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Author: James D. Murphy

Collaborative Leadership: A Process for Success in a Turbulent World

Do you know how to provide collaborative leadership in a disciplined fashion? And how does one define disciplined collaboration? The current business and leadership literature touts the importance of collaborating in our turbulent world. Large and small businesses and teams struggle to wrap their heads around just what collaboration is. Many see collaboration or collaborative leadership as a challenge that can be met through technology, whether it is through social media or virtual conferencing, while others recognize the benefits of restructuring an office space so that it appears more open. However, technology and physical space are only superficial means to address the challenge of disciplined collaboration. Collaboration — and successful collaborative leadership — does not derive from “where” or through “which” media people interact. Instead, it is about “how” people interact. And that “how” must be disciplined.

Disciplined Collaboration

Disciplined collaboration holds a central place in Jim Collins’ latest work, “Great by Choice.” “Great by Choice” is the result of a grand research project that seeks to discover how some companies have continued to thrive in spite of uncertainty, chaos and luck — good or bad. It’s a centrally important issue in our turbulent world, where change is so rapid and unpredictable. Collaborative leadership has been cited as a vital skill that teams and companies must use in order to constantly create, innovate and adapt to change. Innovation is often seen as the fruit of collaboration; however, this is a dangerously limited perspective. Collaboration is much more valuable than a means to achieve innovation. Disciplined collaboration is an invaluable process that teams can utilize to successfully innovate, solve problems, make decisions, plan and execute. 

Above all, disciplined collaboration is a creative planning and decision-making process. In “Great by Choice,” Collins defines discipline as “consistency of action.” For teams and companies, Collins’ definition implies that collaboration and collaborative leadership processes be consistent. “The great task, rarely achieved,” Collins writes, “is to blend creative intensity with relentless discipline so as to amplify the creativity rather than destroy it.” He goes on to point out that “the signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change; the signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.” That inconsistency begins in the planning and decision-making process. And in a world of complex challenges that are best met by teams rather than individuals, that consistency requires a disciplined collaboration process. 

Dynamism and Iteration

A disciplined collaborative planning process requires certain elements. Altogether, there are many elements in a planning process; however, some of the elements most successfully impact an effective collaborative leadership process — these are the elements that allow the process to be dynamic, iterative, participatory and cognitively diverse. 

“Dynamic” refers to the adaptability of the planning processes product — the plan. Change happens; therefore, you shouldn’t collaborate on a plan only to find that the plan needs to change without a clear process of making those adaptations. 

The process for disciplined collaboration and collaborative leadership should also be iterative. Iteration is similar to dynamism, but is not the same. Iteration is the plan improvement process within the overall planning process, while dynamism refers to the adaptation of the plan after it is executed. Iteration occurs during planning, while dynamic adaptation occurs during the execution of the plan. Teams that collaborate during planning, and those who utilize collaborative leadership, will iterate the plan before its execution, enabling those individuals to more effectively execute and adapt those plans. 

Nominal Group Aggregation

Of course, disciplined collaboration requires participation by more than one individual — this is what makes collaborative leadership so challenging. How does a group of individuals come together to produce a plan or make a decision? Fundamentally, it requires a collaborative leadership process for generating ideas at the individual or very small group level (2–5 persons), and then combining and vetting these ideas at a larger group level (5–15 people). This process is called nominal group aggregation. 

Nominal group aggregation is a delicate process because everyone has their own ideas — some better than others. In collaborative groups, some individuals voice their ideas forcefully, while others hold back on valuable insight, fearing they won’t be heard or appreciated. However, successful collaborative leadership techniques can overcome such obstacles, and these techniques must be part of a disciplined collaborative process. Disciplined collaboration is not about achieving consensus; instead, it is about producing the best plan to achieve the objective. Consensus can lead in any direction, while disciplined collaboration yields a plan that leads in the right direction.

Cognitive Diversity and Simplicity

Finding the correct direction to proceed requires another element of the collaborative planning process: cognitive diversity. Collaborative leadership will not be successful if you are collaborating with a team of individuals that think alike, have similar backgrounds and experience, occupy the same hierarchical positions and so forth. Creativity and innovation require divergent thinking and dialogue. Therefore, disciplined collaboration must adhere to a process that harnesses cognitive diversity. Utilize your collaborative leadership skills to incorporate a balanced mixture of experience, knowledge and positions for the collaborative process. Consider that two heads are actually not more valuable than one if both heads think alike and see the world in the same way. For example, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail — so make sure that you have a complete toolbox when planning collaboratively. 

There is one additional important element: the process must be simple. To collaborate effectively and efficiently, people need a simple process. If a team has to spend time organizing and training about how they are going to collaborate and then struggle to become proficient at that process, then efficiency and effectiveness suffer. Collaborative leadership entails using a process that is simple to learn and apply, consistently applying that process throughout the organization. Disciplined collaboration will become a widely practiced behavior, and that behavior will ultimately become a healthy collaborative culture. 

Achieve Collaboration through Discipline

Disciplined collaboration yields more than a plan or decision; it engages the team to execute successfully. Disciplined collaboration is the first step in achieving success as a team. Humans like to be autonomous, to have the freedom to solve problems and perform tasks on their own and in their own way. However, our complex, turbulent world requires collaboration in order to create, innovate and succeed. Humans also need to be connected to each other, to be a valuable part of a larger whole. Disciplined collaboration is the key to satisfying these often conflicting needs in modern organizations. On one hand, collaborative leadership provides each individual with the opportunity to contribute their own insights and then, once a final plan is created, to go forth and execute in their own semi-autonomous way. On the other hand, what each individual executes becomes a well-coordinated part of the overall objective. However, to fulfill these basic human needs, the team must always achieve collaboration through a disciplined process.

