Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets: How Did We Do?

As our Future Forward participants continue to delve deeply into this current experiment phase, I wanted to summarize what happened in the four months of preparation leading up to these experiments.

As I wrote earlier this year, from February through May 2015, I led our participants through a program called Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets. From February through May 2015, our intrepid Future Forward participants did a set of weekly “workouts” designed to prime their minds and train their muscles around innovation.

How did they do? And how did I — as their trainer and the designer of this workout program — do?

After a month of working out, our participants assessed themselves based on a set of mindset shifts on which they wanted to focus as well as on my muscles framework. At the end of the 16-week program, they took the assessment again. Here are the results (including the baseline assessment from March for comparison):

If you walk through the assessment, you’ll notice the following trends:

  • Slight progress across all five mindset shifts, with the biggest shift being from Not enough time to Slow down to speed up. The clusters also got tighter across the board, with the exception of from Me to We.
  • Significant progress across four different muscle groups: Listening actively, Acting strategically, Challenging conversations, and Storytelling.
  • Slight progress across two muscle groups I particularly emphasized: Working inclusively and Working iteratively.

Self-assessments have well-understood weaknesses. To better understand these results, I interviewed all of the participants one-on-one. Here’s what I learned about how people filled out the assessment:

  • Better understanding of the muscles / mindsets. Several people stated that the workout process helped them better understand what the different muscles and mindsets meant. In some cases, that meant assessing themselves differently than they might have at the beginning of the process.
  • Future Forward versus every day work / life. Mindsets are often context-dependent. Several people cited the challenge of separating their mindsets with Future Forward from their mindsets with other projects. For example, a few felt like they had a strong mindset around innovation with Future Forward but felt stuck with their everyday work.
  • Uncertainty around what led to shifts. In some cases, people clearly attributed improvement to the workouts. In many cases, people attributed improvement to the Innovation Challenge Workshop that Rebecca Petzel led and to watching her and Amy Wu work, where they say many of the muscles modeled. Several people noted that they were also practicing various muscles in their every day work lives, which also led to improvement.

Here’s what people liked best about the process:

  • Weekly time together in pairs. Some people found a lot of value in the consistent, structured practice time. Everyone noted the value of developing a deeper relationship with another person and of the peer coaching and support that resulted. A few people said they had grown a lot personally as a result of this process.
  • Frameworks. Several people noted the value of the frameworks, which led to greater self-awareness. In some cases, people felt like they were already practicing some of these things, but the frameworks gave them language to talk about them and to practice more intentionally. One participant ended up using the mindset cards at her staff retreat.
  • Workouts. About two-thirds of our participants cited the value of specific workouts in their development. The ones that came up most frequently were the ones around listening, navigating power, challenging conversations, storytelling, and working iteratively. There was at least one pair that did not seem to do the workouts regularly, instead choosing to use the time to just talk. One member of that pair said the workouts “felt contrived.”

Here’s what people thought could be improved:

  • Yammer. We were using a tool called Yammer to share takeaways with the rest of the group. Many people (including me) disliked it.
  • Lack of group cohesion. While people felt strong connections with their partners, several said they felt disconnected from the group as a whole. Many wished that they had a chance to develop deeper relationships with Forward Together staff in particular.
  • Lack of connection to the larger process. Several people said they wished the process was more integrated with the Innovation Challenge. A few suggested this could have been addressed by simply making the connections between the two more explicit. Others said they wished there were more content — best practices, case studies, and other things to read.

Was it worth the investment in time?

I don’t know that the assessment offers a definitive answer, so I’m happy to offer my heavily biased opinion as a proxy.

The program could have been much better. Changes I plan to implement in future iterations include:

  • Fewer workouts, more reps. There are lots of muscles, and you can’t reasonably expect to develop all of them in any substantial way once a week for 16 weeks. We had a specific goal around getting our participants ready to be more innovative and experimental, which helped focus the workouts. But they could have been focused even more, which would have enabled participants to get more repetitions in, which would have resulted in greater preparation.
  • Support for independent practice. In the same vein of getting participants more repetitions, I plan on creating self-guided workouts that participants can do on their own time.
  • Rotate partners. I’ve been reluctant to do this, because with 12-weeks of individual workouts, I would have to do a rotation at six-weeks. In all of my previous iterations, there seems to be some important threshold that gets crossed after eight-weeks. I’m worried about losing the benefits of that deep relationship if I switch partners too early. That said, my data isn’t precise, six weeks isn’t that far from eight weeks, and the tradeoff of greater group cohesion may be worth it. It’s worth testing.
  • More content? I am highly resistant to doing this. First, people universally complain about the time commitment up-front. Adding content would increase that commitment. Second, this program is designed to get people out of their heads and into action. Providing content would get people back into their heads. My reasoning is valid, but my reasons aren’t. I can (likely) overcome these objections simply by making content optional. At worst, I need to be more explicit about why we’re doing different workouts and how they’re connected to the greater work.
  • Better assessment. When you do physical exercises, feedback is both visceral and easy to measure. When you’re in better shape, exercise feels easier (or at least you can do more of it). It’s not quite as visceral or easy to measure with collaboration muscles. The role of the assessment is to create that feedback mechanism, so that people can see their improvement over time. There’s lots of room for improving the assessment, which continues to be the biggest challenge of this program.

Despite the many opportunities for improvement, there are a few benefits that I saw clearly with this group.

First, everyone can stand to take some time to slow down and go deeper. Every time I start this program with a new group, people universally complain about the time commitment. Upon completion, most people say, “I’m glad I took the time to do this.” Some of the time, they’re talking about the workouts. Most of the time, they’re talking about developing a deep relationship with a peer and slowing down.

There is something universal both about the benefits of this and also about our deeply embedded habits and mindsets that prevent us from doing it. It’s why I have the confidence to offer this program in its still rough stages and to take up so much of people’s time. At the end of the day, people always appreciate the relationships and the pausing. This group was no exception.

Second, practice matters. It’s funny and gratifying to hear this group talk about the work as it goes through the experiment phase and to throw around language that was foreign to them six months ago. What’s even more gratifying is knowing that there’s shared meaning underlying the words that they’re using. That doesn’t happen by accident. It takes work. When you skip that step, you don’t reap the benefits.

25% of our individual workouts focused on working iteratively — a core muscle for innovation — and our participants all found them very difficult. They’re still finding it difficult now that they’re going through the process “for real,” but you can see that there’s starting to be a rhythm in how they’re doing the work and the understanding is starting to settle in. As I wrote above, I would have done these exercises 50% of the time if I had to do this over again, but still, it made a difference.

This was even more evident with the listening, navigating power, and challenging conversations exercises. This group had rated itself pretty strong at listening initially, and I agreed with that assessment. Yet the assessment showed massive improvement at the end of the 16-weeks, and several people cited those workouts as being helpful in particular.

My listening workouts aren’t brain surgery. They are all variations on the same theme: One person talks, the other person listens, the listener reflects back what he or she hears, and the speaker rates the listener based on the feedback. Repeat. Everybody acknowledges the importance of listening in how well we work together, but how many people actually take the time to practice their listening skills? Our participants did, and I think it’s having a direct impact on what’s happening right now.

As several people pointed out, the workouts weren’t the only form of practice. People were practicing on their own simply by doing their every day work with more awareness. Even though Muscles & Mindsets is over, they’re still practicing as they go through the experiment process. We’ll offer the assessment one more time at the end of the process, and we’ll see what we learn then.

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