We Are Better Together

I just found out that this blog post has featured in the Employee Engagement Network’s first annual award series. What a lovely surprise to end the year on – I appreciate the recognition.

EEN 2013 Winner

Today’s post is a summary and a few notes and slides relating to my latest talk on collaboration and creativity, delivered at Learning Live 2013. If after reading this, you would like me to talk with your people about exploring how to use vulnerability and connections to drive innovation and collaboration, please get in touch. Or if you prefer, we can help you workshop some of these ideas with you and your team. I hope you find some value in these notes.


Several months ago I submitted a proposal to speak at Learning Live 2013. The proposal was accepted and so it came to pass that yesterday, I boarded a train to London to deliver my session, titled ‘Increasing Learning Effectiveness Through Togetherness’. I didn’t notice, but I’m sure my train must have passed through Damascus en route to London as it dawned on me part way through the journey, that I had proposed what might very possibly be the lamest title for a talk, ever. I arrived in London having decided on ‘We Are Better Together’ as a more suitable title, and continued to my destination. This en route adaption gave me a chance to open the talk with a little self deprecating humour and a nod to the power of simplicity and adaptability.


When I am given the chance to speak in public, I choose to take a few risks. My experience shows me that whilst it may feel tempting to try and deliver a safe, middle of the road talk, this approach rarely serves anyone well. Part of what you can do to help make your work better is to be adaptive and be willing to experiment, try new things out. If I am to encourage this effectively, I believe I first have to demonstrate this, and be accepting of the potential for failure. I am not saying I believe this approach is right for you, this is not a ‘how to’, or ‘you should do’ point – I just think it helps for you to know where I’m coming from.

And Not Or

We established that things are not right or wrong, good or bad, happy or sad (and we resisted the temptation to burst into song), but rather that they are right and wrong, and good and bad. Mixed feelings, and our ability to deal with them is a vital part of change. As Heather Bussing writes:

We have mixed feelings about most things, most of the time. Our culture and our brains like to label everything as either good or bad, black or white. But when we do that, we leave out all the other colors, feelings, and possibilities for insight. Things are not inherently good or bad. They just are. The way we view things is entirely dependent on whether what is happening is what we want. But when we can put that down, there’s a chance to see more clearly. Then whole new options begin to open up.

Future World of Work

We talked briefly about the importance of the things that give us meaning. Things like connections, collaboration and conversation. As we began to dive into what may lie ahead, I had a confession to make. I am not a fortune teller, and my ability to see into the future is as sketchy as anyone else’s, but we pressed on and developed a general consensus that work demands are likely to become more complicated, they will likely continue to demand more with less, and demand things quicker. With this in mind, we gently reinforced the vital importance of connections and relationships as keys to cocreating and doing meaningful work. We also acknowledged the findings of the Learning & Performance Institute’s own research which shows that people in L&D currently don’t rate themselves highly when it comes to collaboration, at least when compared to more traditional methods of learning, e.g. presentations and classroom delivery.

Steal With Pride

I think it helps to foster collaboration once we are clear that ideas aren’t original, but that they are a mash up, of feelings, experiences and more. I used one of my paintings, Dining Alone, as an example. I think that it’s vitally important to acknowledge the contributions of others in our work, if we want to encourage collaboration and creativity.

Dining Alone


I Am Not An Artist

When I ask people, can you draw/sketch/paint/take a photo/write narrative/poetry etc etc – the response is nearly always, ‘No. I am not an artist.’ Yesterday I asked the audience, who here is an artist. In a full room of maybe 60 or 70 people, one person raised his hand. I applauded his courage and ventured to suggest that anyone and everyone in the field of learning and development, is an artist. A possible reason for this reluctance can be found in Dr Brene Brown’s research on vulnerability. 85% of the 13,000 people interviewed for this research ‘can recall a time in school that was so shaming it forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners. 50% of those recollections related to art and creativity.’ As people absorbed this, what followed was one of the most powerful silences I’ve been privileged to take part in for a long, long time. We are all artists – never be ashamed to admit it.

