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Successful collaborative working with Simon Newitt
Episode 325th November 2022 • The King’s Fund Embracing Digital • The King’s Fund
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Workplace collaboration can take team working to another level. When given the conditions to thrive, it can improve innovation, efficiency, and relationships. It can also be fun! Senior consultant at The King's Fund Simon Newitt shares collaborative best practice with Sharon Jones.

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SHARON:

Hi I'm Sharon Jones, Head of Digital Innovation at the King's Fund and I'm thrilled to be speaking to our very own Simon Newitt, Senior Consultant here at the Fund, about collaboration and how working with different viewpoints and ideas can create better outcomes.

SIMON:

Hi Sharon, thanks for having me on your podcast.

SHARON:

You're welcome. So you work with so many different people in your line of work, can you talk a little bit about that and how would you even define collaboration, what it is and what it isn't?

SIMON:

Sure. So yes, you're right, my work takes me right across the health and care system into some of the quite rarefied spaces like executive boards, clinical leadership structures but also into the voluntary community sector, occasionally into local government. It's a really privileged position actually to be able to float across the system, poke your nose in in different spaces and get a sense of what's going on and how people are thinking and feeling. So it's a very … yes, it feels like a real privilege sometimes to be able to work in that way. I guess in relation to collaboration, it's a trendy word, it's something that lots of the organisations and leaders that I get to work with say that they really desperately want very badly. It's also a word I think we chuck about a bit without giving it much thought. I think often it becomes a byword for cooperation which I think is something a little bit more technical and perfunctory and therefore I don't see to be quite honest a massive amount of genuine collaboration in the day job when I go about the system. So for me collaboration is a really … it's a creative act. It's a generative act between people who have come together to get something done that otherwise wouldn't get done or it wouldn't exist in the same way if individual actors or agencies tried to do it on their own. So fundamentally it's a really creative energy and a creative force and I think that's why you don't see it very often because there's a great deal in the health and care system that mitigates against it, not least its opposite, competition, which as a force is still really pretty potent and especially for example now when resources are scarce that's also something that will drive competition rather than collaboration. It might be that as a leader I could see the need for collaboration in circumstances like these where there's a scarcity of resources, but more often than not what I see in my work is that scarcity drives competition and turf wars rather than collaboration and often in quite subtle ways. So I think collaboration is a really precious creative energy in the system and there's not an awful lot of it about.

SHARON:

And you've touched on there about creativity and that's a whole other topic that I'll be delving into later, do you think that sometimes people think, well I'm not creative and it's only for a certain type of person and certain type of mindset, and that then puts people off thinking that they can contribute in a valuable way?

SIMON:

Yes, I definitely think that. There are a couple of ways that happens. One is that we often get drilled into us from a very young age that we're either a creative type or not, or an academic type and there's this kind of false dichotomy set up, but the other way it happens, I reckon Sharon, is that the world of work, especially in health and care but in all kinds of corporate spaces, is a profoundly uncreative space. I think just about the way that people show up for work, the way they dress, the way we arrange ourselves in buildings, sitting around tables that we would never have in our own home because they're so stale and ugly, I … in 25 years working across the health and care system I don't think I've ever been in a room that made me feel creative, where the environment or the conditions were offered up in a way that made me feel like, oh, this is exciting, let's do something playful, let's experiment with some stuff. Those … we don't really also create the conditions in which people can feel like they have permission to be creative. So I think you're right, I think that therefore puts a lot of people off. Personally I really honestly believe the capacity for creativity is what makes humans special and it's in all of us and therefore given what we've said about the world of work and the way the health and care systems are arranged, you have to be intentional about it, it doesn't just happen. You've got to really create the conditions where people can play and experiment and tap into that creative side of their brain.

SHARON:

You've touched on the different areas of work in terms of the system and probably commercial areas and the voluntary sector, are there any common themes that you have found around collaboration and what are the common challenges that you've also found?

SIMON:

Well I'll start with the challenges because in some ways -

SHARON:

Got you.

