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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Article: Eliciting Vision through Exercises and Games

It's certainly possible to reach a vision or get requirements through a traditional interview-based approach however it's neither as much fun, nor as effective, as leveraging exercises and games to accelerate the process.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Article: Eliminate Costly User Experience Mistakes

Far too many web site design projects are plagued by continuous changes to mockups, or changes to the user experience after it's already been implemented. These changes are both costly and unnecessary. Leveraging a staged approach to development of the user experience can reduce costs, frustrations, and time.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Article: Setting Goals with Conflicting Stakeholders

Getting everyone to agree on goals is a challenging undertaking in any organization. Achieving shared understanding through the process of Dialogue Mapping leads to the opportunity to develop an approach to change the problem.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Book Review- Making it Happen: Turning Good Ideas into Great Results

With a title of Making It Happen you might expect that the book is all about execution. How do you get the idea converted into action? At some level this is true, it's about making ideas happen. However, at another level, it's not. It's less about execution and more about converting the good idea into something that you can sell. This is a marketing book. However, it's not a marketing book in the same sense as Gorilla Marketing, or The New Rules of Marketing and PR. It's a marketing book in terms of how do you market your product through understanding and focusing. Making It Happen drives this further to talk about how to leverage your market offering once you get it refined.

Making it Happen has five main steps, steps that lead to the refinement of a single market proposition to the point that people will buy it and then on the other side an expansion of the idea into other places where you can have market impact. In addition to the five steps the book is littered with suggestions for how to refine your messaging and that's focused on two main categories – the things that you're offering and the people that you're offering it to. We'll cover those after the five steps.

Five Steps

Sheahan's story about focus, is about how the fire from an acetylene torch is used to cut metal. A big yellow flame looks pretty but it's not nearly as useful as a small focused blue flame. If you want to cut through you're going to need the focus of the blue flame – that's a focus that's surprisingly hard to get to.

  • Packaging – Packaging is the conversion from an idea into something that you can sell. It's taking the idea and turning it into a product.
  • Positioning – Positioning is the process of refining the package into something the market will buy by adjusting it to match an existing market need or creating the need in the market.
  • Influence – Influence is the point where you've convinced the customer to part with their time, money, or attention to actually purchase your product.
  • Acceleration – Acceleration is leveraging the conversion you have to adjacent offerings or to take the same offer to other clients – with a customer reference to get more return out of where you've cut through.
  • Reinvention – While you're successful with your first offering is the time to pursue the next one. You have the first idea fund the next one. This is how you personally get more leverage. It may also be converting the acceleration around an idea into a platform.

Many ideas never get refined enough to really penetrate the market in a meaningful way. Part of that is the natural resistance to exclude audiences for your offering. The thinking is that the fewer people you include in your offering the fewer deals that you'll get. This may – or may not – be the right thinking. Observationally, if you're not breaking through with anyone on a broad message it may be worth focusing the message to a set of people that you can influence.

Things or People

When there's an offer there are two components. The first component is the people you're making the offer to. The second is the thing that you're offering them. The thing may not be a physical thing – it may instead be a service offering or simply consulting time. However, in this context it's separated from the person that you're selling to.

It's About Things

When it comes to refining the message for your "thing" there are three pieces:

  • The Offer
  • Differentiation
  • Credibility

Let's take a look at these individually.

The Offer

It may seem obvious but knowing what you're offering is a critical component to selling. The more vague, imprecise, or unclear the actual offer the less chance you have to penetrate the audience that you're trying to sell to. Despite this and lots of sales training that encourages folks to have an "elevator pitch" or "back of the business card" answer to what they do and what they sell, most people can't adequately describe what they do. One more palpable test is can you explain to your best friend's wife or girlfriend what you do? If you can't, you don't have a refined enough offer.


As humans we are pretty dumb. I mean compared to the other creatures on the planet perhaps we're smart but we seem to think that we evaluate everything. However, the cognitive reality is more that we try to find neat boxes that we want to put things in. If we can't put an offer into a neat little box we're likely to not remember it. As sad as it is, the more unique you are, the less likely you are to be remembered. At the same time, if there's nothing about your offer that's distinguishing you won't be remembered either. That paradox is at the heart of the problem with marketing. You want to be different, just not too different.

Sheahan believes that we can differentiate the offer based on: the offer itself, an intangible (what he calls X-Factor), price, quality, speed, brand, or "you." Further he believes that the success to differentiation are: being proactive, basing actions on research, timing it right, displaying proof, staying targeted, and playing the game. Often we need to focus on how the buyer perceives our offer including what category they put the offer in. Once we know the category that a buyer puts our offer in we'll need to know how to differentiate it from the other offers and how to communicate that differentiation to them.


Sometimes we can differentiate our product in positive ways such as customer testimonials and independent third party reviews which don't require much work of positioning. Instead they require that we gain credibility in the mind of the buyer. The most effective way to do that is to connect with the person that they want to be and either demonstrate that people like who they want to be accept our offer – or that people who are actually like them use the offer.

It's About People

Even though we've been focused on the things – the offer being made – there's been an inseparable aspect of the way that humans think and the things that drive us. Sheahan talks about the personal aspects that drive decisions in terms of our drives, our identity, our audiences, and inciting action. Let's look at each of these in turn:


Citing P.R. Lawrence's work Sheahan states that there are four key drives for all people:

  • Drive to acquire – We seek to acquire material and experiences that our sense of well-being or social status.
  • Drive to bond – We seek to connect with each other emotionally directly and through groups.
  • Drive to comprehend – We desire an understanding of the world in which we live and how it works.
  • Drive to defend – We protect what we already have including ourselves, our families, and our possessions. This is consistent with other works about sunken costs – including the book Paradox of Choice.

Lawrence's division of drives is somewhat difference than other views that we've seen in the past like Dr. Reiss' work in Who Am I? However, this may be a reasonable simplification for the purposes of attempting to market as the 16 drivers in Reiss' work is a lot to try to process.


One of the challenges with the drives indicated above is the drive to bond. The problem with this is that taken to the extreme that would lead us to the idea that we don't want to be different from others. And certainly there's an aspect of our nature where this is true. However, conversely we're often fiercely defensive of our identity and our need to be different and unique – which puts us at odds with our need to bond. Sheahan speaks of three views of ourselves – and six lenses.

Three Views

I've spoken before about integrated self-images and how important they are to use. (See Beyond Boundaries, Compelled to Control, and Personality Types.) However, the integrated self-image is about how I see myself at different times. Sheahan speaks of how I see myself but also how I believe others see me and what I aspire to be. He states that it's misalignment between these views that drives our desire to bond. These views – particularly the view of how others see me of the "boxes" from Bonds that Make Us Free, Leadership and Self-Deception, and Anatomy of Peace. It seems to me that the less that you are concerned by how you believe others see you the less likely you are to get trapped in the "box." However, conversely, Sheahan speaks about how others see you can make a big impact in your influence on them – so perhaps there is some middle ground.

In my own life and those around me who I care about, I can tell you that there is a great deal of energy when these three views of yourself come out of alignment. When you believe that you're not moving to the person you aspire to be and when you feel like others don't see you as you see yourself, there is a great deal of emotional energy that can be used productively – or unproductively. Each of us has some level of disconnect in these views when seen from all six lenses which come from Banwari Mittal of Northern Kentucky University and are quoted by Sheahan.

Six Lenses

In some parts of our lives we may be in total alignment about the views. Professionally, for instance, we may see ourselves as a successful accountant. Our friends and colleagues see us this way as well. If our aspirations are simply to be a staff accountant then the views are in alignment from that perspective. However, that's just one aspect of our life. That's just one lens through which we can perceive ourselves. When we look at the broader picture we may not see alignment in every area. Mittal's lenses through which we see ourselves are:

  • Our bodies: Our physical appearance, looks, the clothes we wear, our level of fitness and so on.
  • Our values and character: What we judge as being important to us and how we behave.
  • Our competence and success: What we have achieved, our professional and social standing and the wealth we have accumulated.
  • Our social roles: The roles we play in our life, including family, friends and broader associations. We could be a mother, a daughter, a coach, a leader, a creator, an artist and so on.
  • Our subjective personality traits: How we behave. Are we extroverted, passionate, shy, clumsy? And on the list could go.
  • Our possessions: What have we got? What car do we drive? What sort of house do we live in?



Every buyer for our offer has a way that they see themselves and a way that they're measured. A frequent challenge in dealing with people is in not focusing on how we measure our success but instead to understand how our audience – our buyer – will be evaluated for success. Sometimes those metrics align completely, and sometimes they do not. For instance, I was invited by a consulting firm to do a presentation to their prospect. I delivered a presentation that by all accounts was great. It helped the prospect understand the challenges and to some extent why they needed help. However, ultimately the customer didn't purchase from the consulting organization. Clearly my metric of satisfaction with the presentation I did wasn't aligned with the goal of my buyer.

When dealing with people it's important to not just understand how they'll be measured but to be able to communicate how they'll be successful on their metrics. This would include what you're going to do that will specifically move their metrics forward but also how you're going to help them measure the success so they can communicate it. In Sheahan's example the ultimate metric was the people who were registering for the conference where he was focused on satisfaction of the people in his keynote. That's a big difference.

Inciting Action

I often say in my business that I have only one real competitor. That competitor's name is "do nothing." That is I don't find myself losing deals to other consulting organizations. I find myself losing to the client deciding not to take action because the problem is bigger than they expected, they have other more pressing priorities, or they just don't know how to get started. (The final one is my failure to communicate how we can lead them through the process.)

Sheahan suggests that inciting folks to action means aligning the offering to an existing market need – or creating the market need. Having spent years around parts of the technology space where vendors were trying to build the market need, I can tell you that having an existing need is much easier. In both the mobile space and search engine market the development has been painfully slow because the vendors are trying to create the awareness in the market of the need they have. It's not that there aren't important problems to solve. It's simply that the market doesn't understand the extent of the problem and the value they can get by solving them.


If you're struggling to figure out how to cut through the noise and make a difference, maybe you need to consider Making It Happen. It won't tell you about the latest new social strategy, talk about search engine optimization, or anything specifically related to how to engage the market. It may, however, teach you how to focus your message to cut through and how to leverage your success once you have.

Categories: Book Review, Professional | 0 Comments
Thursday, June 05, 2014

SharePoint 2013 Minimal Fault Tolerant Configuration

Microsoft offers some advice and guidance on different farm configurations, however, starting with SharePoint 2013 there seems to be a preoccupation with the number of VM hosts that are involved and how the virtual servers are deployed across these servers. Certainly managing the distribution of virtual servers across your physical virtual infrastructure is important, however, this adds a layer of complexity in trying to understand the number of virtual servers which need to be created which can be safely deferred until you've determined the virtual servers and the resources they need.

