Change: Connect & Collaborate to Create Strategic Breakthroughs

The human spirit is largely untapped in organizational life today. This is the same human spirit credited with moving mountains, succeeding against the odds, and accomplishing the impossible. Spirit is not captured and channeled with carrots or sticks. Command and control will not suffice to evoke the best in people.

When people believe they can make a difference, they rise to the occasion, applying their talents, experience, and know-how. The approach I have put together, called Connect & Collaborate, is one way to consistently achieve this high level of group performance. I have refined it from years of experience working with thousands of people in complex situations. It is helpful in multi-cultural organizations, working across silos and disciplines, and in the thick of global initiatives spanning multiple regions and countries.

One of the most powerful applications for this Connect & Collaborate approach is the acceleration of strategic change by engineering a breakthrough. Join me in a visit to the fictional company,WorldBase (drawn froma composite of clients and their experiences), as we see one such breakthrough in the making:

It’s 2007 and the senior managers of the global industry leader WorldBase have identified a set of business processes necessary to advance their competitive edge. A special team at headquarters has customized the business processes, giving them the proprietary name, GlobalPractice™.

WorldBase’s top three competitors have developed their equivalent of GlobalPractice™ and are in various stages of implementation. Whichever company implements fastest across their complex, globally distributed operations will capture major ground in the marketplace. There is no time to waste.

GlobalPractice™ combines the latest in technology with on-theground operations yielding more productivity, better and faster. However, WorldBase is getting in its own way when it comes to adopting the new ways of doing business.

First, line managers are not yet familiar with the new technology. Although results from pilots around the world demonstrate significant success, people are reticent to implement GlobalPractice™ locally because they think, “we are different.” Each locale has a different culture, different needs and a different management structure. The idea that “one size doesn’t fit all” results in managers not taking initiative to learn more.

Second, communications are less than optimal. Marketing from HQ is too positive, like propaganda, ignoring the need to customize locally. This is increasing skepticism. There is a dearth of meaningful data staff can sift through to satisfy their need to understand details. None of the people responsible for results in the successful pilots have been available to discuss what it takes to make GlobalPractice™succeed on the ground.

Third, implementation in a timely fashion is almost impossible. The three primary WorldBase business cycles – quality, budget allocation, and operations integration – are on their own timelines, requiring new initiatives to queue up as much as 18 months in advance. José is a senior manager in the Innovation Implementation Unit, responsible for ensuring that promising new ideas get applied. He looked into GlobalPractice™and quickly became enthusiastic. Yet, the more he learns, the more ensnarled implementation seems to be.

Because José believes adopting GlobalPractice™ is necessary, he goes to meet with people at many points in the system: engineers, operations line managers, GlobalPractice™ developers, senior managers, evangelists and critics alike. He targets everyone critical to success, whether or not they have heard of GlobalPractice™. He calls them, goes to their offices, and meets them for lunch, opportunistically looking for informal conversations to learn their points of view.

José creates and maintains a list of people. After a couple of months and about 50 conversations, he calls a meeting. But, it is no ordinary meeting. José wants to engineer a breakthrough. His intention is to accelerate implementation.

His first job is to make sure the right people attend. Determining who is indispensable, he chooses a date that works for all. He contacts each stakeholder to let them know their input is critical, asking them to participate. Because he spoke with each of the participants, they trust him.He tells them, “Without you, there can be no meeting. I will reschedule if you can’t make the date.” He gets his point across, conveying how much he values each person and arranging the date for their attendance.

He designs the meeting so participants will connect first with each other and then with the business need that GlobalPractice™ addresses.

“Connect with each other,” means that he wants them to meet and appreciate the unique skills and experience each person brings to the table. Further, he wants them to get to know each other, increasing their mutual trust and rapport. There is something about looking each other in the eye during a one-on-one conversation that makes a difference and builds trust, and José wants that to happen in the room.

“Connect with the business need that GlobalPractice™ addresses,” means that he wants the participants to have all the information they need to clearly understand how the new business processes will generate value. He wants each person to drive the conversation to the level of granularity required to properly educate them on all relevant information.

If they understand the context GlobalPractice™ emerged from and the return it is poised to bring, they will be in the best position to work together, crafting solutions that benefit the enterprise and their work programs. It is critical that their solution address both enterprise success as well as performance on the ground. When both are present, José knows resources will flow both from HQ and from the line manager.

In today’s work world, people are so busy juggling tasks; they rarely understand and use the resources of their colleagues. This is true whether they are across the ocean, or down the hall.

José wants his stakeholders to achieve a new level of collaboration towards the common goal; i.e., realize professional synergies through a concerted effort together.

He has gone a long way to handpick this group. He knows he will have to make their strengths explicit in order to move them collectively into high performance. He wants them to develop a collaborative frame of reference they can take out of the workshop and carry with them as they move out across the organization.

José wants every attendee to do more than develop an appreciation for GlobalPractice™. He wants them to be hungry for it. The good news is that, because José has done his homework, he knows GlobalPractice™ can deliver. It is well thought out and already been successfully tested in real production environments. The hard part, it turns out, is ensuring that people have everything they need to come to this conclusion themselves.

This is not so much about feeding people information as it is about working with them to explore their particular needs in the context of improved performance. José is looking forward to the education he will receive.

José knows the meeting is a success when about two-thirds through, participants take over. The energy in the room escalates. Discussion is intense as it focuses on how to use GlobalPractice™to exceed local quota, improving quality and speed.

