May 05

Why I hate teams and love collaboration

When I worked in a large corporate, being a team player was definitely considered to be a Desirable Attribute. It always came up in annual appraisals, I always scored well and I always felt a bit of a fraud.


2013-08-01 15.42.26Because the thing is, I don’t enjoy teams. I didn’t enjoy them in netball at school and I never relished them in the workplace either. At one point on a 3 week training course I lost patience with my ‘team’ during one of the case studies and went for a walk instead. They’ll just have to get on with it on their own I thought. But when I came back 5 minutes before the report back to the whole group it turned out they had achieved practically nothing except to nominate me to do the report back (based on no information, a good challenge!).


For me personally, the energy of a team is one of being trapped, of being stuck with possibly the right and quite often the wrong resources, of contriving a motivation under artificial conditions. Teams mean uniforms, rules, annoying people (too lazy, too bossy, too underskilled…) and way to much energy being expended internally on the team instead of externally on the challenge.


You get the picture, it’s just not my thing. Of course I am a civilized human being so I know how to play the game and apparently fooled a succession of bosses over the years. But I don’t look forward to the prospect of being part of a team. Even less if I hear anyone utter the terrifying words ‘team building exercise’ (I never entirely recovered from that paintballing day in 1987).


Collaboration, on the other hand, feels like the most natural thing in the world. From grabbing the bottom rung of a stranger’s buggy to help them down the station steps (partly in gratitude to all the countless strangers who did that for me during the baby years) to pulling together a winning combination of skills and temperaments to get an amazing job done. None of us can be brilliant at everything, and even if we were there could be some ideas that don’t occur to us, or a time issue of doing everything on our own.


To me, collaborating suggests skill sharing, learning from each other, the best of all possible worlds. It suggests a freedom quite different from the team dynamic. A transient alliance that stands or falls on its own merits rather than being bound by contracts or convenience. Someone can collaborate for a few moments or for the whole project. They might dip in and out according to their schedule and their moments of maximum relevance. Sub groups could form and reform within the pool of collaboration. It defines the space where things might happen rather than the bodies or structure involved.


Cultural shifts


I suppose part of the reason collaboration comes easily to me is because I am no longer part of a single organization with hierarchies and reporting structures. Although I did always strive for it in that world too. Now when I need say a great youth facilitator on a project I call my favourite ones and see who is available and excited by the idea. I don’t have to struggle with internal charging and corporate politics.


A client I was working with recently employs tens of thousands of people. How do you find someone who is an expert in something when you’re putting together a new project? I asked. They looked blank. Yet when I did research with their staff, especially the highly energized under 30s, they were hugely frustrated at not being able to apply their specialist skills at work. They would be given documents to review that outside consultants who knew less than they did had been paid to prepare and it made their blood boil. The organization was missing out on their skills and extensive networks while the individuals concerned were disappointed and irritated at losing an opportunity to make an important contribution using and enhancing their skills and special interests.


The reasons given for this lack of collaboration were mostly around protocols that would have made sense when the organization was established 70 years earlier (using, like many organizations at the time, military style command and control structures) but which were no longer the only option. They had never considered using off the peg tools like Linkedin profiles to search for relevant skills that already existed in the employee pool, and they weren’t sure how they might go about accessing them if they could. On the flip side of this particular coin, how many of us have experienced being lumbered with a team member who nobody knows quite what to do with? Not because they will be great to have on the team but because they need to be deployed somewhere and it’s too hard to get rid of them.


Compared to that world, my last ten years as an independent have been liberating. I meet amazing people all over the place – at networking events, at parties, at clients’ offices, even on trains and planes – and I can call them up when the opportunity arises. I love putting two or three of these independent thinkers together and watching the sparks fly as new ideas blossom, free of prejudice and preconception.


It’s not all plain sailing


Of course there are challenges too. The leadership of the collaboration needs some steps and skills that traditional team leaders could maybe get by without.


