How Technology Can Increase Collaboration And Build Trust

This post is an shortened version of a plenary talk delivered in Cardiff for the Wales Audit Office 


Depending on your age it’s likely that the two things you were not taught in school were:

a) how to collaborate effectively

and

b) how to use technology to connect and share with others

And yet these – the essential skills of the digital economy – are hardly ever talked about, much less taught and promoted, in our places of work.

Our 21st century economy demands workers excel at collaborating through technology, but as employers we struggle to work out how to equip our people with these vital skills.

There’s a reason for this of course, most of our organisations are still obsessed with organising ourselves into neat little directorates with clear accountabilities and reporting lines. This creates a very efficient looking functional silo system – encouraging employees to stay in their lane and get things done.

However in a digital economy we can no longer afford to think in conventional terms of efficiency. The more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators. How to collaborate productively is a skill we all need to learn as it’s essential to our having greater impact in the digital world.

Problem-solving, creative thinking, digital skills and collaboration are in greater need every year yet are not the focus of our learning and development.

We still spend most of our time and resources on leaders. This incessant focus on ‘leading’ ‘and ‘leadership’ is actually a throwback to an industrial model and unwittingly acts against collaboration. When we continually promote the importance of leaders we imply that they are ones to take charge of situations.  They are the the ones to sort our problems out.

However, this concept of the heroic leader is fundamentally anti-collaborative as it compels those being ‘led’ to be submissive and unquestioning.

How can our organisations become more collaborative? 

Ultimately , we’ll only build collaborative organisations if we design them that way.

At its best, collaboration in the workplace can help people think more deeply and creatively about a subject and develop more empathy for others’ perspectives. It can boost productivity and innovation and create better workplace engagement.

But, it takes time and requires space and patience. And – it’s incompatible with cultures built on ego and fiefdoms.

As I’ve written previously, if we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

At Bromford we’ve begun the process of democratising innovation and design by training all our colleagues in collaborative problem solving and cross-team working. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s supported by an organisational DNA that has a design thinking – and hence a collaborative – mindset at its core.

How technology can increase collaboration and build trust

What are the challenges?

The technology is there to enable cross-team, cross-sector, and cross-country collaboration. Much of it is free to use.

Legacy thinking is more of a barrier to this than legacy IT.

We still have a tiny percentage of leaders who are really living a digital lifestyle. There are still relatively few having open debates , showing transparency in public discourse , answering questions online and sharing progress.

Too many of us are hiding behind unfounded concerns about data privacy and fear of working in the open.

We need to teach and support people how to make the best use of social technologies to connect and collaborate at scale.

What are the opportunities? 

For the first time in history, we now have the ability to ‘go beyond’ our organisational boundaries, connecting and sharing with the public and each other.

The basic unit of innovation is not a creative individual, nor even a team, but a creative community.

Millions of people connected without hierarchy and working together to solve some of our biggest challenges. This provides the opportunity for a 10x improvement in our communities. 

For organisations and systems that are used to ‘providing services’ rather than ‘connecting people’ that’s clearly a challenge  – but it is one we can and must step up to.

We can’t change the world on our own. We need to build movements.

The Smartest People Will Never Work For You

Joy’s law is the principle that “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”.

Bill Joy, the computer engineer to whom it’s attributed argued that if you rely solely on your own employees, you’ll never solve all your customers’ needs.

It’s a quote that’s never been more true.

Joy was not talking about the hackneyed “war for talent” trope. Even if you somehow manage to get the best and the brightest to work for you, there will always be an infinite number of other, smarter people employed by others.

Even if it was possible – these days we don’t need to employ those people. We live in a networked age – and having people who can master ‘distributed problem solving’ and collaborate at scale – will be a differentiator for organisations.

This week I was in Wales speaking at an event organised by the Good Practice Exchange – all about effective collaboration using technology.

Harnessing the power of collective thinking is one of the most effective ways to maximise innovation output. The more minds, brain power and insight you can gather, the better.

It’s recognised that CEOs with connections to diverse social environments built of people from a variety of backgrounds can create more value for the organisations they lead.  In today’s digital economy this knowledge exchange is open to any of us – IF we stay clear of echo chambers and embrace genuine diversity. (That means, not blocking people who disagree with you.)

Social media gives you access to people who behave and think differently.  Used wisely it can encourage people to break out of your own sector.  By actively following people you don’t agree with your people will become less prone to groupthink.

