Culture: Interview of Larry Forster – Accelerating Strategic Change Through Collaboration

SETH KAHAN: When did you first become interested in using collaboration as a way to create greater alignment among the people involved in your work?

LARRY FORSTER: It was late 2005. I learned there was a perception of misalignment between some of the people in my group and some of our partners in other parts of the organization. My role is a bridging role and therefore, as soon as I heard there was even a slight sense of misalignment, I knew this was something that I owned.

SK: How did you handle it?

LF: First, I identified our stakeholders. Then, I made it a point to go and talk to these people. I knew I needed to hear from them. I wanted to do a workshop to bring about greater alignment, so I wanted to hear what they thought before I got too far down the road. I knew the insights I gleaned from talking to them would help me design the workshop. I also wanted to be sure that I included everyone who needed to be involved to get the best result.

About a month before the workshop, I had a conversation with my boss and my VP. I told them what I had learned from my conversations. I remember asking, “Do we need to have a workshop? Can we just do this by email?” My VP said, “We need to get everyone together. It’s a good idea to get everyone together and hear all these views in the same room. We’ll have time for discussion so any areas of concern can be aired and cleared with everyone present.”

We had two workshops. I arranged for the VP from the other group to keynote the first meeting and my VP attended. For the second workshop, both VPs decided to attend the entire session. They came and did more than work the crowd. They worked together.

They created a mechanism for people to approach them, without any negative repercussions, following an organizational decision. In effect, they removed a communication barrier making it possible for any relevant stakeholder to raise important issues.

SK: Do you think this one set of workshops was all you needed, or do you think that collaboration is something you are going to use again?

LF: When we are talking about alignment between work groups, we are talking about issues that impact safety and our organization’s value generation – our two most important issues. Therefore, we need to develop the competency for collaboration. This is not a one-off thing; this is part of effective work on an ongoing basis. This is something we need to do well.

I’d like my group to be a center of excellence for collaboration, helping others to do it well, too.

SK: What is it that you want from being good at collaboration?

LF: We have some real shining examples of collaboration in some of our fields. They are doing things right. The right people are coordinating their efforts. They are distributing their work appropriately. People understand how to carry out cross-support at the same time that they take accountability for doing their work well. Things are coming out very good in these cases and we are seeing some real gems emerge as all of these various activities create synergies with each other. I want my work to go this way, too. This isn’t going to happen unless we get real collaboration going between the various workgroups. And we’re not going to have the right level of collaboration unless we get people together face-to-face.

SK: Tell me more about why collaboration needs to be something you do well.

LF: Because of the complexity of our work, the different roles and functions involved, and the dynamic nature of the circumstances we operate within, we have to make collaboration a competence. We can’t rely solely on planning and project management. There is too much movement in the system, too many changing variables that have to be constantly taken into consideration in order to do the right thing. This is why we need to get really good at collaboration. We need to be able to come together, getting the right people all in the same room at the drop of a hat if the situation requires it. This needs to become a skill that we can rely on.

SK: Why is collaboration so effective at improving performance and alignment among work groups?

LF: People take ownership when they collaborate. They are invested in the solutions they generate; they identify with them. There is this great story I read in which there was an innovative office design that worked really well for a particular work group. So the company attempted to clone it, forcing other work units to use the same office design right down to the fabrics on the furniture. That was a mistake. It wasn’t the office design that had made success happen. It was the ownership of the people who put it together. When the same design was foisted upon others, it failed miserably. Ownershipmakes and breaks success.

When we get this right in my group, I call it working technology adoption from the inside out. To do this we need detailed technical conversations that focus on peoples’ needs at the appropriate level of detail to get to the important issues. Our partners and our people need to work together to identify the risks and opportunities. These need to be laid out so clearly they are palpable. I mean everyone in the room needs to know that what is being discussed is real. This is what I mean when I say, adoption starts on the inside.

Once this happens, we have the foundation for appropriate implementation. The execution that follows will be carried out the right way. This is because it is based on this kind of high-quality technical exchange. The discussion must happen face-to-face. People have to be able to literally look each other in the eye and ask, “What do you believe here?” When people start sharing what they really believe, there is a deeper level of commitment and honesty that creates a strong foundation for the right action and behavior to emerge.

SK: What do you mean by “the right action and behavior?”

LF: This kind of face-to-face interaction creates trust, understanding, and a willingness to support each other. There is an exchange of information beyond what is required by compliance. People shift into a level of accountability where they have each other’s backs. Once a baseline of telling each other the whole truth has been established, there is an increased depth in the quality of our interaction and the knowledge shared. People will say things that may be difficult to give voice to, but that’s okay if it’s the truth. There is a greater level of granularity and that makes for a very strong foundation and real alignment in the ways we carry out our work. That’s what it is all about.

When people are working this close together, the high quality of information sharing is amplified and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. What I am interested in is getting at the level of interaction that drives the right behavior. This is not about checking a box. This is about doing whatever it takes to do the right thing.

SK: What’s your role in making this quality of interaction take place?

LF: My role is to invest in what gets people engaged and participating. I want people to care. I want them to feel they are a part of something important. To do this they need to have the opportunity to seek and obtain the information that will enable them to contribute responsibly. They need to be well educated. They need the chance to talk to the right people who can answer their most important questions. When this happens they can drive the conversation to the level of granularity they require to really understand what is going on. Then they are in a position to contribute effectively, and join in the work giving their personal best. All of this stuff sits underneath and results in behavior change I am talking about. My job is to do what it takes to ensure this happens.

It can be as simple as listening effectively to someone tell their story. Or, it can be making sure the right people are brought together face-to-face, that we have done a good job of finding the key stakeholders. My job is to do whatever it takes so that the right people are having the right conversations.


Larry Forster is a Staff Engineer with Shell Exploration and Production Co., and works in Technology Planning and Implementation in New Orleans. Involved with technology throughout his 20+ year career with Shell, Larry is a pioneer in the use of story and collaboration, and is mentioned in the just-published Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results, edited by Lori Silverman, Jossey-Bass, 2006.

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. More information can be found on his website, www.SethKahan.com. This and his other publications are publicly available for download.