Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beyond Peace and Harmony to Real Collaboration

Many teams suffer from an oppressive preference for peace and harmony. Don’t get me wrong, I like peace and harmony, but it can breed complacency, laziness, neglect, and stagnation.  When conflict, disagreement, ambiguity, and doubt are suppressed in a group – explicitly or implicitly – the most likely outcomes are a high level of passive-aggressive behavior and a superficial consensus.

I’ve just started reading Daniel Kahneman’s new book Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. In 2002, Kanheman won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for work he had done with Amos Tversky on decision making (work that helped launch the field of behavioral economics). What has engaged me in the book so far (and I’m convinced there is a lot more) is the way he describes his collaboration with Amos Tversky. Here I quote from the Introduction:

“Both Amos and I were critical and argumentative, he even more than I, but during the years of collaboration neither of us ever rejected out of hand anything the other said. Indeed, one of the great joys I found in the collaboration was that Amos frequently saw the point of my vague ideas more clearly than I did. Amos was the more logical thinker, with an orientation to theory and an unfailing sense of direction. I was more intuitive and rooted in the psychology of perception, from which we borrowed many ideas. We were sufficiently similar to understand each other easily, and sufficiently different to surprise each other.”

It is wonderful to see how they found ways to use their differences in approach to take the work forward. I also like how Kahneman describes them both as critical and argumentative, but that was understood to be part of their collaborative process, not something to suppress.  I notice in some Western cultures (I’m thinking particularly of the US and the UK) that arguments are taken as a sign that a relationship is breaking down. We need to understand that it is the accompanying behaviors that turn an argument toxic rather than the argument itself.  

Much of the advice I see about handling conflict on a virtual team (and here I switch to the more emotionally charged term ‘conflict’) can be summed up as: deal with it immediately.  I have a lot of sympathy with that view.  Virtual conflict can easily become toxic because of increased opportunities for misunderstanding, and the longer time it takes to handle conflict constructively.  But . . . before adopting ‘immediate response’ as a universal principle, it might be best to understand the type of conflict being surfaced in the virtual team. 

Here are some conflicts that I think need to be given a chance to ‘breathe’ because new insights and possibilities might emerge:

Data: Conflicts about data gathering, interpretations, relevance and importance.

Interests:  Conflicts caused by the perceived incompatibility of needs and wants

Process: Conflicts about tasks- what to do, when, where, and how

Structural: Conflicts caused by forces outside of the team, e.g., organizational policy changes, or changes in the economic environment.

What about Interpersonal Conflicts (e.g., conflicts arising from different personalities, styles, cultures, values)? From my experience, learning about each other needs to be upfront and ongoing. Everyone on the team needs to have their emotional antennae on full power because these types of conflicts are often masked or even hidden on virtual teams.  Unless brought to the surface and acknowledge quickly these conflicts can quickly become toxic.

Whatever the source of disagreement/conflict the only productive ways forward are built on respect, patience, curiosity, and learning – not knee-jerk suppression or denial.

Think about what Daniel Kahnneman says above: “neither of us ever rejected out of hand anything the other said.”  Right there, you have respect, patience, curiosity, and learning.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A night of celebration - EFMD award ceremony

We recently attended the EFMD Award ceremony in Maastricht, Holland, to pick up our Excellence in Practice Award for our partnership with ArcelorMittal.

The award ceremony was a great evening, filled with lots of opportunities to meet and network with some leading edge thinkers and personalities within the L&D industry.

The awards are actually part of a larger event held by the EFMD (European Foundation for Management Development), called the 2011 EFMD Executive Education meeting, which provided a beneficial insight into current learning and training trends being used by multinational organizations. We were glad to discover that we seem to be ‘ahead of the game’ when it comes to virtual delivery, which was the central theme of this year’s conference.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bias Awareness For Better Collaboration

I am all for helping students of all ages engage in problem-solving – alone and with others – but is something missing in the process?  If there is one area of study – apart from Dialogue - I would like all students to undertake it is Cognitive Bias. How can we collaborate effectively – or even live well together - when we have so little individual and collective awareness of the mental filters we use for acquiring and processing information.

