Do the Work in the Meeting: Collaboration and Facilitation
George Jagodzinski (00:00):
Today, we learned that change isn't really that hard. We've been lied to. We discuss collaboration mindsets and learn that you don't need a magical X factor to be a great facilitator. My guest is Douglas Ferguson, president of Voltage Control, a change agency. Douglas is an expert when it comes to change, collaboration, and facilitation. He also hosts a podcast called Control the Room, and if you're looking to become a great facilitator, reach out to him because he runs facilitator certification programs. Please, welcome Douglas.
You're listening to C-Suite Blueprint, the show for C-suite leaders. Here we discuss no-BS approaches to organizational readiness and digital transformation. Let's start the show.
George Jagodzinski (00:43):
Douglas, thanks so much for being here.
Douglas Ferguson (00:45):
It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.
George Jagodzinski (00:48):
So today, we're going to talk collaboration. We're going to talk humans and change and how they all interact together and the imperfections and the wondrous nature of them all. I figured a great place to start is collaboration. What do people typically get wrong when you're talking about collaboration?
Douglas Ferguson (01:05):
Well, there's a lot to unpack there, and maybe I'll start with something that's really common right now. And it's the number one reason that leaders are asking and, frankly, demanding their workforces come back into the office, and it's because they never truly got collaboration right to begin with. And then, when they moved into the virtual spaces where they were less accustomed to the tools, less accustomed to the actual experiences, the micro movements, it shined a spotlight on all the inadequacies of their collaboration and the way they worked together. And all these idiosyncrasies were exposed, and now they blame that on the virtual, but really they were just accustomed to the way things were. So they really need to take a fundamental look at how they relate, how they collaborate, versus where they do it. There's deeper, more important things to discover and understand. And a lot of it comes down to understanding each other as humans and making sure we're relating and creating safe environments to do our best work.
George Jagodzinski (02:19):
It's funny. We've been remote from day one, and I always, when people used to ask me about it, I'd explain that you just need to do everything better. It shines a magnifying glass on the whole thing, and you just have to do it better. And you can't hide from those real human interactions that you need to build. I always say, “people, process, technology,” and it's funny to put them all as peers in that phrase, “the people, process, technology.” I say it all the time, but people in that and out of those three things, it's got to be, what, 80 percent of that equation? I don't know. Can you even put a number on that of people, process, technology?
Douglas Ferguson (02:55):
It's hard for me to quantify it because I think it matters so much that I ignore the rest because everyone's so focused on process technology, timelines. That's the age-old change management process. And if they are thinking about the people, they're thinking about them very two-dimensionally. So I think it's really healthy just to put a major focus on the people because, guess what? The people can figure out the technology and the process if we make sure we create a space for them, the people, to flourish, and we think about their needs and setting them up for success.
George Jagodzinski (03:27):
That makes sense. That's funny. Just ignore the others, and that's where the good stuff is. I'm curious what your thoughts are around systems because I've seen a lot of really expensive collaboration rooms with a lot of really talented people in them just all sitting at their laptops doing other tasks, rather than collaborating. So how do you put in place systems to not just for that initial collaboration, but to have enduring collaboration?
Douglas Ferguson (03:55):
When you said, “How do I feel about systems,” I got really excited because I love systems, and now I had to tame myself down a little bit because you got really specific about collaboration systems or techniques or processes by which we might collaborate better. So maybe “small S” systems, not “big S” systems. So maybe we could come back to the bigger later, but gosh, “small S” systems for collaboration. Well, at the end of the day, I think it comes down to mindsets, and we, first of all, have to make sure that people are geared to create spaces of curiosity and play and experimentation. One fabulous way to do that is to bring in one of our meeting mantras, “Do the work in the meeting.”
In order to do the work in the meeting, you got to bring an artifact to work on. You got to make a prototype. We're going to do something together because how often are we in meetings where we talk about the thing we're going to do, and we talk to talk it to death, and then we had to go find time to do it? Yet we're in meetings all the time, so who has time to go do the work? And then, it takes weeks and weeks, and this is where projects have a hard time building momentum.
