We recently invited Nishita Dewan, Director at CollaboratEQ to join us for Transitions 2.0.

Hi, everyone. Great to be here. I'm Nishita. I've set up an organisation called collaborate EQ. And today, what I'd like to talk to do is introduce a new concept called the magic of unlikely alliances.

So we'll actually start with an exercise. What I'd like you to do is, picture the handful of people outside of your family that you deeply trust. Close your eyes, if you need to. Take your time. Who are those people that you'd call up when you need advice? Think across your personal and professional circles. Try to come up with about five to six names. Now imagine yourself seated around a dinner table with these people. Let's call them your trusted circle. Who are they? What do they look like? Think about their demographics, age, gender, race and sexual orientation. How do these traits compare with your own? Now think about the types of education they received, the jobs they hold and the neighbourhoods they live in. Again, try and reflect on how these compare with yours.

There's a poll on the right-hand side of the screen. If you feel comfortable, it would be great to hear on a scale of one to five how diverse you feel your own trusted circle is. One being that you feel your trusted circle mirrors in many ways mirrors your own demographics, education, socio-economic status and the few axes that I mentioned in the exercise. And then on the other end of the spectrum, give yourself a five if you feel actually in reflection of your trusted circle, you feel that you have a breadth of diversity across the different axes that I mentioned, which are only some. But if you feel your trusted circle couldn't be any more different to you across those dimensions then rate yourself or five, and anywhere else in between. And I'll come back to the answers to the poll later on in the session.

If you're like many of the people I work with, you've just described an inner circle that mirrors your own identity and privileges. As humans, we like to cluster, birds of a feather flock together. These trusted circles are our safety nets. The people we respect, empathise with and feel most comfortable around.

However, these bubbles that we subconsciously form have ripple effects over time. They restrict our ability to relate to, empathise with and connect with those outside the trusted circle. And collectively they blunt our ability to explore problems from multiple angles if we're all looking at them through a similar lens.

In my work I would say I work at the intersection of the future of work and organisational design, which means I help to reimagine and redesign organisations for the 21st century, bridging the theoretical elements of the future of work, which to be honest, is already here. And the strategic and practical elements of organisational design to help clients and organisations across sectors, embed the shifting landscapes and create proactive strategies to help them react to the shifts in the future of work.

21st-century organisations

In my work, I have four key pillars which are the way I look to problem solve and support clients combined. These four elements I think are critical to designing 21st-century organisations:

  • diversity and inclusion
  • a culture of continuous learning and knowledge sharing
  • effective collaboration
  • building a strong, trusted culture and harnessing the power of trusted networks

The overview effect

So before I tell you a little bit more about how I got here, I wanted to share with you a concept which some of you might be aware of, called the overview effect. So the overview effect occurs when astronauts are actually travelling into space, and they see firsthand in the distance, our Earth from space. You can imagine what this might feel like. Essentially, they experience this sense of reckoning, and a collective sense of euphoria, because they're so overwhelmed by the fragility and the unity of life. The national borders and boundaries that we're accustomed to all disappear. And instead, it creates this lifelong shift in perspective for astronauts.

the overview effect

There's a quote here from Edgar Mitchell, who was the sixth man to walk on the moon. And he says, “we went off as technicians, but came down as humanitarians”. For me, this profound effect and this shift in perspective around what is truly important can happen for each of us at different points in our career. And for me, I just wanted to explain a little bit as to when this overview effect happened for me personally and professionally in my career. And how that shifted my perspective to really allow me to focus on placing collaboration at the heart of my work, to allow organisations to embed collaboration within their organisations and within systems.

My background is actually quite corporate and traditional in terms of strategy. But in 2014, I decided to do an MBA and during that programme, I interned at what I thought at the time was one of the fastest-growing companies to get an insight into what it felt like. I interned at Amazon, and then post MBA at the end of 2014, joined Uber in London. When we were about 20 people in the London office I helped to scale operations across the UK and Nordics until we reached about 200 people. It was a critical period of what we call blitzscaling.

Upon leaving Uber in 2016, I decided that having experienced a whole series of different situations in terms of how the company operates, I realised how the company behaves is as important as what the company does. And with that learning, I realised that it was time for me to leave, and actually try and carve out a career path in alignment with my values. Place and collaboration at the heart of my work.

