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Sense making for collaboration.

“I realised that I have been a challenge to work with and that nothing would change until I changed” … these were the words spoken by a client during a recent sense-making conversation, in preparation for a ‘pause and reflect’ session with 16 of his colleagues. Let’s call him Stephen (we’ll get back to his story).

After almost 40 years of leading change, I have come to see the process of reflective sense-making as one of the most important enablers for collaboration.

When I say ‘sense-making’, I refer to the process of ‘taking our own experience seriously’. It is when we ‘pause and reflect’ on our experience that things become clear to us, when we discover why we feel so stuck or why things seem to be progressing so well.

The conversation with Stephen was a one-on-one conversation in preparation for a ‘Pause and Reflect’ session with 18 people who had been part of a change programme in a large multinational bank. We invited Stephen to share what he had learned from being a leader of one of the many change initiatives in the larger programme. Stephen had a reputation of being a demanding ‘client’. He had high expectations and many demands from his colleagues in IT. He did not accept ‘no’ for an answer and, as Head of Operations, felt entitled to be demanding.

The initiative he was leading needed the support of Mark (an IT lead). Mark did not appreciate the way that Stephen engaged with him. Mark is known for his ability to collaborate, but he did not appreciate the way that Stephen spoke to him and put his foot down. He told his manager (John) that he was not willing to work with Stephen.

This led to a series of conversations between two Exco members – John (Mark’s manager) and Leon (Stephen’s manager). John and Leon were getting very frustrated because they needed Mark and Stephen to stop fighting and work together to implement a business-critical solution.

We know the details about the story because Stephen and Mark shared their story at the ‘Pause and Reflect’ session. They talked about their realisation that they were damaging their own reputation by their behaviour and that something needed to change. Stephen shared that he realised that he needed to meet Mark face to face. So, he got on a plane and went to see him. They practiced what they had learned in a workshop on ‘contracting’ and contracted to work together differently. They took time to articulate their needs and wants from each other, apologised for their behaviour, and made commitments to each other about how they wanted to work together in the future. They agreed to talk with each other rather than about each other…

It took them two hours to share their story. We were spellbound. After hearing their story, one of the other IT managers spoke up: “I have been in this organisation for 30 years. I have never seen this level of vulnerability and authenticity. Imagine what may be possible if this could be the norm?”

We all know how important it is to reflect on our experience. We just don’t prioritise reflection because we value doing. We want to get stuff done. Quickly. We are action-oriented, don’t prioritise reflection, and then complain about the same mistakes being made over and over again.

It may be that we don’t make time to reflect because it is much easier to just do things – to be busy! Reflection requires vulnerability and a willingness to look in the mirror and ask, “What is my contribution to what has happened / what is happening here?”, rather than just blame others.

After reflecting on my contribution to this dynamic, I have become much more intentional about contracting for opportunities to pause and reflect on what we are doing and what we are learning from our doing. John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”. I so agree with him!

During a collaboration skills workshop last year, one of the scrum masters had an insight: “One of the Agile ceremonies is the ‘Retrospective’ session. The idea is that the team meets to reflect on what went well and what needs to change but to be honest, we don’t go deep enough. We don’t take the time to slow down and reflect meaningfully.”

Since this workshop, this particular scrum team made a commitment to give themselves enough time to make sense of their collective experience. They also decided that they wanted to learn how to do this well. They have discovered that it is important to co-create a thinking environment and for every member of the team to get an opportunity to reflect on their own experience, in the presence of colleagues who are committed to listening with curiosity and interest to each other. They have found it useful to learn more about the idea of Thinking Environments (Nancy Kline) and the concept of Psychological Safety (Amy Edmondson) and have applied these ideas in ways that made sense to them.

When we invited the team to a ‘Pause and Reflect’ session about the change they had made about their Retrospective process, they had many stories to share about the impact of this change. We heard: “Since we have changed the way we do Retrospectives, our relationships are stronger”; “There is a lot more trust in our team”; “I used to do emails during the Retrospective session because it was just a tick box exercise. Now I look forward to the session because I know I am going to learn something. And I will be able to hear myself think with my colleagues listening. I now love these sessions”.

I am loving these stories and these intentional ‘pause and reflect’ sessions. The change is palpable and gives me hope about a better future – a future where leaders and their teams prioritize reflection and sense-making and know that this is a key enabler for collaboration.


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