But if we reserve the time, and we open up that Google doc, we open up that PowerPoint, whatever it is that's going to move this thing forward, I mean, maybe we're in Asana together putting this project plan together, whatever the prototype is that will be the first steps in formalizing this work we're doing together or creating the first version of a thing, let's come together and work on it. And then, when it's like this crappy, like 0.1 version of whatever it is at the end of the meeting, at least we've got some progress, and it's really clear where the gaps are and who can go fill those gaps between now and the next time we gather.
George Jagodzinski (05:42):
Man, you're speaking right to my soul on that one. Just a few weeks ago, we were in these meetings, and I just got so frustrated. I said, "Let's just build it. Can we please just build this thing and be done with it?" And it was much, much easier. You were so spot on with that one. Now, when I saw that glimmer in your eye when you were talking about systems with the “capital S.” Let's get into that. And I'm big on common language. So what does that even mean to you, systems with the “capital S?”
Douglas Ferguson (06:06):
When we're talking about complex environments, so, specifically, complex adaptive systems is what I think about, and these are spaces and worlds where things are very interconnected. So if we look at complexity theory, it tells us that there's a domain where things are very obvious. There's like a checklist by the door. And if I go through that checklist, things will work in an expected way. And then, there's complicated domains, and this is where we have to have an expert come in and make a checklist because the expert knows how everything works. And then, in a complex domain, that's when things are evolving and changing rapidly, and there's emergent qualities. So even the expert doesn't always know, and we have to sense and probe to understand.
So if you think about the complex domain that we often find ourselves in where things are emerging and shifting daily or hourly, then we think about this notion of systems where things are interconnected. These constituent parts come together to form a bigger thing like a organism. And every component has some maybe inputs and outputs and abilities, and shifting one thing about one of the components could have ripple effects throughout the whole system. So the classic example of the system is the thermostat. You've got your house, you've got the thermostat on the wall, thermostat's connected to the heater. If it's cold outside, the heater's going to have to work harder to maintain the temperature that the thermostat is set at. If someone opens the window and there's a draft blowing right past the thermostat, it might be hot in another room, but cool by the thermostat, so the heater turns on. There's bad insulation. There's all these things that might impact a system around a heater and a thermometer or a thermostat.
Now, that's a fairly simple system when we think about it, but it still has emergent qualities. We don't know what the weather's going to be tomorrow. We don't know if an animal might dig through the insulation, these kinds of things. So when you get into more layered and more complex systems like the things we deal with at work, when humans and emotions are starting to get into the equation, then you can start to ponder and think about how examining the world around us and techniques and approaches could benefit from taking the systemic view and thinking about these connections and how changing one thing might impact another.
George Jagodzinski (08:54):
That makes a lot of sense. And it's funny when you talk about the heating system, I was immediately thinking back to, not just the stuff in my home, but I was envisioning the different silos that are at that heating manufacturer company because I know I have one, it's modern where at the core is just the old school boiler. But now I've got all these touchscreens all over the house, and there's software on, and the software is bad. And I can imagine at that company, I bet the people that are building the iron boilers are not collaborating that much with the people writing the software.
And it reminds me of Conway's Law, which is whatever you design will be a representation of the communication frameworks internally. You can't really hide that fact. I'm curious, then, tips and tricks, or what works for you for breaking down those silos because collaboration within one silo was one thing, but, man, we work with organizations where you're not just silos within them, but then you're trying to collaborate across two global organizations in all of those silos. And it seems like a mountain that's too high to climb for some people.
Douglas Ferguson (10:00):
For one thing, I want to come back to Conway's Law because Conway's law is a great model to think about when you're exploring better organizational design. So rather than looking at Conway's Law as a way to diagnose or explain the problems around us, you can use it as a way to think about what's the best design because, as we know, the systems that we build are going to be directly impacted by the organizational structure by which we're organized. So if we think about the systems that we want to build and how we want those to be organized, well, let's organize them in those ways. So if we want a microservices architecture, how might our reporting and our org chart resemble microservices, for instance? And that could be cross-cutting and across the organization, whether that's not just development, but it could find its way into marketing and sales and everything else.
