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Time for Pie – How to Improve Collaboration

How to improve collaboration

Have you ever been invited to a brainstorming or collaboration meeting and felt like you weren’t contributing your best ideas? Perhaps later that evening while you were enjoying a delicious slice of pie a sudden flash of insight, a great idea, burst into you mind as if from nowhere and you wondered “why now and why not earlier in the day while I was concentrating intensely?” The answer is not simple. But, psychologists and neuroscientists are learning a great many things about how our minds work. The result of that work is helping teams understand how to better collaborate to solve complex issues and plan in an ambiguous, rapidly changing world.

When we apply the methodology known as Flawless Execution, we have learned two basic and fundamentally important principles. First, for teams to engage and perform at their best they need a simple and commonly understood meaning of planning and solving problems together. Second, teams need a disciplined process to share their ideas and knowledge to reach decisions and develop plans. Our experience demonstrates that regardless of how well-developed and effective the team processes may be, some team members simply do not respond as well as others to those common processes. Sometimes good ideas do not surface during formal collaboration meetings as they should. Why not?

Part of the answer lies in the monumentally impactful best-seller Quiet, a book about introversion, by Susan Cain. According to Cain, introverts make up 30% of the population. They are deep thinkers that take their time and want to spend it alone to ruminate on an idea. Introverts are not necessarily quick thinkers and they don’t usually like to talk as much as many extroverts do. Cain writes that “. . . there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas.” It should come as no surprise, then, that deeply thinking introverts are less likely to come up with their good ideas under the extremely gregarious and time-compressed collaborative meetings where extroverts thrive.

Similarly, Stanford University professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton identified the smart-talk trap in which highly educated MBA’s are compelled to impress each other with their theoretical knowledge. “Smart talk is the essence of management education at leading institutions in the United States and throughout the world.” The author’s noted, “Students learn how to sound smart in classroom discussions and how to write smart things on essay examinations.” As further research demonstrates, when leaders talk they anchor further discussion around the biases they openly espouse.

How to Improve CollaborationCass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie, professors at Harvard and the University of Chicago respectively, have studied how teams make decisions. One of their most significant observations is that “. . . group leader’s often do better if they shut up and let other people speak.” The reason leaders should keep quiet at the beginning of thoughtful collaboration and discussion is due to well-documented cognitive biases and errors, such as the anchoring effect, in which humans tend to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (called the anchor) when making decisions. By speaking too soon, leaders may also unwittingly create a well-known phenomenon known as groupthink in which groups tend to want to achieve harmonious consensus and not debate issues openly. The potential loss of critical information and opinions by subduing introverts can only further contribute to less-optimal decisions and plans.

Sunstein and Hastie also point out that although group consensus can often be correct in some circumstances, it can also be a recipe for disaster. When particularly complicated or complex issues are under analysis by a team, critical, but far less obvious information can be the key to resolution. But, it’s often the quiet introverts that may hold such critical information and, as their personalities often dictate, they fail to make themselves heard or even attempt to speak in a group of loud extroverts. Good leaders have to learn how to control the exchange of ideas and information to evaluate it all more effectively. This is why specialized team collaboration techniques known as Teamstorming™ are utilized in the Flawless execution methodology.

As far as process is concerned, it all comes down to being disciplined around that process when the collaboration or planning meeting is held. It’s especially important to set the objective for that meeting first and well in advance of the meeting itself. Sunstein and Hastie assert that “The more precise the objectives, the more likely that the people best able to achieve remarkable solutions will be drawn to participate.” In short, a well-defined objective engages the team to plan best. The secret to getting the most out of everyone that is participating, including the introverts, is to have a commonly held mental model or process so that everyone has an opportunity to consider the objective in a way that fits their temperament while, at the same time, allows those thoughts to be shared according to a common vocabulary and structure.

Collaboration skills in the workplace

The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s work in human cognition offers some simple advice. In his best-selling work, Thinking Fast and Slow, he suggests that the best way to hold meetings is to have everyone summarize their opinions on the subject in writing before attending. Returning to Susan Cain’s research on introversion, she makes a similar suggestion about meetings by stating that “. . . [introverts] listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.” Our experience takes this advice to the next level by asking participants to consider the clearly-stated objective of the meeting according to a simple 6-step planning and decision making process. Introverts and extroverts alike may then enter the meeting with their thoughts expressed and organized in a way that allows easy sharing and discussion of those ideas without the error-inducing dangers of anchoring and groupthink.

Flawless Execution invites teams to plan according to six simple steps:

  1. State the objective clear and with measurable effects.
  2. Identify the threats to accomplishing the objective.
  3. Identify the resources available and required to accomplish the objective.
  4. Evaluate lessons learned.
  5. Develop a course of action to accomplish the objective.
  6. Plan for contingencies that may arise while executing toward the objective.

With this simple methodology in mind and a clearly articulated objective, introverts and extroverts can combine their ideas and knowledge in a way that optimizes the effort.

“I sense you’re not embracing the concept here,” says Agent Kay (Actor Josh Brolin) to Agent Jay (Actor Will Smith) in the film Men in Black 3, “pie don’t work unless you let it.” The two had been hot on the trail of clues left by the film’s villain but were unable to put all the clues together and track him down. Agent Kay had convinced Agent Jay to stop and have a slice of pie at a nearby diner. Agent Jay becomes dismissive of Agent Kay’s suggestion right up until he is struck by a blinding flash of insight that helps the two protagonists along their path to saving the world from destruction. Such flashes of insight are common experiences for many of us, particularly introverts. We wrestle with problems in our minds until, at some point of distraction, the insight we seek surprises us at the moment we least expect it. Modern neuroscience has begun to prove the source of this mysterious insight. Our minds are constantly at work, even at a subconscious level, grinding away at problems until we experience a ‘blinding flash’ of insight.

As leaders of teams and organizations we need to allow time for that insight. Time for thinking is an important ingredient in collaboration, particularly among our more introverted, deeply-thinking team members. When we provide all our teams with a common structure and language to discuss and align that insight, and provide our clearly stated objectives well in advance of formal team meetings, we build a team of extraordinary power. Now, it’s time for pie!

About the author

WILLIAM M. DUKE

WILLIAM M. DUKE

William M. Duke is a retired Naval Officer and Master Practitioner of the Flawless Execution methodology. He is the co-author of The Debrief Imperative (Premiere, 2011) and Down Range: A Transitioning Veteran’s Career Guide to Life’s Next Phase (Wiley, 2013).

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