It’s all about the Grey – A path to Collaboration, Innovation and Teamwork

People constantly appear to struggle to work harmoniously and effectively with others in a consistent and predictable manner. In reality I find that real collaboration is often as elusive as the woolly mammoth was just before they went extinct. Thousands of books and articles have been written and will continue to be written about such topics as collaboration, teams, and innovation. (I include innovation in this list as no meaningful innovation can occur without people working with each other in highly creative and productive modes). Many use exhaustive data research and analysis of industries/companies past performance in a quest to improve credibility, however in my humble opinion, little if any of the messages stick or cause behavior changes. Many of the concepts simply become brain candy for a leaders psyche. The lessons and language are mostly consigned to the sub-conscious repository of buzz words that are used to feed meaningless rhetoric and pretend/inauthentic dialogue that rarely yields results in a timely enough manner in this competitive and fast paced world.

As an initial step to a countermeasure for this situation, I always encourage people to consider a few concepts by reflecting and answering the following questions. These questions are best considered in the context of a belief that no real and meaningful change occurs without each leader being willing to take personal responsibility for what they bring to a relationship. These questions are short but please do not confuse brevity with simplicity. They are deep and can be difficult personal questions for alot of leaders to face. Many people never willingly and meaningfully explore them.

  1. What do you want?
  2. How important is it for you to be right?
  3. How aware are you of how others see/perceive you?
  4. How willing are you to become vulnerable?

What do you want?

This may in fact be one of the most difficult questions that people ever face during their life. And, people rarely have the courage to authentically explore it. In environments where organizational dysfunction prevails, most people appear driven by the pursuit of their own selfish desires/wants versus those of the organization as a whole. The problem with this is that little space is left available for others to have their needs explored. Additionally it is also rarely done in the context of what the Customers/Market needs are and what the reason for the organizations existence is. Selfishness is a poison to collaboration and innovation. A person’s ability to temporarily suspend ones own needs long enough to authentically listen to the needs of others is a VITAL competence to have if there is to be any prospect of people working more productively together. It is important to remember that an organization does not exist to serve your needs and wants. It is the other way around. We must work to be of service to something greater than ourselves. This is usually represented by a Customer, and we must find a way of enabling the organization to deliver on its declared purpose..

How important is it for you to be right?

There is a simple universal truth, that ‘everyone is right’ from their point of view. The sum of their life experiences shapes the lens by which they look at every situation. Their circle of knowledge is unique to them and different from yours. People also have such a need for certainty that the feeling that they are right (and being in control) very commonly gives them a false sense of security and confidence. It is also true that for us to be right, it is an expected norm that someone else needs to be wrong. It reminds me of the couple that argue and one say’s ‘I’d like to agree with you but that would make the two of us wrong’. This is a polarizing viewpoint and is unhelpful. Subscribing to black and white thinking creates separation and builds walls around possibility oriented thinking. I can confidently say that the world is not black and white with a little bit of grey. It is a little bit of black and a little bit of white and maybe 100 shades of greyWe must embrace the grey and pay attention to the situational nuances that exist in organizations, as this is where the most progressive and breakthrough work gets done. Everyone talks about working across boundaries and in matrix organizations but it is fraught with difficulty. If we ever need to see a good example of how NOT to work, all we have to do is pay attention to the manner in which the three branches of the US Government operates. Letting go of the need to be right and being open to the fact that someone else may have something to contribute can be a surprisingly powerful step in the right direction.

How aware are you of how others see/perceive you?

With such a dominance of strong and inflated egos in the culture of today, the level of self-awareness and self-understanding is frighteningly low. Worse than that, is the general lack of willingness of people to even begin to show interest to explore how others REALLY see or perceive them. As a result people’s own (often) inflated view of themselves drives unhelpful projections and contributes to the building of individual fortresses that people exhaustively defend. If people leverage their intellectual capacity and energy in defensively or offensively managing their ego/image, then meaningful engagement with others is simply not very likely. Part of the answer begins in people getting honest feedback (delivered with compassion). This can then be used in the dismantling of inflated egos and coming to grips with a reality where it is likely that we ourselves are often a part of the problem and contribute to the dysfunction that we complain about.

How willing are you to become vulnerable?

If you have even the remotest resonance or appreciation of the topics covered above, then the path to progress is directly linked to how honest and vulnerable you are willing to be. I constantly listen to leaders talk about ‘OTHERS’ in their organization needing to have the courage and fortitude to deal with change. Most also declare that they themselves are totally capable of being vulnerable and having difficult conversations, but it is rarely that I find that to be the case. Difficult conversations have less to do with loud vociferous exchanges, and more to do with paying attention to what makes us uncomfortable. Organizational team members develop exceptionally refined senses about how to deal with sensitive issues that a leader does NOT want to discuss. This blocks the formation of the levels of transparency and trust that are the lifeblood of exchanges that deliver Collaboration, Innovation and Teamwork. The antidote almost always requires people to be vulnerable. In a practical sense this means suspending defensiveness and openly listening. It always leads to doing some personal work that requires personal reflection and learning, followed with a commitment to take personal responsibility for re-evaluating their beliefs and being mindful of their future behaviors.

So I encourage you to cycle through these questions, enrolling others that you trust in the process and consider using a journal to help you navigate through each step. It has to be said that it is not a one and done exercise and essentially can amount to ones life’s work. As Socrates said ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ and for those that have the courage to begin to meaningfully examine their life, the reward can be a new more evolved state of being that enables us all to more effectively engage with others. THEN we can have the OPPORTUNITY to collaborate, innovate and form high performing teams.


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