For the past few years, I’ve been thinking about developing a training called, “The Art of Aligning.” Aligning groups is fundamentally what my work is about. Like all things related to collaboration, I feel like folks can learn how to do it well by practicing.
I originally envisioned it as a face-to-face training, and I wanted to incorporate lots of somatic experiences to remind us of what alignment actually feels like. COVID-19 has pretty much put the kibosh on that for the time-being, but I think you can still develop a good training without it.
My approach to helping a group align is the Squirm Test, which consists of articulating what you think is the shared understanding of the group, and watching to see how much squirming happens while you talk. If no one squirms, you have shared understanding, which is a prerequisite for alignment.
Said another way, you help a group align by constantly testing for alignment and by making the results visible, so that the group itself can make adjustments accordingly. You’re essentially creating a tighter feedback loop than what normally exists when all you’re doing is tracking behavior.
I realized today that polling in elections is a manifestation of this same principle with all the same flaws. A poll is an attempt to measure alignment at various stages. Similarly, the Squirm Test is essentially a behavioral survey.
Polls are, by definition, imperfect. I continue to be baffled by people’s critique of polling in their post-presidential election analysis, because they seem not to understand this. Polls give you a guess as to where people are, so you can adjust your tactics and strategies accordingly, but at the end of the day, it’s still a guess. At least with elections, you have a clean measure in the end by which to see how off your polls were. In most things in life, we have to hand-wave those assessments also.
Ariely’s team created sheets of paper with a random string of letters, then would pay people to find and circle any pairs of letters that they found. Once they finished, they would ask them if they wanted to do it again, this time for slightly less pay. They would repeat this experiment over and over again until people no longer wanted to do the work.
There were three groups. With the first group, there was explicit acknowledgement of the work. After a worker submitted their sheet, the administrator would look the sheet up and down, say, “Uh huh,” and put the sheet on a pile, before asking the worker if they wanted to repeat the experiment (this time for less money).
With the second group, there was no acknowledgement. The administrator would simply put the sheet of paper in a pile without looking at it.
With the final group, there was explicit de-valuing of the work. The administrator would take the paper without looking at it and immediately put it in a shredder.
Not surprisingly, folks in the group that got explicit acknowledgement worked a lot longer than those whose work got shredded. But what was fascinating was that the folks who got no acknowledgement exhibited almost exactly the same behavior as those whose work got shredded.
In his TED Talk on this and related studies (worth watching in full), Ariely observes:
Now there’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes. Ignoring gets you a whole way out there. The good news is that by simply looking at something that somebody has done, scanning it and saying “Uh huh,” that seems to be quite sufficient to dramatically improve people’s motivations. So the good news is that adding motivation doesn’t seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivations seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don’t think about it carefully, we might overdo it.
Bottom line: Take the time to acknowledge people’s work. It doesn’t take much, but it matters.
When I first got into this business almost 20 years ago, I quickly adopted a mantra: “No trust falls.” Most people’s experiences with trying to help groups collaborate more effectively — especially in corporate circles — falls under the category of “team-building activities” — rope courses, escape rooms, cooking classes, and yes, even trust falls. More often than not, I find these entirely misplaced.
Having fun together is a wonderful intervention. I personally love these kinds of activities. I think games in particular reveal so much about human nature and about group dynamics, and that they’re a fantastic and fun way to develop collaboration muscles.
The problem is that, with most groups, there are often simpler, more straightforward, higher-leverage interventions that people should be addressing first, things like having real, sometimes challenging conversations about roles and agreements. You can even do these in dynamic, dare-I-say fun ways! However, when you avoid doing this work in favor of team-building activities, the latter can come off as corny, irrelevant, even harmful.
All that said, if you’re doing the necessary work, a good team-building activity can be a wonderful complement. My friend, Pete Kaminski, has a saying for remote teams, which his friends jokingly refer to as The Pete Rule:
Time together in person is too important to spend working.
What he meant was that a lot of work can easily be done remotely, but developing deeper bonds is much easier face-to-face. When spending time together, people should prioritize accordingly.
I’ve been coaching a client on developing good team habits and was recently advising him on an upcoming offsite. Over the course of several sessions, we talked through his goals and walked through a number of possible exercises and scenarios. Finally, I sat back, thought for a long moment, then said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think you all should just spend a day doing something fun together!”
So-called “team-building activities” have their place, but only when designed with intention. Always start with the work first.
I started playing with sketching and watercolors back in July 2018. I had been curious about watercolors for several years, and I happened to be having a terrible month, so I decided it was finally time to play. I signed up for a Bluprint online class, and I bought a sketchbook, a portable water brush, and a tiny set of watercolors.