But that wasn't your question because not everyone has the luxury of redesigning their companies. So I think there's two things. It really comes down to communication. I was going to say it's two things, but when I thought about it and I was like, well, it's really all communication, and how do we make sure that people are aware of what's happening in one silo versus another? So there's a number of ways we can accomplish better communication. And I mentioned do the work in the meeting. And typically, if we're doing the work in the meeting, we're generating prototypes because we're making an early version of the thing. So our vision, and there's a reason we use the word vision, and it's funny to me how people will craft visions that are purely textual or verbal. Visions should be visual by the nature of the word.
George Jagodzinski (12:07):
It's so funny that we have to explain that, but it makes all the sense in the world.
Douglas Ferguson (12:12):
I mean, everyone falls in the trap. I did for many, many years. And then, once I started realizing, “Wait a second, why are people doing this? It's so much more powerful when we can put it create a visual specification,” I think that was when I first started realizing these things, was moving from technical requirements documents to a UX designer designing a visual specification where I saw what it was supposed to do and it was annotated with various corner cases and various warning messages and different things that we needed to account for. And it was so much easier to develop that software. And I had so much less questions based on that versus a very lengthy requirements document. So then, that was my first realization of this power, but it's not just limited to making software. It's anything we're doing if we can show our future in a way that others can see it and understand it deeply, intrinsically, and then sometimes react to it very negatively, and that's totally fine. In fact, I would love for someone to tell me on day one that they hate my idea versus on day 365.
George Jagodzinski (13:31):
As long as they're all aligned to what it is. And that's what those visual things help you do. I mean, it's the ultimate common language, and that creates clarity, and clarity creates that comfort for everyone. I just had the funniest story. I'll use vague consulting terms to protect the innocent, but you have a ton of people in a room, 20 to 30 people, they're talking about building a sprocket, and it comes very quickly apparent that some of these people, when they're talking about a sprocket, it's really just a proof of concept sprocket, whereas some of the other people that means it is ready for primetime out to production sprocket. And you saw the POC people were getting frustrated that the other people were overcomplicating this because, in their head, it's just a proof of concept. Whereas the other people, the thought this was going to be ready for prime time, they are getting frustrated because they think that everyone's just oversimplifying everything because they're not thinking about it as being a ready-for-primetime thing.
So we literally just wrote down the words, “Here's what sprocket proof of concept means. Here's what sprocket production means. Here's what…” and those simple just five versions of the word with an explanation, all of a sudden, there's a sigh of relief and, all of a sudden, everyone's aligned, and there's more comfort there. And that's that human aspect. So I'm curious to hear some of your stories from the trenches on… because people show up with baggage. They show up with their own fears and their biases. So how do you handle the human in the room to really make them comfortable, to get them to a point they can collaborate?
Douglas Ferguson (15:01):
A lot of stuff just came to mind, then. And I want to come back to your point about the writing the definitions down because such a powerful facilitation tool is just getting clear on language. And that's one of the things that we talk about when training facilitators that is a fundamental foundational facilitation skill, which is linking and connecting and delineating. We have to help people make sure that they're talking about the same thing. If a developer says it should not be magical, and a marketer says it should be magical, are they disagreeing? Maybe our job as facilitators is to help disambiguate, and to your point, writing definitions up, or even having people talk about the attributes by which they mean it should not be magical, or it should be magical. And then people can have epiphanies and get to a deeper level of relating and understanding each other. And then, also, that can be done visually. It can be done with words, but we have to make sure we get to those moments of clarity on the team.
And speaking of prototypes and coming back to your question around stories, I can remember specifically at a time when we were working with Fidelity doing some design sprints, and the prototype literally provided a mechanism for communication for the leadership team to truly understand what the project was about because, up until that point, they had been talking very high-level strategy. They'd been talking about market opportunities and potential moves that they could make that would unlock value for them. I was literally in a meeting with some senior leaders, and the prototype was getting shared around for the first time. We did a series of design sprints that were exploring this hub and spoke large system and iterating on it until they had enough that they could hand off to the actual squads that were going to really design the mechanicals and build this stuff. So it was the art of the possible, but getting, really, clarity on the approach.
