs to happen has nothing to do with technology. It has to do with how we work together and get along and whether we can get others to join the ride with us. Change is inherently risky. Like biking, there are some people who enjoy the challenge and risk and are willing to jump right in. I know I am one of those people. However, most people want reassurance and support, because they have scars from previous change initiatives.
Over the last year, I have asked the Temple Tech team to take a change journey with me as we implemented “A Wiser Way” training to develop self-managed leaders at every level. It has been amazing to see the changes that individuals have made and the positive impact that it has had across the university. As individuals have examined their stories and shifted the way they interact with each other, our projects are being successful in unprecedented ways. We are getting things done and having fun.
As we plan our journeys, we can do many things to encourage others to come on the ride with us. Paint a picture of why a change will lead them to a better place ultimately. Make the change enjoyable. Be prepared for the accidents and setbacks that are going to happen. Give people choices. Realize that people have different abilities and speeds, so we need to accommodate training wheels and racing cycles in our plans. Make bike paths and ensure smooth roads on the transition. Develop empathy for others. Do not overwhelm individuals with too much change. My challenge for you this week is to consider how you can make the ride smoother for your colleagues as you work on projects together.
Some of the feedback that I have received from my team is that my leadership style is so different than what they were used to that they were unsure about how to act. Someone told me that his experience was that every time he raised his head to present an idea, it was like “whack a mole” and so he learned to just keep his head down.
That is a powerful and painful story!
So, when I came in and said that I expected everyone to be a leader, I can understand why people were skeptical and hesitant to act.
To give individuals the skills and confidence to be effective and courageous leaders and shift their stories and the culture, I worked with Eric Brunner and Towanda Record in our HR Professional Development team to co-create a “A Wiser Way” leadership seminar series. The seven sessions cover the following topics.
Aligning to Purpose
Rewriting Our Stories
Understanding Self and Others – DISC
Why to Reality – Power of Habits
The first cohort of participants just completed the training.
The training wasn’t mandatory and a few people dropped out or didn’t attend all the sessions. Around 70 of the original 85 people were in the final sessions and gave us very direct feedback about what they appreciated and what they wanted to see changed in the training.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
The most vocal promoters of “A Wiser Way” are the participants who were the most skeptical coming into the training. The change and growth has been amazing to watch.
I sat back with great appreciation as one of the participants went on for several minutes when I asked her to explain what she got from the training to a visitor. She talked about how she had learned to have positive crucial conversations in a different way after decades of being in a leadership position and how it wasn’t hard and much more effective. She realized that she had been avoiding interaction with several peers. After the training, she had the skills, an empowering story, and the confidence to engage in a different way. She collaboratively engaged her peers and reported that she felt great about the interactions that she had been avoiding for months.
That is a powerful and energizing story!
“A Wiser Way” is an experiment and the culture is shifting already. We will give 150 more people the opportunity to go through the training by the end of this year. I am very interested to see what happens as more and more individuals shift their story from expecting to be whacked down to being courageous and confident leaders.
Execution is about getting things done and holding ourselves and others accountable and trust is developed as we do this consistently. This week, I had an important reminder on how knowing your team members and getting things done together builds a powerful foundation of trust.
One of my goals has been to try to meet with every group in computer services and get to know the individuals across the organization. This week, I was able to complete that goal when I met several teams that work in a building, which is several miles from the main campus.
It has been so satisfying to go and meet with all of the computer services teams and hear about the great work they are doing. My meeting experience with each team has been remarkably consistent. Each team member is deeply grateful to be seen as an individual and the business partners rave about the great work that the Computer Services teams are doing and how much they rely on them. This is especially true when the technical teams sit next to their business partners.
The stories that were shared were about the quality of the outcomes, willingness to partner, and ability to meet commitments. Examples include moving a high performance computing (HPC) cluster over a weekend from a local university with login access available on Monday morning and hearing that the performance of the cluster was better once it was moved to our network. The ability of our team to exceed the expectations of the researchers cemented the relationship and created a basis of trust to have a full partnership. So far, I have heard that story every time I have met with the head researcher of that group.
Another story is about the business school, library, and computer services working together to put in a faculty management system pilot. When the group attended the vendor’s national conference, Temple was spotlighted as the institution that was able to bring up the system in the shortest amount of time. The team worked together to deliver a complex system that was both technically and politically challenging. Like most successful projects, this was possible because of the ability of the teams to align to common goals, work hard, compromise, and hold each other accountable.
