A valuable idea that flows from the East

Richard Watkins
May 20, 2018 · 3 min read

Living and working in China for a year in 2011 was in equal measure disorientating and delightful. I moved there with my job — as a lead consultant with What If — and I was lucky to be working alongside brilliant local minds on both regional and local projects.

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Lighting up my imagination

It’s sometimes not until you are confronted with a very different way of approaching things that you realise your own preconceptions. I have talked a lot about the power and influence of our metaphors over the years. And, for me, I came face to face with the fact that a lot of western ideas about how we work together are built on the idea that our teams are a bit like machines. We talk of: oiling the cogs, isolating problems, fixing what is broken, driving for output, optimising efficiency.

But eastern thought tackles the world more organically. We are dealing with a world that flows and our work is not to fix but to find harmony and balance. It’s not so much a search for actions that are correct as it is looking for actions that are appropriate. It’s not about always striving for perfection but knowing when to accept enough. And in all of this the timing, wider context and relationships (see guan xi) are at least as important as the content in deciding what step is needed.

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Shanghai in full flow

My experience in China was an important part of coming to see collaborative groups less like a machine that can be optimised, and more like a garden to be nurtured. Seasons are changing, nothing is ever in full bloom simultaneously, and there is always something that needs attention. The aim of a collaborative group here is to get good things to grow. But the root is by focusing on aliveness in the system — because when our groups are alive the energy isn’t stuck but in flow towards getting things done.

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Collaborative groups are organic: more like a garden than a machine
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This is one of the key ideas in the development of the Let’s Go Model — the simple approach that sits at the heart of all my work on collaboration at Let’s Go. With it I articulate the five dynamics of groups that are in constant flow. The work in a team is to notice which dynamic needs attention — and the goal is to find the right balance depending on the context and what you are trying to get done.

There is a slight echo (if not a direct link) between the five dynamics and the five elements of Chinese philosophy — but that’s a conceptual rabbit hole that is more suitable to share over a glass of pijiu.

Seeing as it is an idea influenced by an important Chinese experience, it is only fair that it found it’s way back East. Working hand in hand with Jessica Wang who is a brilliantly sharp thinker on human dynamics and complex problem solving, we turned our Collaboration Cards into Mandarin. The cards take the dynamics of the Let’s Go model and articulate the conversations you need to have to help get your group working well.

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