If you’re only surrounding your people with those who think like them – you are limiting your companies capacity and capability for innovation.

Groupthink – “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures” – historically only happened to small groups.

Hashtags have changed all that.

In a society in which social networks consume so much of our time we have evolved into a mass version of groupthink. A herd mentality of a scale we’ve never previously encountered.

It’s time for us all to really consider the role of diversity in our social media content. The algorithm is deliberately feeding you more of what you want to hear.

This diversity can be advantageous: research suggests that employees with a diverse Twitter network—one that exposes them to people and ideas they don’t already know—tend to generate better ideas.

Screenshot 2019-10-18 at 06.39.28

 

This research differentiated between idea scouts and connectors.

An idea scout is someone who looks outside the organisation to bring in new ideas, using Twitter as a gateway to solution options.

An idea connector, meanwhile, is someone who can assimilate the external ideas and find opportunities within the organisation to implement these new concepts.

In the research,  Twitter users who performed the two roles at the same time were the most innovative.

That’s easier said than done, we often find that people who are great at making connections and opportunities aren’t the best ones at matching them to strategy and implementing.

A good innovation team plays this role – acting as a pressure chamber where external influences can enter the organisation, in a controlled and measured way.

Social media will help your people crowdsource opinion from others. I often find myself thinking out loud-  this blog is essentially a brain diary to see if what I’m thinking connects with others. Learning out loud in our networks helps to seek new opinions and share our own with a wider group. It allows us to take half-baked ideas and test them out in public, with low risk.

Just soaking up other people’s opinions doesn’t lead to innovation though. Rather – it’s the ability of employees to identify, assimilate and exploit new ideas to create new value.  This is where our organisations need to put more effort and support in for people – it’s hardly ever talked about, much less taught.

The smartest people will never work for you. We need to create a network of as many great contributors as we can–and transform it into a community.

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems. To address these complex problems our organisations must be reshaped for a community where ideas and information flow openly and transparently.

The real opportunities lie right at the heart of it.

a short post about death

Even during the most pivotal moments of our lives we are only a few minutes away from being digitally distracted.

Twelve to be precise.

We check our phones for new messages every 12 minutes

Four weeks ago today we were just arriving in Ubud, Bali on day six of a planned 3 week trip.

Within a minute of framing a perfect shot for Instagram I got a text from Karen’s sister asking me to call her immediately.

You know it will be bad news.

Her mum had passed away suddenly, only a few hours after we last spoke.

When you get news like that your immediate response is one of confusion.

You can’t become numb as you need to take control.

Your mind cycles through thoughts ranging from the profound to the prosaic – and even to the selfish.

“How do you tell someone their mum is dead and that they are never going to see them again?”

“We’re 8000 miles from home. What do I actually need to do?”

“This trip is really over, right?”

“On the positive side, thank god we haven’t unpacked yet.

In these intensely human moments of crisis you realise how much technology is ever present.

  • Insurance companies offer to organise a flight for you ‘if you can wait 24 hours’,  when you can organise one yourself in just minutes.
  • Websites continually push barely literate chatbots at you when you just need a bloody phone number.

And as always it’s the people who really make the difference. You can go digital by default all you like but you can’t digitise human kindness.

  • The Indonesian Airbnb host who stops eating his dinner to drive you immediately to the airport.
  • The flight attendant who bravely attempts to ‘override the system’ to try to get you a couple of seats next to one another.

8000 miles feels a very long time when you’re just trying to hold things together.


Death is in our faces almost everyday – we hear about it on the news, we watch TV shows and movies featuring loads of it. But when it comes to the ‘everydayness’ of death, the sheer normality of it, we’d rather not talk about it.

We are obsessed with prolonging life and looking good. Society is urging us to eat healthier, exercise harder, buy more things – anything to put off the inevitability of death or even thinking about it.

Western culture keeps death at a distance. It’s just not for everyday conversation.

12 months earlier I’d been in a very different community in Sulawesi, Indonesia. In Tana Toraja, death is life and part of a longer spiritual journey. Families keep the mummified remains of their deceased relatives in their homes for years – and traditionally invite them to lunch on a daily basis – before they are eventually buried in ceremonies that go on for days.

The funeral we were invited to in Sulawesi was a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party.

