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 CollaborationKing.com

5 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    To Charlie and BK,

    Thanks Charlie for introducing me/us to BK. So, I have a curiosity and then some thoughts.

    My curiosity is this. In this as well as other interviews, often the dialogue centers around the "what" and the "how." I understand this has to happen when we are being introduced to (or introducing) someone and when we want to expose another’s work to the public. For me, personally, I can sometimes find this a bit frustrating? Why?

    While the personality and the tools and techniques around collaboration, in this instance, might be new and/or different, I found many of the points BK makes not to be. And when I hear and re-hear and read and re-read points about behavior, this is where I often wonder why we don’t go deeper (root cause stuff). (Too, I understand the trade-off between breadth and depth in an interview but that doesn’t lessen my frustration.) Rather than the what, for example, what would we gain from asking why?

    Here are some points/factoids BK offers, not unlike what others have said (IMHO) and what I would be curious about (and wonder if BK, you might be interested in commenting) :

    1. Collaboration is not about latest social media software. (so why are folks so enticed with it?)

    2. 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. (is successful human interaction always about the technology" of collaboration; why/why not? why do we always need to have a "technology" about being "human?")

    3. We’ve managed to make online collaboration hot and successful, but we have quickly forgotten what it means to collaborate in person. (why is this so? -the "in-person" piece?)

    4. Even with using Cisco’s Telepresence (which is awesome) it is very difficult to say that technology has changed "getting together" (Why is "getting together" so challenging?)

    5. This is because although we have created new tools and ways of working online, we haven’t developed ways of interacting better in person. (after years and years of hearing this and similar statements, I’m curious as to "why?")

    6. People are afraid to foster interactivity, or to relinquish control.  (My bold) (begs asking "why?")

    7. (Technology) needs to be strategically designed. Unfortunately, just throwing out features doesn’t produce collaborative, successful output. ("why?")

    8. People must trust in order to collaborate better. But collaboration only works when people share openly and honestly. they need to trust each other. (So, why don’t they?)

    My frustration is that I seldom hear the question "why?" (i.e, deeper exploration and inquiry) asked and answered. Lots of "what" and "how" but not too much about root cause issues that could, again IMHO, help to shed light on deeper issues which, once exposed, might lead to true change and transformation, and perhaps fewer technologies and even fewer re-statements about things that don’t work.

    I hear lots of different flavors of "technology" – it’s safe, everybody understands it and it’s de-rigueur. But the "people" part – the secret sauce of true and real collaboration often goes unexplored, untouched.

    So, if I were to choose one of these items above and ask you, BK, to comment is would be # 6. And, then, hearing your comment (e.g., because…"), I may even ask "why?" again, and if there is another comment, ask "why?" again perhaps even getting to a wonderful, exciting point of responding "I don’t know." And, that, for me (selfishly), is the beginning of the dialogue.

    In the four-stage learning model, when we get to the "I don’t know" that is the first step of learning – unconscious incompetence. Then with further exploration, we move to conscious incompetence – knowing the answers to the why questions and working to grow on the basis of that informationthen to conscious competence – do-ing and be-ing different and then to integrating this new behavior over time so we move to unconscious incompetence – do-ing and be-ing differently b/c we see the root cause of why we were heretofore unable or unwilling and now can experience change and transformation.

    And, this is where, for me, we can move to a deeper understanding of the eight points above rather than simply state them as "facts of collaborative life." 

    The Indian Philosopher Krishnamurti said thoughts are like furniture in a room with the doors and windows closed. We move a piece here, then over there, then over there and maybe add new color, or fabric (i.e., the "technology) – but in the end it’s still the same furniture in the same room, same ideas, old wine. I really didn’t hear anything new. The eights points above are nothing new for me (except the names of the technology brands) and thus my frustration.

    Opening the doors and windows with some deeper, probing questions, like the "why" of it all can add fresh air and new light and help us see things in a different light.

