Collaboration by Design with Philippe Coullomb and Charles Collingwood-Boots

The challenges facing humanity are growing in complexity. Collaboration is offering us to tackle more complexity by getting diverse minds to work together. How to gather people and facilitate successful collaborations?

The challenges facing humanity are growing in complexity. Collaboration is offering us to tackle more complexity by getting diverse minds to work together. How to gather people and facilitate successful collaborations?

Philippe Coullomb and Charles Collingwood-Boots design how individuals come together to create innovative and sustainable outcomes to address complex issues.

What we learned in the episode:

  • What matters when we put people together in a room to solve complex problems,
  • What happens when people see the deliverables of a workshop,
  • In facilitation, delivering the workshop is only the tip of the iceberg,
  • Selecting and engaging the sponsors is critical to success,
  • Context setting is key to getting people to focus on the right things,
  • Hybrid and virtual collaboration are similar but harder, and you lose some intensity in the interactions,
  • A few more things about team norms and team dynamics,
  • The importance of the space for collaboration as an enabler, and it is not necessarily the office, but more offsite because of all the attributes you need to have.

Here is the link to find the book Collaboration by Design. The book is available in English and French.

Listen to the episode:

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Here is the transcript of the episode:

Alexis

This is Le Podcast on Emerging Leadership, I am Alexis Monville. The challenges facing humanity are growing in complexity. Collaboration is offering us to tackle more complexity by getting diverse minds to work together. How to gather people to facilitate successful collaborations?

Philippe Coullomb and Charles Collingwood-Boots design the way individuals come together to create innovative and sustainable outcomes to address complex issues.

Alexis

Hello Philip and Charles. That’s great to have you on the show.

Philippe

Hello.

Charles

It’s great to be here.

Alexis

So Philip. Ah, let’s start with you. What is your role and how would you describe it to someone. You just met.

Philippe

If I only I knew after all these years. I sort of defined myself as a collaborative designer. So in a nutshell my role is to design Collaborative Journeys to solve complex problems or make complex decisions in a multi-stakeholder context and most of the time it takes the form of workshops but not only.

Alexis

Thank you. Your turn Charles same question: What is your role and how would you describe it to someone you just met?

Charles

So I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing but I have the same challenge as Philippe but if I come from a so similar background the way I describe my role is: I design the way individuals and organizations come together to solve or navigate complex problems and just like Philippe a lot of the time that involves workshops but sometimes it’s designing simple conversations to make sense of complex problems.

Alexis

it’s really interesting, I’m excited about that conversation! Can you tell me what was the pivotal moment that led you to write the book collaboration by design?

Philippe

It’s actually a funny story. We got approached by a client in Singapore who wanted a training so we designed the training and we thought that we needed deliverable for the training. And that it would be great if the deliverable was co-written with the participants. So we produced a sort of booklet or 100 pages booklet ah primarily aiming for the participants to that training and then everyone else in our in our network who saw that booklet. Said look. It’s amazing. We really need something like that. There’s nothing written about the practice, could you make that available and while we couldn’t because this was a client artifact we thought okay we have something pretty good. Let’s put in a few weeks of work to make it a little bit better and let’s turn that into a book. And then of course Charles and I being who we are we thought it was a few weeks and it ended up being a year. We turned a hundred pages booklet into a 360 pages book and every time we would touch a topic we would come with a list of 10 things we believed, that had to be described or illustrated and then we went on and on and on until someday we thought, Okay we have to stop here. We cannot keep adding so initially it started from basically making a prototype and people around us loving it and asking us for more.

Alexis

That’s really beautiful. That’s really serving the needs of people!

Charles

And maybe just add on to that. People often didn’t fully understand the way that we did things and the intent behind it so to some extent it was about trying to codify what people saw as a simple workshop. But in a way that really drew out the depth of practice and procedure that sat behind it.

Alexis

Excellent. So when I think of facilitating successful collaborations I picture the facilitation that happened during the gathering would you say it is the most important aspect.

Philippe

You want a good child.

Charles

Yeah, So my perspective it’s one part of it and certainly a great deal of emphasis needs to be placed on the Workshop. You know the manifestation of all the work but certainly it’s not I wouldn’t say the most important. For me, It’s the process leading up to it. It’s the work with the sponsor or the owner of the problem or indeed the solution that you’re trying to work towards and really unpacking with them and facilitating the process by which they come to understand the problem. And then starting to design from there. So The facilitation at the front of the room is an aspect but I wouldn’t say it’s the most important.

