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Working the Collaborative Way—and How it Transforms Businesses

It may look like an unassuming booklet—at only 102 pages, it doesn’t seem to carry a lot of heft—but The Collaborative Way, a parable of sorts about a management style developed by consultants Lloyd and Jason Fickett, is actually pretty revolutionary in its simplicity. Revolving around five key tenets—most profoundly, Speaking Straight, Listening Generously, and Being for Each Other—the book is the story of a construction company boss who runs into a former co-worker and learns a better way to navigate and manage his business (while they take two dogs for a walk, no big deal). And then what happens when he institutes the practice.

It’s an approach to collaboration and communication that works outside of the Arizona construction industry, as we’ve been practicing it at goop, too. There are no shortcuts—and it takes dedication and time, but there is no doubt that it’s effective. Below, we asked Lloyd Fickett some questions.

A Q&A with Lloyd Fickett


How did you come up with The Collaborative Way, and what’s the back story to the process?


In 1990 I was working with a company called Rodel who was the world leader in providing the consumables for polishing silicon wafers (computer chips). They were facing the possibility of their market expanding rapidly and having large companies like 3M and Cabot begin to compete against them. If that happened, Rodel knew there was no way they could match the money or PhDs these companies could bring to the market.

Faced with this challenge, the big question became: How can we continue to be the world leaders when this happens? These executives were enlightened enough to realize their best opportunity was to build an extraordinary way of working together. When they asked me for help, I started with a typical consultant approach: training leadership skills, building commitment, and changing behavior. While we were making progress, when I looked honestly at the situation it didn’t appear that we were going to make it to extraordinary.

When I asked myself how we were going to reach “extraordinary,” the solution suddenly hit me. If we called out a small number of practices that would define how we were going to work and relate together, and supported each other in learning to work this way, we could be extraordinary. This set of practices is now what we call The Collaborative Way.

We adopted this approach at Rodel, and it worked. As we had predicted, the market did break wide open and we started doubling in size every 18 months. When the large competitors came into the market they found us so difficult to compete against that they chose to collaborate with us. It turned into an unbelievable success story, and we’ve been bringing this way of working into companies ever since.


Can you quickly outline the five key tenets?


We found there are five key practices that in combination create an extraordinary way of working together. Here’s what they are:

Listening Generously means realizing that the way you listen always has an impact. How you listen impacts what you hear and it also impacts the person who is speaking. It means learning to set aside your personal agendas and judgments, and listening for the value in what the other person is saying. It requires your full attention, authentic curiosity, and a willingness to be influenced.

Speaking Straight is to speak honestly in a way that contributes to the situation. It requires that you speak up in difficult situations when you have something relevant to say, even though it feels risky or uncomfortable. When speaking straight, you take responsibility for the impact of your speaking and know that speaking straight is not license to attack, demean, or abuse someone—to do so does not contribute to the situation.

Being For Each Other starts with the commitment to actively support each other’s success, independent of whether you “like” the person or not. It requires that we see each other as real people, not just a means to an end, and allow ourselves to care for one another. Truly being “for” someone is a very demanding practice. It requires that you address and clean up any issues or misunderstandings that could prevent you from supporting another person. To be for someone is to support that person in realizing his or her greatness.

Honoring Commitments means you only make or accept commitments that you see will actually happen. It means that both the giver and the receiver of the commitment has responsibility for the success of the commitment, and if at any point either the giver or the receiver has doubts that the commitment will be fulfilled, they address it immediately and resolve the concern. It’s important to realize that commitments are a choice. You cannot assign or force someone to make a commitment.

Acknowledgment & Appreciation starts with you actively looking for opportunities to acknowledge and appreciate other people, and to do so in all directions in the organization: up, down, sideways, and across. It requires that you continue to push yourself to give acknowledgments that are specific and meaningful. A part of this practice is also getting good at receiving acknowledgments, and to actually allow yourself to feel the acknowledgment.

We take on these five practices in a context or framework of practice and learning. We are each open to feedback about our progress, and we actively support others in their learning. We’ll never master these practices. The challenge is to recognize when we fall short in our practice so that we can acknowledge it, clean it up, and learn from it. It’s a never ending process.


It’s a system—i.e., it doesn’t really work unless you implement all parts—but what in your mind, is the most important tenet?


I love the question, and yet it’s hard to give one answer. So, I’ll give three. My first answer is that the most important practice is Listening Generously. Until we listen to each other we can’t make progress with any of the other practices. My second answer is Being For Each Other, which is seen by many people as the “heart” of The Collaborative Way. To truly be for each other requires actively engaging in all of the practices. My third answer is that we must have something that we are “up to” together—be it a goal, a mission, a vision, or a purpose. Having something we are “up to” provides a focus for these practices and gives us a reason to take on these practices together.


In your experience, which one requires the most practice? Where do people tend to struggle the most?


While everyone has different skill levels, one area where I see people need a lot of practice is the combination of Speaking Straight and Listening Generously. It’s difficult enough to speak up in challenging and uncomfortable situations, such as speaking up about an issue you have with someone, or speaking up about a perspective that you see as important but will likely be unpopular or rejected. It’s even more challenging to speak up in these situations while also Listening Generously. Too often we get caught up in getting our point across and forget to turn up our listening. This isn’t being collaborative; it’s being “right.”