    So, Charlie and BK, I would love to know the "why?" or what’s underneath some of BK’s statements – not about "what is" but why you/BK think "what is"…is – really, really, why. Over and over to get to some deep, root causes. For me, this is the   where where lasting change and transformation begins – exploring the psycho-emotional -social-spiritual obstacles that stand in the way of effective collaboration and trust.

    Maybe then instead of continuing to create new technologies to induce human interaction, we’ll also have new humans who can do without the need for technology to be human.

    I think this approach/conversation/dialogue would be useful and enlightening. But, that’s just me.

    Reply
  2. Brandon Klein
    Brandon Klein says:

    Peter,

    I agree, none of these ideas or concepts are particularly new or different. But how many of them are actually used, used together and used well? We put out a list of consulting companies that claim to be collaborative (not that all companies aren’t!). I know all of them have at some point implemented several variations of my answers. But none of them do it consistently.

    But I am very happy that you are most intrigued by answer 6. Fear of fostering interactivity and relinquishing control…  

    Why do we talk about the weather instead of what our real interests are?
    Why do we sit at the back of a conference room… behind a table… and behind our Blackberry?
    Why do we CC our boss all the time?

    Change, trust and true collaboration are risks that most aren’t willing to take.

    In any given week, most jobs require a set of tasks or list of objectives to be completed. 99% of us would steam through them in the best way that we could. If we were 50% done with the list by lunch on Wednesday, we would consider ourselves in good shape.

    WRONG.  (unless your job is data entry- I would guess that few if any of Charlie’s readers are)

    How often do we pause and look for a truly better way of achieving our goals? When would we spend the first half of the week finding the best way to knock out our week’s objectives in a better more collaborative way? NEVER.

    Ironically, the proliferation of collaboration tools online is the best example of finding a better way to achieve your goals. But it has also caused us to be lazy in our everyday interactions. Our day-to-day collaborations are probably just re-arranging the furniture as you say.

    For a little visual inspiration, check out HBO Imagine for how they are exploring ways to re-invent TV by exploring perspectives.

    Perhaps I haven’t answered the question yet? How about this… at the next meeting you attend, walk in and ask to change the format. It could be anything you think would be productive. For this exercise, it doesn’t really matter. Move a table, draw a picture of what is being said instead of notes behind a laptop. Try anything.

    What will happen? Here are some responses I find most often.
    “We are on a deadline here.”
    “I love trying new things, but lets do it next time.”
    “Ok, lets try that at the end.”
    “Let’s hit our objectives first.”

    So, to quote Krishnamurti as well, “Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem.”

    We address the symptoms (objectives, tasks etc.) so often in the workplace, we forget what we are really talking about or trying to achieve and how we can achieve it.  

    We must release control. We must explore different options. It is a cliché by now, but Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” How about we simplify it to just “change one thing in your next meeting.”

    And speaking of "Why," check out Devdutt Pattanaik’s TED talk from last month!

    Reply
  3. David Roberts
    David Roberts says:

    I enjoyed this piece, Charles.

    You and BK mention the technology around collaboration. In my experience, technology like Cisco’s Telepresence and HP’s Halo Room are a trap for one of the most important types of collaboration: complex decision-making.

    These tools are fantastic for educating, teaming, and closing decision loops for virtual teams. Fantastic in every way for this – they bring people up to speed faster and better and build emotional connections that can’t be done by phone or text. They make the world smaller.

    Also, in many global organizations there’s a headquarters-centricity (often US) that sets up a deep cultural dynamic of in-group/out-group. Again, these video conference technologies are great at breaking that down because we get to see each other for how we are – not perfect. And often their use fosters creativity and different ways of talking, presenting, and showing each other what you’re talking about. When people are in the presence of dizzyingly cool greatness (performance or technology) we often step up their game. No doubt these are great tools.

    So why do these work? Part of it is limbic resonance – these systems get us closer to resonating emotionally with other human beings, which is what we’ve evolved to do. Developmentally, we show our limbic resonance skills well before we can hold our head up with our own strength or lie on our stomachs without worrying our parents we’ll die of SIDS.