And I remember in that meeting, they were sharing this prototype around, and I heard someone say, "Is that what you've been talking about all this time?" So it was amazing, and provided so much clarity for them. And with some minor tweaks, they had a ton of alignment, and it was very clear that they didn't have that before. Luckily for them, they were still managing to move forward. I mean, how many times have you been in a situation where people have been in similar head spaces, but they can't move forward because they're just disagreeing? They can't seem to get to a point where they can decide or come to some consensus on a path forward. And that's really pathological when you're in that situation. Yet you're actually probably not disagreeing at all. You just don't understand each other.
George Jagodzinski (18:15):
So it's great that that's one of your key tools for facilitators. I find that, and if you don't give people permission to do that or show them how to do it, they think it's silly to just write a word down and say what it means because, in theory, we all speak the same language, but it's so much more nuanced than that.
Douglas Ferguson (18:32):
I mean, to go back to your point around vague consulting language, just to avoid NDA issues, we were working with an athletic retailer, and there was a word that is associated with the brand, and they owned that word, and then we're going to use this word on a new product. They were going to go into a new category. And it was so fascinating to watch people's minds melt as people were talking about how this word could show up in different products in different ways. And after about 45 minutes, I stepped up, and I was like, "I'm going to hit the pause button for a second because I think we need to define X." And everyone looked at me, puzzled, because it's such a strong word for them and their brand that the idea of defining it sounded just like nonsensical.
And then I was like, "No, hear me out. I just want to hear," so I had everyone write it down on the piece of paper. And then, after they wrote it down, I said, "Okay. Now, what does X mean for this product?" And then, I had everyone write that down. And then we had a little bit of a discussion. I was writing little bullet points down based on what people were saying. And it was just like people's minds were exploding in the room because they realized how much divergence they had in their understanding and thinking about just that one word that was so core to their brand.
George Jagodzinski (19:58):
That's reason 5,032 for asking stupid questions in meetings.
Douglas Ferguson (20:03):
George Jagodzinski (20:04):
You ask what an acronym is, and you realize that not a single person in the room knows what the heck it stands for.
Douglas Ferguson (20:09):
Yes. I mean, how many times do you see people just reading out… you ask, “Why is this project important,” or, “What is the purpose of this work?” And they just read off the mission statement for some project, and everyone's regurgitating the same thing because it's like what everyone's saying, but no one's really connected down to the real well, what's the real reason we're doing this?
George Jagodzinski (20:31):
Yeah. Let's pivot a little into change. People always say that change is hard. So, maybe, let's start there. Do you agree with that?
Douglas Ferguson (20:41):
It can be, but I think often when people say change is hard, they're using it as an excuse. It's such an easy thing to say. It's like, "Well, it's just hard." And I think there are techniques and things that we can do to make it more approachable, but it does take work. Also, I think that there's habits and mindsets that we can adopt to make change more natural at the individual level. Change is actually very, very easy at the individual and local levels. For instance, if I want to sleep on the other side of the bed, that's really easy. Now, if I'm sleeping in a bed with my wife and I want to start sleeping on the other side of the bed, now there's a negotiation that has to happen.
George Jagodzinski (21:32):
Good luck, buddy. Good luck.
Douglas Ferguson (21:34):
So that gets more and more difficult the more people that are involved. So that's where, when people say change is hard, they're usually thinking about these big changes with lots of people and lots of impacts. They're systemic qualities. There's interconnectedness that we have to think about and consider, or they're not considering it, and that's why it's really, really hard because they're in this hamster wheel just trying to make change and getting nowhere because they're not being thoughtful about all the interconnectedness in this systemic nature. So the thing I'll say is adopting the mindset, being curious, creating prototypes, and just being okay with the emergent nature of things, you're going to have to keep changing your approach in order to successfully change because you can't just plot your course and expect to get there. The waves are going to flow in a different direction at different times.
