At the beginning of my career I was asked to join a group tasked with brainstorming, strategizing and implementing a new campaign for a major brand. I was young at the time but I was known for high intuition and clarity in my ideas. As we began the first session, the facilitator started by simply saying “there are no bad ideas” and then launched into the first idea generating activity. One of the participants put out an idea to the group and as the facilitator began to write it on the board, one of the more senior level participants said “That won’t work. We’ve tried it before and it just doesn’t work. Next idea.” The facilitator said, “Now now, there are no bad ideas in brainstorming.” The senior level participant replied, “Well, of course, there are. We can’t use every idea, and that was one that I know for a fact won’t work.” What followed was pretty easy to guess. Nobody wanted to put out ideas, the facilitator became frustrated and the woman whose idea had been swatted down sat on her hands in silence for the remainder of the session. This was not an example where someone was brought to tears or needed to go to HR. It was, however, a completely ineffective collaborative space. Collaborative spaces need to be crafted in order to work productively and in this case, no space was crafted at all.
In addition, this is not the worst way that a collaborative space can be unsafe. We can also add forcing of idea acceptance, sexual harassment, name calling, shaming and many more toxic behaviors. Below we will dive into five ways to craft a safe collaborative space.
5.) Create and monitor safe practices in your Norms
Norms (often called team norms or meeting norms) are an agreed upon way of behaving in a collaborative setting. They define how the group should interact with one another. For the best norm creation and adoption, allow the members of the team to have a hand in creating them.
Here are a handful of norms from getthepicture.ca
State your “headline” first, then the supporting information as necessary
Be brief and meaningful when voicing your opinion
Speak your truth, without blame or judgment
Be intrigued by the difference you hear
Expect to be surprised
Now let’s look at a bit of advice from thebalance.com
Once developed, team norms are used to guide team member behavior. Team norms are used to assess how well team members are interacting. Team norms enable team members to call each other out on any behavior that is dysfunctional or that is negatively impacting the success of the team. – Susan M. Heathfield at thebalance.com
4.) Define and practice the fundamentals of positive ideation
Working with a collaborative culture that focuses on the improv concept of “Yes, and” reveals a steady stream of ideas that can be built upon over time. During ideation, our goal is to attain flow as a group and to find solutions that would be difficult for a single team member to realize on their own. Respectful engagement is the name of the game here. Acceptance of ideas should be there even when an agreement with the ideas is not. There is never a need to point at a person or an idea and call it “bad.” In positive ideation, we attempt to give ideas legs rather than knocking them down. Seeing first hand that something can’t stand under its own weight is almost always more effective than being told the idea won’t work. Conversely, you will be surprised how often a working solution can be found as a result of a seedling you wanted to discredit or disprove.
3.) Hold check-ins at each session and provide safety for those experiencing difficult emotions
Some people think that checking in with the members of the team at the top of the meeting might soak up too much time and the meeting may be less productive. The truth is that check-ins allow for the meeting to BECOME productive. Think back on all of the meetings that you have been in that seemed to get nothing done when one or more conversations went off the rails. This can very frequently be avoided by simply checking in at the top of the meeting.
Checking-in allows participants to share whatever is on their minds—whether related to the meeting or not. It might sound counter-intuitive to ask people to share information that is irrelevant or off topic. The truth is, if you don’t acknowledge these thoughts or feelings, they will distract you throughout the meeting.
Instead, acknowledge that we all have other things going on by creating the space for everyone to unload what’s on their mind at the moment and then put those thoughts or feelings aside. – @taitsao via meeteor.com
2.) Train all participants in techniques that create, maintain and restore safety
If you are meeting frequently with a team that can build techniques over time, training everyone in a framework like crucial conversations can be an amazing investment. We want to be able to create safety so that positive ideation is possible. We also want to have the skill of restoring safety when we recognize that it has been compromised. One small example of how this can work is the concept of Vitalsmarts “Learn to look.”
Learn to look at content and conditions.
Look for when things become crucial.
Learn to watch for safety problems.
Look to see if others are moving toward silence or violence.
1.) Create a feedback mechanism to report unsafe circumstances
It is important for us to have a mechanism in place for encounters where safety is no longer repairable. This is for times when two or more team members cannot find a way, on their own, to get back to positive ideation and safety. It should also be clarified that we do not want to create an environment where teammates go behind each other’s backs to report minor disagreements to their superiors. The created mechanism should be known and accepted by everyone involved and should be handled in a way that allows for both restorations between individuals and also a return of productivity and safety for the team.
These are my top FIVE ways to craft a safe collaborative space. What have I missed? Where are the gaps? What other articles and resources do you have that might help others to craft this type of space? Let us know in the comments below.