These are just two examples of many positive stories that I heard. My observation is that Temple teams accomplish a tremendous amount with small teams that actively look to deeply leverage the full capabilities of the systems that we adopt. The creativity, hard work, and dedication of the team members has been awe inspiring. This consistent ability to execute on our commitments has built a powerful foundation of trust with computer services across the university.
Of course, I have also heard some stories of when we have not met commitments or delivered to the expectations of our partners across campus. The common themes in these stories are misaligned expectations, personality conflicts, institutional barriers, and poor communication. So we have room for improvement as well as powerful successes to learn from and build on.
My challenge for you this week is to evaluate how you personally are doing in consistently meeting your commitments and building trust and identify one way you can improve.
Collaboration is an overused term, especially in higher education. I have used it myself, often and broadly. Despite its general overuse, I added it to my top five characteristics that are required to create empowered and engaged employees. So this is my attempt to describe how collaboration looks and feels and how I have sharpened my definition as I work on being a positive leader.
Collaboration is not just a checklist item on a project plan As a project manager over major systems implementation, I have added collaboration checkpoints to make sure we were actively engaging with the many constituents who wanted input into decisions. This is a vital part of a project when people really contribute to the decision making process so their participation shapes the outcome.
In the past, I often knew what I wanted the outcome to be and treated input and collaboration as necessary and time-consuming checklist items on my project plan. I’ve learned that when this happens for me, I know that I am not really collaborating, but just going through the motions of collaboration. I have certainly been on the other end of this, when I am called into a meeting or put on a committee where the outcome is already determined. When collaboration becomes just a checklist item on a project plan, it feels like a waste of time for everyone involved because it is. When this happens, it increases cynicism and disengagement.
Collaboration is different than consensus I have often confused collaboration with consensus. They are not the same. Consensus focuses on coming to agreement on a decision while collaboration encourages the sharing of creative and innovative ideas. When I have been in a full consensus environment, it did not feel like an open space of risk and change where ideas could percolate and lead to richer outcomes. Consensus is often rooted in politics and in trying to please everyone, which is not possible when you are a leader. In a full consensus environment, anyone could veto an idea, which I have seen paralyze an organization.
Collaboration is deeper than sharing ideas and experiences One of the great things about being in higher education is the willingness of colleagues from other institutions to share their experiences. I am at Educause this week, where the entire event revolves around peers sharing what they have learned with others. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop at the conference that moved from sharing to true collaboration, as I worked with a peer from Temple to analyze the root causes of barriers in promoting student success across campus. Collaboration goes beyond the sharing of ideas. It involves working together to create something or to solve a problem.
Collaboration is giving away the power of controlling an outcome Giving away my desire to control an outcome is the hardest thing for me to do and something that I am continually trying to improve upon. However, my experience is that when I have given away the control and actively partnered with others, things go so much better than when I try to control outcomes. Exerting control is based completely in fear, naturally causes resistance, and makes it harder to get things done. I used to think that it was my job to sell ideas and solutions. I have learned that selling is not collaboration, it is trying to get others to buy into your idea or solution.
Collaboration is actively engaging with willing partners to co-create solutions I love Eric Dube’s reframing of collaboration as co-creation. The key to full employee engagement is for our processes and systems to be co-created by the people who will be using them. The overwhelming openness to work together across the entire campus on our strategic web project is a recent example of how having open conversations and extending the invitation to help solve long-standing problems is welcomed and appreciated.
Collaboration is creating a safe place to share ideas and openly challenge each other’s ideas Creating a safe environment for sharing and challenging ideas is perhaps the most critical part being a leader. Actions speak much louder than words. When I am being humble and vulnerable, it creates a safe place for others to do the same.
One of the most powerful ideas that I have embraced as a leader is that it is not my job to come up with all of the ideas or solutions, but to ask good questions to expose ideas that will help the team create solutions. We then can have the conversations that will remove barriers and move us forward.
Collaboration is amazingly fun True collaboration feels good and is an amazingly fun way to work. It is delightful to create innovative and interesting solutions with others in a supportive environment. I have found that engaging a skilled facilitator or using liberating structures are both helpful in promoting collaboration.
If you are collaborating and it is extremely painful, I would suggest that you or your collaboration partner might be trying to control rather than collaborate. Something to think about this week.