Over the last five years, I've worked with a series of organisations to really understand what does a trusted organisation look like? How do we create trusted environments? How do we create connected cultures? And how do we collaborate effectively? Even though I was working within these organisations, I realised that there's a clear distinction between collaboration and effective collaboration.

Across the different projects that I've worked on, what I've realised was effective collaboration requires these five key ingredients.

1) Trust

Firstly, trust. How do we build that trust between those involved in the collaboration and the different multiple stakeholders that we're trying to convene around the problem?

2) Respect

Respect. How do we respect people around the table If in some cases, we've never met them before? We've never worked with them before? We might disagree with them, we might have conflicting opinions. How do we build a sense of respect in order to allow us to effectively collaborate?

3) Common objective

Thirdly, a common objective. Whether it's a mission, a common objective, or a problem that we're working towards, that is specific and tangible.

4) Dynamic hierarchies

Fourthly, this concept of dynamic hierarchies. In organisations, as we're all familiar with, hierarchy is omnipresent. What I try and do is ensure hierarchy takes a backseat. And the nature of the problem, the nature of the collaboration, the hierarchy and your role becomes secondary. And actually, potentially another hierarchy potentially around lived experience, surfaces dependent on the type of collaboration.

5) Effective experience convener

And then lastly, the power of having an effective experience convener.

Screenshot 2021 05 05 at 15 52 09

So again, looking at the polls that you have on the right-hand side of the screen, making this distinction in mind, what I'd like you to do is give a score for your organisation in terms of how effective is the degree of collaboration in your organisation. So a one-on-one end of the spectrum would be, for example, we may say that we're collaborative, but in practice, we struggle to get this right. And actually, it doesn't feel integrated into our DNA. And on the right-hand side, you've got five on the other end of the spectrum, which is our collaborations are effective and drive long-term change. And an example of that is we could have embedded cross-functional interdisciplinary practices across our organisation. So have a think and give yourself a score from one to five.

Whilst you do that, I'd like to share a few examples with you. Matthew Syed, in his book, Rebel ideas talks about cognitive diversity, which is the diversity in perspectives, mindsets, how we interpret information and how we think. He describes the example of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a catastrophic failure of the CIA. A result of the collective blindspots of the group. He explained that whilst the CIA only hired the best of the best, as a team they were homogeneous. They lacked the cultural perspective necessary to effectively interpret the messages that Osama Bin Laden was sending out beforehand. The team saw a poor primitive man sitting outside a cave reciting poetry, they did not see a serious threat. They missed the warning signs. It is dangerous to assume that teams are collectively intelligent, just because they are made up of intelligent individuals.

Today, these echo chambers are inflated further as a result of social media leading to further polarisation in society. It's as though we live in these virtual gated communities, which makes it harder for us to see the common threads. And instead, we see differences. This is what really worries me, the echo chambers that confine us as individuals, as organised teams, as organisations, as systems. Our collective blind spots as teams and by the multi-dimensional challenges in our world today, and on the horizon.

Creating an opportunity for parallel learning

You might have heard this Einstein quote, he said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. He was right. I think we need to reimagine how we problem solve. And I'd like to introduce you now to a piece of research that I'm currently working on around unlikely alliances. This is when two or more fields of expertise discover a common thread, creating an opportunity for parallel learning and knowledge sharing.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

Let's start with the first example. Fleur Oakes is one of London's most renowned lacemakers, she has been embroidering since she was a child. In 2015, Fleur met with a vascular surgeon at the Art Workers Guild in London. Through conversation, they identified common ground. Can you guess what an embroider and a vascular surgeon may have in common? Stitching. When they met for the first time, Fleur remembers the surgeon describing how he would stitch an artery during surgery. To his surprise, Fleur perfectly replicated this on his silicon model on her first attempt.

Let's unravel this further. A needle and thread are Fleur’s primary tools to create lace, embroidery and textile art. As a vascular surgeon, sutures are part of the day job. Fleur has been an embroiderer in residence at Imperial University's Vascular Surgery department since 2016, where she observes surgeries, identifies blind spots and suggests improvements.

For example, thread tangling was a common issue that she noticed during surgery. So Fleur designed a thread management course introducing students to ways and techniques to overcome this blind spot using her experience as an embroiderer. Fleur’s complementary expertise helps trainee students improve their manual dexterity and ability to think with their hands.