  1. Setting the intention: It is often necessary to be more explicit – not just about the purpose of the group but also the values under which the collaboration will operate as the chances are you have gathered people from the four winds who don’t have previous experience of working together or shared history. The ethos of the project needs to be clear to all those involved.
  2. Defining the protocols: You will also need to find ways to create a space of honest and open sharing to minimize the time it takes to ‘get going’ and to work out ways to coordinate the various contributors. Does everybody need to know everything or can sub-groups deal with some aspects? Is everybody equal or are some collaborators more core? I like to set up online project space so that there is transparency of information for those who want to know more but the people who are happy to just get on and do their piece are free to do so without an endless chain of emails to process.
  3. Creating loyalty / commitment: You probably lose out on some predisposition or loyalty to the task in hand compared to an already existing team, but the good thing is everybody is there because they want to be so they should have the appetite to work together and get some results.


Task focus or team focus?


One of my concerns about teams I have been in, and those I have studied in the course of my behavioural consultancy, is that quite quickly the team itself becomes the focus of a lot of the energy, rather than the task. It is unlikely that all team members will pull their weight equally, creating space for martyrs and cruisers. It is usual that some team members are more ambitious and thinking more radically than others creating space for conservatives vs progressives. Of course a great team leader can work with these tensions but that in itself is a diversion of energy from the core task.


As histories and legends, strong links and weak links, stories of hurts and betrayals about the team accumulate, there is a risk that the real external purpose of the team can be almost lost to the distraction of the internal dynamics.


My experiences of working collaboratively to solve a problem or create a solution on the other hand have been stimulating, mind expanding and more creative. Ideas from diverse perspectives and skill sets have cross fertilized in unpredictable and potentially valuable ways. I have finished with more respect for my fellow collaborators as I have seen their genius in action. The distraction of power struggles has been less because the focus is on the task of the group rather than the ongoing pecking order of the team.




So where am I going with all this?


We all need to learn from each other, share our mistakes and our messages, mingle ideas, open our minds and our hearts to unexpected combinations and greater possibilities.  As the world becomes more complex we need simpler, lighter ways of doing this that don’t stymie themselves with the trappings of teams. Count me in on the collaboration, just don’t ask me to wear the team t-shirt.

Mar 05

Fresh constructive thinking on gender

Communicating underpins our advances in civilisation. First came spoken language, then writing and printing. Now the internet, and its hard-to-ignore offspring – internet 2.0, offer us an unprecedented opportunity to share ideas, co-create solutions and accelerate both our connectivity and our ability to solve problems.
Of course it’s easier said than done. Chatrooms can feel clumsy and time consuming. Webinars might not generate enough engagement. Jams that last all week can generate vast quantities of data without any easy or robust enlightenment. All thoughts and no sifting can make for dull reading.

I started the Thinking Tank as an independent not-for-profit idea in 2009 after becoming frustrated with the traditional ‘expert telling audience followed by 5 questions’ format of knowledge sharing. It often felt to me like the exploration was only just beginning when everybody shuffled out of the room and off to their train home. How much richer to have a 45 minute conversation with as many people as we wanted to, from diverse walks of life? A space where we could stimulate each other’s thinking and find our way towards some shared views and winning ideas for personal and societal action.

ttt1503 IWD
This year for International Women’s Day the Thinking Tank debate will consider the connection between women’s low level of economic representation and the more subtle forms of gender based violence. At professional women’s networks I hear repeating themes of lack of value placed on connected, collaborative ways of working and of the persistent need to conform to traditionally male behaviours in order to advance. And this is here, at the cutting edge of equality in terms of access to education, confidence, independence and opportunity. How much harder must it be for women in other cultures or socio-economic groups?

Thinking Tank discussions are run on the Synthetron platform, based on the Surowiecki’s principles of the Wisdom of the Crowds. They are completely anonymous so we don’t know if the ideas and views we see and consider are coming from a male politician in the South or a female banker in the North. That removes a major hurdle to constructive debate. What matters here are the ideas. The best ones gather support and rise in the debate – typically 20-30% of the ideas receive enough support to move up. And a handful of those will resonate with a wider group.

It’s an intriguing process to moderate – in a very open way – and see how the debate develops. Analysing the data afterwards appeals to the mathematician in me as much as the social activist – finding the breaking lines and language patterns identifying clusters of views, seeing which topics generated energy, discovering the heart of the conversation and substantiating that with the quantified data that emerges.