The more difficult challenge I find with my clients is how many virtual servers are needed for a fully functional fault tolerant environment. The Microsoft answers are incomplete because they fail to take into account the Office Web Applications and Azure Workflow Service infrastructures which are required to fully utilize SharePoint. The diagrams provided on the posters from Microsoft simply don't make it clear how these pieces fit together and the number of virtual servers that you'll need. My goal in this post is to clarify ambiguity about the number of virtual servers, to provide a model for a minimally fault tolerant environment, and to create a plan that can be expanded for scalability.

Fault Tolerance or Scalability

Before we begin it's important to realize that with most of my clients we don't end up with scalability concerns nearly as quickly as we identify fault tolerance as a goal. Even organizations with a few thousand employees are unlikely to need more than one front end web server from a scalability perspective. However, organizations of less than a thousand employees quickly find that SharePoint is a critical service offering that needs fault tolerance to support the service level agreements demanded by their organization.

With my larger clients we have scalability conversations – particularly as it relates to the search infrastructure – however, this is the secondary conversation after we cover fault tolerance. The model here is easily expandable based on scalability needs, but that's not the focus.

Separation of Duties and Missing Pieces

Conceptually SharePoint has two types of farm-member servers – web front ends and application servers. The distinction between the two is largely which parts of the SharePoint infrastructure are running on each. Conceptually having them separate makes the conversations easier. This conceptual framework - between servers directly responding to users and servers responsible for services - is a well-established approach for delivering web applications. As a typical web application would, SharePoint has a set of non-farm member servers which are responsible for database services. On the surface this looks like a SharePoint installation would require only six virtual servers – two web front ends, two application servers, and two database servers. In fact, this was the configuration required for SharePoint 2010 and one could easily make the mistake that this is the right answer for SharePoint 2013 as well. However, there are two wrenches in this thinking.

The first missing piece is that Office Web Applications which used to be installed directly on the SharePoint farm can no longer be installed on a SharePoint farm member server. Office Web Applications are used by SharePoint to render previews of documents in search as well as allowing users to transparently work with documents even if they don't have the full Office application suite installed on their PC. Making this service fault tolerant requires another pair of virtual servers for Office Web Application fault tolerance – bringing our number of virtual servers to eight.

The second missing piece is Azure Workflow Services – the platform on which the SharePoint 2013 workflow engine is built. Typically this wouldn't be a big deal -- you would install these components on the application servers just like the host of other services that SharePoint offers directly. However, the challenge here is that Azure Workflow Services are built upon the Azure Service Bus and the Azure Service Bus requires three servers – not two servers – to be minimally fault tolerant. The net impact of this is that you have to either have three servers for running workflow or you need to scale out one of the existing layers to three servers. So a farm with Workflow on its own looks something like this:

Nine or Eleven Servers

Deciding whether to have nine big servers or eight big servers and three tiny servers for workflow is based largely on preference. A virtual server running SharePoint is recommended to have 12GB of RAM and four CPUs. A workflow server, by contrast, can be tiny. 4GB of RAM is plenty for a workflow server. So you can add another server with 12GB of RAM or three smaller servers with 4GB of RAM each for workflow. If you stacked the Workflow services on top of application servers it would look something like this:

There's some discussion about the best place to put the workflow services – whether they should be deployed with the application servers because the workload is more similar to the workloads of application servers. That is, that application servers typically don't respond to time-sensitive requests from the user and are more frequently used to handle back end processing where it's acceptable for a short delay – as is the case with workflow. However, the counter argument is that having extra capacity in the web front ends is more advantageous in most environments than having an additional application server. This is a decision that can be made on a case-by-case basis based on the workload of the farm.

However, I frequently recommend that clients run workflow on separate servers rather than scaling out the application or web front end layer of the farm due to separation of duties concerns. Most organizations prefer to keep distinct services on different tiers of hardware when doing so doesn't unnecessarily increase complexity. For most environments, the net effective use of resources is very similar.

Scalability Again

Either of the above approaches to building a farm can be scaled out as needed to add additional capacity to the Office Web Applications, Search services on the application tier, or even additional database instances to support larger database needs. Those scaling decisions are based on stress points in the infrastructure. For instance, if none of the clients will have Office installed, it may be necessary to scale out the Office Web Applications. If you're indexing a large amount of content on file shares it may be necessary to expand out the application tier to support greater search needs.

By beginning the planning by first looking into the fault tolerance requirements, it's easier to add additional servers to meet scalability requirements. However, the performance of your virtual host infrastructure is an important consideration in scalability.

Virtual Host Infrastructure

The performance of virtual machines across different virtualization farms is vastly different based on the architecture of the virtualization environment. So a small number of servers on a well-functioning infrastructure can easily out perform more servers on poor performing virtualization environments. The typical concerns for performance including processing capabilities (CPU), memory availability (particularly overcommitted memory utilization), network (sufficient network bandwidth), and disk performance are all important considerations.

In addition to the fault tolerance considerations for the number and type of virtual servers, it's also important to ensure that the virtual servers are spread out across at least two different physical host servers to ensure that a failure of the virtualization host won't bring down the environment.

When considering scalability of a SharePoint farm, in a virtual environment it's key to understand what the performance of the virtualization environment is – and will be.


While the appearance is that SharePoint can be installed in a fault tolerant configuration in as few as six virtual servers, this isn't the case when the farm is intended to be fully functional. For a minimally fault tolerant configuration, not considering scalability concerns, requires at a minimum nine servers and often as many as eleven.

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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Review-Sharing Hidden Know-How: How Managers Solve Thorny Problems with the Knowledge Jam

I had the pleasure of working with Kate Pugh on a project for the Ark Group. During our discussions I found her speaking about her thinking about knowledge management and I realized that if I wanted to really understand what she thought about knowledge management the best way to get to know them would be to read her book, so I did. Sharing Hidden Know-How is aimed at solving the problem of how to get knowledge reused. While this may seem like an obvious statement, the differentiation is that the focus is on the actual practical steps that need to be done – the structure – that is necessary for a successful project.

The name given to the process – and to the specific capture event in the middle of the process – is a Knowledge Jam. The idea is that people come together and share their parts of the knowledge process much like musicians coming together for a jam session. Metaphorically speaking this is a great name because it helps people understand that it's an opportunity to work and interact together in ways that may not otherwise be possible.

Sure you need knowledge that is worthy of sharing and people who are willing to do the sharing but that isn't enough. You need a way to facilitate the transfer from one person or organization to another. That's what Sharing Hidden Know-How is about. It's about getting knowledge from one human or group of humans to another with all of the messiness of language and people in between.

Three Pillars – Facilitation, Conversation, and Translation

There are, in Kate's view, three pillars for Knowledge Management success. They are facilitation – the creation of the opportunity to have the conversation about the knowledge, the conversation where the knowledge is shared, and finally the translation. The translation is converting the knowledge that is available in a source context and relating it so that it can be used for something else. This makes sense as a model. It's preparing for the conversation, performing the conversation, and then using the output of that conversation. This flows from the belief that tacit knowledge flows from conversations. This is certainly something that many people in the knowledge management space believe. In Lost Knowledge we spoke about techniques to try to transfer knowledge and where they worked best. The New Edge in Knowledge Management discussed the questions about when you can store knowledge without the conversation.

However, three phases of the projects isn't specific enough to get things done, for that we need to descend into a set of steps that you can walk through to accomplish the work of reusing the knowledge.

Five Steps

From the three pillars come five steps that lead you through the process of selecting, facilitating, capturing, transforming, and reusing knowledge. The steps are: Selecting, Planning, Discover/Capture, Broker, and reuse. We'll look at each of them in turn.


By not mandating that every project has a "lessons learned" or an after action review but instead prioritizing projects for the opportunity to participate in the Knowledge Jam process. There's psychology in the idea that it's a "get to" and not a "have to" thing. The selection process can consider many variables but ultimately consideration should be given to the perceived usefulness – and therefore value – of the knowledge of a team. Also, consideration must be given to how easy – or difficult – it will be to extract the useful knowledge out of the context that it's currently in. Ultimately, the project sponsor is likely to have a great deal of input of which projects get selected for attention.


Jack Youngblood said that "Luck is a residue of preparation." The planning process is about planning for success of the event. The Four Disciplines of Execution spoke in detail about how to prepare for meetings – Sharing Hidden Know-How focuses on WHO should participate, WHEN it should occur, and WHERE the Knowledge Jam should occur. There are the standard lists of interested parties like the facilitator for the meeting, the sponsor, and the SMEs. What makes the process interesting is the introduction of Knowledge Brokers – who are tasked with finding useful information for their organization and the champions who are tasked with tactical execution of the meeting.


This is the main event. It's the meeting that's used to share the knowledge – and to have the conversations. One key here – in addition to the standard things that you would do in every meeting – is the establishment of ground rules – or expected norms for the conversation. I talked about norms in posts on Primal Leadership, Heroic Leadership, Six Myths of Social Software, and Redirect. Setting a new social norm is important so that people know how to behave. In most organizations the behavior of employees isn't quite deplorable – but it isn't great. By setting expectations up front you can establish a protective zone where a new normal is created – something that the authors of Primal Leadership would definitely support.

The actual facilitation uses a shared display either through a projector or TV in a single room or via web conferencing software. In-person face-to-face conversations are definitely preferred because much of the facilitation of the Knowledge Jams is in reading the other people in the room – something that's hard to do via a web conference – even if there is video.


If you've ever wondered where a good gossip could find a role in an organization it's in the role of a broker. The idea of a broker is that they're out seeking a "buyer" for the knowledge. Someone who can use it to move their business forward. The brokering step is about matchmaking between what was captured and who might be able to use it. This role bridges the difficult gap between those who have the knowledge and those who need it.


The real goal line as it pertains to the Knowledge Jam is whether the knowledge gets reused. As Sharing Know-How shares that valuing the knowledge reuse is difficult – however, while assigning a specific value to reuse may be difficult, knowing that knowledge management is valuable isn't a question – it's the goal.

The real problem is that often the actual reuse doesn't get recorded so it's hard to say which Knowledge Jams were successful and which were not. The ideas that were procured through the Knowledge Jam are so transformed by the process it may not be possible to even identify that they originated from the Knowledge Jam when viewed from the outside. Only those who used the knowledge may be aware of where it came from.

Creating Space

"People join companies but they leave managers." – First Break All the Rules.

In the five steps above we discussed the idea that you create a new norm for the capture event. This normal amount to creating what Sharing Know-How would call a container – but it might also be called a space – or ba. Nonaka a pioneer in knowledge management wrote an article describing "Ba" for the California Management Review in 1998 that spoke of creating spaces. Spaces are not meant in the physical sense but rather they're meant in the psychological framing sense.