And the other thing I'll say that can really combat this whole fear of resistance to change or change is hard, is shrinking the change. And this, actually, it sounds simple, but it's rooted in complexity theory. When we're in a complex adaptive system, we had to take small risky bets. We can't just go do a big change. It's not about saying, "I'm going to go build a skyscraper." It's like, "No, maybe we should build..." What's the small simple thing we can do that then we can take and build upon it and make sure we're understanding how things are shifting and what we're capable of, and what lessons do we need to learn in order to move to the second and third and fourth steps.
George Jagodzinski (23:17):
Do you find that people naturally have different speeds at which they can accept change? Is there groupings, people that can readily change quickly versus not? And then how do you manage that?
Douglas Ferguson (23:33):
Yes. There are certainly folks that are change junkies, so to speak. They're always chasing the shiny new object. And there are certainly the archetype where they're like, "Okay. Don't rock the boat. I like things the way they were." So just understanding that there's a spectrum, and, I mean, that comes back to the systemic nature of things that I was talking about, where things are interconnected. You've got people that are dynamic. Someone might be really excited about change today and very apprehensive about change tomorrow.
For instance, someone might be really... Let's take a really simple example everyone can relate to. You might be really excited about finding a new job until you find out that you're expecting a child, and then you're like, "Wait, maybe now is not the time to go get a new job." So your risk tolerance or your willingness to try certain things might change based on what happens tomorrow. And that's what I was talking about, the emergent nature of this stuff. We had to be willing to acknowledge what's happening in front of us, personally, as we're navigating and planning. And also, what about the people that we're working with? There might be folks that were harshly against us just the other day that are now on our side because of some new thing that's unfolded. There might be people that are totally for it, and they're starting to shift and change. And we had to just be mindful of that stuff, and it's a spectrum, and people are going to move across that spectrum.
George Jagodzinski (25:17):
Yeah. That makes sense. And what I found useful is I stole a book from Gartner. They have their pace layer framework, which says that systems record, systems of innovation, and differentiation. Basically, things can operate at three speeds. So if we've got a large change, I try to group people into those, and I find that they really have a comfort once you tell them that that's their home, the people that want to move slowly and be like, "Hey, we're going to be doing a lot of change, but you're going to be in this work stream. It's going to change a little bit slower than the others." They breathe deeper. They just feel that they're going to be much more comfortable there. And then, you take the change junkies, and you're like, "You're going to be in our innovation tier. You're going to have a lot of fun there." And that way, they're not going to die out of boredom. And conversely, the other person that's not going to freak out because they just see risk and stress all over the place.
Douglas Ferguson (26:13):
That reminds me, it's always important to identify the change advocates and celebrate them and give them a role to play in helping bring others along and helping take on responsibilities to your point where there might be some people that don't need to be as involved or as aware of some of the intricacies of the day to day. And another thing is making sure that those groups get refreshed and celebrated because often they can be unsung heroes, and you can burn them out, and that's what I meant by the spectrum. Even though you might think of them as being in that bucket, after six months of doing all this side work, in addition to everything else they have to do for their day job, they can get burned out. So giving them raises, giving them props and that recognition, and then also rotating new folks in so that they have a chance to tap out. And you get fresh ideas, and you keep people from just getting worn out and disenfranchised.
George Jagodzinski (27:30):
That makes a lot of sense. I know I've certainly been guilty of… I picture someone a certain way in my brain, and I might have interacted with them based off of an old picture in my head, maybe three years ago, and I don't realize that now. Maybe their kids all graduated college, and they have a very different risk profile, and it's a whole different person. Now, I've learned to just refresh my mental picture about people just to understand where they're at. Otherwise, it can get and get stale. And then you don't serve those people very well, keeping an old picture in your head.
Douglas Ferguson (28:04):
I think that goes for anything. It makes me think about the curse of knowledge where once we know something, it's hard to unknow it. And the knowing of the thing can blind us to considering possibilities that would refute that thing. So there's that, plus it makes it even difficult to help folks that are seeing it for the first time to see it from their perspective. It's super important for leaders to be aware of that and always just ponder, “What am I not noticing because of what I know?”