You might join this conversation because you have important information to share or because you are curious about the broader view. You might be the kind of person who is personally or professionally intrigued by crowdsourcing and welcomes the opportunity to participate and witness first hand. You might be a campaigner or a researcher keen to find out more or test hypotheses. You might just be tired of the same old people having the same old conversation and drawn to the idea of a very diverse group batting round some thoughts.

Hundreds of participants from age 8 to 80 from many countries, professions and points of view have joined thinking Tank debates over the last 5 years. We have covered such diverse topics as feminism, financial ethics and football. Now we would like to see what you have to say on this topic and how together we can find some winning ideas and fresh thinking.

Feb 06

Burn out?

Over the last 12 months I have noticed more and more reference to burn out in client projects. These have spanned various international entities – NGOs, professional membership organisations and international corporates in finance, retail, manufacturing and service delivery.heartfire

There is a recurring theme, that the work place is getting busier and busier, the expectations higher and higher and the remaining time – for family, hobbies, community work, creativity – even just doing the washing! – is shrinking.

This is clearly not a sustainable way for us to proceed. Millions suffer the malaise and indignity of unemployment while others work themselves to a frazzle. Where’s the sense in that?

Base on my experiences of the last 12 months (and this didn’t come up much before that, it’s a current phenomena), I see the following key factors as playing a role:

  • GROWING PAINS. The world is shifting from the old hierarchical, linear systems to the opportunity to work in new, more adaptive systems. Teams can be virtual, temporal and issue based. A single employee may work on several teams, cross pollinating ideas and connections between them. In order for these new opportunities to really deliver, someone (hey people at the top, I’m talking to you) has to be prepared to let go of some of the old habits. And like a teenager struggling to shift from child to adult, or a new parent or recently retired / fired / bereaved individual, the transition is scratchy. There’s some pain there and some fear. That’s normal so let’s just act like grown ups and get on with it.
  • STRESSED LEADERSHIP. We are a long way from the days where being in senior management meant long lunches and plenty of time on the golf course. Now we expect so much more of top leadership. Not only do they have to manage the business, they have to do so in a way that conforms to compliance requirements in many more areas. Meanwhile their customer base has raised its game (Trip advisor et al giving them the satisfaction of instant feedback), their employees are giving their views on glassdoor and on top of all that they are expected to be inspiring leaders. Unless they got all the right breaks, have a great coach and the kind of temperament suited to managing this contradictory range of requirements, they are likely to de-prioritise the third one. It might not be good for the business, but you’re less likely to go to jail for not inspiring your staff than you are for mismanaging the business or failing on a compliance issue.
  • FEAR OF FAILURE. The winner takes all has made admitting to failure tragically hMachine-Gun-Salesman-001ard in most organisations. Yet that is often where all the best learning is hiding. Creating ways for employees to share worst failure as well as best practice, and motivating them to do so, should accelerate the learning curve and save too many people having to make the same mistake. Sounds easy doesn’t it? So if you’re in charge of something, have a think and a listen about why this doesn’t just happen and see what can be changed.
  • NO TIME TO LOOK UP: sometimes, even though it’s hard, we just have to choose to look up. Take a walk, look at a tree, have a laugh, a glass of water or do a quick mindfulness activity. A 5 minute break might feel like unacceptable behaviour but it can save hours if it gives you the breathing space and thinking space you need.

Assume that you will burn out unless you choose not to.  Assume your team will burn out unless you step into your leadership role, identify and dismantle the false beliefs and create a healthy productive culture.

Feb 05

Changing the logic on Membership: The 5 top reasons why it’s difficult to appease members

Last year, members of FNV (the Dutch worker’s union) gathered at an FNV Allies conference and, contrary to all expectations, voted against a proposition to merge. This once again showed that it’s difficult to gauge the opinion of members, even if they are involved every step of the way.background.jpg

Why is that?

Why do so many associations struggle to understand their members? Many are still acting in roughly the same way as 100 years ago. So maybe they email the newsletter instead of posting it, but I find the structure of interaction has often not kept pace with a changing world where knowledge is available for free and we can all find each other on LinkedIn.

In the last five years Synthetron have been regularly conducting online dialogues for different associations with the purpose of involving their members: the ANWB , NBA (professional organization of Accountants), KNGF (Royal Association of Physiotherapists) and FNV in Netherlands, ACCA (accountants) in UK and NCARB (architects) in the USA.