By establishing the ground rules for a meeting you're establishing space – and the norms that maintain the space. The norms can be as simple as a set of rules for behavior like the rules suggested in Sharing Know-How:

  • Be responsible for inquiring/pushing the collective thinking (show "common curiosity").
  • Use data (illuminate points of view or positions).
  • Drive for clarity with questions, but not judgments.
  • Speak one's truth.
  • Ask the group for permission to digress or probe (use a "parking lot" liberally).
  • Pay respect/don't interrupt.
  • Pay attention (laptops, mobile devices off).
  • Share outside the "room" only as agreed on by the group.

The space may be deeper – driving into the need for trust, vulnerability, and a professional intimacy necessary to share knowledge that was earned through blood, sweat and sometimes tears. (See Trust->Vulnerability->Intimacy for much more about how trust is required for vulnerability which is required for intimacy.) Creating space may also be about explicit conversations about the unacceptability of the dysfunctional behavior that Michael Wilkinson describes:

  • Discourteous: Participant arrives late.
  • Impatient: Participant is weary when the conversation is extremely detailed.
  • Distracted: Doing email.
  • Silent: Holding back knowledge or opposing the process.
  • Passive-aggressive: Some participants may "vote" with absence. "If it's not my meeting, my participation is optional."
  • Resigned: Feeling discouraged when the new ideas threaten the status quo. Not feeling empowered to make changes happen.
  • Argumentative: Sometimes a participant may contradict the speaker.
  • Cynical: Participant says, "Knowledge Jam will blow over, like all fads."
  • Doubting: "You can't capture that knowledge," or "It's too complicated to explain," or "It becomes obsolete too soon."

A space can also be shifting from one mode or model of thinking to another. From the model that Chris Argyris describes as: "Model I behavior is characterized by taking positions, being certain, and using abstract (as opposed to tangible or data-rich) language" to a model that " takes the focus away from protecting one's positions or one's correct status and opens the possibility of unspoken (even forgotten) concepts showing up, combining, and forming something new."

By defining the expectations – the norms – for behavior inside of the meetings a space is created for people to be safe – and to live out the behavior of those norms.

Make Some Noise

If your organization is struggling with a knowledge management initiative but can't quite figure out how to make it happen, then perhaps it's time to make some noise and take a few tips from Sharing Hidden Know-How on how you can make knowledge management real in your organization.

Categories: Book Review, Professional | 0 Comments
Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review: Primal Leadership-Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence

There are numerous books about leadership. A plethora of visionaries over the years have sought to improve leadership in organizations. So what makes Primal Leadership unique is that it talks about the emotional component of leadership. Speaking about emotions in business seems to have picked up a taboo. Those who do speak about emotions in business are in HR and they're often seen as out of touch with the real issues of the organization (as the book points out.)

Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee lead you through some of their and others research about how emotional intelligence impacts the performance of individuals, leaders, teams, and organizations. While I've read some of Goleman's other works (Emotional Intelligence, for instance) I've not seen all of the works assembled in a way that helps the reader understand how vitally important emotional intelligence can be to success of leaders.

Successful Attitude

Zig Ziglar said "Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude." This is a great summary statement for the thesis that IQ doesn't matter nearly as much as emotional intelligence. The song "Accentuate the Positive" Has powerful lyrics. Consider this snippet "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don't mess with mister in between." This is a song has guidance that is useful in our real world.

The first half of emotional intelligence is self-awareness and self-management. This is the ability to monitor and manage your feelings and mood. Ultimately managing feelings and moods means that you can manage your attitudes about the things that come up in your day-to-day life. It's attitude management, the ability to focus how you feel about things that can be immensely powerful. In Thinking in Systems we learned about how a paradigm shift is one of the most powerful ways to impact a system. Attitude shifts are paradigm shifts. It's changing the way that you see the world around you. When I read Stumbling on Happiness, I mentioned that it was during an unusually long rescheduling at the airport – and it was fine. Compare that with the irate people you see as you're walking to your next flight. It's simply a different world.

The second half of emotional intelligence is social awareness – knowing how to see emotions in others – and relationship management. The finesse of emotional intelligence comes in when deciding how much of someone else's mood or attitude to take in. While it's natural for us to synchronize our emotional state with others – particularly when sharing an experience like watching a movie, we need to be able to define the boundaries between where our responsibility begins and where it ends.

Learning about how to set boundaries can be difficult work for those of us who didn't have great examples of appropriate boundary setting as a child. (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries) Learning to communicate your desires and to not take ownership of someone else's feelings is tough stuff. At the heart of this is a simple understanding. When you communicate to someone else your needs and desires, you're not taking anything from them. You're allowing them the opportunity to give you what you need. The subtle change here is in attitude. It's the attitude of taking verses the attitude of giving. That makes a world of difference. Taking depletes our emotional bank where giving makes a deposit.

The idea that we're synchronizing our attitudes with those around us isn't necessarilyy bad. In fact, leaders can use the fact that humans try to synchronize – or attune – their feelings to one another as a powerful motivator.

Attunement Instead of Alignment

Emotional synchronization may be at a micro level emotional attunement. However, at a broader – less episodic – perspective attuning emotions and moods can be a powerful tool for leaders. John Gottman talked extensively about attunement in The Science of Trust. The context there is for couples to have better relationships but as Primal Leadership points out, attunement may be a better paradigm for business as well. Attunement isn't about lining up objectives. Rather, attunement is about bringing things in harmony with one another. Attunement in business means getting everyone bought into the same vision. There's more to buying into a vision than just aligning objectives.

One of the challenges in the process of developing and executing a strategy is that often times the process assumes that people are replaceable cogs in the larger wheel of the organization. Fred Brooks famously spoke of the inability to replace developers in a project in his classic essay The Mythical Man-Month. People are not directly replaceable. Each person brings their own unique strengths, weaknesses, and dynamics to the organization and the strategy has to account for that. Attunement is that process of bringing all the individual strategies – for the lives of each of the employees in the organization – in harmony with the organization strategy.

I've spoken before about the model of the Rider, the Elephant, and the path from The Happiness Hypothesis and from Switch and the need to engage people emotionally. That's what attunement is – an emotional engagement between two people. It's a harmony between people – whether in a relationship or on a team. The fastest way to that attunement is laughter.

The Shortest Path between Two People Is Laughter

When I took my path into learning more about comedy (including the class which I detailed in my post "I am Comedian", and the books Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy, and The New Comedy Writing Step by Step) I didn't realize the power of laughter. One of the books that I started to read but haven't finished, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind, talks about Duchenne laughter – the kind of laughter when we genuinely find something funny and social laughter – how we respond when other people are laughing. This is based on research about how the muscles in the face are engaged differently based on whether the person spontaneously smiled – or smiled because other people were smiling. We're social creatures by nature but it seems one of the shortcuts to our social nature is how we laugh together.

You probably already know about mirror neurons – but they act much more slowly than the behavior observed with non-Duchenne laughter. Laughter is contagious – and fiercely so. Primal Leadership talks about how powerful laughter is. Including the fact that outstanding leaders tend to use humorous comments three times as often as the average leader and the fact that most laughter doesn't come with a punch line. One of the great learnings of comedy for me is that sometimes it's not the punch line that gets the big laugh – sometimes it's the tag – the thing added to the joke to extend the laughter.

Learning to cultivate laughter is a difficult art. A few nights ago I sat in a comedy club listening to a show that was barely more than an open mic and watched a dozen comics try to hone their craft of working with an audience and to get them to laugh – when that's what they wanted to do. Imagine the challenge of a leader trying to develop this skill in a town hall meeting where the employees aren't expecting to be entertained. It's a difficult – but powerful – skill for those leaders who can use it. Like at a comedy club there will be many "bombs" where you and the audience don't connect. However, it's those failures that make you better.

Great Failures

One of the hallmarks of great coaching and mentoring is accepting short term failure for the longer term purpose of helping an employee to grow. There's a point of view that failure shouldn't be allowed – but in truth we learn much better when we have the opportunity to fail. Primal Leadership makes the point that there's a delicate tension between folks feeling safe to fail – and not feeling enough pressure to succeed. It turns out that humans are uniquely able to experience stress even when there's not an immediate threat to our survival. We can become stressed based entirely on our own perception of longer term issues. With this stress we're flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. The effect of these two chemicals aren't conducive to learning.

The body's response to these chemicals, the "fight or flight" response that we're all familiar with, is a biological adaptation to allow us to focus all of our energies on escaping the life threatening situation. However, this system was never designed – from an evolutionary standpoint – to be left on for long periods of time. It reroutes the way that learning is done from our normal executive function to a way that can trigger the amygdala the next time there is a threat so the amygdala can more accurately trigger based on it. The result is that we're not really learning from the situation in a meaningful way.

I recently had the opportunity to revisit the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco where my friend works. Another friend described this museum as a love letter from a daughter to her father – which perfectly describes it. As you walk through the first few galleries of the museum you realize both the failures of Walt's early life as well as his perseverance. Bankruptcies, accusations, and swindlers are all a part of the story. If you were to look at his life prior to moving to Hollywood it wouldn't be at all remarkable. What's remarkable is what he did after each setback. He pulled himself up and used that as a learning point on how to move forward. In fact, that may be one of his great legacies as the later galleries point out. He would work on smaller projects to learn the skills that were necessary to do larger projects.

Abraham Lincoln is another great leader who suffered failure after failure. He struggled with his first business. He lost a bid to become an Illinois state representative. He failed at another business. He had a nervous breakdown, three failed attempts at becoming a member of congress, and a failed bid for vice president by 1859. This is a man who had tried and failed and tried some more and failed some more. However, as the 16th president he had to lead the country through one of its darkest hours and is remembered universally as one of the best presidents that the United States has ever had.

The difference between those who don't succeed and those who ultimately succeed wildly isn't the number of failures – or even the percentage of failures. The difference it seems is the number of times at bat. It's the number of times that they got up, dusted themselves off, and tried again. The strength to get back up comes from a great deal of inward focus – work on who they are as humans whether that work was intentional or not.

Inward Focus

One of the oddest things about leadership – and working with other people in general – is that to be better at having relationships with other people you have to have a better relationship with yourself. That means finding your true self. Finding out what is important to you. It means finding what makes you happy. (Or at least what you think what you think will make you happy. See The Happiness Hypothesis and Stumbling on Happiness for that.) Loyola and the Jesuits found that self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism were key values that led them to be the longest corporation in existence. (See Heroic Leadership.) The trio of books from the Abinger Institute include the leadership book – Leadership and Self Deception. In this book we look at the "boxes" that we can put ourselves in where our reality is distorted – and where we seek to bring others into their own "box" and their own distortion.

What Primal Leadership knows is that much of the problems that are caused in leadership are actually poor self-management. (See Emotional Intelligence for details on the four components of emotional intelligence – one of which is self-management.) By learning to better manage ourselves, we learn how to leverage the knowledge we already have about how to manage well. What's even better is that people who have done a great deal of inward work often find that they're able to create a space around themselves where things work better. There's a halo effect where their presence and influence through the clarity of who they are and their confidence drives other's behaviors as well.

