An uncommon view of collaborative competencies
C2 Solutions Group is one of many U.S. federal government contractors facing a daunting challenge. As a small business, it must find ways to grow in the face of fierce competition as its clients keep raising the bar, demanding increased performance at lower cost.
Ranked sixteenth in the Washington, D.C., area in annual growth for small technology companies in 2012, C2 had planned on sustaining its growth by attracting and retaining top talent. However, the current instabilities in the federal market have the company reconsidering whether the "hire and pray" strategy will continue to work. So C2 did what every federal contractor is doing, getting its principals to huddle together in a "war room" looking for a solution.
For most companies, such planning sessions start heading downhill even before the local deli has had a chance to deliver lunch. The reason for that can be traced to a meme that has somehow worked its way into anyone gathered around a conference table. The memetic code says, "The first step in any collaborative session is to reach a ‘common understanding' of the problem."
While that might make sense on the surface, if you look a little deeper, you'll see that such an approach is highly reductionist. If you could somehow listen in on the deliberations of those various teams, you'll hear them whittling away at the ideas people are bringing to the table until all that remains is the least common denominator. More than a few valuable clues were likely pruned out before they even had the chance to see the light of day. This is something your team will definitely want to avoid if your goal is sustained innovation. C2 recognized that, and before starting its deliberations, decided to sharpen its collaboration skills.
Identifying and nurturing collaborative competencies hasn't been easy. Although a substantial body of research exists in the field, much of the literature focuses on competencies needed to effectively participate in and/or facilitate collaborative problem-solving. But it doesn't begin to address the simple, basic question of: "How do you get the most from working together as a team?"
In C2's case, the core team consisted of the unlikely mix of business manager, enterprise architect and knowledge architect. Rather than use the more typical brainstorming techniques, the group attempted a new method of collaboration based on the principles of knowledge science and mathematics (see "Pushing the Boundaries of the Knowledge Sciences," KMWorld, February 2013). Its approach consisted of three simple steps: expand, connect and align.
Instead of pruning the problem space to reach a common understanding, the team began by expanding to arrive at an "uncommon" understanding. The goal was to come up with as many different interpretations of the problem as possible. That meant giving everyone the freedom to unleash the full force of their diverse perspectives. In doing so, they quickly discovered that they not only expanded the problem space, but the option space as well.
This required the introduction of a new and different collaborative competency: learning how to shift one's perspective. According to group theory in mathematics, the dihedral group of order 3 is one of the most robust. Its practical application is to help individuals to better understand their own perspective, then shift their awareness and "become" each of the other members of the group. By doing this, the number of viewpoints in the group moved from three to 18.
For C2, this first stage produced an unexpected result. Rather than focusing on hiring and retaining the best talent in a tightly competitive market, the company identified a different problem—no, make that an opportunity—how to leverage the collective strengths of its existing professional staff.
In this stage the objective is to create as many connections as possible between the ideas that came up during the expansion phase. Seemingly opposing ideas are a good place to start. For example, one business management viewpoint was that poor decisions come from working with poor or incomplete information, which points to shortfalls in the enterprise architecture. The enterprise architect asserted that the company's models and processes only recognize explicit knowledge, and that poor decisions based on tacit knowledge are not the fault of the enterprise architecture.
Many other similar and opposite pairs were identified as each participant went through their respective shifts in perspective. Decision models were contrasted with information architecture. Knowledge flows were paired with business activities. Before long, the group had identified many more possible synergies and connections than they could ever hope to work with. Now came the challenge of putting the pieces back together in new and innovative ways.
A human brain trust can handle uncertainty and incomplete information far better than the most powerful supercomputer. Best of all, humans can find ways of making two seemingly opposite ideas work in harmony. A good model for this type of thinking is Thomas Edison, who brought together a solar eclipse, a bamboo fishing pole and the process of carbonization to create the elusive filament for his incandescent lamp.
The result for our pioneering trio at C2 was to embark on creating a KM-enhanced enterprise architecture that identifies and enables knowledge flows that support business processes, thereby reducing costly errors and improving organizational performance. Such an architecture would provide managers more timely and relevant knowledge to make and act upon well-informed decisions. All of that will ultimately result in increased competitiveness. The notion of competing for talent, which was foremost on everyone's mind at the outset, somehow became less problematic in the expansion/connection process.
If you achieve a breakthrough, keep going. Take whatever solution you come up with and make it the new problem space, thereby creating a continuous innovation cycle.
Going back to Edison, when his carbonized bamboo filament worked, he didn't stop there. He continued on, creating sockets so the light bulbs could be easily replaced, switches to turn them on and off, fuses to prevent fires from overloads, insulation for wires so they could run for many miles outdoors, and generating stations at the other end. Oh, yes, and meters to measure the amount of electricity being used so the whole system could be marketed commercially.
Forget seeking a common point of view. The only thing common about today's problems is that they are getting more complex and harder to solve. They can't be solved by using least-common-denominator approaches. Instead, focus on stretching the playing field by seeking as much uncommon ground as you can find, and work from there.