12 Tools to Foster Alignment & Collaboration
Here's a kit of simple tools that we often use to help minimize resistance and polarization in groups so they can get and stay aligned in the work and collaborate effectively.
Try these out, and let us know how they work for you!
1. Put How before If
Sometimes, making a commitment to solving a complex problem is intimidating or even threatening to members of a group. Often, however, what really scares people is the unknown (after all, most of us prefer the devil we know to the devil we don’t).
To overcome these fears of commitment, we invite groups into thought experiments through which we explore possible solutions without asking for any commitments at all. Rather than first dealing with the question of IF we should try to achieve a goal, we first thoroughly explore–through storyboarding, roadmaps, backcasting and other techniques–HOW we might do it. Often, by the time we’ve completed our thought experiment about how we might do something, many people in the group are ready to move forward on it.
See also tool 10, “How Might Questions”
Groups can get stuck trying to get things “just right,” like agreeing on very specific goals and initiatives. That can make each decision feel like an all-or-nothing fight to participants (“If I don’t get my way now, it’s all over!”).
While it’s important to have a clear and shared direction and agenda over time, it’s not helpful to get stuck up front in analysis paralysis where each decision feels like a high-stakes event.
That’s why we encourage everyone to treat our shared analysis, solution ideas, and even our primary goal itself as hypothesis. That keeps us all open to continuous learning even as we progress the work together.
Consider an artist starting a landscape painting. Does she begin the painting by filling out some detailed part of a scene? Unlikely. Instead, she’ll likely use a light color to lay out the overall scene in broad strokes. Once that looks satisfactory, she’ll then start to add layers with finer and finer detail.
When working with others, we sometimes get bogged down in the details of an analysis or possible solution before everyone in even on board with the basic concept or plan.
To avoid getting into the weeds, we talk about “sketching” the idea, “not filling in the details yet,” but “getting the general concept down.” We’ll have a participant create a diagram of the idea on a flipchart or sometimes have a team present the general concept in a 2-minute pitch to the rest of the network. Once we have agreement that an idea or plan is even worth taking forward, we’ll then start to fill in more details.
4. Critical Shifts
A critical shift is simple to define and very powerful as a strategy tool, but takes discipline to do well. A good shift is a statement of two things: (1) Some part of that current strategic picture that isn’t working right now, and (2) how that part of the picture should look in the future. By defining the critical shifts that need to happen in order to achieve our goal, we create mini “problem-solving spaces” for people to work on.
One of the big challenges in working with stakeholders is that people want to rush straight from problem to solution. Sticking with the discipline of defining clear critical shifts helps us be clear about what we’re really trying to solve for, identify those shifts that are the most powerful and strategic, and then come up with many ideas for how we might make each shift happen before we settle on the one solution that we’ll pursue together.
An effective network will be working to make multiple shifts happen simultaneously, which together represent our solution set. When those shifts are added together, they represent the whole picture of our system change strategy.
5. Yes, And
People often assume that the best way to handle a new idea is to critique it and point out its problems (“Yeah, that’s a good idea BUT…” or “No, we can’t do that because…”). The theory seems to be that if we can fix the problems with the idea, then it might work, or that any idea with problems isn’t worth developing anyway.
Unfortunately, even good ideas are fragile things and can die easily. The surest way to get to better ideas is through improv—by taking an interesting concept and building on it by having people add to it and continue to evolve it until they’re excited by it. Even if the initial idea wasn’t terrific, the idea that results is often quite different than the initial concept that we started with and is often a terrific idea (as is often the case in improv!).
6. “Good Enough”
In collaborative innovation, as in other parts of life, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Groups have an interesting tendency at times to working an idea, plan, or analysis to death by trying to make it “complete.”
In our facilitation of groups, you’ll often hear us ask, “Okay, good enough?” Try it sometime; better yet, first ask whether the work that the group has just done (like drafting a goal) is “good,” then try asking whether it’s “good enough.” Whereas the first question often results in silence, the second question (which is only subtly different) will often get strong consent.
While it’s important for a group to do a good piece of work on whatever it is they’re trying to design together, once they’ve done that good piece of work, the group’s energy around that specific task actually decreases rather than increases.
Find the point where a satisfying piece of work has been completed by the group and bring that part of the process to a conclusion by acknowledging the good work that’s been done and identifying next steps (like having a small team take the general idea, plan, or analysis, refine it some more, and bring the next iteration back to the larger group). Concluding (and celebrating) that piece of work and moving on will make the group’s energy available for whatever’s piece of work is next on the agenda.
Leaders and facilitators of multistakeholder work often hesitate to make proposals to the network—after all, shouldn’t the participants come up with their own analysis and ideas through their work together?
Unfortunately, bridging from data to analysis to shifts to ideas can be tough for groups, especially if the participants aren’t used to working together.
Here’s one way to grease the skids of innovation: Rather than waiting for the group to come up with an analysis or create a great strategy, try testing out a possibility by making a “proposition” to the group. For example, if the group has several ideas and is having a hard time choosing one, just propose working on one to start. That proposal creates a “point of reference” for the group. They may decide to reject your idea but at least they’ve advanced their thinking together, and the reasons they didn’t like that proposal can further clarify their thinking about what they DO want to work on.
8. Questions Over Answers
Developed by our friend Patricia DiVecchio, the Asking the Next Right Question technique keeps groups moving fast by focusing on finding the right questions before we struggle with finding answers. When a small team presents a possible solution to a large group, we ask the larger group to ask questions but the presenting team is only allowed to capture the questions, not answer them (clarifying questions excepted). Invariably, the team finds that 2-3 of the questions provide fresh insight that helps them refine their solution on their own, which builds ownership and a sense of accomplishment.
This technique avoids a host of problems with the conventional Q&A approach:
the desire of the presenting team members to look smart and competent causing them to make up their answers to important questions on the spot,
the sense of having answered and resolved a question so the presenting team doesn’t consider it further, and