Two lessons in collaboration and learning

There are new bedfellows in the world of communications.

There are new bedfellows in the world of communications.

I had an interesting week of facilitating workshops and guest lecturing. Standing in front of people and trying to add value – acting like (as my late uncle used to say) I knew what I was doing.

Two key takeaways from the week of acting like I knew what I was doing:

People know this stuff. Let them uncover it.

I co-facilitated workshops on creating a communications plan for a leadership summit of some 200 people. The context of this group is one of tackling an enormous, multi-year endeavor with a dizzying landscape of stakeholders – deep government involvement, private industry engagement, for- and non-profit group alignment, complex technology requirements, countless values competing, and all within an industry in the midst of very real disruption.

In a world where the web is social (thus communications to inspire action and change is all about building trust) the summit was a powerful reminder that much of what we’re dealing with is actually common sense. Appealing to the audience’s intuition of developing relationships and the kind of leadership acumen it takes to succeed in today’s interconnected world was surprisingly straight-forward.

Ask a few questions, get a few folks to share an experience or two and you’re on you’re way to inspiring a shared learning moment. Much more effective than imposing something outside of their context.

This is also how we built our template for a communications plan: we let the members of the audience who’ve done this work before share their best practices. Then we continued to share the peer-developed plan template and best practices throughout the day. I think it was much more effective than if we had stood up there and tried to decree something.

When I guest lectured a few days later, I did the exact opposite. I made assumptions about the audience from past experiences in similar settings. Then I promptly preached.

About a third of the way through, when I sensed some disengagement, it occurred to me that I never polled the audience to better understand their level of understanding (head slap). And it was difficult to recover.

Why didn’t I apply what I know to be true and effective for the guest lecture engagement, especially after I saw it work so well in the workshop setting a few days before? Dunno. I had some new speaker-support stuff that I was excited to show. Maybe that exuberance (hubris?) led me astray. But the difference was clear.

Surround yourself with smart people who don’t do exactly what you do.

I co-facilitated the workshops with Judah Thornewill. A brilliant guy (and fellow creative-mind, frustrated musician). He’s one of those rare combinations of researcher and professional-world doer who has some exciting things to offer in the domain of social capital. He’s developed a method for measuring social capital and collaboration, and he’ll doubtless set the world on fire with his new entrepreneurial effort. His time is now, I’m convinced.

The time is clearly upon us to better understand social capital now that the way we connect and communicate is social. There’s plenty of work on this subject already in the milieu. Chapters are dedicated in just about every leadership book. And there are leaders and their books that focus on the topic exclusively like Bowling Alone, The Hidden Power of Social Networks, The Whuffle Factor, and Connected to name a few (Nicholas Christakis actually spoke earlier at the event – a brilliant mind who’s time has also obviously come).

As communicators, we need to understand how to intervene in the construction of social networks like never before. This is not a branding, marketing, or communications issue. It’s a systems thinking issue. It’s a leadership issue. If marketing people are able to adapt to our new-world reality, people like Judah and Nicholas will be key to our understanding of this new landscape.

Take market segmentation as an easy example. It’s almost intuitive that our social networks affect behavior. But Judah and Nicholas convincingly demonstrate that the way a network is constructed truly matters. This, without hyperbole, redefines market segmentation. It presents a much more complex challenge than what we believe to be true about distinctiveness, homogeneity, response to market stimulus, and reach-ability.

It so happens that my new friend Judah has a market segmentation background. He’s combining this experience with his work on measuring social networks and collaboration effectiveness. He’s the perfect example of the kinds of minds that need to lead marketing and communications professionals today. He broadened my thinking, to be sure.

Judah also demonstrated the kind of leadership style that is called for in our social times during our facilitation: he knew when to pull back, support, and jump in to comment or get us back on track at just the right time. Our workshops were better for it. He kept me from rolling too fast downhill as I’m sometimes apt to do.

The guest lecture? I went it alone. Lectured. Spoke. Presented. I rarely connected and too infrequently looked for the peers in the group to help create a shared sense of learning. I don’t think it was a bad experience overall, but it wasn’t great.

Now that our world is connected and social, the degree to which we can communicate effectively within it depends on understanding its social constructs. Collaboration rules. How we build and intervene in networks is paramount.

And winging it alone simply won’t cut it.

Lesson learned: Facilitate learning. And do it with great people.