They have identified 5 important reasons which make it difficult to get insights into what members think and why their reactions are so hard to predict which I thought would be interesting to share with you. It really emphasises the challenge facing membership organisations who need to deliver the value of connection while treating each member as a valued individual.

The 5 top challenges for membership organisations today

1. Members don’t agree

The average percentage of messages that some people agree on in Synthetron dialogues is 17%. In sessions involving members, it’s only 13% on average and never more than 14%. At the same time, the percentage of bipotrons – messages which people feel strongly about and which split the vote – is higher than average. So we can say that people in Synthetron sessions for member associations agree less and disagree more than our benchmark from 1000 dialogues in a range of organisations.

2. Members like to be involved but are hard to activate. 

Members are very active and positive in their dialogues than our benchmark. They are looking for an accessible, interactive, visible association that involves them in the decision making process. Face to face as well as online. However it is not easy to engage and mobilise these members. There are low levels of people showing up to participate and a lot of energy needs to be put into recruiting.

3. Members expect a broader view from their association.

Members are no longer satisfied with the core activity of their association. Nowadays they expect a broader interpretation of the association’s role. For example they like to see them play an active leadership role in areas like durability, ethics and technology. They also would like to see more integration – working together with other associations and institutions, maybe in other countries. Finally, members indicate that the opinion of non-members is important too. The association of the future needs to go beyond their current boundaries.

4. Members want a flexible association. 

Members aren’t fixed on specific ways of working. They want to be organised at a sector level for certain topics and by region when it suits them. This requires an adaptive association that allows the member to choose how to define their membership. This applies to member communication, membership, way of coming into contact with other members, available knowledge and the way the association works with and for its members. There is no more either… or…, now it’s all about and… and…

5. Members want to be treated like they matter

What do members tell us? “I’m important! Listen to my needs! Influence the politics, legislation, … on a national and local level for me. Give me knowledge and education on the things I need to know about. Listen to me and use your power to get it done.”They are very demanding, they know very well what they want their association to do and have high expectations.


Now, all of this may seem like members are spoilt brats stomping around constantly demanding membership organisations do everything for them. But our experience shows that when members collaborate with their associations so improvements can be made together, they do this in a very serious, constructive and positive way. There is a way forward and organisations needs to find ways to interact meaningfully in a flexible and active way with their membership to achieve that. To do nothing is to accept a steady decline.

Nov 02

Sunflowers for Change

New Cross may only be known to you as one of the places where the traffic gets snarled up on its way out of London. But this SE corner of Zone 2 is also home to a vibrant, extremely diverse community, Goldsmiths College and a growing trend of community action. As well as the volunteer run community library and learning centre: New Cross Learning the Sunflowers for Change project has just completed its second season with gathering momentum and widespread impact.bird sunflower sunflower bee sunflower dig
In 2013 community organisations Grow Wild and Artmongers initiated an environmental education and community engagement project across the most polluted and desolate areas of New Cross. The aim was to plant 1000 sunflowers to create habitat for bees and other pollinators, while bringing colour, life and beauty to a neglected urban area.

Key messages of the campaign were around educating local people about the value of green spaces in urban settings and the need to support local pollinators as well as encouraging them to engage with improving their local environment to become agents of change.

The project has recently completed its second year (2014) during which community participation and the reach of the project has grown considerably. This year over 1,300 sunflowers were planted along the A2 – one of the most polluted roads in the UK – on 13 sites including areas owned by Goldsmiths College and Sainsbury’s as well as high street shops and cafes, front gardens of housing blocks and outside the Post Office by 70 volunteers. Skills transfer and accessibility are some of the key benefits. See their facebook page for more info Facebook page.

The project has created an extraordinary environment, making New Cross friendlier for people, bees and other wildlife. The A2 is a traffic heavy urban area so the addition of sunflowers had a powerful visual and emotional impact, creating a sense of possibility and sending a message to passers-by that something special is happening in New Cross.

We started Grow Wild after a successful collaborative bid to the Big Lottery by 5 local community organisations. Artmongers has been producing public and participatory art interventions in the area for years, turning dead space into live space. I love being part of both of these organisations embodying positive change and empowering communities


Here’s some of feedback about the sunflowers

 “I have really enjoyed walking past them on my way to uni and have been pleased to know that the bees and insects will be nourished by them.”