    But these technologies are a trap when a well-intentioned CFO or business leader extrapolates this to mean they are sufficient to gain real alignment around a problem of significant political or rational complexity. These types of problems, such as how to balance local requirements with a global standardization push, how/whether to outsource parts of an organization, or how/where to reduce headcount are best as face-to-face discussions.

    If you’re an old-school tops-down command-and-control organization, or you have an off-the-charts fantastic level of trust (and track record) in the leadership team’s decisions, fine. If not, these tools allow the leaders to think they are really collaborating, reading the weak signals, understanding the unsaid from their colleagues, but they are often wrong.

    To work through tough issues we need to be together, physically, not just virtually.

    Why? Again, part of it is limbic resonance. The physical and spiritual energy that is communicated when we are with other people is just different on camera, particularly when we’re stressed or tired (and aren’t we always stressed and tired when these decisions are made?). We are communicating emotionally, and this can’t all be captured fully enough through a monitor. We are trapped by it.

    These technologies are just going to get cooler, cheaper, easier to use, and more ubiquitous. CFOs will always look at the balance sheet and see fantastic ROI on using these systems. They are great and I am a huge proponent. We just need to be smart about how and when we (don’t) use them.

    One more thing: I would love to be wrong on my assertion that these virtual technologies are significantly inferior to face-to-face when driving real alignment in complex decision-making. Then I could be with my family in Santa Cruz more and justify buying a huge Halo Room system with a wall full of monitors.

    And Peter, in terms of the big "why" questions around why we don’t collaborate better, I like BK’s notion of control. Or, we can just look inside the jacket of our old Funkadelic records for the answer to most of these issues: FEAR. BK hits it on the nose when he challenges us to change our meetings up tomorrow. Personally, I can think of why NOT to for each specific meeting.

    Remember a time that you insisted a group try something different, against some stated or unstated opposition, then it bombed and didn’t work in the end? I remember lots of times I did this; it stung every time and each time sticks in my mind more clearly than all the things I’ve tried over the years that DID work. No one likes to be on the receiving end of a colleague or perhaps worse, a client, thinking "see, I knew that wouldn’t work." This fear drives us to inaction.

    So my simple answer to Peter’s WHY question is that we’re just wired this way. We can get around this wiring, but it we need to be consicous that’s what we’re doing.

    Reply
  4. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

     

    Thanks Brandon and David. So, some thoughts:

    Devdutt Pattanaik says something in his Ted Talk (BK’s recommended listening) that resonated with me. Paraphrasing…"like Ram and Krishna, we live life over and over, the same life, infinitely until we get it." The operative word, for me, is "it." What is the "it" we get? I chose to interpret the "it" as the "conscious"-ness David Roberts mentions in his last sentence in his comment, "So my simple answer to Peter’s WHY question is that we’re just wired this way. We can get around this wiring, but it we need to be conscious that’s what we’re doing."

    And, I need to mention that when I’m speaking about collaboration and trust, I’m speaking about face-to-face experiences – not online. (But I am curious. When I hear that technology brings folks together in the experience  of collaboration, I’m curious if this is really collaboration in its pure sense or a form of compliance or even coercion. Just a curiosity)

    Both you, BK, and David hit on an important element, i.e, control. Control for me often focuses on our do-ing and be-ing in ways that are self-limiting and self-sabotaging, but we engage in such behaviors, nevertheless.  Why? Control. So, what is it we need to control and why are many of us horrified at the thought of relinquishing control?

    Why are we unwilling to deal with change, trust and collaboration when these involve giving up a sense of safety , control, even identity? That’s an important question for me.

    As for the meeting arrangement thing.

    Ever since I began facilitating workshops, group coaching sessions, men’s groups and personal growth groups years ago, we’ve followed two ground rules that were sacrosanct. (1) Whenever we took a group break (whether a 10- minute bathroom break, or lunch or dinner break, or day break), we (including me) could not sit in the same seat the next time we reassembled, and (2) there is no cross-talk (i.e., whenever someone comments in any way, shape or form, no one can respond directly to that person in any way. One can offer another perspective, premise, add-on piece of information, and the like to the group as a whole but no cross-talk.

