Features July/Aug 2020

Six Questions to Ask About Collaboration and Organizational Change

By Marsi Fein Miller | STC Member

Is there an industry, occupation, or field that doesn’t require collaboration of some kind? For technical communicators, collaboration is integral to what we do. It can mean working with subject matter experts to design content for users, bridging theory and practice with academics, or engaging with colleagues through STC and other forums.

“Collaboration” joins “empowerment” as one of those terms that is so ubiquitous it’s practically meaningless. We are sometimes explicitly invited (read: instructed) to collaborate: “José, can you collaborate with Ha-yoon on this UI text?” The invitation might not mention collaboration—“I need the team to get this done in the next few hours”—but we are still expected to play well in the team sandbox.

Someone might ask you to collaborate on an organizational change, or it might be an implicit part of your ongoing work. Some organizational changes come with campaigns, slogans, or other marketing material. This is the world of strategic plans, reorganizations, and so on. Some organizational changes do not come with the label of “organizational change.” Being alert to subtle or tectonic shifts in society and at work is key to determining whether you need to shift as well or to continue as you were.

Since collaboration and organizational change can mean so many different things, a generic set of questions can help you grapple with these changes as they come your way.

What does it mean to aim for XYZ?
If you’re participating in the change

Ask two questions: “What does it mean to aim for [the intended change]?” and “What would happen if we did nothing about this?” Ask whether the reasons for the change have been fleshed out sufficiently (though not necessarily completely) before experimenting with or implementing solutions.

If you’re leading the change

Initiate discussion about what the change means: What, if anything, are you aiming for? If coercion is necessary (and sometimes it is), pair it with questions—for example, “What does it mean to have a culture of safety?”—versus imperatives such as, “We must have a culture of safety.” The difference is subtle, but a carefully conceived inquiry will allow you to uncover employee narratives and experiences around the change you seek.

If you have a background in quality, you might be familiar with the Five Whys. Also consider the Nine Whys. In general, engage people in the change before jumping to solutions. How you do this, however, is critical. If you want meaningful engagement, don’t rely on town halls. Instead, go local (small, workplace interventions and groups).

What remains unsaid?
If you’re participating in the change

Are you ducking certain conversations or refraining from voicing doubts or certainties? Do you know something that could improve the situation or help achieve the goal that you’re not acting on?

If you’re leading the change

Make it easy for staff to ask, and answer, “wicked questions.”

What have we agreed to Amplify, Diminish, Ignore, or Monitor (ADIM)?
If you’re participating in the change

What are you paying attention to, relative to the change? Are you doing anything to amplify it or to diminish certain behaviors or activities?

If you’re leading the change

What is the consensus regarding meaningful measures of change (versus trivial or vanity metrics), if any? Are there aspects of change that are qualitative, worthy in and of themselves, that don’t lend themselves to measurement?

What do you need to make meaningful progress on the change?
If you’re participating in the change

Discuss what you need to make meaningful progress on the change in a way that’s effective, efficient, and ethical. How the work gets done is just as important as what gets done; “results only” workplaces can invite shortcuts and privilege the immediate over long-term institution building.

If you’re leading the change

Ask, “What do I need to do to make meaningful progress on this change? What do I need from others? What should I stop doing or tweak? What should I keep doing or amplify?”

Try not to end every discussion about the change with, “Any questions, comments, or concerns?” It feels rote. If you want to be brave, occasionally (and in your own words), say something like, “It’s hard for me to know if I need to make a small change that could possibly make a big difference. I need your help on that.” And then invite discussion.

Who should be involved in this change?
If you’re participating in the change

Ask yourself if you want to be involved in it, or to what extent you want or need to commit to it, as well as what choice you have in the matter.

If you’re leading the change

Ask if there is a group of people in your organization who are not represented in the change effort and who should be. “Who is not here who could help us with this change?” Or ask, “Who is involved in this change who perhaps shouldn’t be?”

Change requires the appropriate skills, perspectives, commitment, expertise, knowledge, and data. The legitimacy of the change effort is more intangible, but you can enhance it by sharing power appropriately and ensuring everyone who should have a seat at the table is actually there.

Does this change have a destination?
If you’re participating in the change

Ask if there is an end goal (for example, “By December, we need to have DevOps in place”), or whether it is nonlinear and perhaps more complex. Does our desire to be collaborative lead to excessive cooperation so that we can’t discuss disagreements and problems?

If you’re leading the change

Avoid misclassifying the nature of the change. Even end-point changes have some measure of ambiguity. If the change is complex, don’t simplify it with something like a strengths/gap analysis. With complex change, your job is to manage the uncertainty and the unknowns by defining a path of travel (“This is the road we’re traveling on”), not a destination point. Think of it as a series of small experiments. If that’s too binary for you (experiment succeeds or fails), think of it as a probe: You are probing the organization to see which approaches resonate.

Conclusion

Think critically about these six ideas and your context for collaboration and change. And consider your use of self. The quality of your relationships at work—your connections to others and theirs to you—affects your ability to collaborate effectively. gi

Marsi Fein Miller (marsifeinmiller@gmail.com) works at the intersection of technology and organizational change. She is a member of the STC Baltimore–Washington, DC chapter.

References

Block, Peter. 2011. Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, 3rd ed. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Cognitive Edge. n.d. Accessed 6 August 2020. https://cognitive-edge.com.

Liberating Structures. n.d. “Nine Whys.” Accessed 6 August 2020. http://www.liberatingstructures.com/3-nine-whys.

Liberating Structures. n.d. “Wicked Questions.” Accessed 6 August 2020. http://www.liberatingstructures.com/4-wicked-questions.

McCandless, Keith, and Henri Lipmanowicz. 2013. The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation. Seattle: Liberating Structures Press.

Schein, Edgar H. 2009. Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help. San Francisco: Berrett Koehler Publishers.

Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. 2010. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Group.

Verwijs, Christiaan. 2018. “Make the Purpose of Your Work Together Clear with ‘Nine Whys.’” Medium, 6 February 2018. https://medium.com/the-liberators/use-nine-whys-to-discover-the-purpose-of-your-team-e2a3125c2b36.

Wikipedia. n.d. “Five Whys.” Accessed 6 August 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_whys.

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