Halo Effect

Have you ever been in a place where people just behaved differently with a certain person in the room, in the meeting, or in the area? I'm not talking about the way that people behave differently when their boss or the CEO is in the room. I'm talking about a person that somehow quells arguments, calms people, and just seems to get them to get things done? It's an eerie thing to see it happen. "Joe" walks into the room and all of the sudden the fighting stops. It's not that anyone fears "Joe." It's just that they know that it's not an acceptable thing with "Joe" there.

What "Joe" has is sometimes hard to quantify. Sometimes it's that he's set boundaries about what is and isn't acceptable in his presence (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries) Maybe he's developed a sense of calm that simply radiates from him the way that people describe their meetings with the Dali Lama (See Emotional Awareness). No matter what it is there's an effect around "Joe." There are people like this in your organization now. These people – who may or may not be in leadership positions – infect the people around them with a better sense and practice of leadership. This infection happens relatively outside of the leadership approaches that they use. It's an outcome of their inward work.

Leadership Approaches (Skills or Styles)

Though Primal Leadership identifies six leadership styles, I see six approaches or sets of skills. The reason for the language change is one of the core messages of the book – that managers get better by learning more styles and learning when to use them. If you have a style you have a set way of doing things. You'll tend to continue your style for long periods of time. However, the research suggests that having a full tool box of these approaches and learning when and how to switch between them makes leaders more effective. It's much easier to switch from using one skill to another than it is to switch from one style to another. However, skills doesn't quite match up to these because each of the styles in the book is really a set of skills – thus an approach toward a leadership event. So while I'm picking at the language the key messaging – the approaches – are quite solid.

These approaches are rooted in Daniel Goleman's research and article for Harvard Business Review titled "Leadership That Gets Results" – however some of the names of the approaches have been changed between the writing of the article and the writing of Primal Leadership. Where possible I've tried to tie the two names together.

Visionary (Coercive)

Initially called coercive, the visionary style gets people to move towards shared dreams. The initial term – coercive – may have seemed negative but the visionary leader is a powerful leadership style. It helps rally everyone around a common objective. The visionary leadership style asks those who follow to give up – or attune – their goals to the goal of the leader. Like the pied piper the visionary style asks people to follow.

Goleman's data indicates that this is the most effective leadership style perhaps because it can be used to shape even the most dull and mundane tasks into something else. If your vision is "delivering Christmas" how much more powerful a thought is that from a job sorting packages at a FedEx package sorting facility?


We've all seen numerous sports coaches that are great examples of coaching – and numerous who are not. Or have we? Coaching isn't about demanding performance or even rallying speeches. Coaching – particularly in the context of leadership – is about connecting a person's goals and aspirations to the organization's goals. The first step is understanding the person's goals. However, from there the coach must draw lines between how the person's individual goals line up with and support the organizational goals. Finally, the coach must identify ways to work towards both goals at the same time.

Affiliative (Connecting)

Taken to the extreme, the Affiliative style is peacemaking. That is never allowing conflict for fear that it might drive divisiveness into the group. However, used appropriately, an affiliative style works by connecting people to one another. Where coaching was about the one-on-one relationship between the coach and the coachee, affiliative leadership is about helping the team bond together better. (See more about the impact of this in Collaborative Intelligence.)

Democratic (Listening)

The democratic approach is about letting everyone have their say and get their buy in through the thought that they were heard and that their ideas were valued. This style can be very positive in that it can get everyone feeling like they had their say. However, this style requires more skill than it might at first appear because it's important to not just let people have their say but also for them to feel heard. This is discussed in Dialogue Mapping and the Heretic's Guide to Best Practices where the dialogue mapping process is discussed as a way to demonstrate that at topic was heard.

Conceptually the democratic approach is about the wisdom of crowds. However, often democratic approaches deteriorate into the tyranny of a mob. The skills of a leader are tested most when trying to manage all of the factors that can take the train off the tracks.


Some people like a challenge. Sometimes leaders can put a stretch goal in front of a team for them to accomplish. These goals are useful for helping folks break out of a performance level they've been stuck at. However, the important part of this is that they're not a sustainable pace. It's not sustainable to always be working on stretch goals. Employees need time to recover and recharge. We've seen this with agile software development methodologies where high performance relies upon consistent delivery – not unsustainable paces.

Leaders who use pacesetting need to do so carefully to prevent overuse and fatigue. The challenge is to keep enough challenge for people to do their best but not so much they become burnt out and conversely that there's enough pressure on them that they stay motivated.

Commanding (Authoritative)

There's also a leadership approach that's commanding. This can be appropriate in limited circumstances where there's an urgent need or a great deal of disruption which has frozen people but long term is corrosive and leads employees to feel like they are not valued. Even organizations where commanding approaches are essential – like the military – balance the commanding approach with other more positive approaches.

Tools in a Toolbox

Primal Leadership makes the point that the more of these approaches that you can use well, the better you will be as a leader. The more of these skills that a leader is competent and comfortable with the greater the possibility that the leader will be able to select the right approach when necessary – and the greater the possibility that they'll use it in the right amount. The answer isn't that there's one right – or wrong – way to approach things. Rather it's about knowing which tool to select for different situations. Learning is a critical part of leadership not just because the market is changing around you but because there's an opportunity to become a better person.

You can change

As was discussed in Mindset, there are two ways that people can see themselves and others. They can see them as either: fixed and unchanging or as an organism capable of change and growth. In order to accept that you can learn new leadership approaches – and to get better at the approaches that you use today – you have to accept that the way that you lead isn't a fixed set but rather, it's something that you can learn.

Adult Learning

When you're trying to lead you're trying to teach people how to get across the next goal line. We've talked about the factors that influence adult learning in the review of The Adult Learner and some of the techniques that can be used to teach in Efficiency in Learning. What's interesting is that in Primal Learning there are discussions that the best way to change people isn't to focus on the performance of the person – but rather on the learning that they needed to be successful. It was also clear that the employee needed to have a strong personal desire for learning – beyond work – for the best results. When employees are lifelong learners they're able to better integrate learning and overall be better performers.

Tipping Point

One of the areas of research for Richard Boyatzis has been the impact of increasing the number of leadership approaches that are being used and how the ability to leverage four or more of the styles can make you much more powerful. Similarly, learning how to better use individual styles can make you more effective with them. There's a tipping point with the individual styles where you'll be more successful and also with the number of styles that you can use which can propel you to the next level of leadership

The Power of Norms

There's power in the habits and the normal. I've discussed the rider-elephant-path model several times (see Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis). Primal Leadership speaks about how creating norms of conduct that are positive can influence everything. Everyone wants to be positive to others. If you don't believe in the power of norms, consider that even during the LA Riots in 1992 people were looting stores after parking their cars inside the lines in the parking lot. They're willing to openly loot from the store but parking outside the lines was so foreign that they didn't even think to do it.

Leading With Style

Everyone has some approach to how they lead – even if their position isn't that of a leader. Some of the best leaders may be introspective and focused on improving themselves and their awareness of themselves to be able to be more comfortable with stretching themselves out to learn new styles (See How Children Succeed for more.) Learning how to adapt your styles between the various approaches makes you a more versatile leader and thereby can make you more effective at leading. Pickup Primal Leadership to learn how you can be more effective.

Categories: Book Review, Professional | 0 Comments
Saturday, May 03, 2014

Book Review: Collaborative Intelligence – Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems

Like many people, I enjoy action movies where there are terrorists trying to wreck our world and the lone hero – or hero team – that are standing in the breach between the terrorists and our way of life. However, I've never really given much thought to what it would be like to be in an intelligence community. I can quickly spot the flaws in a plot line but I've never given much thought to what would have to happen to prevent terrorists. However, I found the view of intelligence communities, provided through Collaborative Intelligence very intriguing. I didn't pick the book up to learn about the intelligence community – I picked the book up to learn about team dynamics – but it was interesting.

Many places where you start to study about team effectiveness you'll find references to Richard Hackman's work including articles and papers. Collaborative Intelligence is his latest (and sadly his last work.) It lays out six conditions to increase the potential for team effectiveness and three criteria for measuring the performance of teams. The work lives outside the bounds of the traditional cause and effect popular management books of the day. Hackman doesn't seek to tell you one way to be successful. In that way it's like The Heretic's Guide to Best Practices. Instead, Collaborative Intelligence is about the things that can make it more likely for teamwork to work – and things that work against it.

Three Criteria

Hackman ultimately was interested in making teams more effective but more effective by what measurement? It's possible to be focused on only the results but as I discussed in my reviews of The Fifth Discipline and The Four Disciplines of Execution, this isn't really enough. You have to look earlier into the process – and later in the process. Hackman uses three criteria for team performance:


Indicator Type

Productive Output


Social Processes


Learning / Growth


Hackman also discusses three team processes that I believe fall into the category of sustainability which I'll cover first, before covering Hackman's three criteria.


In agile development there's a concept of a sustainable pace. In a market dominated by hero development where a lone programmer stocks up on Mountain Dew and Doritos and spends a few days without sleep, coding something magnificent, there's a palpable awareness of how things must be sustainable. You can't continue to drive developers above a sustainable pace any more than you can make a horse run continuously. For instance, the Pony Express swapped out horses after relatively short distances because an individual horse couldn't sustain the high speed that they were asking of them.

Hackman measured three key team processes to observe the sustainability of the team:

  • Amount of Effort
  • Team Choices
  • Level of Knowledge and Skill

Hackman was measuring the same sustainability metric by looking at the amount of effort that the team was putting in order to get their output. It's certainly possible – and productive – to burst activity towards the goal but those bursts have to be paid for at some point.

Team choices are about the social dynamics and making sure that the team is collaborating to produce strategies for getting the work done instead of allowing one or a few members to dominate the approaches. If approaches are thoroughly thought out by the team and negotiated to agreement (not just acceptance – see The Science of Trust and How to be an Adult in Relationships for more) then the team is likely to be able to continue to operate for some time effectively. If one person or a small group are dominating the approach decisions then eventually they'll run out of good ideas or the rest of the team will revolt – or both.

Finally, you can only get lucky for so long. If you're working in uncharted waters where there the team has no knowledge or skill you can "get lucky" with some early successes, however, eventually the team will make a mistake because they've never done something. Knowing how much knowledge and skill is being applied to the problem at hand helps you to understand the risk of a small failure.

Together these measurements allow you to see how long the team can sustain its productive output.

Productive Output

At some level every team gets measured on its results so it is no surprise that you would measure the output of the team. However, as mentioned in The Four Disciplines of Execution, output is necessarily lagging. (Also see Thinking in Systems for delay.) To be able to intervene and make changes you need leading indicators, like the social processes in use.

Social Processes

Anyone who was a part of a large family has seen sibling rivalry and has seen the sarcastic "picking" at one another that sometimes happens in a family. Some of us have seen a mostly different experience where siblings go out of their way to support one another. Whether it's complimenting an accomplishment, encouraging around a disappointing setback, or simply listening to the world of the sibling without comment, there's a more supportive social construct that can also develop.

