Collaborative strategy: Opening the door

I read one of those First 100 Days books. I rarely read business and management books, probably because 99% of those I have read tended towards a mixture of the obvious and the inappropriate—particularly as I work in the management of creative enterprises. This is a field largely untouched by The Management Business, and vice versa. This is both good and bad.

The first 100 days book—or was it 90 days?—was no exception. Though it felt relatively useful while I was reading it, it was quickly forgotten in practice, perhaps by day five.

Still, when you are reading it—and presumably most readers do so before their first 100 days—that reading is probably about mentally building yourself into the new role, preparing for the landscape you’re about to move into. Perhaps it’s a kind of stretching exercise, what sports psychologists call mental imagery—a warm-up, rather than the game itself.

So by the time it came to building a new vision and strategy for Fabrica, which I wanted to do somewhere towards the end of those first 100 days, I’d forgotten most of the book. I was acting in a far more instinctive manner, which I’ve previously characterised like this, when describing being an organisation’s design lead:

To use a football analogy, this internal role is akin to being the number 10, the attacking midfielder or playmaker (trequartista, in Italian football). As the play is whirling around them, the number 10 has to be aware of all the various movements and possibilities within the constantly shifting system that is two football teams of 22 players and one ball. They have to have a strategic intent, to carve out a vision of a play several moves in advance. They are a midfielder, and so at the centre of things, and yet an attacking midfielder, and so concerned with progression, construction, with shaping the game’s events. (The analogy might stretch to the quarterback, for American readers.) [From Dark Matter & Trojan Horses, Strelka Press 2012]

Most days as a CEO feel like this—the play whirling around you. Yet I did draw one thing from the 100 Days book. On day one, I held a meeting with staff, and then another with students, where I introduced myself, outlined a few ideas, and made clear that I was interested in their contribution—that we needed to shift the organisation forwards, and that would take all of us, working together.

Then we had prosecco.

At the end of the talk, I asked for their feedback on what we needed to do. In terms of how they got back to me, I suggested they come and talk to me—the door would be open; often enough, anyway—or email me, or do a drawing, or use the medium of modern dance (not). Whatever. That open invitation to collaborate was different right there, apparently. Despite being a naturally social culture, in business or other formal arena Italian culture can be quite hierarchical. Even somewhere like Fabrica.

But to give some shape to this collaborative process, I used just a hint of framework, which was derived from the 100 days book. It was something like:

—Tell me what challenges we face, and why?
—Tell me what big opportunities we have, and how do we exploit them?
—And if you were me, given there is lots to do, what single thing would you start with?

That gave people a chance to complain—which, as an Englishman, I believe to be a fundamental human right, if not a precious gift—but also to think about why things are the way they are, to bend the complaint towards a suggestion, or at least a root cause.

The second question gives them a chance to dream and aspire, but on behalf of the organisation (not themselves) and with a dash of realism, of purposeful pragmatism. That’s great, but how might we do this?

And finally the third point helps them understand there was lots to do, so not everything could happen at once. But it does give a chance to declare their own proposed starting point. Priorities, but also patience.

And it worked. At least, at this point, and as far as this point goes, I think it worked. First, people appreciated the offer, the openness. And secondly, my in-box started to fill with constructive emails and my diary rapidly filled up with half-hour chats with students and staff (note: you have to make the time for that, of course. Failure to follow-through wrecks the whole enterprise in an instant. Too early for results, it’s a game of faith at this stage.)

I made sure each of the conversations left a physical trace—more on that later, but the image above is one such trace—and all have been useful in the next steps, shaping a new vision and strategy for Fabrica.

Not everyone did it, of course, and perhaps some staff felt circumvented by the flattened conversations with everyone—which was not the intention, but is certainly the outcome of trying to flatten a hierarchy. In retrospect I also realise that, having worked in Finland, Australia and the UK before Italy, this attempt at flattening could be characterised as redolent of an Anglo-American-Australian business culture; preferencing discussion at all levels. It still felt like the right thing to do, and I believe it was.

But I think most of all it helped create an atmosphere of collaboration from day one. I knew this would be imperative in enabling the open, trandisciplinary, holistic practice I want to move us towards. It’s not rocket science to ask people questions and encourage omnidirectional discussion, but it’s probably a necessary condition for creating something as complex as rocket science.

And it’s worth noting that Fabrica’s size, at around 70-80 people, is probably at the upper limit for this. It is possible to know everyone’s name, and to open up to conversations. We have the variety of spaces to handle it too.

The next challenge was to follow-through: to sustain productive and supportive relationships by understanding, assessing and acting upon the subject of the conversations that ensued. Opening a door is easy, just as in-boxes are inherently quite strong at receiving emails. Filtering, processing, acting upon, and not drowning in those conversations is the challenge.

Next, making conversations physical, as a way of building momentum, and making a book to force making decisions.

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