George Jagodzinski (28:47):
Yeah, yeah, because otherwise, I would still hate Brussels sprouts if I just had that picture.
Douglas Ferguson (28:52):
There you go. Yes. I love it.
George Jagodzinski (28:57):
So you're good at collaboration and change and people. You've started to roll out facilitator certification. What I'm curious about is what's it like to watch someone go from not knowing how to facilitate or being okay to them being great because I feel like some people feel that, “Oh, you need to have an ‘it’ factor. You need to have this charisma to ‘own the room,’" and you must get to see some really great evolutions of people. I'd just love to hear a little bit about that.
Douglas Ferguson (29:30):
The way I think about it is… have you ever seen folks that, they're not really geologists, I'm sure they have a name for themselves, but they're like, they love to go hunt for stones and gym gemstones and geodes and things? And they'll go out, and they'll crack the rocks open, and they'll take them, and sometimes they might just crack it open, and you have this raw exterior, and there's this beautiful inner gorgeousness, and then sometimes they'll put them into one of those sand wheels, and they'll polish it up and then outcomes this beautiful thing. That's what came to mind when you were asking that question because it's not like we're necessarily imparting something that wasn't there. And these folks didn't necessarily have some crazy X factor, but it's just finding their innate ability to be human and connect with humans, and we're helping draw that out of them with some principles and language and tools.
And then, we reinforce that by... The program is all based on building a portfolio because practice is key. We always say practice makes practice. And we do that through having them build their portfolio and get practice by applying it and building confidence because it's that confidence that we're exposing, much like the rock hunter breaking open and exposing the awesomeness. Confidence is what allows the awesomeness to come out because, if folks are lacking confidence, whether that's a fear and failure or that they don't have the right tools, the right support, there's an exterior shell around them that doesn't allow that beauty to shine because anyone can go read about some of these principles, but it's really the experience of practicing and learning and building that confidence and getting feedback from peers in the cohort around the things that they've gone out and done and put in their portfolio and how they might try it different next time, what they're really proud of, and just celebrate those moments to really, really sharpen that confidence that allows them to go out and to use those words to own the room.
George Jagodzinski (31:59):
Well, I love at the root of that is just human connections and confidence. That sounds like a nice warm blanket you can curl off. So Douglas, thanks so much for being here. I always like to finish on one fun question. What's the best advice that you've received over the course of your life, be it work or personal?
Douglas Ferguson (32:18):
It's interesting because the best advice, that's like, man, Oh my God.
George Jagodzinski (32:23):
I guess the one that comes to mind, the first thing.
Douglas Ferguson (32:25):
Yeah. I'm trying to remember who to attribute this to, and so, I'll just give the generic advice, but early on in my career, someone explained to me the power of active listening. And it was super insightful for me because, at that point, I didn't have a ton of experience in the workplace and being in meetings, and it always felt like, “What do I have to say, or what do I have to contribute, and how do I find a moment to do that?”
And I remember a mentor telling me this, and there's a couple of people that I'm trying to... I'm not going to say a name because there's a 50 percent chance I get it wrong, but they coached me on this, and it was not even something that they had noticed about me, but it just struck me really profoundly, because I was still young enough to where I didn't really have much opportunity to say much in meetings. I was still just attending and stuff, but I was already in that mode of noticing that whoever spoke wielded the power. So I was already being conditioned to like, "I should figure out what I could say."
So I was already in my head of just like, "How do you navigate this system and be the cool guy that has the attention and you say something and everyone looks." So then, when this notion of active listening was explained to me, it was like a bombshell because it was like, "I've been thinking about this all wrong.” And it was just super timely for me because I was just getting my career started and just trying to understand how to navigate myself in meetings and stuff. Super sage advice, always be listening.
George Jagodzinski (34:56):
It's a hugely powerful one. How's that one not taught in schools at a young age? It's so important.
Douglas Ferguson (35:02):
That is a big mystery.
George Jagodzinski (35:04):
Well, Douglas, thank you so much. I really enjoyed this. Thank you.
Douglas Ferguson (35:07):
Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.
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