Here's a second example. An unlikely alliance between a hospital and a Formula One team that’s saving children's lives. In the early 2000s, a couple of doctors from Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Children's Hospital in London were having lunch in their canteen. They were frustrated at the recent research that had been published which revealed a high error rate when transferring critically ill patients from the surgical operating theatre into the intensive care unit. As they were having lunch, they shifted their attention to the TV screen in the corner, which happens to be showing a Formula One race. By pure serendipity, they observed the moment the Formula One team came in for a pitstop and observed the synchronisation and teamwork of the technicians working together and realised that this pitstop is actually analogous to their patient transfer process. Transferring patients from the surgical operating theatre into the intensive care unit.

Soon after the doctors and their team travelled to Ferrari headquarters in Italy to learn more. From this knowledge exchange, the doctors designed a brand new handover protocol with better-coordinated teamwork. The results were a 20% improvement in patient safety, saving children's lives.

So here are two examples of unlikely alliances. Now both of these examples convene around a shared problem. And if we think about the success of these collaborations, it makes me wonder how can we scale these learnings further? Couldn't every hospital around the world that is transferring critically ill patients between the surgical operating theatre and the intensive care unit learn from this example? What about other fields?

The hard truth is that both of these unlikely alliances occurred due to chance. Our world is going through dramatic change. We are becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent, and yet our ability to collaborate is not keeping pace. We no longer have the luxury of time to leave such a collaboration style to chance, we must be proactive.

We've talked about COVID-19 today, and I'll touch upon it again. But if you take COVID-19 as an example, whilst academics and scientists around the world were sharing data in the race for a vaccine. At the political level, it feels like there has been little cooperation across borders, let alone collaboration.

Global challenges cannot be solved by any individual organisation, sector, or country alone. Yet at the same time, they require the entire global community. Imagine if we all decided to step up, take responsibility and change our behaviours. Imagine if we brought together men and women, young and old, artists and scientists, those at the top of the power pyramid with those at the base. Imagine if we valued lived experience alongside land experience. Imagine a future where we convene different voices around common problems to discuss, explore and safely challenge each other.

So how can you help to shape this new future? There is a new frontier of knowledge to be discovered. And it sits at the intersection between disciplines, between sectors and between differences. We need to look beyond our standard approach to problem-solving. This starts by convening a diverse combination of perspectives around the problem so that we deeply understand it before jumping to solutions.

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Uncover the magic of unlikely alliances

So if you want to uncover the magic of unlikely alliances, here are three suggestions. Firstly, diversify your trusted circles. Get to know people who are different to you and extend your peripheral vision. Invite them to challenge your assumptions, show empathy and find the common thread. Could you make space for a new conversation every month? Encourage your friends and children to do the same.

Secondly, explore the parallel learnings. The next time that you're faced with a challenge think about who in another field may have tackled a similar problem and proactively reach out to connect. Listen deeply to connect the dots. Could your organisation benefit from the expertise of another field? On the flip side, there are other great challenges that you can apply your skills towards?

Finally, create the space and conditions for effective collaboration. Collaboration is not easy. Identify the weavers and the boundary spanners, those with experience and relationships across disciplines with a breadth of empathy who can build bridges across the seas of difference.

If we believe in collaboration within our organisations and we believe in the power and the opportunity of diversity as a strength and as an asset, how can we begin to integrate this into our personal lives as well?

When it comes to collaboration, we've learned so much today from the different people and experts on the call and the different kinds of case studies and situations that we've all heard about today; place-based collaboration and people-driven collaboration. But let's try and get our organisations to think a bit deeper about what effective collaboration looks like? What does it involve, and recognising actually, it's not easy.

The five ingredients that I mentioned around effective collaboration; building trust takes time, building respect takes time, especially when you have differences amongst the stakeholders that you're convening between. The art of convening, the role of the convener, there is so much nuance and so many layers that we need to understand.

I encourage you to think a little bit deeper when it comes to methods of collaborating to help make sure that you, your teams and your organisations are trying to collaborate effectively. I'd love to invite you to enter in the chat your sector and discipline and which other sector or discipline that you could form an unlikely alliance with to exchange learnings with. Thanks for your time.

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