How collaborative is your leadership team?

Put a group of smart, creative and committed leaders together and you don’t automatically get a high performing, collaborative leadership team. You’ll often get something that looks more like a polite cage fight, with each player jockeying for position, working hard to avoid losing and maximize winning (winning = more authority, recognition, control, territory, headcount, being right, whatever). These struggles can be pretty subtle, but the result is easy to spot: critical problems remain unaddressed; small-picture thinking; low accountability and trust; and of course, disappointing business results.

To be really collaborative, a team needs to consistently do three things very well together: Learn, Design and Commit. These are not platitudes—they each represent concrete and learnable skills and they are essential for collaborative performance. Moreover, they are skills that collaborative teams practice together day in and day out, just like the practices that sustain elite athletes, martial artists, musicians, dancers, soldiers, and high performers in any discipline that demands deep skill, precision, and coordination.

Learning Together – this entails the ability to listen astutely to the concerns, commitments and possibilities behind what people are saying; and, reflective inquiry, which is the ability to formulate and ask powerful questions—and to be genuinely curious about the answers. Reflective inquiry allows us to observe and respectfully challenge the underlying interpretations and narratives that always accompany the facts, assessments, assumptions and explanations about what is going on, why, and what it might mean. When it’s missing, so is important feedback and data about the business. Without this capacity to learn together, teams have a hard time making decisions and “designing” the future together. They often end up solving the wrong problems or solving the right problems in superficial ways that don’t actually work long-term. In addition, successful innovation is almost impossible, and the organization’s ability to respond quickly to changing conditions goes way down.

Designing Together – This is all about shaping the future. Collaborative teams integrate what they learn together into a shared picture, a narrative, about the future they want to create for their organization. This narrative spells out what success looks like, what milestones are important, and how to get there together (typically referred to with words like vision, mission, goals, objectives, strategies, standards, behavioral norms, etc.). Because they’re tuned in to their organization, the market and their industry (they’re continually learning together, remember?), high-performing teams understand that part of their job is to continually update and refine their narrative about the future and how to realize it. Nothing stands still for long, so neither should an organization’s ends and means. In addition to KPI’s, we like the idea of KLI’s—Key Learning Indicators, to help leadership teams stay focused on what matters and the key to what matters—learning, design, and…meaningful commitments.

Committing Together – this sounds pretty vague, but we at GJC are almost obsessively specific about the nature and practice of commitments. There are really just two ways that we human beings commit ourselves to anything: by physically doing it with our bodies (like throwing out all the sweets in the cupboard when we commit ourselves to eating better, or throwing our bodies in front of the bus to save our child, for instance), or by uttering certain words (through language). Words like Yes, No, Stop, Go, Because…, I will, We won’t, You may, I promise, Will you?…and the list goes on and on. But these are not just innocent throw-away words—the words we use to commit ourselves, our teams, our organizations, our assets, even our lives—can be as concrete and powerful as any physical move we might make to commit ourselves. And often much more powerful.

This is because language is the primary way that we get things done in organizations. For leadership teams (or project teams, management teams, or any other type of team), clearly understanding and learning to harness the “linguistic action” inherent in our everyday language makes the difference between alignment, accountability, and performance…and just hot air. There are several ways that we commit ourselves with language, but the one that is most obvious is by making a promise. As obvious as promises may appear however, there are all sorts of ways that individuals and teams can and do inadvertently weaken, confuse, inhibit and poorly manage promises (and therefore performance).

So learning to recognize, make and manage promises effectively (among other linguistic commitments) is not just a good idea. It’s the only way teams get the right stuff done together. As coaches and consultants, we have worked with lots of teams and organizations, and there has never once been a case in which poor performance was not linked to wea promises. (As you may be guessing by now, of course, weak promises are one of the casualties of weak team learning and design.)


There’s Still Promise

Life would be so much simpler without everyone else around.