SIMON:

they're the themes and that's not to be unnecessarily problems centred about it, but you definitely notice the challenges more often than not and I've referenced one in terms of competition as a dynamic, so that's definitely a challenge and often competition is not even acknowledged. So it's sitting there doing the work of undermining collaboration quite quietly. But there are a couple of other things I think which are part of the challenge. One is there is a really dominant mindset in organisations that they are somehow machine like, that they can be led, controlled and that change within them can be done as though they were machine like entities, so if I pulled this lever that will happen. You hear mechanised language everywhere in organisations, it's the language of dashboards and indicators and outputs and quantitative stuff, it's a language which is a long, long way away from a more creative artistic world view which is more emergent. We need much less to control and plan for things. So I think there's a mindset issue and a cultural therefore issue in most organisations which mitigates against collaboration as an activity and as an effort. There's way around that. So where I've seen collaboration flourish for want of a better word is where the individuals or organisations involved have spent time privileging their relationships to one another. So they've been much less focused on the project that they're collaborating on or the thing, and they spend a really good amount of time upfront building trust between each other. I think that's because I think collaboration is a creative energy in the system, it doesn't … it can't exist without that trust being in place in the relationship with the people who are collaborating. Where I've seen it work it's because people have invested in the relationships at the heart of the collaboration before getting to what it is that they're collaboration on and they've really attended to that.

SHARON:

So trust is key and I've heard that already from a previous guest who talked about when you want to try to move an organisation forward you need to gain trust beforehand before you implement any action.

SIMON:

Yes.

SHARON:

Yes. So I know you're always keen to try new things when it comes to working in teams, can you talk about some of those techniques that you use and how could they be applied to any person in the organisation or any project?

SIMON:

Okay, yes, so some of the stuff that I found helpful that I try to practice in my own work I suppose, one of them is a technique called reframing. So that's just a way of engaging with your own assumptions really about the way you're looking at work and the world around you and changing it, making a choice to change it. So a good example of that would be often what you come across in the health and care system is the idea that patients and communities are passive consumers of services and therefore that sets up a whole set of beliefs and actions about, well then my job in running this service is about rationing scarce resources as best as possible in order to meet their needs, but if you reframe that and you ask yourself, well actually what is a resource? Beyond not having enough time and money, how else might we think about resources or about impact or about quality? You can invite yourself to lean into your own assumptions and think differently about what might be possible. So with a resource, for example, you may not have enough money or you may not have enough time to do the piece of collaboration you want to do but you might look, for example, at patients instead of being passive consumers as being resources, as being creators of health and in my own work in leadership and OD what I've tried to do increasingly is go to our punters, so the staff across the health and care system, and instead of just seeing them as individuals who are going to come and buy and consume, learning and development from the King's Fund, I've tried to say, "What if we collaborated with them to design and make something completely fresh that was really bespoke to their needs and what they say they want and emerges from a series of conversations and collative effort between us?" So then the punter becomes a resource and not just a consumer and that's just one way you can reframe things in order to open up new possibilities for action.

You will know because I've said to you in the past Sharon that I'm really a huge fan of human centred design, I try to use it in my work all the time and again that's a another methodology. If you're keen on it stick it into Google and look on the Design Council website there's some really helpful resources there. It's a way of starting with the lived experience and needs of the end user, suspending your own assumptions about what you think is right and helpful and working through a process of exploration in order to arrive at something new and I think that's a collaborative energy, that's a collaborative process, it's one where you attend to power. So I bring … might bring some of my expertise for example to that conversation but I don't … it doesn't trump the lived experience or the learned experience of the people I'm collaborating with. So you … in a framework like that you can collaborate in a quite structured way in a way which is really creative and very generative as a process, it certainly feels different to me going away with my notebook and designing a learning and development programme on my own based on what I've learnt over 25 years or whatever. That's a very isolated process and I know which one will end up with a better programme at the end of it.

SHARON:

Absolutely and it sounds a bit like there there's a bit of coproduction going on. So you're working with the audience, you're working with the intended end user shall we say to help bring out the best in thing that you're making and it also sounds a bit like you're democratising that knowledge, it's not like you say a position of power, you're utilising everybody in the room, everybody is bringing value and everybody has got a part of that journey and that narrative to produce the end result.

SIMON:

Yes, lovely. That's a really lovely way of putting it. I suppose the other thing I'd add there's a certain kind of conversation which really helps collaboration and again it's quite a rare kind of conversation in organisational life and it's … the lingo for it is a generative dialogue, but what that means is that it's a conversation which has that creative spark in it because what people in that conversation are doing is they're taking up different positions and roles in the conversation in order to create something new and to move the conversation on, often what you get in organisational life, for all the cultural reasons we just talked about earlier, is conversation becomes an instrument for just getting stuff done. It's a blunt tool. It's not a creative force. It's about rattling through agendas or ticking off strategies or whatever, but it's not necessarily the really profoundly creative energising thing it can be and again so you have to work quite hard to … you have to be intentional about it and create that … create the conditions for that kind of conversation to exist.

SHARON:

And how do you think you can be intentional about it if you say you're in a team where that's not your normal day to day thinking and you might just be used to using spreadsheets or using, like you say, a dashboard? How do you think you can tease that out in teams or in individuals to help aid that new way of working?

SIMON:

Well I think it starts by acknowledging that that's the way we do things, because until you notice it … there's this great quote which I like by a writer GK Chesterton, he says 'The things we see every day are the things we no longer see at all' and so until you acknowledge that the way we work is in this way and we want to work differently or we want to innovate or create something new, you can't really step into that space or be intentional about it. It starts with noticing and then I think I said earlier that where I've seen it work it's because there has been an effort to build trust in the relationship, so the people who are collaborating. So then I think a wise thing to do in your team or group is to spend some time building that trust, contracting with each other about what you need from one another in order to flourish in this space, to be creative, what are some of the conditions that you can create together, all of that relational work will help build the foundation for a more collaborative creative conversation and piece of work.

SHARON:

You've touched on innovation there, when it comes to innovation, how do you think cross Fund working can help aid new thinking?

SIMON:

I think one of the great things but also maybe some of the great untapped potential in the King's Fund, is the value and creativity that could be leveraged in the differences between different bits of the organisation. So from the bit I'm in, leadership and OD, policy, marketing comms, events, across those different bits of the organisation and the business are lots of different experiences, insights, perspectives that unless they are brought together in a way that they can bounce off one another and create something interesting and new, they will stay and sit in their silo doing what we always do, and that's not just a judgement or a comment on the King's Fund it would be true … it's true of any organisation. Part of the value of that cross Fund working is in leveraging the inherent diversity in the organisation and in the system and it's that diversity and difference of perspective which is the fuel for something new to emerge, for collaboration to create something interesting and fresh.

SHARON:

Sounds great and many organisations have adopted hybrid working as a result of the pandemic, what impact do you think that has on collaboration? Is it genuinely better in person or are there ways of using digital to produce similar results?

SIMON:

So my answer is going to be an annoying one, it depends. So (laughter) … and it depends on the team, it depends on their ways of working, the culture that they've built up and how they like to get stuff done. So I don't think it … listen, if you're a team where you've got quite established ways of working that are about doing stuff face to face and in the room together and then the last two years the workplace has been decentred, people have had to get used to working online as you said, that can feel threatening, it can feel like a challenge, it can feel like there are lots in the way to the relationships and to the potential for collaboration including the tech itself. On the other hand, there are teams, teams I've worked with, where they embrace that, the tech has become an aid to some of the collaboration because it's invited quieter voices into the process, it's invited asynchronous forms of collaboration not just having to be in the room together. I do think it really does depend. You'll know your team and how it is and how it likes to work and the quality of the relationships, that will have a bearing on how you engage virtually with collaboration. You may have to work … however good you are as a team you may have to work a little bit harder on the relational bit working virtually, but it needn't be a barrier to good collaboration and in fact there are all kinds of platforms and aids technically out there that actually can make collaboration a much more exciting, creative, generative process so long as you recognise that the tech is an input and not an end in itself. So I think that … still to foreground the relationships and the quality of that dynamic I think is where I would settle on that question.

SHARON:

When organisations, not necessarily the King's Fund, are asking for teams to come back into work because it aids collaboration, what do you think they're really saying there?

