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Common Language Promotes Collaboration

by Brian McDonald

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, Founder of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Tanzania is located in East Africa, where the famous Serengeti National Park is the natural habitat for thousands of animals. Over 120 tribes in Tanzania have their own traditions, rituals, and varied languages, making up their local culture. When Tanzania achieved independence in 1961, the first President, Julius Nyerere, had the country adopt Swahili as the common language to unify the nation. 

When visiting several villages in Tanzania, I found that this common language allows people to communicate, conduct trade with each other, and see themselves under one flag.

In an interesting parallel, back in 2004, then-MIT Provost Bob Brown described the institute as a collection of tribes to the Leader-to-Leader cohort MOR was co-facilitating. He suggested there were some 40 tribal units, and when they grew to a certain size, they would often organically subdivide, forming a new lab, center, or institute.

Seeing each school, college, or department as a standalone distributed unit is another lens through which a person can view a university. In exploring the three lenses, when the discussion turns from the strategic and political lenses to the cultural lenses, participants quickly acknowledge that although there may be a macro culture, there are many distinct local cultures. The culture at the law school is vastly different than the culture at the school of education or the engineering school.

In a recent MOR strategic offsite, clients who sponsor the MOR Leader Programs spoke to the group and highlighted the shared language as one outcome that has had a positive impact. 

“That common language has helped as there is a common vocabulary across the University. When we get into meetings, people will use some of the MOR words, and it brings the community together,” said Lois Brooks, Vice Provost for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

The relationships and the common vocabulary enable people from this distributed network to collaborate across what historically have been organizational, political, or cultural barriers to sharing information and working together.

During the MOR strategic offsite, the group spent some time highlighting this shared language that is a thread throughout the leadership programs, such as “feedback/feedforward is a gift or “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Other clients reported another positive outcome: the relationships built during these extended engagements. As people connect and recognize their issues and challenges are similar, this opens up the avenue for increased collaboration. This is captured in the MOR Maxim: “Relationships are currency.” The more you have, the more you can get done.

In 2018, the University of Nebraska IT CIO Mark Askren and the University President determined they needed to bring IT together across three campuses and four distinct units to form One IT. This initiative required the integration of four different tribal units. Bret Blackman, the current NU CIO, has repeatedly said, “The relationships formed across the campuses during the MOR Leaders Program was a critical foundation to build on.” The shared language and shared toolset helped the leadership cohort formed from across the campuses work collaboratively to determine how best to accomplish One IT.

The simple use of the term “get on the balcony” or applying the framework “open-narrow-close” helped the group move from generating options to narrowing and set the stage for the decisions that needed to follow. 

When the University of Iowa’s Board of Regents challenged IT to bring about substantial savings, the CIO, Steve Fleagle, stepped up to take ownership of producing a plan to bring about the targeted savings in IT spending. One of the initial steps was to bring together leaders from central and distributed IT organizations to identify potential opportunities. It was clear the relationships and shared interests developed by these individuals during the earlier MOR leadership programs resulted in jointly developed initiatives that delivered on this commitment. This effort, along with the later engagement of people from all the IT units in forming the strategic plan, are both great examples of how relationships and shared language can enable “leaders to work together to do the right thing.”

Past and current participants, when they encounter each other, can quickly recognize someone with whom they can communicate and connect based on this shared MOR experience and the resulting language. When a leader moved from Stanford to a senior position at the University of Chicago, she referred to how her direct reports needed to understand the difference between leading, managing, and doing. As a result, it was instantly apparent to a leader in Chicago she had a similar framework for viewing the different responsibilities people in senior positions have.

MOR continues to evolve the shared language and the adoption of specific phrases. These MOR Maxims are short, sticky statements expressing a general belief. Here is a refresher course for those continuing to “lead from where you are,” regardless of your title or position.

MOR Maxims

  • Be Intentional
  • Presence Matters
  • Leaders Are Always on Stage
  • Feedback/Feedforward Is a Gift
  • Lead From Where You Are
  • Relationships Are Currency
  • Context Matters
  • Get Up on the Balcony
  • No Amount of Tactics Will Make Up for That Which You Lack in Strategy
  • Leaders Do the Right Thing
  • Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast
  • Leading Involves Exercising Influence 
  • The Answer Is in the Room
  • Yes And
  • Leaders Deliver Results
  • Developing Talent Is a Force Multiplier
  • What, So What, and Now What

We end most workshops and many coaching sessions with “Now What?” Now, what will you do tomorrow? How will you get into action and apply what you are learning?

With “now what” in mind, how could you be more intentional in promoting the common language and collaboration needed to advance the initiatives critical to your organization’s success?

Last week we asked which has best enabled you to create a sense of psychological safety:

  • 43% said caring about them as a person
  • 25% said feeling psychological safety yourself so you can share it with others
  • 20% said connecting with others
  • 12% said caring about them as an employee

Unlike some other recent surveys, this week saw an uneven distribution of responses. Caring about others as people was by far the most common response. This caring has as a foundation the ability to speak a common language. As we consider the maxims outlined above, which one(s) might you be able to use in the coming week to help create an environment where we can all contribute to our fullest potential?