Hackman measured how the social processes of the team were working. They were looking for how the team was building each other up, not tearing each other down. When a team works to support individual member's weaknesses -- we all have them -- rather than attack them, the team is more effective. The more that a team can develop an open, honest, and supporting environment the more likely it is that the team will be successful in creating it's deliverable – and helping each of the individual members to grow.

Hackman knew that overtime the ability of the team to support and accept each other's weaknesses would improve productive output – and perhaps even spur individual and team learning.

Learning and Growth

Measured in the long term the current project doesn't matter. The current team effectiveness will be a faded memory. However, what will really resound is the velocity with which the organization moves. The velocity of the organization is driven by the ability for its teams to get things done and that means that teams need to get more effective over time – over the long time horizon. That is done by ensuring that the team dynamics foster the growth of individuals both in their ability to work in a team as well as their individual skills.

One of the great things about Ford's assembly line was that he could leverage unskilled workers because the requisite skill to work on the line was low. One of the worst things about the assembly line was that the assembly line didn't encourage, support, or to some extent even allow, workers to grow their skill level. While we still use assembly lines in the production of some things, the way that they're executed are much different. They take advantage of lean manufacturing thinking and cellular manufacturing to create an opportunity for the individual workers to become more skilled – and there by create the opportunity for success.

Knowing that we want to improve outcomes, improve our interactions, and improve our people, we need to explore the conditions that lead to these outcomes.

Six Conditions

What makes some teams very effective and some completely ineffective – or perhaps even capable of moving an organization backwards? There's no one answer to that question. Certainly individual performance and competency impact the capabilities of the team, however, some "dream team" collection of players work spectacularly and some fail miserably. Certainly there's more to a team than the sum of its parts. That's the core of the six conditions which are:

  • Real Team
  • Compelling Purpose
  • Right People
  • Clear Norms
  • Supportive Context
  • Competent Coaching

Let's look at each condition in more detail.

Real Team

Sometimes organizations create groups of people and give them a name like "Team Quality." However, giving a group of people a name doesn't make them a team. Instead teams are "a bounded set of people who work together over some period of time to accomplish a common task". Hackman describes several kinds of collaboration. The types of collaboration he discusses are:

  • Community of Interest – A loose collection of individuals that share a common interest. They have no common task, timeline, nor membership.
  • Community of Practice – A loose collection of individuals that are leveraging the collaboration to accomplish their own organizational goals. They too, don't share a common task, timeline, nor is there typically a clear membership.
  • Emergent Collaboration – Sometimes individuals are assigned similar responsibilities inside of different teams or organizations. These teams share information among the group for the betterment of all. IT security groups that share the latest information about current threats, schemes, and tools are an example of emergent collaboration.
  • Coacting Group – Commonly a collection of individuals performing similar – but not interrelated tasks – are called teams but are instead coacting groups. They are not working together to accomplish a common task. They're working individually to accomplish the same task.
  • Distributed Team – A distributed team isn'tt located together and therefore must rely upon technology and travel to stay coordinated but they do generally have a clear membership and do share a common goal. Distributed teams have coordination challenges. Many of these challenges are described, in agile development and knowledge management literature.
  • Project Team / Task Force – The project team meets the definitions of a real team but tends to have a relatively short life. The team is formed the mission is accomplished and the team is disbanded.
  • Semi-Permanent Work Team – Similar to a project team but more typically aligned departmentally a semi-permanent work team focus on operational work – or a stream of projects – and works together towards those goals with not specific end to the work.

The last three types of collaboration are considered – by Hackman – to be real teams.

Compelling Purpose

Strangely many teams don't know their real purpose. They get wrapped up in the operational details of the work to be done and never get focused on why they're there. Collaborative Intelligence speaks of exercises where a red team (terrorists) are attempting to attack while a blue team (good guys) are attempting to thwart the red team. A great deal of time is spent talking about why the red team has a set of serious advantages from a teamwork perspective. Not the least of which is that the purpose for the red team is quickly formed from a simple offensive goal, whereas the blue team frequently struggles to convert a generic "defend" goal into a set of meaningful actions.

Red teams are given the purpose of disrupting and often start by the members throwing out their skills that might be helpful to the group while blue teams often throw out their positions in their organizations. Red teams move on to forming a specific approach to accomplish their goal while blue teams flounder trying to find their purpose.

While the two teams have a clearly stated goal the red team has the ability to convert their generic purpose into a specific set of actions. Often this goal – where the approach to accomplishing the goal is specified by them – represents some sort of a stretch where they'll need to bring in skills and knowledge from others to accomplish it. This maps neatly into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on Finding Flow. They're able to moderate their difficulty level to a point where they're most effective.

The real "red teams" are also able to frame their objectives in terms of a broader mission. In other words, their work is seen as consequential to their greater purpose.

The blue team may be able to "protect" but this isn't typically specific enough to achieve the goal of a specific set of actions for thwarting the red team. While their work is consequential to protecting their way of life, the difficulty in getting clear about the exact approach can be very disruptive to performance.

Right People

Jim Collins in Good to Great starts off with getting the right people assembled. His metaphor is that you have to get the right people on the bus first. Hackman agrees that having the right people in the right positions is critical to team success. Specifically he was concerned whether or not team members had the right skills – or aptitudes. In his research he found that ensuring that a team had all of the required skills – they knew what to do – or the right aptitudes – they could learn what to do -- was an important first step. The next step was to design the team so that the skills of the individual team members can be leveraged. Teams with the right skills and the right design were nearly 40 times as powerful as teams without the required skills and design.

While Hackman suggests that direct skills are best for team design he also indicates through his research that aptitude for the subject area or even in some cases general intelligence is effective at creating well designed teams. This is particularly true when the team is coupled with good coaching around the areas where they don't have core skills. (See condition number six).

Hackman is equally clear that having the right number and mix of people is essential. It's important to support the team with resources (see condition five) but not to over provide them with resources so that they will blindly accept a sub-optimal strategy. This applies to people resources as well as material resources. Keeping the team slightly under resourced leads to more productive teams.

Finally, Hackman admits that the data is that one bad apple can spoil the bunch. An entire team can become derailed with a single bad person. So it's often better to get rid of one person who is disruptive to teamwork – even if that person has key skills that are perceived as necessary because it's possible that the rest of the team can't be effective with a single bad person in place.

Clear Norms

Defining normal is a power force. One of the barriers to adoption of a new technology or approach is not having norms. Establishing the rules of behavior for teams can be important and powerful as well as helping the team organize into what is – and isn't acceptable. In fact, Hackman found that establishing clear norms was more strongly associated with team effectiveness than any other factor. There are two key factors in how powerful the norms will be.

The first factor in the power of the norm is the vigor with which the group will defend the norm. Some things are defined as normal behavior but for which there aren't clear, consistent consequences for not following. For instance, there may be a norm that you wash your own coffee cups in the break room but since there's a receptionist who will wash them if you don't there's little vigor of enforcement.

The second factor is the level of agreement on what the norm should be. Crystalized norms, those with which there is nearly complete agreement, are different than norms of conduct that most people agree to – but not everyone. The lack of crystalized norms reduces enforcement but also reduces the ability to develop a set of universal expectations about what is and isn't acceptable.

Don't let the simplicity of establishing norms fool you. They are sometimes difficult to create. One way to speed the process is to borrow norms from other groups or situations and either get buy-in or simply decree that it's the normal. As long as no one is willing to stand against the proposed normal, it can quickly be adopted by the group.

Supportive Context

A friend once said – to his boss – that his mission on the helpdesk was like being parachuted in behind enemy lines with only a spoon. Needless to say he didn't feel like he was being well supported. It's not surprising that he and his team struggled to be effective because they found themselves spending most of their time working around the things they did not have. Hackman's work identified that the supportive context of the organization made a big difference in the ability for the team to be effective. Specifically there are four key aspects of supportive context:

  • Access to the information a team needs to accomplish its work.
  • The availability of educational and technical resources to supplement members' own knowledge and skill.
  • Ample material resources for use in carrying out the team's work.
  • External recognition and reinforcement of excellent team performance.

The presence of these four things represent a supportive context under which the team is more likely to succeed. As mentioned earlier, having what a team needs isn't about over supplying the team, however, it is about giving them what's minimally necessary to be successful. One of the specific things that teams need are competent coaching.

Competent Coaching

Most of the research on coaching has been evaluated at an individual level. Did the coaching work for a specific person on the team. Most of the individual coaching is done in the vacuum of an off-site workshop where folks are given a synthetic scenario to solve – or are being taught that their team members will catch them when they fall. While these exercises get good marks in post-event feedback studies, it's not been conclusively proven that these sorts of interventions are successful at driving a chance in outcomes.

The first part of competent coaching is simply finding the right coach with the right experiences to be able to help. Coaching is difficult to measure effectiveness before starting and because each situation is different it's difficult to see if a coach will be effective for your situation. (See wicked problems in Dialogue Mapping and The Heretic's Guide to Best Practices.) Strangely Hackman discovered that better coaching was less interactions. Experienced coaches waited longer to provide feedback to give themselves more time to see the problem and to consider a response. They seemed to inherently know that there's a limit to how much coaching an individual can take in a given time.

This runs counter to the idea that the sooner you make a correction through coaching the less rework and redirection must be done. This is, of course, true, however, the other factors in the system are more important than the redirection. (See Thinking in Systems) In fact, Hackman found that different kinds of interventions were better at different times. So not only was it good to reflect on the situation before providing coaching but sometimes the type of coaching changed based on where the team was in its lifecycle.

When starting a project, teams are most responsive to motivational interventions. They want to be "fired up" about the shared challenge that they're getting. However, engaging the team in discussions about the alternative ways of going about the work – picking a process to follow – are ineffective. It isn't until the midpoint of the team's life where they're willing and able to evaluate their processes and refine them. It's then that the consultative approach of optimization and reflection is effective.

The final part of the lifecycle is the near end or post end when things like after action reviews (See The New Edge in Knowledge Management and Lost Knowledge for the importance of after action reviews.) Most teams struggle to do after action reviews because they see little direct value. However, Hackman measured teams effectiveness based on how the teams became more effective both individually and as a team as a part of the process and so the ability to capture what the team learned is important to informing the next teams.

Beyond the timing and quality of the coaching, there are even dimensions of how the training is conducted that are important to whether the training will be effective. The first is whether the coaching is focused on individuals or teams.

Individual coaching may be effective at improving individual skills and in some cases individual coaching on how to participate in a team may be appropriate (see Right People above). However, coaching targeted at the team can be much more effective.