    Well, the uneasiness at the first mention of these two ground rules is always extremely palpable. Why? The first takes people out of their comfort zone – physiologically and emotionally – upsets their sense of "safety," comfort, personal "GPS"-settings, ownership of space, etc. – control. The second upsets folks whose personal role at meetings is to educate, fix, one-up, critique, cross-examine, advise, shut down, interrogate, use put-down humor, correct or otherwise be in  "control" of another. 

    And why do many folks react so viscerally to such ground rules? David points to it: fear.

    So, my curiosity about meeting management, as  that is what BK offers here, for example, is, "If I’m afraid of you, threatened by you, jealous of you, resentful of you, or feel lacking or deficient being across from you," does changing the "furniture" reduce, melt, metabolize my feelings or emotions? Am I more likely to collaborate or trust you feeling less emotional because of a format change? 

    The folks in my experience largely respond "no." Remember I’m talking about face-to-face experiences. Yes, they engage; but is that what I’m looking for in my work with these folks? Is that collaboration or compliance or, again, even coercion?  Does the quality of trust grow? Hmmm. The tendency to choose to collaborate or be collaborative, as opposed to "going through the motions" of collaboration and/or trust. Does it make me more trustworthy? Does it reduce fear, resentment, feelings of lack or deficiency and foster truly "human" interaction? Not usually, in my experience.

    And so, the question, again, is why? Why are we afraid? David suggests it’s because we are wired that way. True, but we didn’t come into the world wired that way.

    And, what are we afraid of? Over and above "control"? Control of what?

    As you say, BK, "Ironically, the proliferation of collaboration tools online is the best example of finding a better way to achieve your goals. But it has also caused us to be lazy in our everyday interactions. Our day-to-day collaborations are probably just re-arranging the furniture as you say. " So, why have we become lazy in our daily interactions? I believe it’s because we live much of our life unconsciously – in habitual and patterned behavior – reactively. 

    BK, when you change the format, you say the following will be common responses:

    “We are on a deadline here.” “I love trying new things, but lets do it next time.” “Ok, lets try that at the end.” “Let’s hit our objectives first.”

    What  might happen in one asked, for example, "How do you feel about the new format?" "How’s your breathing and heart-rate?" What emotions are you experiencing? What’s your inner dialogue like? Is your "private voice" saying something different than your "public voice"? "How does your body feel?" What’s it like to experience your feelings and emotions?" "How are you feeling about working with your colleagues?"

    And if we have created a container where folks feel some degree of safety and then ask "why" when they respond to these questions, and maybe after others of their responses to other "whys," my experience says that, again, some flavor or fear will arise couched in the words of their responses. So, then "why am I afraid?"

    BK, you offer a wonderful Krishnamurti quote, "“Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem.”

    So, for me, here is the opportunity to engage in the practice of Inquiry – without asking outright any question. Asking folks to just be quiet, be in their own space, and track their experience – physical, emotional, mental and see where it takes them and knowing that at some point, as Krishnamurti, suggests, they themselves will arrive at some notion, AHA, insight, intuition…of what’s "going on with me." This experience of gaining greater self-awareness when focused upon and explored internally, in my experience, leads us to the "it" of "like Ram and Krishna, we live life over and over, the same life, infinitely until we get it." In this place, is "technology" is necessary in face-to-face experiences? Yes? NO? and Why?

    Yes, BK, as Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” How about using the process of Inquiry (often scary and needs to be done consciously and with someone who knows group process…) to inform folks of who they are and how they are as they engage in the experience of trust and collaboration – leading to consciousness –  for me, the real essence of relationship, and true and real collaboration and trust. No questions here, just lots of discovery, that might lead to letting go of the need for control, reducing fear and an ease with engaging in any format, any time, any where…a wonderful residual of consciousness.

     

    Reply

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