Workplace Collaboration: Jumping together into skillful disruption

Let’s try something

wrist lockImagine you’re in a leadership development workshop with a group of people you like to learn with. Imagine I ask you all to stand up, pair off, and face the person you’re with.

Imagine I’m demonstrating this from the front of the room:

  • Stand facing each other, and clasp each others’ arms using a wrist lock – the kind your dad used to use when he swung you around, carnival ride style. The kind you’d use if you were starring in a movie and trying to keep someone you loved from falling off the bridge into the river. Got it?
  • Plant your feet, firmly.
  • Now, your job – over the next 30 seconds – is to get your partner to lift one of their feet off the ground as many times as possible. Arms stay locked, and you can use any means that doesn’t send them to the hospital. (And do be warned I only have a modest liability insurance policy for workshop participants.)
  • Get your partner to lift a foot off the ground as many times as you can. GO.

Really feel yourself there. What would you do? How might they respond? As the clock ticks toward 30 seconds, what else might you try?

OK, time’s up. Take an educated but hypothetical guess: With whatever approach you used, what was your “score”? How many times could you have gotten your partner to lift a foot off the ground?

wrestlingWhat if I told you that in typical groups, most people call out something in the range of 4-7. Over a 30-second period, people have been wrestling, pulling, and aarghing to get their partner off balance that many times in 30 seconds.

Then, from over in a corner somewhere, a pair calls out, “44!”


If you’ve not done this before, that’s what you might be thinking. Or you might get where this is going. In an instant, the first group – the vast majority –  sees this as a competitive exercise where they are pitched against each other. They focus on what they see as their job: to unseat (or unfoot) the person they view as their opponent. They try to pull the other person off balance with a combination of working against each other, wrestling and wrangling and surprise-attacking. (And, to be fair, I’ve included a few cues that might trip their mental breakers to think that way: the wrist locks, the foot-planting…)

couple jumpingBut the pair in the corner – by far the minority here in North America – think about this differently. They strike a quick agreement: “Let’s both just jump up and down for 30 seconds!” They not only get a bit of cardio, but much higher performance toward the desired result of getting your partner to lift a foot off the ground as many times as possible.

Not what, but how

This isn’t meant to be an object lesson in collaboration versus competition (although that’s certainly worth a blog post). What I want to highlight here is the power of how we think about things. The big lever in this quick experience is not what strategies you use, but how you think about the quest itself – which, in turn, drives the strategies you use.

“Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use.”- Albert Einstein, The World As I See It, 1949

chessHow we think about something

drives what we see about it

drives what we do

drives the results we get.

Because I’m the kind of learning geek who stays up late at night thinking about better ways to develop leaders (really good company at a dinner party, let me tell you), here are a few of the things I’m thinking about:

  • Steven Johnson, in his super terrific book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, points out that the biggest obstacle to seeing new things is what we’ve seen in the past. (Seriously, brain scientists can see this in your neural pathways when you’re problelm-solving.) To see new things, you have to consciously disrupt what you already know. Rigorously challenging assumptions, going outside what you know by exposing yourself to new stimulus, or embracing a constraint – like noticing your impulse, and doing the opposite, or asking, “How would Donald Trump do this? Nelson Mandela? A jazz musician? A 3-year-old?” – are all ways to do this. (For more, read Johnson’s book, or Jim Adams’ Conceptual Blockbusting. And fasten your seatbelt.)
  • SO: How can we skillfully disrupt how we’re thinking about the challenges we face? Our leadership roles?
  • Suzanne Cook-Greuter, an expert in adult development, talks compellingly about two types of development: horizontal, and vertical. This has gigantic implications for growing leadership. By horizontal development, Cook-Greuter means gaining new skills, knowledge and tools that broaden your repertoire and effectiveness given the way you see the world, your strategic challenges, your team and how you need to show up right now. (Back to the foot-lifting game, this could look like getting really good at pushing and pulling – taking your score from a 4, to a 9 or 10.) In contrast, vertical development is evolving how you think about the world, your challenges, and your role in them. (Thinking differently about the game itself, so you can see new possibilities for action – and emerge with a 44+.) In this way of thinking, horizontal development – what most leadership development programs focus on – can only take you so far. Cook-Greuter wisely maintains that ideal leadership development includes both horizontal and vertical development. What if when we struggle to grow new skills around difficult conversations, strategic thinking, leading teams, leading change, we’re struggling because our approach is horizontal – new skills, tools, etc., that help us do what we’re already doing, better – when it really needs to be vertical? (Check out Cook-Greuter’s resources page for more info.)
  • SO: What could it look like to intentionally disrupt not what we’re doing about what we’re facing today, but how we’re thinking about it?

How we think drives the results we get

Right now, I’m thinking about the challenges I’m tackling in the day in front of me. What assumptions am I making about the challenges I’m facing? About my role engaging others? About how I need to show up?

How might I disrupt those?

That’ll keep me busy for a while.

Image courtesy krmall on Flickr , princetonwrestling.teamsitesnow.comJakob HelbigKeystone-France on Hulton Archive.