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Being wilfully intentional about collaboration

First published in the Maverick Paradox Online Magazine May 2020

Being wilfully intentional about collaboration. Socialised mavericks don’t simply randomly collaborate. We collaborate with wilful intention.

What do I mean by that?

Very simply, Socialised Mavericks [1] are very concerned about getting stuff done, and done well. They know how to read complex networks, navigate organisational politics and manage stakeholder relationships to get the results that are needed.

We don’t like to play the politics game. But we do know how the games work.

A few years ago, I improvised a simple tool to help managers to think about these relationships. Like many tools that turn out to be useful, it wasn’t completely new – in fact, it was something I adapted from my student days as a Zoologist, where it was used to map the social behaviour of animals. You could argue that interaction in human organisations is often a special case of this (and sometimes not very special or different at all!). Some other things I really liked about the tool were: it was simple to understand; very visual; and it can be used collaboratively.

We called it the Collaboration Circle.

Collaboration Circle - Patrick Ballin

It starts out with a series of concentric circles, drawn to fill out a flipchart or whiteboard, like an archery target. The Collaboration Circle is a map on which to plot relationship distance. The bullseye centre represents me and my closest colleagues – the next orbit is those we already interact with regularly and well – and so on until we reach the far edge of the solar system, those people who are on the map but feel a long way away. I say “feel” because the distance is a subjective and qualitative assessment. The stakeholders can be individuals (e.g. CEO, Finance Director, Account Manager) or groups (e.g. Marketing Team, Supplier X, Regional Office).

Being wilfully intentional about collaboration

The first time I used the Collaboration Circle was in a series of workshops with managers in an international insurance company. Their Italian operation, based in Milan, had been in a period of cost-cutting and retrenchment and was now moving to a period of growth and customer focus. This was a really significant shift in strategy that required a big change in mindset, and one important part of the workshops was to identify the relationships that needed be strengthened, and sometimes even created, both inside the Italian office and in some cases externally – head office, agents, distributors, etc. More collaboration was going to be required – the question was, with whom and how?

As the individual managers plotted the stakeholders on the Collaboration Circle, and compared their outputs with each other, a number of interesting things started to happen. First, they started to notice gaps – “I need to add them to my map”. They also noticed connections – “we both have common stakeholder relationships to develop here” or even “you are on my circle and I am on yours”. Next, because customer focus was at the heart of the organisational change, they started to ask (sometimes with a bit of prompting) “how does this map relate to our customer?”. The detail got richer.

The next stage was to spot those relationships that need to be strengthened, which they drew on to the Collaboration Circle – the thicker the line, the stronger the relationship needed to become. It seemed to help to have a time frame in mind, e.g. “which relationships in the circle will be most important to strengthen over the next three months?” – rather than an indefinite period. Many of the relationships were radial – “we need to strengthen our relationship with the Marketing Team” – but some were more lateral – “we need to find ways to strengthen the relationship between the Marketing Teams in Italy and head office”.

Patrick Ballin's Example

One really interesting thing that happened with many of the managers was this: they started to behave more like Socialised Mavericks! In other words, they started to identify relationships that were critical to their success, and to be more intentional about how to strengthen those relationships. One of the biggest original sceptics actually became one of the strongest mavericks in the group – offering even to help other managers to get things moving where they were stuck with their own teams!

Of course, the Collaboration Circle was not the only thing that helped with that change, but it created some of the best conversations around using relationships to intentionally create change.

Being wilfully intentional about collaboration

With another organisation last year, I used the Collaboration Circle to help purchasing managers in an international consumer products manufacturer – some very experienced – to be more intentional about their collaborative relationships. Groups in Scandinavia, Britain, Central Europe, China, Mexico and the USA mapped where they were with their stakeholders, and identified which relationships needed to be strengthened. The stakeholders included internal departments, regional offices, global manufacturing sites, distributors and of course suppliers. Over the course of two days working with each group, this was one of the most energetic discussions that our international group of facilitators experienced – and it generated great feedback.

All that these purchasing managers had done was to draw circles, markers and lines of varying thickness – but they got such a lot of insight from it. Again, we saw sceptics become much more intentional about change. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool group, in one of the offices in Scandinavia, grudgingly admitted that drawing the Collaboration Circle had helped them to understand, and explain to others, why they felt rather stuck in their current situation – a first step to being able to find a way out, through understanding who needed to be influenced most.

Being wilfully intentional about collaboration does not have to be at an international scale, or about big change. Working with a recent coaching client, we have started to use the Collaboration Circle to understand the internal dynamics of his remote team – eleven people scattered around the UK (even before the Covid-19 lockdown). By understanding which relationships within the team need to be strengthened, why and how – including relationships between team members as well as with the manager – we are hoping to strengthen the performance of the team, help them to play more strongly to each other’s capabilities. I expect it will also lead on to that team’s relationships with others in the organisatioin. It’s also an exercise in inclusive leadership, something I wrote about in my last article for Maverick Paradox Magazine.

Being wilfully intentional about collaboration is a trademark of maverick leadership. As the usual patterns of working are disrupted with big global change, and then change again, we have to keep coming back and, whatever tools we use, do the tools to ask these simple important questions: who is involved in the system, what do the current relationships look like and how, intentionally, do they need to change?

Footnote

[1] © Germain J: The Maverick Paradox: The Secret Power Behind Successful Leaders PublishNation 2017

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