It was an occasion in which the entire family of the deceased, and all the members of the village take part. During their lives, they all work extremely hard to accumulate wealth. But unlike in the West, they don’t save their money to buy consumer goods.

They save for a good send-off in death.


The funeral of Karen’s mum, Anita, on Wednesday was very different from the one in Tana Toraja. They don’t tend to make animal sacrifices in Stoke-On-Trent. And the funerals last for mere hours.

It was a beautiful send off though. A wonderful celebration of life and family.

Unlike a Torajan funeral where you’re literally invited to take selfies with strangers, everybody politely kept their phones away. Protocol meant we had to resist that 12 minute temptation to check.

Technology does have an important part to play though in how we grieve in a digital age.

We share our memories on Facebook and swap stories and recollections of our loved ones. We even share recollections with the profiles of our loved ones. Researchers say before the end of the century there could be as many as 4.9 billion deceased users floating around the internet. Our virtual selves and their associated memories will become as numerous as our real bodies.

That said, I made a commitment this morning to spend a little less time on my phone. Karen nearly fell out of bed in shock. I’ll repeat that commitment here as a public statement of intent.

We have an endless gift for caring if we allow time for it.

Sometimes we really need to disconnect in order to reconnect with what matters.

Why Do We Hate Our Offices?

If you are working in an office today you will be interrupted – or you will interrupt yourself – every 3 minutes.

And what’s worse is it will take most of us up to 23 minutes to recover from that distraction.

If your boss lets you, go home. Walking out the office door is likely to be the single most productive decision you’ll make this year.

It’s not hard to see why we dislike our workspaces and what they bring us:

  1. About 11 million meetings are held on average every single day, with employees in the US attending about 62 meetings every month.
  2. British workers spend 492 days of their lives travelling to work, spending over £800 every year.
  3. A survey of British workers, published in June, found that those in a hot-desking office took an average of 18 minutes to find a seat.
  4. The average professional spends a third of each work day reading and answering email, according to a McKinsey analysis. And 62% of that email is not even important.

On top of this the actual design of our workspaces is mostly poor. Whilst the technology we use is unrecognisable from 15 years ago, the places we work from haven’t really developed.

How The Open Office Came To Rule The World

In 1958, an art professor named Robert Propst set out to design the office to rule them all. He had researched the habits of office workers, including what made them inefficient, what they liked and disliked, how often they moved from their desks.

He monitored every wasted second—in the hope that he might save us all, not by leadership, but by design.

Typically, he observed the the manager in a corner office and the majority of workers at open desks that were arranged in static lines, with very little consideration for any form of privacy, storage or intrusion.

The ‘action office’ he invented was intended to take us away from the distractions of open environments, and give us a semi private space we could decorate with photographs and other items. It was an ‘office’ for those of us who were not important enough to warrant a real office of our own.

It wasn’t the fault of Propst, but his original designs came to be dumbed down and the mutated into the cubicle, which came to visually represent the office silo, banks of workers not talking to one another.

We needed a solution, an open office that made us collaborate and communicate with our colleagues.

 

chartoftheday_17356_work_distractions_n

The pursuit of increased workplace collaboration led managers to transform cubicle offices into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing spaces with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries. However, research by the Royal Society shows that open plan offices do not build teams or increase collaboration.

The reason why we don’t collaborate is far more complex. If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen. Office design is only a miniscule part of that.

Equally, office design has done little to improve our productivity. UK workers are putting in the longest hours in the EU, but this isn’t translating into improved productivity. In fact, the research shows employees in Denmark put in over four hours less than UK workers – whilst productivity in Denmark is 23.5 percent higher than the UK.

It doesn’t look like the innovators can save us either. The latest office disruptor – WeWork – appears to have stalled too. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram people into cool looking spaces and give them snacks — puts lipstick on the problem, but wholly fails to address it.

The cost of all this is measurable, in employee disengagement scores and the costs of our locations. The average annual property cost for a British office worker is £4,800 ($6,000), according to Investment Property Databank.

Can the death of the office come soon enough?

The office is the biggest inefficiency tax that organisations layer over themselves.

They cost huge amounts to procure and maintain, they become an all too convenient base for meetings and managers (the next biggest inefficiency tax), and they set an unhelpful precedent for the expected hours that people are meant to work.

Rising travel costs, advances in technology and the climate crisis are cohering to guarantee that working from home becomes relatively commonplace. And a new form of remote work has emerged: working from anywhere , in which employees can live and work where they choose.