Philippe

To build on that at the beginning of the Book, we take the analogy of the iceberg and I think it’s quite telling what you see, the part of the workshop that you see which is a facilitator a group and a set of activities is on the visible side, the tip of the iceberg. And under that is a lot of pre-work and a lot of background work to make the experience meaningful and the delivery seamless.

Alexis

So, what happens before the gathering is really important. You spoke about engaging the sponsors. Can you tell us a little bit about what it means? What are you doing when you are engaging the sponsors?

Philippe

Yeah, sure. The first thing is to select the sponsors and make sure that you’re working with the right group of people that represent enough perspective that together show enough leadership so that you have the right conversation partners to co-design the session.

Philippe

And that’s not a small task selecting the right group. When you have them, the process is both quite straightforward and quite complex. Quite straightforward because all you can do is have a series of conversations so you schedule a number of conversations through which you will unpack the context clarify the objectives and then progressively develop convictions on what to do and how to do it in the workshop and quite complex because through those conversations you usually uncover a whole lot of contradictions ambiguities, complex stakeholder dynamics that either the client is not aware of or is aware of but closing a blind eye on and you cannot afford to just bury that under the carpet. Whatever you identify you have to address you have to make explicit and then address, otherwise you’ll pay the price later so that’s it, a straightforward process in terms of mechanics but conversations that are quite tricky.

Alexis

And that’s what will really change the dynamic during the gathering. So, when I read the book, to be honest, I realized some of the things that happened to me during some workshops or meetings, clearly, I realized that it was linked to that preparation before the meeting. So during the gathering now that you’ve engaged the sponsors and you designed the gathering. What is really important to you?

Charles

Obviously through that preparation you’ve developed an understanding of the client of the problem and enough of an understanding around the content to navigate the conversation. But for me, the primacy is engagement with the participant group. Creating the right conditions at the start of the workshop that enable an open conversation. A freedom for the participants to explore to challenge to ask questions to make sense. For me, it’s important to really set the right context up front and your position as part of that group in navigating and facilitating them through the journey that you’ve set out in the agenda.

Alexis

So setting the context that’s part of what the facilitator will do and part of what the sponsors will do.

Charles

Correct. Your role as a facilitator in that moment in that time needs to be clear. People need to understand what they can expect of you. The role that you will part play and you need to establish yourself in that position across the course of the workshop. But equally the drivers behind the workshop the work that they’re doing the expectation of the sponsors on the participant group to engage in the best way possible to get the best outcome is a key part to so setting that conversation or the dialogue up front with the sponsors and the group is all part of setting the right scene or creating the right conditions for participants to engage because we’ve all been through those workshops where it’s a very sort of dull and dreary experience where you’re not really sure what you’re there to do and.

Charles

Sometimes the activities are a little bit disconnected or you’re not too sure what they’re about, so enabling the participants to be confident in the journey that they’re about to embark on even if it’s a little bit unknown and confident in you as a facilitator to lead that and why they’re there. And why their perspective is important.

Philippe

And the even for the part that is on the Sponsor’s Shoulder. We do have a role to play. It’s not always natural for the sponsors to know how to properly set the context for such a workshop. So we need to coach them through that, to make sure that they adopt the right posture and convey the right messages sometimes it will be evident to them sometimes not and we need to check if it is and if it’s not we need to help them find the right tone.

Alexis

Okay, that’s simple, I Love it. With the pandemic, a lot of things had to happen remotely virtually and when I picture facilitation or collaboration I think of people in your room. What are the main principles to observe when you design and facilitate a virtual gathering? What are the things that are changing with all the things that are the same? Philip, do you want to start?

Philippe

Well, I’m not I’m not sure I want to because I’m not a huge fan of virtual collaboration. But I guess like all of us have done, I’ve done a fair bit and I think what doesn’t change is the absolute imperative to get the sponsorship right and to get the design right. So, however, you deliver the experience, making sure that you’re looking into the right questions in the right way is an imperative and you follow the exact same process to achieve that. The main difference is in the intensity of the experience and in the interaction with the content. I didn’t experience yet the same intensity of interactions between participants digitally and it takes a lot more effort to get to intense interactions aid thought and time to get to intense interactions digitally than it takes physically so you need to take that into account when planning the time scheduling the time of your different activities and sizing the delivery team it does take work we have for whatever reason that image that a digital delivery should be leaner than a physical delivery and I don’t think it is and content-wise there’s a completely different way to relate to content to relate to ideas.