A common challenge in adopting The Collaborative Way is the failure to recognize that just because you agree with or believe in the practice, it does not mean that you are actually practicing The Collaborative Way. For it to work, you must deliberately practice and you must actively support others in their practice.


What have you observed when companies adopt The Collaborative Way?


Honestly, I’m blown away every time I see a company take on the practice. The amount of excitement, enthusiasm, and spirit that is released within the organization is amazing. The people come alive, they are able to get things done faster, they feel like they can contribute more, and they have much more fun together. People begin to inspire each other. They begin to address and deal with the difficult issues that they have been avoiding or ignoring. The company as a whole becomes far more effective. It’s common to see significant jumps in the metrics by which they measure their success, including productivity, growth, revenue, and employee survey results.


Is there a trickle-down effect to other parts of people’s lives? Do they begin to practice it on their kids and spouses?


Yes, people almost always take these practices into other parts of their lives. We are moved over and over again by the stories people share with us about the positive impact on their families and other relationships, often in life-changing ways. It’s one of the extremely rewarding parts of doing this work.


The sublimation of ego is a big, if unspoken, part of The Collaborative Way—since it only works if it’s a top-down, bottoms-up approach. How do you help executives get comfortable with the fact that assistants might speak straight to them?


Another great question. For most executives it’s that they begin to realize how important speaking up and leading up is to the success of their company and to the success of what they want to accomplish. They begin to realize that they are killing the spirit of the company when they don’t listen and that they will limit their success if they are not open to the contribution of the people around them. It’s not that they necessarily get over the discomfort, it’s that they come to see that what they’re “up to” is more important than letting their discomfort (and egos) get in the way. They begin to recognize their discomfort when it arises, and that becomes a signal that it’s time to get curious and really listen.

For some executives, it’s a natural expression of their commitment to their personal growth and the growth of their teams that helps them be comfortable with their assistants speaking straight. In fact, they often encourage their assistants to do so.


What tends to happen in companies when people refuse to adopt The Collaborative Way? How do you force a way of doing business on a team if they’re resistant?


You can’t force anyone to adopt The Collaborative Way. You can invite people to take on the practice, but ultimately they must choose it for themselves.

We find that once people understand The Collaborative Way there is very little resistance to implementing this way of working together. Sometimes people are skeptical about whether top management will really practice and support this way of working. Other people walk into their first Collaborative Way session with an attitude of “I’m wasting my time,” but they almost always leave with an appreciation for the opportunity.

It’s also true that there are a small number of people who don’t initially want to work this way. Their success has been built off of working in other ways, such as just telling people what to do. It’s interesting that many of these naysayers turn into the biggest champions once they see how this is actually a more effective way of getting things done.

On occasion, people will either leave the organization or be supported in leaving because they recognize that this isn’t the way they want to work and they are not willing to change. Twenty years ago this was more common. Today this is fairly rare.


Any tips for putting it all into practice? Do you suggest people practice one tenet at a time, or leave reminders on sticky notes around the office?

All of the practices are interrelated and support each other, so we always start by introducing The Collaborative Way as a whole. Once we have established a basic understanding, or at least enough of it that people can begin practicing, then it can be useful to put special focus on one practice at a time.

We always suggest that people create a system to keep the practice in their awareness. Sticky notes or to-do reminders can be helpful. It’s also useful to set up coaching relationships between people in the company to support each other’s practice and help navigate challenges.

Many companies start their meetings with public acknowledgments or provide opportunities to share stories of their practice where they had great success or where they fell short and what they learned. All of these are useful ways to help reinforce The Collaborative Way.


And one more question that we selfishly want to understand: How do you interview for The Collaborative Way? Are there questions that you can ask that assess whether someone would be a good culture fit based on those principles?


Here are two suggestions to support your interview process:

First, pay attention to how the person you are interviewing naturally relates. Do they already express the practices on some level? For example, when they listen to you, do you feel heard? Do they seem to Speak Straight or do they seem to beat around the bush?

Second, ask questions that bring forward how they tend to work and relate with others. Here are some examples:

  • Tell me about a situation where you had a significant difficulty or misunderstanding with someone you worked with. How did you address and resolve that difficulty or misunderstanding? (Note: if they say they’ve never had difficulty or a misunderstanding, that would be a red flag for us.)

  • Tell me about a time when you supported a fellow employee to succeed in an area where they were having difficulty.

  • Give me an example of when someone provided you with support or coaching that played a key role in your success.

  • Tell me about a time when you spoke up in a challenging or uncomfortable situation.

As your interview candidate shares their examples, notice if the tendency is towards addressing issues or avoiding them. Do they take responsibility for the situation, or do they seem to explain it away or blame others for what is going on?

Asking these questions can give you a feeling for someone’s natural level of openness, awareness, and honesty. It can give you a sense of whether they are interested in their own growth, and whether or not you would want to invest in supporting their development.

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