After over a century of trying to solve the productivity problem with physical design we need to ditch the idea of the office as being the answer.

We don’t require new workspaces but new cultures.

There is no unique formula for productivity or creativity. It’s now the role of the leader to work with others to find out what their own unique formula is.

That might mean:

  • Giving teams true autonomy and flexibility, rather than trying to micromanage their  work
  • Providing funding for informal meet-ups to allow people to collaborate in ways that suit them
  • Giving people freedom over the technology they use, allowing them to make use of personal devices not company mandated relics.

Your next conversation with your team could be about how much sleep they are getting, when they feel they are most creative, and what the optimal conditions are to get their full concentration.

When and where we are productive is as individual as our genetic code. That’s why getting people to agree on what workspaces should look like results in them being the average of everyone.

Yes – we need a radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

It also means getting to know teams, actually listening to people as individuals, and letting them become the designers of their own unique workday.


 

Featured Image by Pexels from Pixabay

What If We Replaced All Our Managers With Robots? 

Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done

Peter Drucker

Management is the greatest inefficiency in any organisation.

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Gary Hamel , but his explanation of how management ‘spreads’ is always helpful.

Typically a small organisation might start off simply – one manager and 10 employees. 

But as it grows it will often keep this ratio and sometimes reduce it. So an organisation with 100,000 employees will have at least 11,111 managers. Because an additional 1,111 managers will be needed to manage the managers.

And that’s before you go near management related functions whose entire function is , well , management.

Most of our organisations are focused on growth rather than remaining small and simple. More people inevitably means your coordination and communication problems magnify, the management hierarchy multiplies, and things get more complex.

Research shows that every time the size of a city doubles, innovation or productivity increases. However, exactly the opposite happens with organisations. When companies get bigger, innovation or productivity per employee generally goes down.

This is why companies which grow quickly get into trouble. A fast-growing company can go from 20 to 400 people without changing anything about how they work. What works in an organisation of 200 people simply doesn’t in an organisation of 2000.

Globally, our employees crave more autonomy and less bureaucracy. However, there is currently a gap between wanting autonomy and flexibility, and getting workplace autonomy and flexibility.

And the reason it’s difficult is this: it’s impossible to dismantle bureaucracy without redistributing authority. Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures necessarily militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration.

Most of our organisations don’t redistribute authority, they accumulate it.

So what if we replaced all the managers with robots? 

As Simon Penny writes for Bromford Lab, at the moment we’re either 100% human led or just starting to explore the possibilities of having machines support decision making.

Simon points out that humans are particularly bad at making decisions. Our decisions are largely emotional and often illogical, which can lead to inequity, data bias and bad outcomes. Having a machine help us make decisions more efficiently actually makes a lot of sense. Who says they wouldn’t be better than managers?.

The Mystery of Miserable Employees

In an article for the New York Times, Neil Irwin explains how a team at Microsoft used data rather than managers to figure out why a business unit had such poor work life balance. The issue was that their managers were clogging their schedules with overcrowded meetings, reducing available hours for tasks that rewarded more focused concentration. Rather than leaving it to managers to solve the problem the team deployed a Microsoft Office feature called MyAnalytics which allows users to receive nudges when their actions don’t line up with their stated goals. A bot notifies you about how much focused time you had, or how many hours you were on email.

Just like wellbeing trackers like Fitbit, rather than doctors, are nudging people to improve the quality of their sleep, we’ll see algorithms, rather than managers, nudging us to be more productive at work.

To keep teams productive and happy, managers need to master the basics: don’t overwork or expect others to; hold frequent 1:1s; make cross-functional connections; and of course, keep meetings on time and inclusive. All tasks perfectly suited to a robot.

We Are All Managers Now

Like it or not we are headed in a direction of either performing human focused work (social, health workers, coaches) or performing deep non-routine knowledge work. All other tasks will be automated at some time in the near future.

It will happen slowly:

  • Things like Robotic Process Automation will begin to undertake the systematic and behind-the scenes jobs
  • AI will complement this software to add thought, judgement and intelligence
  • You’ll be told by a bot what the optimally productive length of the workday is for you.  You’ll be advised whether it makes sense to focus on deep contact with a few customers or much looser relationships with a wider community
  • Monitoring tasks (hours worked, productivity) will be democratised and we’ll be self managing using nudges and prompts – developing the interpretive skills to understand what data is telling us.