We also looked at research into divergent thinking drawn from Breakpoint and Beyond, which shows how our ability to think divergently, i.e. to come up with multiple solutions to a problem or opportunity, rapidly diminishes as we move through the education system and the world of work. You can see the numbers in the slides at the foot of this blog post, and suffice to say, more stirring, powerful silence followed as the steep decline became evident.

Collaborative Practice

Faced with these challenges, what can L&D people do differently to encourage collaboration? I talked about a project we had previously worked on (whilst keeping the client completely anonymous so I could speak openly), one where the client company desired to foster a more networked, collaborative environment among its people and customers. The requirement was to enable this using a mix of social technology and developing collaborative behaviours.

At first we were encouraged to develop something quite directive, and instead we proposed and agreed a much more cocreative approach. This involved using games to help with networking and basic knowledge sharing and awareness raising. We then moved into a series of small group conversations about why collaboration was important, and how to make it happen. At every stage, we used the shared knowledge in the room to build and develop ideas, only filling in gaps when we had to. The result was a wealth of cocreated ideas and opportunities to explore, and problems and barriers to solve and overcome.

We chose to present our findings in a fairly raw state, and we suggested that the client company should continue to engage with all the willing participants we had met, and encourage them to distil their findings into an agreed, sequenced and prioritised plan. We suggested this approach primarily because we felt that people in the business, not us independent consultants, were best placed to identify what success looks like and how to achieve it. We think it’s critical that our clients work with us because they want to, not because they feel they have to. Creating a dependency culture is not what we are about.

So everything worked out fine then? Well….not exactly, no. From my experience, there is limited learning to be had when someone tries to position a ‘case study’ as a runaway success. Here are a few stumbling blocks for you to consider based on our experiences. These are not points of blame, they are simply points of learning in order to help inform future decision making.

  • Gain some solid commitment to follow through on the idea generation phase, and then get out of the way. Give people space and time to proceed until apprehended.
  • Ensure your plans aren’t duplicating effort. We discovered some related work going on only after we’d started to engage with people. This caused some confusion.
  • Initiative-itus. Regardless of any duplication, is there the capacity to take this work on? Think really carefully about this otherwise you risk blowing a lot of goodwill and excitement generated in early stages.
  • Communicate continuously. Push it and pull it, check in on people, and don’t check up on them.
  • Be comfortable with mistakes. The wealth of opportunities identified should lend itself to experimentation and adaptation. Look for the next small thing and pilot stuff as a way of mitigating concern and risk.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate. When one of the seeds you have sown bursts forth – make sure and thank everyone for their contribution in helping the idea come to life.

This project was great fun. We got some super feedback along the way, and some less good stuff too, and there’s real evidence of collaborative work being done that relates directly back to the original gathering of opportunities and ideas. And of course, what we’re sharing here, these are not the answers to your problems, but they may help as you consider how to flex your collaborative muscles.


I referenced the Buy Share Read Repeat experiment, and the importance of reading in general to improve collaboration. In my slides you can see the reading I undertook to prepare for this talk.

Without People You’re Nothing

I couldn’t resist closing on this wonderful quote from the late, great Joe Strummer.


I was blown away by the reaction to this session. I gave it everything I had, and people responded wonderfully. I was so exhausted I had to go and sleep for a short while to recover, and people were kind enough to give me the most wonderful motivating feedback, long into the night. I’m truly grateful for that, and of course that is part of what collaboration is all about. Feedback and shared experiences.


Here are the slides from my talk

Here is the Storify of the live tweets that went on during and after the session.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

3 thoughts on “We Are Better Together”

  1. Doug:
    One of your finest blog posts, thanks for the detail, the ideas, the vulnerability, and using my 3 word theme: the sparks, the growth, and the writing. I put this into the EENetwork Facebook feed and I will feature it later in the month.

  2. Greetings Friend!

    Been a wee bit out of touch, but not far enough away to miss this! Congrats on the nod from David-could have gone to none finer! Stay Picking, Stay Grinning, Stay Engaged!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: