Reflections on the value of collaboration, by Nicky Waters, Senior Managing Consultant.
A couple of months ago I was invited to host a workshop at the annual CIPFA Scotland Conference. As I started to prepare, I discovered that pulling a presentation together is a fantastic way to examine what you do and why. It really makes you think about the things you take for granted!
To start, I had to decide which topic to cover in my 30-minute slot. What would be useful to a mixed audience? What’s a universal problem? What practical advice can I give in such a short space of time? My answer came quickly; people, or more specifically, collaboration and involving people in a change process.
Time and time again, even with the best of intensions, involving people in change is something that organisations often get wrong by engaging too late, too little, or sometimes not at all. But it can mean the difference between success and failure because when you’re trying to implement something new, even with the best ideas, the best processes, and lots of investment, if you don’t have your staff, customers and service users with you then the chances are that you’re going to fail. If people don’t believe in what’s happening then they will go back to old habits as soon as the spotlight moves on.
At C.Co, we genuinely believe in putting people at the heart, and head, of change; collaboration is one of our fundamental values. Not only will it give you better results, but, as human beings, it’s also the right thing to do. “But people hate change!” I hear you cry “they’ll just be angry!”. Well, if you wait until a decision is made and the deal is done then they probably will react that way. But if you get people involved early then it’s a very different story. Yes, change can make people anxious and you might have to have some difficult conversations BUT some short-term discomfort, trusting people to be the sensible and knowledgeable adults that they are, really will make it better for everyone in the long run; even if opening the doors to the unknown is a little bit scary.
Being open and honest with people about the issues that need to be solved and giving them a chance to come up with a solution will pay dividends when it comes to implementation and beyond. Firstly, it will make the design and planning for the change so much better. Staff and customers know their service area, they know the realities of day-to-day operations, so they’ll tell you what will and will not work; what doesn’t make sense; what’s a waste of time and money. And then they’ll start to tell you what could work; how you could negotiate some of the problems; what they’d love to do but they’ve not had the chance to; what it would take to actually make it happen. They’ll also help to put other sources of information into context; finance, HR, performance data, benchmarking and all the number crunching that is still vitally important.
Secondly, it gives individuals the time to make sense of what’s happening; to mull things over; to think of alternatives; to discuss and discount some of those alternative. This means that they are emotionally and operationally ready when it comes to implementation because it’s not a surprise, and they’ve probably already been making tweaks and changes in anticipation. They’ve been with you from the beginning, you’ve helped them find their voice, and the change now belongs to them. Plus, they will be far more aware of what needs to be done on the ground to make it a success.
Thirdly, involving people right from the beginning of a change initiative can reduce the stress and anxiety that people inevitably feel, by being clear about what is known and what is unknown; what can be influenced and what’s non-negotiable; what they can get involved with and when. Highlighting what people can control and creating opportunities for people to genuinely influence the decision-making process will make a positive difference. This is vital for the health and wellbeing of your workforce, to support a long-lasting positive culture, and can help you to retain talent, even spot emerging leaders, during times of uncertainty. In turn, staff will be in a better position to help to reassure service users.
Exploring issues together through workshops, suggestion schemes, 1-2-1 discussions, storytelling, drawing, games, designing prototypes, action learning sets – whatever makes sense for each situation – is a quicker and more enjoyable route to knowledge and insight. It creates an equal partnership where you can all learn from each other and make sense of things together. Trying to force a ready-made ‘solution’ onto a workforce just doesn’t work.
Now, I’m not saying that staff and customers will have all the answers, or will act as a homogenous group, or will fully buy into whatever solution is finally presented. There will still be disagreement; there will still be conflict; there will still be people who are totally disinterested; there will still be tough decisions to be made. But the information and intelligence that you gather will be richer, the case presented to decision makers will be far more robust, and the space to play with and debate ideas before any decision is made or resource committed can help to avoid costly mistakes or all out failure. Even those who don’t agree with the answer will better understand and appreciate what led you there.
And, I’m not saying that it will be easy. I come in as an outsider to a service, often when there’s a significant problem. I need to prove my worth and gain the trust of those I work with. If you’re a consultant or even a senior manager within the organisation you’ll need to do the same. You need to be consistent with your message. You need to make the effort to get out to people, in places that work for them. You need to do what you say will. You need to start the conversation then probe and challenge, and ask silly questions, and pull apart assumptions, and play devil’s advocate so that the final solution has been fully tried and tested in a safe environment, BEFORE it reaches decision makers. As a consultant and an introvert, this is the hardest but most rewarding part of my job; when we make sense of all the inputs and capture it in an amazing new model that actually represents staff, customers and service users as well as the strategic direction of the organisation.
So, my challenge to you… the next time your organisation needs to even think about doing something differently or you’re brought in to help explore options, don’t wait until a decision has been made. Embrace the unknown and give people the opportunity to help to design the solution. If you do, you will get better design, smoother implementation, and better outcomes for your organisation and the people it serves.