SIMON:

I think what they're really saying is 'we don't trust you, what we value in this organisation is presence, presenteeism and that's how we know work is getting done is that we can see you doing it'. I think the collaboration thing is a bit of a strawman really for that argument.

SHARON:

Fair enough. So are you saying there are groups that actually benefit from remote collaboration?

SIMON:

Yes, absolutely. In the same way that there are groups that thrive and do well face to face in a room together. There are folk who will find their voice and be able to contribute more readily and more fully when you're inviting them to participate asynchronously for example or virtually through functions like the chat or in break out conversations that you might use in online or virtual working. So I think there's been some research shown that virtual working really benefits the introverts among us, women have found their voice more frequently in some of the studies I've seen and other minoritised groups too. So if you want to break the hegemony of the shouty white male at the middle of a lot of these conversations, virtual working can also be a really valuable way of bringing difference and a diversity of perspectives into the collaborating process.

SHARON:

Yes, that's really interesting. You definitely want more voices heard when you're working in a group together.

SIMON:

Yes, absolutely.

SHARON:

My final question is, so what three things should people be thinking about when it comes to collaboration no matter where they are in the organisation and how can everybody play their part?

SIMON:

Okay, so I said at the top that I think collaboration is a creative energy in the organisation and there's a lot that works against it. So my first take home is like be intentional about it, it won't just happen. So you've got to want to do it and you've got to mean to do it and you've got to do it with some intent. The second thing I would say is seek out difference, bring different perspectives, particularly marginalised or quieter voices, into the work and into your work wherever you can. There's no chance collaboration can happen where you've got group think or you've got a bunch of people who look and sound like me. We wouldn't get anything new out of that, we will just be in some sort of self-congratulatory (laughter) huddle and that can feel really good and it can feel very seductive but actually … so the second thing would be get difference and diversity of perspectives and experience into your work and into your conversation wherever possible and then my third one is just to experiment, be playful, have fun. I mean play as a device for change we let go of it when we stopped being at a certain point, but when I watch my daughter play what she's doing is she's constantly imagining scenarios and there aren't any limits on her imagination. So she's constantly piecing together new bits of the world which she's exploring and experiencing and fashioning them into some kind of really wild game, but that act, that bit of her brain she's engaging, that imaginative playful bit is just … is often completely absent from the world of work and so even in small ways if you just experiment with how you lay your room out or how you … .what kind of materials you bring in to do an exercise or how you organise the meeting itself or the conversation itself, there's loads you can do to just experiment around the edges with, if we do this what might happen to the conversation we're about to have? So it doesn't have to be like a huge great thing, it can be small little every day experiments in how you're going to approach getting some work done together and just bring some fun and lightness into that because that's where there's the opportunity for trust to be developed but it's also where that creative energy can emerge and start to come together into something new and interesting.

SHARON:

I think there's so much in that. When you … like you say, you've been looking at your daughter and just seeing her absentmindedly playing and along with that she's probably problem solving, she's imagining, she's doing all sorts of thinking there even though it looks like quite innocent from an onlooker's perspective, and I think there's something around trying to channel that as an adult which is quite hard, you're an actual adult now how do you tap into that playful side of you are so far removed from your … ?

SIMON:

It's so true and everything … every message you get socially is about taking yourself seriously, take yourself really seriously, take your career seriously, take your professional identity as a serious … everything is very serious and I'm not saying there's not value to that because of course there is, you should take yourself seriously, but not too seriously that you can't engage that other creative bit of your brain along with others. I said it earlier, but I really believe this, that is what makes humans capable of such great acts of creation and change is it's that side of their brain. It's not only the analytical problem solving serious bit of themselves, we need and we thrive on accessing that much more generative creative energy in us.

SHARON:

It's so true.

SIMON:

It feeds the soul, right.

SHARON:

It totally feeds the soul.

SIMON:

Feeds the soul.

SHARON:

So thanks so much for taking part Simon and also thanks to everyone listening. I hope you've found it useful and insightful. This is just one of a series of inhouse podcasts for the King's Fund all about various aspects of digital workplace transformation. Bye for now.

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