Another dimension of the effectiveness of coaching is whether the coaching is focused on the process of teamwork – or on the task at hand. The assumption is that working on the harmony of the team – the process of teamwork – is what causes teams to be effective. However, it may be that effective teams become harmonious – that we're reading the causal relationship in reverse. It appears that the goal of a team shouldn't be harmony – because there are numerous successful teams that aren't harmonious – but instead the focus should be on respect. If you respect and trust one another the team is more likely to be able to avoid traps like "groupthink." (See my post on Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on trust.)

The research indicates that coaching on the actual work that the team is doing is more effective than process coaching. It seems that helping the teams solve their problems and better understanding the challenges of their space is more effective at helping them than coaching them how to operate more effectively. Hackman's research showed that no amount of team structuring, or process coaching was effective at improving performance of a team when there weren't the people who had the requisite skills or the ability to get them. In fact, process coaching when the team didn't have fundamental skills just reduced their performance.

60-30-10 – Setup, Startup, and Operation

Hackman asserts that sixty percent of a team's effectiveness is in the setup, another thirty percent is in the startup of the group, and only the remaining ten percent can be accounted for by tweaking various operational parameters after the team is up and running.

The setup, in Hackman's view, is the team's purpose, composition, and design. That is what the team is tasked to do, the team members selected, and the roles that the members are expected to perform.

Certainly there are others that would agree that setting the right goal is important. We saw Loyola implore the Jesuits to focus on the right outcome not the trivial details in Heroic Leadership. Covey was clear about beginning with the end in mind in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The composition – getting the right people – is something Jim Collins emphasized in Good to Great. It's also the focus of books like Who: The A Method for Hiring. There's a great deal of research on how impactful getting the right hires for an organization can be.

Judging simply by the sheer number of management books available all aimed at getting the right skills into the right roles there's little doubt that there's a belief that the design of the team – what they're expected to do – is important as well.

The next step in Hackman's model is the startup or launching of the team. One component of launching is the communication of the purpose of the team. Something that no doubt Patrick Lencioni would approve of, given the focus on clarity in The Advantage. Similarly John Kotter's model for change focuses on the need to build a coalition and communicating the change as discussed in Leading Change and The Heart of Change.

Similarly how a team is introduced to one another is important. By introducing skills – rather than introducing positions or groups – the team can focused on how they work together not what stereotypes they have of the group from which the member came.

Finally, Hackman discusses how facilitating – coaching – can be effective. However, he cautions, as mentioned above, that the right kind of coaching should happen that the appropriate time in the team's lifecycle.

Cost and Utility of Information

One rather accidental observation that Hackman raises repeatedly is the bias for intelligence groups to treat information that is difficult to obtain as more valuable than information that is readily available from public sources. This reminds me of an admonishment from a CEO when I was doing product management work years ago to not do "cost+" pricing. That is that the price that we can obtain from the market for a product doesn't have anything to do with the actual cost of manufacturing. We should focus on the utility of the product and what the market is willing to bare – instead of what it costs us. Douglas Hubbard in How to Measure Anything also shares that just because something is harder to get doesn't make it better – in fact, it often makes it less good.

The point, however, isn't that we shouldn't judge the value of information based on its cost – the point is that we as humans often have trouble separating the effort that we spent to get something and the value it delivers. Luckily I have a reasonably good reminder. I have desks that I literally built out of door jamb, file cabinets and pieces of tempered glass. The desks weren't expensive – but they're incredibly effective at keeping my stuff off the floor. It's my visual reminder that just because something is more expensive doesn't make it better.

Collaboration in the End

Good collaboration – good teams – in the end are about the organization of appropriate individual team member skills to accomplish the goal and for the development of everyone involved. Good collaboration has each member supporting other member's weaknesses without complaining or condemnation. Team members build each other up rather than tearing them down. If you want to figure out how to create these kinds of teams, read Collaborative Intelligence.

Categories: Book Review, Professional | 0 Comments
Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review-Thinking in Systems: A Primer

When I reread The Fifth Discipline and wrote a book review for it, I found a few references to Donella Meadows and upon further research I found the book Thinking in Systems. The book is odd in that it was published posthumously. The book draft was written in 1993 but was never published. She unexpectedly died in 2001 and in 2008 the book was finally brought to print. I'm glad that it did. As much as Singe's work made systems thinking popular, Meadows work was much richer and deeper than was possible with The Fifth Discipline.

It's possible to believe at first glance that learning from The Fifth Discipline might be enough, but systems thinking was only one of the disciplines – it didn't get the depth that it deserves as a way of thinking that can change your effectiveness.

Essence of a System

Years ago while speaking about databases terms we talked about atomic transactions. That is that a transaction should either completely succeed or fail. One of the problems with early file-based ISAM databases was a record being updated in one file and not in another. The modern SQL based databases solve this problem by wrapping changes to a set of tables into a single transaction – as single atomic operation – that will either succeed or fail. It will never end up partially updating tables. You can't extract just part of the complex system update, you have to take it all – or none of it.

Systems are the same way. They have an all or nothing component of them. You can't take one part of a system and manipulate it without having an impact on something else. We saw this in Diffusion of Innovations and The Fifth Discipline as the law of unintended consequences. You have to take the whole of the system you can't take the pieces. However, in order to approach an understanding of the system – in order to create a mental model of the system (See Sources of Power and The Fifth Discipline) – You'll have to try to decompose the system into understandable components. Those components are the elements of the system, the way that they're connected, and the purpose of the system. In systems thinking, the system is more than a sum of the parts.

This is part of why wicked problems (See Dialogue Mapping and The Heretic's Guide to Best Practices) are wicked. You can't work on just one part of the problem, you have to work on the entire system at once – and all of the relationships between all of the parts.

Elements, Connections, and Purpose

Taking apart a system should be easy. Nearly everything that we have ever run across can be dissected into smaller and smaller units. A person can be broken down into organs, cells, molecules, atoms, protons, quarks, etc. We've become adept at identifying the component parts of a system. It's not surprising that being able to see the individual elements of the system is the easiest part of the process of understanding a system. In most cases elements are tangible. Even when they're not tangible – they're things like pride and identity – they're still relatively easy for our concrete focused minds to understand. (See Pervasive Information Architecture for our need to learn through concrete things.)

It's often harder to see the interconnections between the elements in a system. If you're looking at an airplane you can see the engines and the trust and you can observe the plane in flight, but it's not obvious how the shape of the wings (camber) relates to the amount of lift generated. The thrust that the engines are producing is being converted into lift by the wings, but in a non-obvious way. The only hope for seeing connections between different parts of the system is to observe the system in action.

More difficult to see is the purpose of the system. In the case of an airplane the fact that it's used for transportation is non-obvious at first glance – when you look at the collection of components. Of course we all know that airplanes are designed for transportation – but that's because we've seen them in action.

Consider the raging debates about what Stonehenge was created for. There numerous theories about what the rocks were used for. We know that they're rocks (elements) and we can see the connections (orientation) but because we've not been able to see their original use we still don't know for certain what their purpose was. The best (if not only) way to deduce the purpose of a system is to see it in operation.

Of these, components of a system the elements component is the one where they are easiest to see. However, elements have the least impact. The connections and the purpose are much more important. The purpose is also the most difficult to observe. In fact, Paul Ekman, who developed a mechanism for determining a person's emotional state through micro expressions says that you can accurately observe the emotion but you cannot know why they felt the feeling. (See Social Engineering, Trust Me, and Emotional Awareness for more about Ekman's work)

Some systems have espoused purposes which don't match their actual purposes. Consider, for instance, a buy-here-pay-here car lot. The espoused purpose is to sell cars. However, the actual purpose is to provide high-risk loans to people. These high-risk loans come with higher interest rates designed to be profitable for the car dealer. However, many of these car lots' marketing schemes are targeted at providing freedom to people who wouldn't otherwise be able to buy a car. It's possible that there's one espoused purpose – and an entirely different actual purpose.

Seeing purpose in the behavior of a system is somewhat like trying to see the wind blow. You can't directly see which way the wind is blowing, however, as a pilot knowing the wind direction and speed can be important. That's why pilots are taught to get winds reports – but also to look at smoke from smokestacks and the ways that trees are bending in the wind to be able to get an approximation of the way that the wind is blowing through indirect means.

One of the challenges that happens when trying to infer the behavior of a system is that you believe that What You See is all there is (WYSIATI). (See Thinking, Fast and Slow) However, in the systems world what you see is like what you see of an iceberg. (About 1/7th of the total size of an iceberg is above the water.) There is so much that isn't directly visible without careful observations. For instance, you can see a duck on the surface of the water but you can't see how much – or little – the duck is paddling underneath the water. In this way, even observing a river doesn't make transparent all of the factors influencing it.

Stocks and Flows

Systems consist of stocks and flows. Stocks are batteries or reserve. They are the storehouse of the system. Flows are the inputs and outputs to that stock. For instance, the Dead Sea has a flow of the Jordan River as an input. It also has rain as an input. It has an output of evaporation. There is no other outlet of the Dead Sea. The stock is the size of the Dead Sea itself –the water contained in it.

As humans we're more aware of stocks than we are flows. That's one of the reasons why we're more concerned about our bank account balances than the amount we pay for cable each month. Cable is an outward flow. Our bank balance is our stock of money. One of the reasons why people who make a lot of money spend a lot of money is because of our focus on the stocks. If we have a stock of money than our outward flows must be acceptable.


A child's ability to delay gratification is a better measure of future success than any IQ test. The simple test of whether a child could wait a few minutes for two marshmallows instead of one could indicate better than sophisticated instruments designed to measure a child's intelligence, their success later in life. (See How Children Succeed, Introducing Psychology of Success, and The Information Diet for Walter Mischel's famous test.) It seems our ability to see – and accept – delays is an important part of our success in this world. That is likely because our world is alive with systems all interacting with one another and all of them with inherent delays.

Every system has delays in it. The instant there is a change the system doesn't instantly change. You take an action and then there's a delay before the response. The classic example of this is the temperature of a shower as I mentioned in my review of The Fifth Discipline. However, delays exist in all of our everyday systems. Consider your paycheck. When you work you don't instantly get a paycheck. In most cases it takes two or three weeks before you get your paycheck for the time you've worked.

The more steps in a system that something must go through, the longer the delay. I had the pleasure recently of meeting a rodeo champion. He's a trainer of students trying to become better at Rodeo but also of horses. One of the things that he explained was that the horses were trained to follow the bulls. The reason for this is simple. If the horse follows the bull automatically then the rider can focus on the rope and not have to worry about guiding the horse. This eliminates the inherent delay between the rider recognizing the path of the bull and signaling the horse to go in that direction. (It also speaks to not having information overload as The Information Diet.) Pervasive Information Architecture spoke of how giving actors real wine instead of colored water allowed them to focus on their performance and not have to deal with the distraction of pretending colored water was wine.

However, more than allowing the rider to focus on the rope, a delay – the delay between recognizing the motion of the bull and correcting the horse's motion – has been removed. The reduced delay minimizes the oscillations and optimizes the system to improve performance.

