Collaboration: Trust Matters Interview with Brandon Klein

I first met Brandon Klein when we were swamped processing people at the outset of the Trust Summit in NYC October 23. Some very nice guy came over and, simply, offered to pitch in and help. Which he then proceeded to do, and most ably.

That was Brandon, and it turns out, that was characteristic of him. He doesn’t just collaborate, he does collaboration. In particular, he’s something of an expert in the practical ways of organizing gatherings of human beings in ways that maximize output. That includes social dynamics, ergonomics, technology and psychology.

Since collaboration is one of the four Trust Principles, it’s of interest to us both.

CHG: Let’s start big: how do you define collaboration?

BK: Collaboration is repeating the assumed and then stating the unspoken. It is envisioning what success can be and then understanding how to work together to make it happen. It is sometimes best understood by stating what it’s NOT: It is not about latest social media software (chasing the shiny new thing), it’s not more meetings about meetings or guessing games/”strategizing” about what the boss might be thinking. Collaboration is defining and aligning on a common objective as a group of stakeholders and then openly, selflessly, working towards achieving it in a fun, social, interactive, barrier-less way.

CHG: How did you come to be involved in this sort of thing?

BK: Like most, I was incredibly frustrated by the amount of time that was wasted at work. Though most workplace environments boasted a team approach, I couldn’t accept that collaboration meant spending 95% of my day sitting in a cubicle and/or conference room. In searching for a better way, I was lucky enough to be one of the original people to learn the collaborative process known as a DesignShop™- in my opinion, the best off-line collaborative methodology in existence today.

CHG: Why do you think collaboration is ‘hot’ these days?

BK: The proliferation of web-based tools has definitely made the concept of collaboration more top-of-mind. Everyone can now be “collaborative” with a couple clicks of the mouse (or cell phone). It’s similar to the effect of television on sports. Once upon a time, you either had to play the sport or plan in advance to make the journey to the stadium to cheer for your team and interact with the fans. Now, you simply need to press a button on your TV’s remote. Fan bases have increased dramatically, but so has their average weight!

We’ve managed to make online collaboration hot and successful, but we have quickly forgotten what it means to collaborate in person. We can comment anonymously online, but can’t say why we are so ineffective at work. We can “Reply All” to make it look like we are involved, but can’t cut a meeting short that isn’t going anywhere.

CHG: Your focus is primarily on people getting together, isn’t it? Is technology changing that?

BK: Even with using Cisco’s Telepresence (which is awesome) it is very difficult to say that technology has changed ‘getting together’ yet. Yes, online conversations are fantastic and improving everyday. However, I focus on meetings with 12 to 120 people in the same room. Technology has little effect on face-to-face meetings, and in most cases makes them worse. This is because although we have created new tools and ways of working online, we haven’t developed ways of interacting better in person. It is commonplace and therefore acceptable to sit behind a conference table and read your blackberry, while calling the meeting successful and collaborative. It is crazy!

CHG: Let’s talk about conventional meetings; what’s the biggest mistake people make?

BK: Agendas, PowerPoint and WMD’s (Weapons of Mass Distraction ie phones/crackberry’s) are the 3 most unproductive tools on the planet when it comes to meetings. Additionally things most people don’t even consider such as tables, tardiness and tight-lips, are pretty bad too. Here are the quick reasons:

  • Agendas mean people know when to check out or worry/dread what comes next. Don’t publish agendas to more than 3-4 of the key people responsible for the output of the entire project/strategy etc.
  • PowerPoint puts people to sleep. Unless you are good enough to speak at TED, just don’t use it. Tell a story. Have a discussion about the main points instead. Put the bullet points in large all caps letters on a flip chart. Or better yet, create a visual to represent everything.
  • Technology in the pocket. Humans can’t multi-task. Seen the statistics on text messaging and driving? 23 times more dangerous than being drunk. You don’t want your meeting attendees drunk do you?
  • Tables. If people don’t need to eat lunch or take incredibly copious notes and have stacks of paper in front of them, why put a barrier between every person?
  • Tardiness. This could be replaced with excuses. If you show up late, everyone has to catch you up… wasting everyone’s time.
  • Tight-lips. Water cooler talk is the essence of a company and the harbinger for the success of the project. Bring it out into the open and every meeting and project will succeed.

CHG: How about big-group seminars and shows and conventions; do you see a few big things happening there?

BK: Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough change. The ‘sit and get’ model is SAFE and so it is almost always what you see. Large-scale collaborative events of any kind are really quite rare. People are afraid to foster interactivity, or to relinquish control. A giant PowerPoint screen is a sense of comfort and power.

CHG: What’s the role of technology? Are twitter feeds good or bad? Is cloud computing affecting things?

BK: I love all of this technology. Twitter Feeds, Google Waves, Live-Blogging, etc, they are all great additions to any group gathering. Their popularity means they are being included by default right now, which can often be more distracting then useful. Their incorporation needs to be strategically designed. Unfortunately, just throwing out features doesn’t produce collaborative, successful output.

CHG: What’s your view of collaboration and how it fosters trust? Or do you see it the other way ‘round?

BK: Perhaps this is the classic case of the chicken and the egg. People must trust in order to collaborate better. And true collaboration will lead to stronger trust. But collaboration only works when people share openly and honestly. In the end, companies, managers, employees need to be willing to change the status quo in order for foster true collaboration… they need to trust each other.

CHG: Many thanks, Brandon, and let’s pursue some of this further another time.


For more information on Brandon Klein and the collaboration information he and his colleagues provide, check out his website at