Philippe

So in the physical world, we have whiteboards and there’s this sort of physical connection to the idea and we draw something It’s extremely easy to iterate. Everyone’s engaged. You can feed from everyone’s energy. This doesn’t happen online and again the digital collaboration tools like Mural, Google Jamboard all of these, offer the possibility to collaborate on the same objects and, but the dynamic is slightly different so you need to take that into account again in your design and of course, there’s the adoption of the tools that can be a real nightmare. No one needs an explanation to grab a marker and use a whiteboard. The adoption of a Mural board as simple as it may seem to some of us can can be a big huddle to others.

Alexis

Oh yes.

Charles

The big thing from my experience is you cannot design a virtual workshop through the same means as you would an in-person workshop. The demands of  energy of mind space are completely different in person than it is virtually. in addition, there’s a hundred, here’s a myriad of more barriers that people can create for themselves that create a limitation to engage. The simple act of putting yourself on a mute or taking your camera off. All these things create a distraction from each other in the content in the workshop. So the way you design needs to be very different the activities modules or tasks that you put in place need to be different. They don’t have the same effect in person as they do virtual. Now I would guess sort of one of the upsides of covid is the fact that the tools at our disposal are getting much better. And they’re becoming more effective in driving greater engagement on participants through these workshops and some of the micro improvements in the tools themselves and the functionality are getting better. So, much like Philippe I will take an in-person workshop over virtual any day. However, the nature of our work and I guess the nature of work more broadly sees a more distributed participant group quite often and the demand from the client or the expectation for the client is for us to support a virtual session. So we need to lean into it more we need to develop a greater skill around virtual but also hybrid workshops. You know where you have some virtual and some in-person that’s at a whole another layer of challenge and complexity. But yeah, again, more for us to learn and adapt our craft in pursuit of meaningful collaboration in multiple contexts.

Alexis

Tell me more about that hybrid setup where people are either joining in the room or joining remotely I Assume that with some people coming back to the office and some wanting to stay home it will happen more often and what other things to take into account when it’s hybrid?

Charles

I guess the first thing is it’s really hard. It is very very challenging. So that my experience is the role of technology in support of cross-platform engagement. The platform I mean those virtually in those in the room. The way you design and configure the discussions needs to be carefully considered, it is very easy just to default well those online are one group or have one type of discussion and those in the room have a different one. To ensure that you get a cross-pollination of thinking and perspective you need to weave the two together. A lot of the time that’s enabled by good tech that you have in the room. So either the polycom multi-directional mics and cameras to support in breakout in the room and virtual breakout discussion. There’s sort of different bots or sort of sort of mobile virtual participant devices that you can get these days but again the technical support and prowess required to manage that it is really important because otherwise there’s isn’t another potential fault or fault line in the work that can really derail the conversation and make things more distracting they need to be.

Philippe

I would totally emphasize the point on tech, you can totally have 4 people in a room and 1 person remote that completely works. But then if you have a workshop of 50 people and you have 10 groups like that in parallel. What is the technological ability of the client or the event to have ah ten spaces in a row a seamless audio input seamless audio output seamless video inputs seamless video outputs and seamless and digital collaboration boards. So, the technology exists but the setup it takes for thirty fifty or one hundred people to collaborate effectively in an hybrid mode. Most clients are not willing to put in the price. The main challenge is the continuity or the integrity of the experience. People in the room are in a different energy from people at home. they do not feed from the group they do not get that sense of momentum they do not feed from that and I have an example that illustrates that I did a session, I think maybe was 2 three weeks ago and it was just at the level of the team we were a team of seven delivering the session. 5 team members were colocated in Italy and I was the lead facilitator from Malaysia and the graphic facilitator was in the UK so team of 7 but in reality, we really felt that it was 5 plus one plus one the 5 people in the room delivering the workshop had a quality of collaboration that did not extend to the other two that were in different locations and even worse because they had that quality of on-site collaboration. They were not putting as much effort as they should have in the digital communication challenge channels that we had put in place with the Uk and with Malaysia so this is at the level of a team of professionals who are experts at collaboration. So imagine if you replicate that in 5 7 ten groups in parallel with people who are not professionals of collaboration.