A year and change later, I’m finally on the last page of my sketchbook. I decided to celebrate with a little value study:
My book is filled with terrible drawings. I’m not being falsely humble either. Earlier this year, I went to an urban sketching meetup and noticed someone painting a beautiful landscape. I struck up a conversation with him and asked him lots of questions, which he pleasantly answered. He then asked if he could see my sketches, so I opened up my book and showed them to him without comment. The expression on his face was hilarious. There was a flash of disappointment on his face, a long pause, then he offered me some tips, which I happily accepted. I truly enjoyed that moment. He didn’t try to pretend that I was anything more than the beginner that I was, and he helped me by giving me frank feedback. It was honest and kind, and it helped me get better.
The first time I sat down to draw something in my book, I was paralyzed with fear. I had to psyched myself up to apply that first pen stroke. I finally got over myself and started to draw, and the fear became concentration and curiosity almost immediately. It was wonderfully meditative, and I was happy with what I created. That was followed by several clunkers, which demotivated me for a few months, but I picked it up again, and I haven’t stopped since.
Filling my book has brought me peace and joy every time, and it’s also brought me closer to friends and family. Most of my friends ignore me when I draw with them, but some get curious, and I’ve even been able to persuade a few to join me. My favorite has been painting with kids, including my nephews. They are fearlessly creative, and I always have tons of fun and walk away inspired. I haven’t bought a single card or postcard this year, choosing instead to paint them when the opportunity arises. I always enjoy the process, but I still get pangs of fear of being judged. Unlike the urban sketcher, I think my friends often give me plaudits for my skill that are slightly exaggerated, but I can tell that their appreciation is real, and it really touches me to see them moved. It reminds me of how simple and wonderful it is to gift someone something you’ve made with your hands, regardless of how good it is.
My sketchbook also serves as a record of my learning journey. Signs of my stubbornness abound, which amuses me. It’s clear from many of my drawings that I have no idea what I’m doing, but those are often followed by several (mostly failed) attempts at figuring it out. I’m only marginally better than when I started, but the paralysis and fear and self-consciousness have disappeared. I just try things when I’m struck, and I don’t worry too much about how it turns out.
A few months ago, I went to a Leadership Learning Community gathering to meet their new Co-Executive Director, and I ended up spending most of the evening talking to an artist who was friends with her. He told me that the best way to learn watercolors was to do a value study with a single color. He also told me to look up Anders Zorn, who famously created stunning paintings with only four colors (Lead White, Yellow Ochre, Vermilion, and Ivory Black). I never knew any of this before, and it’s opened up entirely new worlds for me.
There are so many fantastic resources for learning how to draw and paint. I discovered the aforementioned urban sketching meetup in my neighborhood, and they have been friendly and supportive. I follow a number of artists on Instagram and on their blogs, and I’ve especially enjoyed Suhita Shirodkar’s work. And then there’s YouTube! So many instructional videos! It’s not only been a great resource for me, but it’s also inspired me to explore different ways for sharing knowledge about collaboration, which is my day obsession. In general, I find myself playing with ways to incorporate this little practice into my everyday work. I can’t help myself.
I see everything differently now — from everyday objects to art. It slows me down, and I’ve gotten better at noticing things — light, color, contrast, little details here and there. I’m still pretty bad at painting, and I think it will be a while before I improve significantly, but it’s already made me a better photographer, a better learner, and a better person. Most importantly, it’s been relaxing and fun. Making stuff rules!
Here’s a rough approximation of my target audiences:
In general, I’m targeting “collaboration practitioners” — anyone who:
Thinks effective collaboration is productive and fulfilling
Is motivated to improve their group’s collaboration, regardless of their role
The vast majority of collaboration practitioners do not self-identify as such. It’s sometimes in their job descriptions — any leadership and management position, for example — but often is not. It often ends up being invisible work by people who do not necessarily have positional power and that others may or may not value or even see (and hence is often uncompensated), but is nevertheless critical. Much of my strategy is about helping people recognize that being a collaboration practitioner is indeed a thing, that a lot of others think and care about doing this well, and that a community for this exists if people want it.
Good collaboration practitioners care about performance. Great practitioners care about the intersection between performance and aliveness. Truly high-performance groups both perform and feel alive.
My sweet spot audience is the intersection of collaboration practitioners and changemakers — people who care about making change in their respective groups. Not all changemakers have a broader or explicit social mission (which is where my heart is, personally), but I suspect that most changemakers have this implicitly.
“Unemployables” is a cheeky category (coined by Gwen Gordon) that came up at a dinner party the other night to describe independents who probably will never (and perhaps can’t) work for another person’s organization. There could be many reasons for why one might be an “unemployable,” some not necessarily good, especially in the context of collaboration. But when I use it in this context, there’s an implied (admirable) quality of being very values- and systems-driven.
I included this category mainly as an observation, not as a particular focus area, although I definitely care about these folks and count myself among them. They tend to be radically motivated, the folks who are most likely to take my public domain material and use it to learn and practice on their own.
What do you think? Are the categories clear? Do they resonate?