Remaking collaboration in the future workplace

Remaking collaboration in the future workplace

What does the word collaboration mean to you? How do you inhabit it? Privately, and together with other people. This blog talks about remaking what we mean when we say collaboration. #collaboration #remotelyhuman #storiesinwords

‘Collaboration is the readiness to show up and do what needs to be done, in improvisation and learning.’
Nora Bateson ‘Liminal Leadership'

"Digital workplace strategy", "organisational culture", "the future of distributed work", "reconfiguring the collaborative workplace"... These have been the increasing focus of conversations and working sessions I've been invited into over the last few weeks. In my part of the world, we are starting to emerge (cautiously) from lockdown. There's a collective acknowledgement that there's no going back to the normal that was; but we're all still figuring out what the new normal could be. For the workplace this conversation becomes, implicitly or explicitly, about collaboration. How will we "show up and do what needs to be done"?

With 25 years experience leading a collaborative enterprise designing spaces for knowledge, it seems a good time to share some things I've learned.

My next few posts will be about being #remotely human, VWL's way of thinking about presence, place & practices for future working, and offering some ideas and examples from our work, research and programmes.

Before we get going though, let me take you back to a 2015 interview I had with a member of a global technology leadership team. We were working on the 'narrative for a change', the change story that the leadership needed to invite people into in order to power the shift from a hierarchical organisation to a matrix operating model.

My interviewee said, almost in passing:

-- We'll need to restory the word collaboration.
-- What do you mean, restory?
--I mean that in our culture, collaboration is heroic and individual. Things get done, through personal networks, despite the culture and structures not because of them. In our future matrix culture, things will need to get done because of the culture and structure. And that's going to be hard, not just for people used to getting things done the heroic way, but for the leaders who reward that heroism. Unheroic, day to day collaboration, where you are invisible, make something possible for someone else, help everyone with the shared disciplines of showing up. Well that's a much harder ask, and it'll take a much stronger narrative and a different leadership style.

This got me thinking about 'story in a word' technique that we included in the SDC storyguide we made between 2000 and 2005 (p.38). Stories are made of words, says Madelyn Blair who was one of the inspirations. And words are made of stories. Socially constructing the meaning of the abstract nouns or short sentences that are so often at the heart of strategies and statements is the important work. What do we all mean when we say collaboration? How do we inhabit the word and infuse it with meaning that comes from our own stories, not once, but repeatedly, to keep it off the page and alive with meaning? Madelyn calls this work of sparking stories inside words renewable energy, and that's just what it is.

In our SS21 season of writing there's much more to come. But for now, here are three suggestions:

Make it collaborative. Model the possibilities of the future workplace and culture by being it as you go. Cultural change travels sideways, peer to peer, not top down. Creating a co-owned workplace strategy might take a bit longer now but will pay off later. A creative participatory process will yield long term bonds, to each other, to the plan, to going on learning together, to the inevitable sacrifice, trade-off and painful choice of reality. Find the words you most want to represent your future workplace strategy and inhabit them together.

Go back to go forward. One of Paul Saffo's six rules for effective forecasting is to go back twice as far as you go forward. And there's evidence from the brain science that as people lose their memories, they lose their ability to imagine the future. So take the time your way into the future through rediscovery of the past. Map out a timeline, longer than you think it needs to be, and remember moments of collaboration that worked, nearly worked, surprised you,  When and where, who and how did the collaborations take place? What small things made a big difference. What patterns can you detect beneath the surface layers of what you were doing? How did the places (virtual and physical, at home, in the office, in between) play their part? How did the spoken and unspoken rules of engagement make it so?

Make future fictions - play with alternative places and place-making to understand future collaboration models and what they are like to inhabit together and tend to together. Think of three labelled version of the future (Back to the office, Hybrid, Work from anywhere). Maybe you have a fourth, or you want to change the names as you shape the scenarios.  Play with what these inhabited alternatives look and feel like. (There are lots of engaging tools, from foresight toolkits and elsewhere, that can make this collaborative serious play. And the world of impro has much to offer to - my brilliant friend and colleague Chris Heimann calls this making memories of the future.) Don't just make imaginary future inhabited places (spaces, offices, coworking spaces, technologies, cafes, virtual whiteboards, social organisations), add in the the presence of people, and the practices that are in place. What are the essential qualities of the fictions? What are the new stories inside the words that are already in your culture strategy?

If you'd like to know more about how we can help you to be #remotelyhuman, do contact