Optimization and Resilience

Any competent financial analyst will tell you to spread out your investments into a variety of industries and types of investment. This is the process of adding resilience to your portfolio. You can make one big bet on a particular market, industry, or even company. However, the risks are big with this approach.

However, this is what we often do in optimization. We make one big bet on how a technology will work. We eliminate the parts of the system that we don't think are necessary because it's just taking energy to keep operational and isn't returning value. However, when problems arise those critical components which were cut can't kick in to keep the system from collapsing. What is most frequently cut when optimizing is anything that's not directly related to output but sometimes the secondary loops and support structure is necessary to support the system once things start to go wrong.

During the United States housing bubble financial instruments that were intended to be stable based on the way they were constructed were slowly rearranged and in the process the security offered by them were no longer resilient against market downturns. As a result security organizations like Bear Stearns failed during the end of the housing bubble. An optimization towards returns had removed the resiliency from the system.

The resilience in the system of financial markets is in the form of fail safes against individuals taking actions that can be individually beneficial but harmful to the overall market – like offering home loans to people who couldn't afford them. It looks great to the people getting a loan on the house but it led to the balancing loops in the system being insufficient to catch the fall. Part of that is based on the bounded rationality of the individual players in the system.

Bounded Rationality

Economists – despite popular belief – don't study money. They study people's behavior around money. It may seem like a subtle distinction but it's not. Why are people willing to pay $2 for a bottle of water at the airport? Because the TSA made you throw out the bottle you had when you went to the gate – and because you're thirsty and that's the only option. Or is it? There's a water fountain that's a few hundred feet away.

The logical, economic choice is to use the water fountain to get water. However, people pay for the convenience of having a bottle of water. Some folks actually pay for the extra purification but mostly its convenience. From an economic point of view this doesn't make sense. Why would you hand over your hard earned money for something you could get for free? But we do it all the time.

Bounded rationality is about the rational decisions that we make based on the information at hand. We believe that what we see is all there is. Bounded rationality allows for some seemingly nonsensical results. Consider the tragedy of commons. We know that adding another cow to our herd improves our profitability. The cows graze off of common land. Surely one more cow won't be a problem – until all of the other farmers make the same individually rational decision. If this happens then the commons will be overgrazed and there won't be enough food for everyone's cows.

The solution to minimizing the impact of bounded reality is to create greater awareness of the overall system and how it works. Understanding more about how a system works leads you to the opportunity to leverage the system to make changes that are in everyone's best interests.

12 Leverage Points

Thinking in Systems ends with 12 leverage points in reverse order of impact as follows:

  • Numbers—Constants and parameters such as subsidies, taxes, standards. These are the most commonly attempted ways to manipulate systems and consequently there is generally very little change here. One exception is on a discontinuity where a small numeric change causes the system to operate differently.
  • Buffers—The sizes of stabilizing stocks relative to their flows. Reducing buffers increases efficiency (optimization) by reducing resilience. Vendor managed inventory reduced the amount of inventory at distribution but this leads to more outages.
  • Stock-and-Flow Structures—Physical systems and their nodes of intersection. Basically this is rebuilding the system which can be very effective but rebuilding a system is also difficult to accomplish so thus it's not very high up on the list of leverage points.
  • Delays—The lengths of time relative to the rates of system changes. If you shrink the delay you reduce the oscillations and improve responsiveness to changing conditions.
  • Balancing Feedback Loops—The strength of the feedbacks relative to the impacts they are trying to correct can help keep stocks in safe bounds.
  • Reinforcing Feedback Loops—The strength of the gain of driving loops which cause the system to want to go out of control – either positively or negatively.
  • Information Flows—The structure of who does and does not have access to information can reduce malfunctions of human and non-human systems.
  • Rules—Incentives, punishments, constraints have a great deal of power over systems. Subtly changing a rule can dramatically change how a system operates.
  • Self-Organization—The power to add, change, or evolve system structure is a powerful way of introducing resilience into the system.
  • Goals—The purpose or function of the system – and the framing of the goal – are powerful motivators to systems.
  • Paradigms—The mind-set out of which the system—its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters—arises. This is even more deep than goals and is the source of systems.
  • Transcending Paradigms – By transcending paradigms you can see individual systems for their limitations and put different systems together to get richer results

Back to the Beginning

It's incredibly unfortunate that Donella Meadows passed away before completing Thinking in Systems – but very fortunate that her work was eventually published. The more that we understand about systems the more we can understand about the organizations we work in, the communities that we live in, and the world as a whole.

Categories: Book Review, Professional | 0 Comments
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: Collaboration – How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results

I've spent a great deal of my professional career working on helping users collaborate in one form or another. I setup Local Area Networks (LANs) when they were still called that and not networks. I connected folks via email before the Internet was a gleam in Al Gore's eye. I have spent the last 14 years helping organizations collaborate with Microsoft SharePoint. So when some colleagues said that I had to read Collaboration, I didn't hesitate to pick up the book. What I didn't realize when they recommended it was that the author, Morten Hansen, had a specific definition of collaboration in mind, and it didn't necessarily match my point of view.

To Conspire with the Enemy

If you've heard me talk about collaboration – or creating engagement – you know that I love to poke fun at the word collaboration because it means so many different things to so many different people. As a result it's a word that I've come to associate as the starting point for a conversation instead of the end. In most contexts, I define collaboration as working with others towards a common goal. It's a simple definition and it covers a lot of ground.

When I've got an audience that's being contrary, the dictionary definition I throw out to jar my audience is "to conspire with the enemy." This definition isn't the kind of definition that you would normally expect someone talking about collaboration to have and therefore can sometimes be the spark to start a discussion.

Regardless of how you define collaboration, Morten Hansen has a specific large organization definition for collaboration. His definition is focused on different parts of a large organization working together. As such, it's really not applicable to most of the organizations on the planet. It works great for the Fortune 1000, but as the organizations get smaller and more focused, the guidance from Collaboration gets less directly useful. Despite this, the book does echo some of the concepts discussed elsewhere which are broadly applicable – and important for organizations of all sizes. I found that most of the concepts in the book were rooted in strong research and can be easily adapted to organizations of any size.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Perhaps the most heretical discussion in the book is that there can be too much collaboration. Conventional wisdom is that collaboration is good and more collaboration is better. That is, that you should be able to have more and more collaboration with greater and greater positive impact on the bottom line but Hansen effectively argues that there are times when collaboration for collaboration's sake isn't adding value to the bottom line. His argument is that it's possible to have collaboration that makes everyone feel good but isn't helping to move the organization forward.

It is possible that the cost of collaboration exceeds the business benefit of the collaboration. The recommendation is to take the return on the collaboration and subtract out both the direct costs of the collaboration as well as the opportunity costs for the time spent on the collaboration process. If the number is positive then collaboration is warranted – if it's negative then the collaboration isn't worth it.

Of course, this puts the decision to a mathematical precision that may or may not be warranted – and as mentioned in How to Measure Anything, sometimes our ability to estimate isn't the best.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The Heretic's Guide to Best Practices quoted How to Measure Anything to talk about biases. Thinking, Fast and Slow also spoke about biases – including an anchoring bias that causes us to make differential adjustments to an estimate – even if the baseline estimate is fundamentally flawed. Collaboration points out that many mergers speak about the synergies that the organizations will be able to capitalize on together – many of which never materialize. There are many reasons for this including bad estimates but also an underestimation of the work it is to merge two cultures.

Cultures are funny things. They're made up of the people, processes, and interactions but they also resist being changed by people or changing processes. This makes it difficult for employees at the various organizations to work together. Sometimes organizations have been competitors and the situation is worse because there's a distrust that has built up between the organizations.

Means and Ends

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the idea of collaboration and how fun it is to be able to share with our peers that we forget to make sure that it's delivering business value. As I mentioned in my review of Who Am I?, Aristotle divided human motives into means and ends. Since then we've continued to struggle with forgetting why we're doing something. We get so wrapped up into doing it – like collaboration – that we forget why we're doing it.

In most businesses, collaboration is a means to the end goal of accomplishing the corporate mission. If we get lost in the idea of collaboration and forget that there's a mission to be completed we've slipped into the means and ends confusion.

T-Shaped Management

In today's world there's a conflict between what managers are being asked to do to drive their own individual team performance and what they're being asked to do to support others – as they're trying to maximize their business unit's contribution to the bottom line. Managers are being asked to deliver performance from their units and simultaneously being asked to support their peers through collaboration. This sets up an interesting conflict since you only have so much time and you can only spend it working on improving your own performance or on helping others.

Collaboration makes a point that the best managers are those managers who can find a way to do both – to accomplish their own performance goals while helping others. Perhaps the need for both selfish individual team productivity and cross-team collaboration makes the question that was asked in Destructive Emotions about whether we're Rational egoists (we're compassionate because it's self-serving), selfish and compassionate, or compassionate and selfish – somewhat moot. Drive told us that some of our intrinsic motivators are overwhelmed and corrupted by explicit external motivators like compensation.

In Collaboration we learn that 70% of the time we'll collaborate with one another – unless we change the name of the game to Wall Street – in which case we'll defect (work in a non-collaborative manor) 70% of the time. Kurt Lewin's famous quote that "behavior is a function of both person and environment" includes the words that we use and the expectations as the environment.

Words Matter

Jerry Seinfeld is famous for his hit sitcom Seinfeld show – a self-described show about nothing. The assumption is often made that Jerry Seinfeld has always been a funny man. Perhaps that's true, but as we learned about many great leaders in Outliers and Extraordinary Minds, most great leaders had to practice. In Jerry Seinfeld's case, he honed his skills for comedy by working on brevity. He learned from the old saw "I would have written a shorter letter if I only had more time." Learning to be brief – but not too brief is an art form that isn't practiced that often any longer.

If you've been a part of marketing campaign development you know how much time can be invested trying to determine the right message – and even the right words. Discussions rage and testing ensues to ensure that the most impact can be extracted from a marketing exercise.

More close to home, most of us have been in a relationship where we've said the wrong thing and have inadvertently caused damage to a relationship. Wives have said things that hurt their husbands and vice-versa. (If this is a real problem, reading The Science of Trust might be useful.)

Leaders' words are important. They can fan the fires of collaboration or deeply hurt the collaboration path that the organization is on. A leader's words should both build the logical argument for collaboration but more importantly develop an emotional connection to the goal. In The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch there was the Elephant-Rider-Path model which encouraged us to ensure that we were making both the logical argument and the emotional one. If leaders choose their words they can effectively motivate employees to collaborate when appropriate.

Disciplined Collaboration

Hansen believes that the key to effectiveness with collaboration is disciplined collaboration which he defines in one phrase "the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required."

This practice – he believes prevents both over and underinvestment in collaboration. Disciplined collaboration takes strong leaders.

Strong Leaders

In Good to Great Jim Collins talks about the Stockdale Paradox "You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be." It's this same type of strength that is needed to encourage the right kind of collaboration – at the right time – in an organization.