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X-Gap: Using Strategic Planning to Close the Project Execution “Gap”

Teams and organizations are constantly plagued by project execution errors and failures. These failures create an execution gap — a gap between what an individual and/or team plans to do and what they actually do instead. Just as retention rapidly degrades after learning, so does project execution after strategic planning. So what can be done?

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, famously demonstrated a theory concluding that people start forgetting what they learn as soon as they learn it. In his “forgetting curve” study, he demonstrated that humans forget half of what they learn within an hour of learning it, and by the following day, they have forgotten a full two-thirds of the new information. Since Ebbinghaus’ study, psychologists have discovered that there are many ways to improve retention and memory; however, if memory is so fragile, what is its impact on project execution and strategic planning – getting the things done that you and your team should do? 

Strategic Planning: The Execution Gap Meeting 

Strategic planning is a form of team learning. When approached collaboratively, planning is a knowledge-creating and problem-solving process. And strategic planning can create much detail that is difficult to manage, and therefore, execute. Great project execution requires 100% retention in the team learning process. Without such a perfect level of retention, project execution will falter; however, just as there are techniques to improve individual retention after learning, there are techniques to improve the team’s project execution after strategic planning. One of these techniques is the Execution Gap Meeting, or X-Gap. 

In principle, the X-Gap is simple. Get the team together at regular intervals during the project execution phase, address the progress of each individual task that must be performed, and take action before progress falls behind. In “Teambuilding: Proven Strategies For Improving Team Performance,” recognized as the authoritative work on the fundamentals of team building, the authors note the importance of regular interventions within teams to prevent regression like that of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. Furthermore, they note that regression is more effectively halted when regular interventions are held to focus on tasks as a team rather than on a one-on-one, supervisor-to-subordinate basis. It sounds like a simple strategic planning technique; however, in practice, holding an effective X-Gap requires discipline.

One of the greatest challenges to leading an X-Gap is controlling the discussion and keeping it on task. Fundamentally, the X-Gap is a transparent strategic planning method of applying peer pressure to enhance project execution performance. So, participants have a tendency to provide excuses and open up lengthy discussions to distract the group from individual accountability. X-Gap leaders must fight this tendency.

Leading an effective X-Gap requires a commitment to four basic principles – focus, resolution, action and frequency.

Principle Number One: Focus

First, X-Gap meetings should be short and focused only on the tasks required. This strategic planning technique is not an opportunity for open discussion, complex problem solving or the exchange of general information. It has only one item on the agenda – the review of all due and open tasks within the plan. In an X-Gap, the leader convenes the meeting on time and proceeds task-by-task through the project by asking each task owner to report their progress.

Responses should be succinct. Completed tasks and tasks in-progress but not yet due are simply either “completed,” “on track,” or “green.” Tasks that are in progress but have some uncertainty about the capacity to complete them as planned are “yellow.” Finally, tasks that are past due or have encountered some critical obstacle that must be addressed are “critical” or “red.” The latter two classifications are the target of the X-Gap strategic planning meeting. The X-Gap leader’s purpose is to identify and isolate those “yellow” and “red” category tasks for further review.

Principle Number Two: Resolution

The second basic principle of the X-Gap is to take action to resolve uncertainty, ambiguity and any other obstacles. Once project execution gaps are exposed, the leader should make decisions and possibly reallocate resources in order to close those gaps. Some explanation and discussion is usually necessary. Therefore, X-Gap leaders must remain on their guard against unproductive, rambling discussions. Those responsible for the task targeted for discussion should succinctly explain the issue to the team and state what they believe they need in order to accomplish the task – to close the gap. This need is usually stated as a request for resources or a decision from the leader. 

At this point, teams will tend to want to have an open discussion about the matter; however, the X-Gap leader must contain this strategic planning discussion to only a few minutes. If the team is allowed to take too much time, then there will be less time to address other “red” and “yellow” tasks. As a rule of thumb, any task that requires more than two minutes to explain and discuss should be deferred to a separate discussion that takes place after the X-Gap meeting. Leaders must keep the X-Gap meeting focused and moving along smoothly so that all the relevant tasks within the plan are addressed.

Principle Number Three: Action

X-Gap meetings should identify specific actions that must take place during the project execution phase, unless all tasks are completed or on task as planned. Leaders should take care to either clearly indicate the actions that must take place as a result of the task review process, or indicate how and when decisions or other resolutions will take place and who is responsible for them. They must determine whether or not additional resources are required, who will acquire them and by when. And if further deliberation is required to achieve a decision, leaders must decide when this will take place and which team members will be a part of the discussion. Successful strategic planning in X-Gap meetings should never conclude without clarity about the next steps to take.  

Principle Number Four: Frequency

Finally, X-Gap meetings should be a recurring strategic planning event that aligns with the team or organization’s overall project execution rhythm. If the team holds an X-Gap every Monday morning at 10 a.m., for example, the team will be better able to anticipate, participate more fully, and prepare more thoroughly. 

Preparation is the key to a successful X-Gap meeting and strategic planning session. Team members report to the X-Gap at their pre-designated time and place with the statuses of their assigned tasks in the plan. This means being prepared to respond to its overall status, as well as providing both a succinct description of a status that is “yellow” or “red.” Participants should be prepared to answer the question: “What do you believe is required to move forward?” Of course, there are often certain dependencies outside an individual team member’s control that may be the underlying cause. Hence, the purpose of the X-Gap is to expose these project execution issues and address them appropriately as a team. Good preparation also means that individuals can stand in for others unable to attend the X-Gap, providing a status of their tasks and discussing what is needed to move forward.

An X-Gap strategic planning meeting must be led. As a teacher leads a classroom and utilizes techniques to help students improve retention, a leader should utilize techniques like the X-Gap to improve project execution

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