Alexis

Yeah, I can totally empathize with that I remember switching from one team to the other and one team was already at ease with all the electronic tools and they were already. They had a way of working when they were using chat channel for the team, using that as a back channel for all their conversation within the room when the meeting happened. I switched to a team where the habits of that team were really different. They were using one on one back Channels. And so I knew there was something happening. because I could see their face changing and they could see people speaking about things that had not been discussed before and it took me some time to realize that just that habit of having one on one back Channel using text messages or chat was really hurting the dynamic of the team and it took me really a long time to realize that, so I can imagine just the use of the technology or the ability to use it could be a big problem to deal with.

Philippe

Yeah.

Alexis

I really wanted to cover that part of hybrid or remote meetings because that’s part of our reality as Charles mentioned but I agree with both of you I would prefer for in-person interactions all the time. I agree with that dynamic. Do you believe that companies will realize that and invest more in off-sites to get to the perfect space to ensure a good collaboration. Do you feel the space is also important when you are in person?

Charles

Ah, 100%! I think the space is a key facilitation lever that needs to be designed just as much as the agenda because it enables meaningful effectiveness and pleasant experience for those in the room. To the point around do I think clients or organizations are looking will revert back to in-person I think so not necessarily because they understand the value of in-person collaboration. But. Simple fact that as a community as a society. We’ve been so disconnected from each other this simple act of being in the room which was once probably overlooked, people will understand just how good it is having human interaction human connection, so I do think that’s going to be a key consideration and the speed at which our clients sort of go. Yes let’s all be in the one room together and we’ll fly people out or invest it in that way. I think that’s good. We’re gonna see a return to that. That being said, the fact that we’ve been collaborating virtually inverted commas in collaborating engaging virtually effectively across covid people who see it as equally as a means to just work continue to work that way. So yeah I think there’s a balance. We need to strike there.

Philippe

And regarding space. Yeah, of course, I couldn’t agree more with what Charles said and I think one of the things that makes it particularly challenging is that for us space is part of the design exercise. So we know how much choosing and setting up the right space for the job is absolutely essential often in the head of our clients space falls in the logistics bucket so it will fall in the same type of consideration as scattering as transport and so on so they usually don’t instinctively realize that space matters and that no you cannot ask people to look themselves up in a windowless room of an average hotel in the suburbs of a city and then from that place invent an exciting future for the next five years there’s a profound dissonance and while it seems obvious to us, it’s not always obvious to our clients. So there is a challenge for us to help the clients realize that space is in service of the business intent as is in service of the objectives of the session.

Alexis

Yeah, it’s interesting it reminded me, I had the chance to organize a gathering of something like 300 people in Boston and I was lucky to work with someone in the event teams that was really engaged in trying to make the experience really good and she found a space that was incredible because it was at the top of the building and the room had windows on both sides and the first person who entered the room said but how will we present anything? But she she used the screen that was a LED screen so we had a perfect presentation, perfect visibility of the content in a room with window all around. That was absolutely an amazing experience and compared to all the things we had before in those ballrooms in hotels where you are in the dark for the full day that was absolutely amazing. So it’s an interesting small thing about space to dig into. 

Philippe

And actually to build on that, of course, there are some universal minimum attributes that you would want from a space for workshops. You want a lot of daylight you want plants, you want space, you want line of sight so you can always see through the entire room and feel the energy through the entire room. Those attributes regardless of what you’re going to do you want people to be at their best create a space that’s conducive of that. But then the next layer and we seldom have that opportunity. But when we do. It’s absolutely amazing is First, you define the objectives and the high-level design and then you find a space that is meaningful in relation to the design and then the space becomes that and it’s when I say space. It’s space and location the choice of the city or the choice of the neighborhood or the country or the type of building. Then everything about the space is in service of the intention and that’s when you have a sense your event starts getting a sense of wholeness where everything speaks and everything about as you experience where you are what you eat What you see what you feel is in service of ah of a specific goal And when you have that luxury. It’s just amazing.

Alexis

Wow! So that’s totally different than going back to the office and having a meeting. Okay, perfect. So let’s say we did it. We engaged the sponsors properly. We designed the perfect agenda we find the perfect location the perfect space. The gathering is done. Ah so we’re done or what’s next?