Just imagine how much less complicated things would be if we didn’t have to deal with anybody else.  Nobody’s schedule to meet; no worrying about how I look, how I’m “doing” or when that promotion/new customer/winning lottery number, etc. might arrive. Say goodbye to office politics (and any other politics). No more waiting in lines for that Grande Double Decaf, Soy Latte at Starbucks. Getting dressed in the morning is a snap, and the commute would be a dream.

Dealing with other human beings can definitely put a damper on things.  Especially when we have to rely on them for things that are important to us—or when they’re relying on us for things that matter to them.  Like in families, or friendships, communities, organizations, nations.

For today we’ll just focus on organizations; partly because that’s where many of us spend a lot of time, and also because it can be easier to see how all of our various human “dependencies” actually work in organizational settings.


Same Organization – Different Perspective
We have lots of ways of looking at organizations.  We can see them as hierarchical structures with positions, authority and reporting lines (as in traditional org charts); we can see them as matrixes with defined functional and product lines and relationships; we can see them as groups of teams that interact within larger teams…Lots of different organizational models out there.

Every organizational model reflects and reinforces a particular way of seeing, thinking about and behaving.  Each model has its strengths and limitations, and each may be better suited to different types of organization, different cultures, different times.

Over the past couple of decades, a new view of organizations has been emerging that I first learned about in the mid 90’s from a friend and mentor of mine, Rafael Echeverria, PhD.  This view opens all sorts of doors to individual and organizational performance improvement that simply don’t show up in other other models.

This new view reminds us that, however quicker our commute might be with nobody else around, the fact is that we’re not here alone, and we are dependent upon other human beings—for perhaps everything that we do, touch, think and even feel.  We are inescapably reliant upon other people.  And a surprising number of folks are dependent upon us, every single day of our lives—including in our organizations.

The gist of this new perspective is that organizations are fundamentally networks, or “webs” of dependencies between people within the organization and outside.

Now, let’s replace the phrase “web of dependencies” with “web of promises…”  Suddenly (at least for me), the organization has been transformed from a passive place where people are filling a space on the org chart or matrix, depending, waiting for somebody else to do something–to a dynamic place where these same people now have tremendous power to think up new possibilities, make meaningful offers to others, grow their reputation and build trust, and expect commitments to be honored by others.

Here’s why the Web of Promises perspective makes so much sense: Because fundamentally, the only reason we come together in organizations is to accomplish things that we can’t accomplish alone.  And accomplishing those things requires that we coordinate our actions together so that different people in the organization agree (promise) to do certain things, in certain ways, by certain times, which everybody else can rely upon.  This enables everybody else in the organization (and many outside) to promise to do other things in certain ways, by certain times, and so on.   

The real power of this perspective comes from how we think about all those hundreds, often thousands of promises that comprise even small organizations.  All of these promises are constantly being made, kept, broken, renegotiated, forgotten, ignored, fretted over.  Every single one of these promises is made between human beings, whether they realize it or not.  And for every promise, there is someone who wants something of value to be done (a “customer”), and the person whose job it is to produce or deliver that something of value (a “performer”).

The Promise of Promises
When we learn to see our organizations as webs of promises, and ourselves as both customers and performers (we’re always playing either of these roles at various times throughout our day), we discover that we have the power to create value for our colleagues, our bosses, even our reports, that we never realized before by managing our promises effectively.  We do this by understanding and embodying the specific practices involved in making, keeping and honoring our promises effectively.  The more we do this, the more people want to rely on us for more and more important things.  In other words, they trust us more and value our contributions more.

The other nice thing about this perspective is that it gives us powerful tools for identifying and addressing organizational disconnects, misalignment, poor performance, and weak accountability, without having to impugn people’s character or attribute personal blame.  That’s really important to me as a consultant and coach. Best of all, learning to manage promises is something that anybody can do.  The only negative side effect is that that there may be more and more people wanting lining up who want to give you that promotion, seek out your views about office politics, or buy your next Latte.  But hey, that’s just life with human beings…