“Every time the bus goes past the sunflowers I have a big smile on my face.”

“As soon as I see the sunflowers I feel I have come home and home is a nicer place.”

“It has been an absolute joy. I made sure my route to and from my place of work incorporated walking past a bed of sunflowers. I loved seeing the bees and birds enjoying them too. The sparrows went crazy!”

“All that beauty and colour – I am sure it encourages people to take more care of their environment.”

“It has made me proud to live in New Cross.”

 “It’s nice to see that people make an effort in New Cross.”

 “It brought me smiles and joy – made ugly places beautiful, connected me to nature and creation – all on the A2.”

 “By empowering us to realise we can change the places we live in.”

 “Challenging widespread apathy about the shared urban environment.”

Sep 22

Open plan brains? Sep 25


An open office supports effective collaboration, learning, networking and (last but not least) saving costs

– that´s what supporters of this office layout claim. The opposite school of thought argues that an open office is not an efficient working environment.

open plan brain

A recent survey with managers and other professionals shows that 53% favour a personal office to do their work. In the case of difficult intellectual work as many as 65% state that they do it at home.*


Is effective brainwork supported or inhibited by an open plan office? Or does it just depend on the type of work? What can we do to make open plan work well? There’s lots of stimulating material on this topic here

Do you have a point of view? Join our live on-line debate – 4pm UK, 5pm Europe, 11am EST – where experts from around the world will co-create a point of view. Just click here to join


May 12

modernising organisational culture


bubbleMore and more often these days, the work I am developing with clients comes down to a central need to change the way they operate. Sometimes that is about what they do or make but much more often it is about HOW they carry out their business.

During in depth customer research when asked about a particular brand much of a user or customer’s response is about the way the brand and its agents BEHAVE. We are well past the days when a brand was a necessary mark of production or quality control, most of what we can buy these days satisfies our needs in that area. Instead we want brands that we can relate to, that we are glad to do business with. So in the same way we don’t really want our friends to behave in an embarrassing fashion or let us down, we don’t expect our preferred brands to do that either. 

And that’s before considering all the ways that business structure is changing. In his recent TED talk, Philip Edwards of Boston Consultancy group sets out a compelling case for the radical de-structuring that is going on as our knowledge connections are increasing 10,000-fold.  Many of the organisations I work with are labouring under early days technology. File structures and hierarchies eclipse tagging and co-creating. 

What’s the problem?

Now that customers and users have access to ample choice they are influenced in other ways.  That might be responsive customer service, cool branding or a reputation as a“good” organisation (did you ever hear a normal person talking about CSR?). As technology advancements cut out huge swathes of the distribution chain, micro personalisation and one to one client relationships are gaining such momentum that a brand can now proudly be called Not on the High Street

inside outA lot of innovative behaviour and technology is happening in the gaps between the major organisations. Micro entrepreneurs, bloggers, environmental artists, campaigners, portfolio lifestylers, collaborators, open source everything… These people are often outside the corporates and major GO /NGO orgs. Or if they work there too they are living a double life.  Do you have any idea how many of your staff participate in any of those activities? That’s a potential gold mine you are missing out on. 

So what about a solution?

If you run a large organisation you can’t turn into a lifestyle business run from the kitchen table. But you can pinpoint some key behaviours and mimic them in your organisation.

Mulling over new ideas. Sitting around the kitchen with a pot of coffee can generate breakthrough ideas that never emerge from hectic schedules. Running a LikeMIND Spark session has helped organisations we work with generate, explore and rank potential breakthrough ideas leading to an action plan of first steps. Not bad for an hour’s work (an hour of their people, we took a few days to analyse the results and deliver their insightful actions)

Sharing the vision. It’s easy around the kitchen table to generate passion and commitment to a shared dream. But traditionally the corporate vision is developed in the boardroom and then sold or told to the workforce. Knowing what we now know about employee engagement that approach only works well in a dictatorship or a cult. Assuming you run neither, getting everybody involved can be a much better starting point. Change the attitude from “Not Invented Here!” to “I Thought Of That!” and see how it unleashes energy for change. A LikeMIND Engage Session can be just the ticket. Get to the heart of what makes people tick in your organisation. What are they proud of? What inspired them to join? What keeps them from moving on? Not only will the session clarify your values and get everybody talking and thinking about them, it’s also likely to give you some great ideas for how to bring them to life.