Charles

Well then we begin? So the workshop itself is almost like walking a tightrope between what you plan to do and the reality of that plan in the face of the participant group. There’s only so much you can develop ah in terms of insight or perspective. The real test is when the people you’re designing for engage with that agenda and sometimes the agenda fits well and the conversation goes just as you had imagined only it’s more richer and has greater depth because of the different perspectives that are being fed in. Other times, not so many other times what you thought to believe what you thought to be true isn’t and you need to adjust and pivot as you go, so your connection to the content your connection to the agenda your connection to the energy needs to be extremely close. you need to sense What’s going on, you need to feel what’s going on. You need to listen and all the while it’s this balancing of that tightrope between what you had planned to do, what you’re hearing and what potential impact or shift that might need to happen. Sometimes it’s a small thing you change the language in some assignments or some activities other times it requires a reshuffling or reshaping of the agenda itself. So the facilitation isn’t just a simple act of following a script. The agenda it’s being acutely present in the group in what’s being said and constantly testing and refining as you go and my perspective is That’s what really differentiates between a workshop that has an agenda and you’re simply executing on the agenda and a workshop that is responding to the living system or the living participant group and as a result gets the right outcome based on on the desire and ambition that emerges from the group. So it’s it’s it’s never over even when it’s all you know everyone sort of had their celebratory drinks and head off into the world wherever they might be going to.. There’s always sort of more to be done because the reality is the workshop is just a moment in time and something needs to happen. With all the hard work and content that emerges from those workshops. So yeah, the preparation is just that it prepares you for the moment. But your role as a facilitator is a demanding one if you do it well, but also very rewarding one in the end.

Philippe

And that’s when having a team take all its meaning because to be able to do what Charles is saying you need to be supported by a team that has the agility to pivot. if the changes you make are marginal you might be fine on your own. But if you’re realizing that you need an entire shift of the agenda. There’s not a chance you can do that without a team and that also explains why and again it takes time to convince sponsors about that, why your workshop for 40 participants can have a team of 4, 5, 6 because you’re basically you’re buying the creativity and the agility to pivot and respond to everything you sense from the group.

Alexis

Excellent and what comes after the gathering you mentioned just before the booklet that was the origin of the book. So I assume that there’s something important that comes after the workshop after the gathering.

Philippe

Well, the workshop is never a purpose in itself. A workshop is in service of something else. So you have to ask your question. Do you have to ask yourself the question, how do I feed back the outcome of the workshop into whatever is coming next. Usually what’s coming next is some form of action because the outcome of the workshop needs to be implemented. It can be part of a project a program part of a strategic direction but actions have to be taken so at the end of the workshop. You  simply ask yourself. Who is going to do what with what came out and as a result, what are the most useful artifacts that we need to produce to enable them to facilitate their work going forward sometimes it’s going to be super sleek things with a communications purpose. Sometimes it’s going to be pretty rough documents because they’re going to be iterated the next day by the same people, but it’s all a matter of creating what’s the most useful that’s for the outcome part for documenting the outcome part then, of course, there’s also the same way we’ve been working responses to prepare them to the session. We need to work on responses to help them fully leverage the potential they’ve created so of course part of that potential is tangible outcomes. We made the decisions x y z we produced outcome x y z and of course, this is valuable. But there’s also questions around leadership momentum alignments more intangible outcomes and these need to be nurtured by the sponsors and again some sponsors will do that naturally some will not. You need to assess that as a facilitator. And if they don’t do that. Naturally, you need to find ways to help them. Um, help them do it in the best possible way to maximize the value for them.

Alexis

Philippe Coullomb and Charles Collingwood-Boots are the authors of the fantastic book Collaboration by Design. I highly recommend to all of you. Thank you Charles and Philip for having joined me today on the podcast and having written that book. Thank you.

Philippe

Thank you very much.

Charles

Thank you very much.

Author

  • Alexis Monville worked in multicultural and distributed environments for years, coming back from the US and now based in the southwest of France. When asked if he misses the work in the office, he usually answers that he spent half of his 30 years of management experience in diverse sectors outside of the office and a lot of that working from home. Alexis is Chief of Staff to the CTO at Red Hat, a long-time hybrid open-source software company with more than 100 office locations in 40 countries, where half of the 20,000 people work remotely. Alexis is a firm believer that change starts with the self. He is the author of two books: Changing Your Team From The Inside and I am a Software Engineer and I am in Charge. Alexis facilitates successful playful collaborations. He designs and builds sustainable and high-impact teams and organizations.

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