The automation of these routine tasks will allow people to focus on ideas, innovation and higher-value work.

Management has been responsible for a lot of disengagement with the workplace. This multi-tiered management model piles inefficiency upon inefficiency. Decision making slows. People become less empowered.

Robots will replace most managers before they replace front-line workers. But it won’t happen overnight and won’t even feel uncomfortable.

If we design it sensibly and ethically, the organisation where you are your own boss could be less cumbersome and costly – leading to a much happier and productive world of work.


 

 

Image by Jin Kim from Pixabay 

 

How To Kill Doomed Projects

The challenge for managers in the “can-do” culture of business is to distinguish between belief as a key driver of success—and belief as something that can blind managers to a project’s ultimate failure – Isabelle Royer 

It’s always easier to start something new than it is to stop doing something.

Many of our organisations are prone to a form of corporate initiativitis – where people are rewarded for the creation of new activities rather than the scrutiny and hunting down of unnecessary zombie projects. Zombies are projects that, for any number of reasons, fail to fulfill their promise and yet still they keep going, with people unwilling or unable to put them out of their misery. 

These activities often make sense on paper – the benefits they bring and the development timeline sounds achievable. But somewhere along the way, something changes.

Why can’t companies kill projects that are clearly doomed?

Contrary to just poor management or bureaucratic inertia, the research of Isabelle Royer showed that many failures result, ironically, from a fervent and widespread belief among managers in the inevitability of their projects’ ultimate success. As she writes – “this sentiment typically originates with a project’s champion; it then spreads throughout the organization, often to the highest levels, reinforcing itself each step of the way. The result is what I call collective belief, and it can lead an otherwise rational organization into some very irrational behavior.”

The modern obsession with change champions – equipping armies of people to go out into organisations like evangelical missionaries proselytizing change – can reinforce this behaviour.

We can restore some rationality through transparency and effective scrutiny. Some of the most successful companies have cultures with just enough friction: with teams having regular, intense debates. Discord, rather than agreement, has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

As Chris Bolton has written, not speaking truth to power contributes to very many project failures. It’s a complex problem that is cultural rather than merely the fault of managers. Organisational systems and culture often prevent people speaking truth to power, even if the ultimate boss is willing to listen.

Lessons Learned from the ‘RMS Titanic of IT disasters’

In 2011, U.K. government officials finally scrapped a massive 9-year, $16 billion project to create a unified electronic health records system for British citizens. 

The project – described as ‘doomed from the beginning’ – was criticised for being too large, too ambitious, too monolithic, and for having too many changing requirements. 

The warning signs were there from the start. The government chose the top-down,  approach. The solution was initially designed, not with actual users, but by a large central team, and intended as a complete “big-bang” replacement for the many and varied existing systems. 

A research paper summed up the main lessons learned:

  • Efforts should ideally begin with the user, before moving on to more general organizational and national requirements.
  • The initial focus should have been on making the software usable. This should be informed by users. 
  • A balance between customised approaches and standardisation is vital. 
  • An incremental roll out – with a more iterative approach, would have minimised risk

It’s not rocket science is it?

In fact the determinants of success seem to be weighted on just four factors: avoiding top down design, effective user involvement, speaking truth to power and avoiding silver bullets.

Project Flow Chart (2)

Zombie projects occur when all these factors converge and confirmation bias sets in. Even though everyone knows this isn’t really working, we carry on regardless.

As part of the work we’ve been doing at Bromford we recognise that slaying zombies is just part of good governance. Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value. However it’s about stopping doing things too. As a general rule each new service or activity should lead to the decommissioning of an existing one.

It’s often harder to stop doing things that used to be valuable than start new things.  It’s that fear of stopping activity that holds real innovation back. 

Stopping a project isn’t failure. But failing to stop a project that is going bad –  that is failure.

Ultimately this is about keeping ego, ownership and politics out of the equation. We only need to be really good at a few things to have more successful outcomes:

  • Effective problem definition
  • Avoiding top down initiatives
  • Involving users in the actual design
  • Promoting local customisation and avoiding silver bullets
  • Iteration rather than mass deployment
  • Speaking truth to power and critically questioning the direction of travel

If we can get better at those – and make them foundational principles of new activities – we won’t need to kill doomed projects.

We’ll have no zombies left to slay.