Whole person working. It’s often a group of friends who star up a business together. They share much more than the 9 to 5. And knowing that much about each other gives them valuable information they can tap into. “Hey you did that course on…/ know that guy who… / once read a book about…”. How can you bring that all round knowledge into your organisation? It probably requires freedom, openness and safety. Employees may feel they are not allowed to have too many out of work activities, let alone discuss them in the office. Imagine a skills bank where you knew so much more – and employees could get involved in projects they could feel passionate about. We can help organise that, starting with a likemind Explore session.

Consultants have long said that a Business Becomes what it Measures. And of course when something is measured we pay attention to it. So how do you measure up? On sparking ideas? On engagement? On exploring innovation and new ways of collaborating? If you feel you’d like to raise your game, how about a fuss free 30 minute consult? We promise to listen not sell because we are fascinated by finding out what needs doing.


Oct 03

Listening is the new managing

Neil Gaught & Associates have just launched crowdsourcing service LikeMIND powered by Synthetron. See this slideshare presentation to find out why, or go straight to the animations below.

Telling people what to do just doesn’t cut it in our increasingly transparent world. Is your business a micro-democracy harvesting ideas and insights from all of your teams? Or do some brilliant thoughts get wasted?

LikeMIND can help you find the truth from Catherine Shovlin


WHY use LikeMIND?

HOW LikeMIND works


Sep 06

Simpler explanations

From the inside it is easy to get excited about everything your product can do. You have tons of research, dozens of case studies or customer experiences, heaps of ideas… it can be hard to communicate clearly and simply to a brand new contact.

That is exactly what Synthetron have managed to do though with this new short animation explaining their product. Eden Videos produced the film which was based largely on how outsiders understand Synthetron – rather than those that know so much! See what you think…


Aug 15

Changing the Logic: Simplification

How many times have you heard people moaning about the complexity of modern life? The choices, the PIN numbers, the restructuring, the emails, the texts…

Clearly we can’t manage all this by just doing more and more. We need some breakthrough ideas that allow us to breathe now and then, take inspiration, be brilliant, enjoy life… all the things that can get crowded out by complexity. As much in our personal lives as our business lives.

Now top business leaders around the world are putting their heads together to consider this challenge. Don’t miss out. Contact to register for this live online event. 11am (UK time), 13 Sept 2013.


How can businesses make sure they operate legally, responsibly, efficiently – without logging up the workforce with multiple layers of hierarchy and authorisation levels.

Here are some quotes on the topic from recent Synthetron strategic brainstorms in top international companies this year (note that all of these quotes have achieved at least 40% support from the company employees) :

  • We are trying to do too many things and they are not well structured together
  • We all share the feeling of overload
  • The risk is we lose momentum and leadership so we cannot grow and transform the business
  • There’s a risk that issues are looked at in isolation without understanding the wider context


  • We need to free up time for real value creation in doing business with our customers
  • We need to act, not just react
  • We need to create simple solutions for complex customer needs
  • Politicians acknowledge the need to downsize conventional production while building a modern infrastructure


So what are the big ideas in this area that can cope with the increasing regulation we face in 2013? Cellular structures? Revert to local? Devolved responsibility?

Here are some of the suggestions we have seen coming up during 2013s discussions

  • I will start to appreciate innovative solutions and fresh approaches 
  • I will consider our overall strategy in our day to day work
  • Improve the speed of communications and decision making
  • Give business managers control of their own resource to ensure they are aligned with growth aspirations.
  • Have the guts to make the tough decisions that have been overshadowing us for months
  • Be prepared to stop doing some things

Got a contribution to make?

[important]If you are still reading, chances are this is an area that affects you and that you are keen to do something about. If so, then you are just the kind of person we would like to invite to our online strategic discussion on this topic. With the safety of anonymity, top business leaders from around the world will be putting their heads together to identify the key barriers and opportunities around simplification in 2013. Don’t miss out. Contact to register for this live online event. 11am (UK time), 13 Sept 2013.[/important]

Older posts «

» Newer posts