Now José, architect of the breakthrough, will follow up with each participant, identifying further logjams in the system, and creating new Connect & Collaborate sessions. He will visit HQ more than once. He will become a regular in his VP’s office, and sometimes a thorn in the side of those protecting a budget cycle. There will be more meetings bringing critical players together to educate, energize, and let them loose on a tough problem. This breakthrough will be important beyond the success of GlobalPractice™. It will benefit future adoptions, too.

José often finds himself exhausted in his pursuits, But, he also frequently has more energy than in the past. After all, he is blazing a new neural pathway in the organization’s brain. He is harnessing the collective intelligence and intentions of people, working the system to accelerate the adoption of new ideas and technologies. He is on a personal quest for excellence in execution.

Real change, dependent on engagement, is not easy to pull off. Every Gantt Chart and Project Timeline describing a major change initiative has a component early on that reads something like, “get buy in” or “engage those responsible,” yet most lack a breakdown of the tasks showing exactly what needs to be done. I lay out these steps below in the Connect & Collaborate Template.

Yet, it is important to recognize that the magic of Connect & Collaborate is not in the technique. Success lies in the heart and soul that is poured into the work. It is this intention that will guide you among the myriad of choices along the path to success, the details of which cannot be charted in advance. You must see your people succeeding, believe in their collective abilities, and know that this work is an opportunity for each individual to achieve their personal best. This is the prerequisite for moving mountains, succeeding against the odds and accomplishing the impossible. This is the prerequisite for astrategic breakthrough.

Connect & Collaborate template

1. Identify the business scope.

Scope is the most demanding, yet the most fundamental requirement for success. Choose a scope that clearly articulates a felt business need in the minds of your most important stakeholders.

2. Maintain a dynamic list of stakeholders.

The ultimate goal is to bring the right people together. This list will evolve. Keep an open mind. Talk to as many stakeholders as is possible.

3. Communicate in advance one-on-one to learn and build trust.

Seek to understand each person’s point of view, especially what makes it unique. Keep notes for use in your synthesis (4f below).

4. Engineer a breakthrough session.

  • a. Identify and invite critical stakeholders.

    Ask, “Who needs to be in the roomfor a genuine breakthrough?” Set the schedule to include them,whatever it takes. Their presence is not optional.

  • b. Lay out the room for maximum interaction.

    Arrange tables in circles; create an informal atmosphere.Make it easy for people to see each other, look into each other’s eyes as they carry out their work together. Create an environment where people get up out of their chairs, stretch or refresh themselves without feeling that they are creating an interruption. This is a roll-up-your-shirtsleeves, get-it-done session.

  • c. Demonstrate multiple points of view.

    Find and tell a story from your industry that shows how more than one perspective was required to solve a problem. I also suggest a 10-minute exercise inwhich each person takes on the role of another in the room, and describes the business need the session is addressing. Debrief as a group.

  • d. Make participants’ expertise explicit.

    Although many people feel as though others know their special talents and relevant background, no one is better prepared to bring these to light than the convener. Introduce each person and highlight the skills and experiences they bring to bear on the work.

  • e. Build rapport through storytelling.

    Storytelling is a critical skill for conveying context, enabling knowledge to be transferred from one application to another. For a detailed set of steps to follow, see my article published in the Spring 2006 Journal for Quality and Participation, The Power of Storytelling to JumpStart Collaboration.

  • f. Share the synthesis of your interviews.

    Create a one- to two-page document that lists who you have interviewed (preferably everyone in attendance), capturing both the themes that emerged across discrete conversations as well as important insights. Hand this out at the beginning of your session and go over it orally. When people see their name in print and hear their views accurately represented, most will instantly be invested in the outcome. The collective needs and views of the group will be expressed through this document, which is always enlightening and useful.

  • g. Address issues that matter most.

    Venture into the deep end, addressing what is critical to success. In your interviews it will become clear where the return on your investment is most dramatic; go for it.

  • h. Clarify through succinct narrative presentations.

    Identify the most important topic(s) for the group to share understanding. Select no more than three. Choose a participant with personal experience tomake a concise overview presentation, nomore than 10 minutes in length. You will get pushback. Remember the value will be in the discussion, not the download. During the presentation encourage participants to ask clarifying questions, but do not allow them to generate tactics or solutions (save that for 4j below).

  • i. Identify and cluster issues as they emerge.

    Capture issues visibly, as on a flipchart. Once presentations are complete, cluster the issues so you get nests of related issues. Each nest represents a scope to address when creating solutions.

  • j. Generate solutions with cross-functional teams.

    Convene small groups made up of people from a variety of functions. Assign each group a nest of issues and ask them to generate solutions.

  • k. Let participants lead.

    When participants take over, it is a good thing. It means they have taken ownership of the process. You should then move into a support role. Your job now is to help them translate their recommendations into the follow-up steps they will carry out.

  • l. Document follow-up activities, accountabilities.

    This is an extremely high-leverage moment: recommendations have been identified and ownership has been transferred to multiple points in the system. Capture it and share the document ASAP, within an hour of the meeting’s close.

5. Support and coordinate follow-up.

Immediately after the session, send everyone a list of participants, a rough draft of what took place and a list of the follow-up activities and accountabilities.


Seth Kahan accelerates strategic change using collaboration and face-to-face engagement. His clients include Shell, World Bank, NASA, Marriott, Project Management Institute, Center for Association Leadership, Peace Corps, and many others.