What is a cognitive bias? Mostly, the term is used negatively although the needs of a specific context may determine a positive or negative evaluation (a tendency to make fast decisions may be harmful in many situations, but advantageous in others). In general, a cognitive bias is a mental filter formed by our own experiences (and our evolved comfort and discomfort zones), that distorts perception leading to poor interpretations and judgments.  Let me highlight 15 that cause trouble for most of us:
·         Anchoring: Tendency to make a final judgment in the same direction as an initial judgment even when conflicting data accumulate
·         Availability cascade: Believing in something because we hear it mentioned repeatedly (“repeat something long enough and it will become true”)

·         Choice-supportive bias: Remembering our choices as better than they actually were

·         Confirmation bias: Searching for and interpreting information to confirm preconceptions

·         Clustering illusion: Seeing patterns where none actually exist

·         Egocentric bias: Recalling the past in a self-serving way

·         Framing effect: Being overly influenced by how information is presented

·         Fundamental attribution error: Over-emphasizing personality-based explanations for others’ behavior while under-emphasizing influence of role and situation

·         Illusion of control: Overestimating one’s influence on external events

·         Overconfidence effect: Excessive confidence in one’s answers to questions

·         Planning fallacy: Tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a task

·         Self-serving bias: Interpreting information in a way that benefits one’s own interests

·         Stereotyping: Applying expected characteristics for a group to an individual member

·         Sunken cost fallacy: Continuing to invest (to recover past costs) when the likelihood of success is minimal (throwing good money after bad)   

·         Wishful thinking: Overestimating the likelihood of a pleasing outcome

If you want to see a more comprehensive selection of cognitive biases see the List of Cognitive Biases on Wikipedia: 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Virtual Work: Increasing, but a Necessary Evil?

In December 2010, Brandman University had Forrester Research conduct a survey of 135 senior leaders and hiring managers in some of Americas Fortune 500 companies.  These were supplemented by a series of telephone interviews in January 2011. The survey report is called Virtual Work Environments in the Post-Recession Era:

Here are a few data points:

·         56% of hiring managers expect that virtual teaming will steadily or greatly increase in their company

·         61% said their company will allow more people to telecommute or work from home in the next 3 years

In terms of the challenges faced by virtual team managers:

·         57% said building trust among employees

·         49% said communicating effectively

·         43% said managing projects and deadlines with employees not physically present

To be effective, virtual workers need:

·         61% said solid communication skills

·         53% said an ability to self-pace and work independently

·         51% said taking accountability for their own work

The primary motivations for the increase in virtual teaming and working are:

·         61% said cost containment

·         59% said recruitment
While the majority of leaders and managers believe that virtual working will increase, it tends to be seen as a ‘necessary evil’.  Many see virtual collaboration as a barrier to worker accountability, creativity, and innovation.

Whenever I hear the term ‘necessary evil’ in business it usually means there is too much management (push) and not enough leadership (pull).  Do we have to wait for a new generation to trigger a management revolution?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Agile Learning

There are different perspectives on what social learning (or what I tend to call agile learning) is, and at the risk of adding more confusion or uncertainty to the mix, I thought I would stir in my own flavoring. 
The domain of social or agile learning concerns the:
·         Use of new media and collaborative technologies

·         To create and leverage knowledge exchange communities   

·         For accelerating operational and transformational learning in distributed individuals and groups
Let me deconstruct this a little.
Technology: The new media provide ever expansive digital spaces for accessing, co-creating, and sharing of ideas, knowledge, and know-how. We have always learned from one another through talking, listening, observing, and imitating; now we have technologies like public and private social networks, microblogging, podcasting, videocasting, photosharing, social bookmarking, wikis and RSS to exponentially increase our ability to learn together.

Knowledge: I use ‘knowledge’ in a very broad sense to include: data, facts, information, expertise, theories, concepts, models, stories, feelings, visuals, blogs, experiences, principles, processes, procedures, know-how, feedback, and insights – anything that increases the capacity of someone to perform better.

Learning: Rather than the one-way transmission of expert content to a learner (the “I teach, you learn model”), social learning facilitates non-linear engagement with distributed knowledge.  It enables higher levels of self-managed learning with increased relevance to real-time issues. Sometimes the learning will be specific to an individual learner and at other times to a wider group. The learning might be of an operational nature (e.g., changes in how to perform a task more efficiently) or transformational (e.g., changes in values, beliefs, mindsets, and worldviews).
Some Tips
·         To make the business case to senior executives, you might want to change the name social learning to, for example, agile learning or rapid learning 

·         Get real top-down organizational support & commitment beyond the short-term

·         Define the synergistic roles of HR, Learning & Development and IT early

·         Think open learning communities as an organizational principle – you need a sense order and serendipity/cross-pollination

·         Identify champions and role models for seeding and nurturing social learning (to create critical mass)

·         Integrate social learning with existing technologies; keep access and participation simple, non-burdensome, and mobile-friendly  

·         Leverage existing communities of practice and collaborations for sandbox experimentation

·         Try starting with formal learning (push learning) on social learning technologies, and then blend in the more informal (pull learning) elements later

·         Create and communicate simple rules of engagement