However, even with strong leaders who are practicing disciplined collaboration there are problems. Collaborative environments sometimes make it hard to maintain individual accountability.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Camouflage is used by animals and warriors to hide in plain sight. Because there is nothing specific about their marks and appearance they're able to blend in with the background. Some collaboration is like that when people are part of a large group and when performance isn't measured specific to the person they tend to develop a characteristic called social loafing.

That is they assume that someone else will do the work and they can sit back and relax. This is a hidden danger for organizations as they seek to improve collaboration – maintaining individual accountability in the context of supporting collaboration with others.

Make It Easy

If you want to make collaboration work, you'll need to ensure that the process is well understood as explained in Don't Make Me Think. Demand spoke about the idea of a hassle map and how you need to reduce the number of hassles to create a product that people want. Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web mentioned that when Amazon introduced tagging on its site no one knew how to use it and so no one did. When driving collaboration you'll want to eliminate the ambiguity and help everyone know what to expect. Collaboration quotes a study that says that intention has little to do with execution – when students were shown how to get to the health center to get a tetanus shot they got the shot 28% of the time as compared to just 3% of the time if they were just shown the reasons to get the shot.

When you're trying to get to collaboration you want to make it easy rather than motivating them that it's something important to do. If your organization prevents information sharing or limits how business units can work with one another you may find that it's difficult – if not impossible – to get collaboration to take off. But this isn't the only barrier.


There are four key types of barriers that you may encounter when trying to implement collaboration. Each barrier has several factors that lead to it.

1: Not Invented Here

I posted a complete post on the Wisdom of Not Invented Here, however in the context of Collaboration, they believe that there are four factors that lead to it. They are:

  • Insular Culture – The more tightly nit a group becomes the less open they are to input from the outside.
  • Status Gap – People tend to accept input more readily from those of similar status to themselves rather than those who have a much higher or lower status.
  • Self-Reliance – The more self-reliant folks are the less likely they are to acknowledge that good ideas can come from others.
  • Fear – No one likes revealing their shortcomings. By accepting something from someplace else you're admitting one of your limitations.

2: Hoarding

Some kids will openly share their toys – and others won't. That may be because of the "licking and grooming" they received as children. (See How Children Succeed for more.) However, that does you little good when you're trying to drive collaboration in your organization. Here are four non-childhood factors that lead to hoarding behaviors:

  • Competition – When people or groups inside the organization are invited to compete with one another there's a natural tendency to hoard. So keep competition outside the walls of the organization and collaboration inside.
  • Narrow incentives – The more narrowly you incent people for their own performance, the lower the motivation for sharing activities. Make sure that the incentives are balanced between internal performance and sharing and collaborating.
  • Being Too Busy – Organizations have lost thousands of workers so it seems like everyone is trying to do more with less. Collaboration takes time – and you don't have time you won't be able to collaborate.
  • Fear of Losing Power – A common question is "If knowledge is power what happens to my power when I share it?" Despite the fact that generally you become more powerful – from a knowledge perspective – when sharing it feels uncomfortable and generates a fear.

3: Search

In the world of today we're used to Google and the ability to find what we're interested in – however, that's only in our public lives. We still realize that inside an organization finding information is tricky and difficult. In most organizations there is no enterprise search and in many cases what you're looking for isn't written down. What you really need is locked up inside someone's head somewhere. Here are four factors that lead to the search barrier:

  • Company size – The larger the company the harder it is to create an enterprise search solution that delivers contents and people to you when you need it.
  • Physical Distance - The larger the difference between people the lower the chances that you'll discover the information you need by chance. Marcia Bates believes that we find 80% of what we know accidentally – so proximity matters. (See Pervasive Information Architecture, The New Edge in Knowledge, and Thinking, Fast and Slow.)
  • Information Overload – We've created so many sources of information and we've made it so much easier for anyone to communicate, that we've created an overload of information. (See The Information Diet and The Paradox of Choice for more)
  • Poverty of Networks – We believe that it's a small world – and in some ways it is. However, we fail to realize that what we see is not all there is. Just because we can't find it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.

4: Transfer

I've written a few times about tacit knowledge and the problems of knowledge management including in: Lost Knowledge; The New Edge in Knowledge; The Wisdom of Crowds; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Pervasive Information Architecture; and Apprentice, Journeyman, Master. The transfer barrier – the fact that transferring information is hard is a fundamental barrier to collaboration and life. Here are three key factors:

  • Tacit Knowledge – Tacit knowledge is either "unarticulated knowledge waiting transfer" or "cannot be transferred: we know more than we can tell" depending upon who you want to believe. In either case, conveying it to someone else is hard and most frequently requires person-to-person communication which can be difficult.
  • No Common frame – Because there's little similarity between two people it's hard to establish the common framework necessary for communication. Literally the mental models that two people have are so different they can't communicate (See The Fifth Discipline, Sources of Power, Efficiency in Learning, and The Art of Explanation.)
  • Weak Ties – It's difficult to share your knowledge with someone that you don't have a strong relationship with. You want to have a deep connection to trust that the person you're sharing with won't use the knowledge against you.

Criteria for Effective Collaboration Goals

As Lewis Carol said "If you don't know where you're going then any road will get you there." Having an effective goal – or goals – is critical if you know you want to foster collaboration in your environment. Here are four criteria for setting goals that lead to collaboration.

1: Must Create a Common Fate

There's the parable of the farmer's birthday where all of the animals get together and agree to make him breakfast. The chicken will give up some eggs and there will be ham and toast. When the animals turn to the pig and ask him what he thinks of the plan he says "I think that you are all interested in this plan but I'm invested." Investment is what you want from all of the parties and that you'll only get if everyone is subject to the same consequences – good or bad. You won't get everyone motivated to make collaboration successful if some folks aren't a part of the rewards or consequences of the success or failure.

2: Must Be Simple and Concrete

Platitudes, those dull, flat, trite remarks uttered if profound, have no place in setting effective goals. Everyone should be able to understand the goal without any further explanation. It's not about being "preeminent in the exploration of space" – it's about "landing a man on the moon and bringing him safely back to Earth within the decade." There's no explanation needed because we know what needs to be done. Goals that leave no room for ambiguity and are simple are fuel for the collaboration engine.

3: Must Stir Passion

Most goals are positively boring. They talk to the rider (See the Elephant-Rider-Path model in The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) We need to talk to the elephant and get people emotionally involved. That means appealing to a higher purpose or at least connecting with the kind of person that someone wants to be. We want people to be engaged.

4: Must Put Competition on the Outside

As mentioned above, when employees are competing with each other it makes it hard to collaborate. It leads to hording behaviors where they won't help others for fear that it will give their coworkers an advantage over them in their competition.

Sins of Collaboration Hopefuls

Sometimes there are mistakes that can be made that will make collaboration harder than it needs to be or should be. Here are three sins that can kill collaboration.

1: Small Teamwork Kills Collaboration

The more that you get a small group to work together as a team and collaborate internally the less likely they are to collaborate across groups. Diffusion of Innovations speaks about how the cosmopolitan-ness of an individual determines how fast they'll adopt an innovation. Said differently, the more that someone interacts with other groups the more likely they are to accept external ideas.

2: Everybody Do Teamwork Now (Except Those of Us at the Top)

Collaboration is – sometimes – treated like a great idea as long as you're not the first one to have to try it. Leadership can kill collaboration by saying one thing and doing another – or the opposite. If you're a leader and you're invested in creating collaboration, you'll need to deliver the goods by doing some collaboration yourself.

3: Teamwork Becomes the Point of It All

As mentioned above you can't take your eye off the ball and forget that collaboration is a means to an end – it's not an end in and of itself. When collaboration becomes the goal instead of the tool to get to the goal, you've got a problem.

Rules for Effective Networks

Collaboration relies on the network of people that you build. It's the people that you can reach in and ask a question of. It's the people that you trust and that trust you enough to share information. Here are six rules for building your networks.

1: Build Outward, Not Inward

Diversity in your network is important as we've discussed above. The more that you can associate with people in different networks the more effective your network can be because you can reach out to people with dissimilar skills and knowledge. The more heterogeneous your network the more likely it is that you'll find an answer when you need it.

2: Build Diversity, Not Size

Each connection in a networks requires some level of effort to create and to maintain – though admittedly some require remarkably low levels of energy to maintain such as a childhood friend. The goal in building an effective network is to build diversity in the group – not to increase the size of the network for the sake of the network size. Consider the Dunbar number – the awareness that the number of social connections that an animal can maintain is directly related to the size of the animal's brain and that humans can maintain roughly 150 social connections. (See The Information Diet and The Happiness Hypothesis.)

Most professionals today are working well above this number with hundreds or thousands of Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and Linked In connections. Being aware that we're working beyond the number of connections that humans can reasonably support should keep us focused on building connections that can get us to different resources – rather than having six or more connections to the same information.

3: Build Weak Ties, Not Strong Ones

The Dunbar number actually refers to close social connections. That is the number that is fixed. Our connections through social media and our casual acquaintances don't directly count. The Dunbar number is derived from the amount of capacity the brain has for retaining and recalling facts about other people. So it's quite literally impossible for someone to maintain close social connections with a large number of people – so build the connections you can but realize that they won't be the closest.

4: Use Bridges, Not Familiar Faces

Despite the fact that we have automated operators that can answer and route calls through an organization, most organizations haven't fired their live operators. The reason is clear, live operators are better at connecting people when they don't know exactly where they need to go. They're great at translating the caller's language into the language of the organization. A similar thing happens with bridges. They are able to translate the question which due to lack of knowledge, is ill formed and push it along the way to someone else who can get the person closer to what they need.

Bridges have large numbers of connections which are typically very diverse. This large number of connections doesn't often provide the answer directly but rather moves things forward. For instance, I have a handyman who is a friend. If I need to find a plumber, someone to do flooring, or a roofer I call my friend. He's a bridge into a whole class of workers for home repair and improvement.

5: Swarm the Target; Do Not Go It Alone

Building credibility and trust with someone – so that they'll collaborate with you – can be challenging particularly for those folks who don't trust easily like those folks who are in power. When you're seeking to expand your network to influential people, leverage a variety of connections to help them realize that you should be trustworthy. (See my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on trust.)

6: Switch to Strong Ties; Do Not Rely on Weak Ones

Weak ties are enough to get you to someone to be able to start the collaboration process – however, if you're in a sustained collaboration you'll need to make some direct investments to strengthen your connection to someone for a time. The more distance between you and the other person geographically or experientially, the more effort you'll need to put into building a strong connection.

Collaboration Redefined

Collaboration may have defined the word collaboration differently than it's defined in many contexts but that definition didn't stop the content of the book from being relevant to those who define collaboration more traditionally. Whether you're trying to get a team to work together or collaboration across groups in an organization, there's a lot to learn from others – and from Collaboration.

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