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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Monday, October 08, 2012

When Leadership Doesn't Work?

Last week's discussion on The Ottawa Network by Brian Smith on "Leadership Lessons - If You Aren't PLOCing You Ain't Leading" has gotten me thinking. What do you do when the traditional leadership approach just doesn't seem to work?

That is when as a leader you don't own or control all the knowledge, information, resources or power to achieve your intents. You can't achieve what you want by yourself and so you decide to work with others to achieve your goals. But that means you're no longer in charge. So how do you manage the coordination challenge in that type of environment?

Over the years, both in my practice and as a researcher, I've discovered that unlike the linear reliability of "management science", collaboration and partnership are much more contextually based. That is that what works in one situation does not always translate well to another. Why? Because the issue, the people, the organizations, the challenges, and the sophistication of people's collaborative skills are never the same. And consequently effective collaboration and partnership seem to be more like an art form where you are frequently trying new things out in order to meet the needs of yourself and your partners in order to keep everyone's engagement and commitment.It's a learn as you go approach. And from the comments last week on Brian's post, this reality is not at all unfamiliar to leaders in Ottawa.

I've found that successful collaborators seem to be able to draw on a relatively wide assortment of tricks, tools, mechanisms and practices learned from experience in any given collaborative setting. This allows them a higher probability of success than someone collaborating for the first time.

Therefore I would like to put it out there and ask: What has worked for you in those situations when no one's really in charge; where the outcomes of your work together are neither well understood nor clear; where there are multiple accountabilities beyond your organization over which you have no control; where you don't have all the resources; and you need all these other people to achieve what you want?

What do I mean by tricks, tools, mechanisms and practice? I learned, for instance, from one local hi-tech company that whenever they develop a significant partnership with another firm they send the team involved and their families to spend a week or two with the partner's team. This, I was told, allowed an opportunity to create real relationships between the teams so that when stuff went sideways (as it always did) that real relationship allowed team members to cut each other enough slack to work things through.

As another example, I examined an Ontario school board that was widely regarded for its success at managing the relationship between its trustees and senior staff. When I pushed the Board Chair to describe what was really different, she thought for a minute and then said "we have dinner!" Apparently they had started a program to model healthy eating among staff and trustees, but as an unintended consequence, staff and trustees began sitting together over dinner to informally discuss issues as they came up. All of that took place out of the glare of the media and in an environment of open conversation, enabling a pattern of "no surprises" which she said underscored their positive relationship.

Years ago Dee Hock told a wonderful story about the failure of the international VISA consortium. (You probably didn't know it failed, did you?) After two years of negotiation, the partners that would ultimately form VISA came together to ratify their agreement and by prior consent it was to be done by consensus. However, several partners were still holdouts -- basically the Canadian contingent. When the final vote was held, the Canadians couldn't agree to a consensus. Hock then congratulated everyone for participating and gave them all awards for working so hard over the two years. That night the head of the Canadian banking delegation visited Hock in his hotel room to say that in good conscience they couldn't leave and be the only holdouts. And so VISA International was born. Hock's lesson was that consensus was achieved by allowing people the freedom to say "no" and by the moral contracts that were established over the prior years of working together.

Lastly, when I was working with the old OCRI-Talentworks steering committee, initially we had a hell of a time trying to get people beyond just advocating for their own solution. One practice we found that worked extremely well was to let the group develop its own knowledge base. I and my team at the University of Ottawa prepared a series of reports to guide their decision making but all of the participating organizations had a say in defining what labour market related information we collected. Consequently, their ownership of the data meant that debate shifted from arguments about who's data was right to understanding how the partners derived different meaning from the same information. This developed a rich capacity among the partners to translate from one perspective to another and to be able to construct a whole that incorporated many viewpoints.

So what has worked for you? How did you overcome the challenges of working together when no one seemed to be in charge? Help us all to grow our toolboxes of what works in collaboration.