Alison Coward - Workshop Culture

Alison Coward - Workshop Culture

This episode’s guest is Alison Coward, a strategist, workshop facilitator, coach, and an author with 20 years’ experience in leading creative teams. Alison speaks about her professional journey, her perspective on collaboration in the creative industries, and the importance of workshops in a business environment. We discuss her book, “Workshop Culture: A Guide to Building Teams that Thrive”, and the five pillar system it presents - alignment, cohesion, communication, design, and change.


Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.

[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: Hi, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organizational transformation and onto changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Pula. I’m a design leadership coach, service design and innovation consultant, educator and writer.

My guest today is Alison Coward, a strategist, workshop facilitator, coach, trainer, keynote speaker, and author with 20 years experience in leading and facilitating creative teams. She is sought after by top tier clients such as Google, Euronext, Barclaycard, The Wellcome Trust and Channel 4.

I first came across Alison several years ago through her book, A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops, published by Five Simple Steps. And she just recently published her new book, Workshop Culture, A Guide to Building Teams That Thrive, which we’re going to talk about today, amongst other things. Alison, welcome to Power of Ten.

[00:01:00] Alison Coward: Thank you for having me.

[00:01:02] Andy Polaine: So you’ve got one of those comma separated careers like I have with lots of different things. Tell us a little bit about your journey from Where you’ve been to where you are now.

Oh gosh that question is like, where do I start? So I think I’ll probably start from just before I set up Bracket.

And before I set up Bracket, I was… Working in, it was a sector that was kind of in the UK, we had all this funding that was poured into developing the creative industries. And I worked for organizations that provided support to creative businesses self employed creative freelancers. I was really passionate about how to help their businesses flourish.

Worked for a few organizations you know, publicly funded organizations. And then I started working at the enterprise center at the university for the university for the arts London. Just before I joined the university of the arts London working there, I’m actually does an MA in enterprise and management for the creative arts.

That was really because I was, you know, so passionate about supporting creative businesses. I wanted to really have some theory behind the support that they needed and how organizations like the ones that I worked for could provide effective mechanisms to really help their businesses to grow. During my MA, I came, sounds funny to say that I stumbled across the concept of collaboration.

Well, not the concept of collaboration, but all of the, the content, the research that I was reading. and pointed to collaboration as such a key aspect of the creative industries in businesses growing and developing. And this whole idea of networks. And so my whole MA was really exploring what does it look like to provide some kind of platform that brings creative practitioners together, not just to network, but to actively work on projects together.

And, you know, produce stuff together. So these kind of freelancers that often create their own work independently, what would it be like to bring them together into teams? And that was actually the first iteration of Bracket bringing independent freelancers together into projects. And as part of that, because I was kind of like the producer type, I took the producer type role when I brought freelancers together I wasn’t a content creator.

I was the person that facilitated those teams. I kind of saw my role as the, The person that would, first of all, make sure that the team was set up in a way that brought the most diverse skills together that was needed for that project, but then also created the environment for those individuals that have never met before to collaborate effectively.

To kick off the project and throughout a project. And that’s kind of when I stumbled across the idea of facilitation.

So, you know, in the creative arts, which is the kind of milieu, I guess, what were these freelancers in that sort of realm for starters? I guess I’m making assumptions based on the MA you did, but were they in the creative arts or was it in kind of other areas?

[00:04:01] Alison Coward: It was varied actually. So I worked for an organization that supported we called them designer makers at the time. So these were like furniture designers and home furnishing designers you know, the types of designers that you might see at the Milan furniture fair, that kind of thing. And then when I started working at the university of the arts, that was really varied because it was really all of the disciplines that were.

I’ve studied at the university of the arts, which ranged from kind of ceramics and jewelry all the way through to fine art, photography, film, media and the creative industries have got a really high proportion of individuals that are self employed. So the center that I worked for was all around helping students and graduates develop the skills that they needed to set up as freelancers.

[00:04:46] Andy Polaine: And the reason why I was asking was where I was going with that question originally is I studied film and video and photography and this new thing, digital thing back in the early 90s. And the filmmaking thing was actually what I wanted to be. It was a thing that’s really stuck with me as a as a model for collaboration and multidisciplinary collaboration.

So I guess when I think of the performing arts in particular, you know, whether that’s film, TV, theater, music, you know, there is kind of collaboration baked in. And I’m interested to know whether that was, you know, new to you or new to them, or whether actually when, when you kind of were taking this facilitator role, you know, this is a role that hadn’t been there before for these people.

[00:05:25] Alison Coward: Yeah interesting. I guess it was in a sense new to me. because it felt like I kind of discovered how important it was when I was doing my MA and reading all of these books by Charles Ledbetter and Daniel Pink and Theresa Marbillet, all looking at this or the, the, the field of creativity and how kind of networks and collaboration were really key to that.

John Hawkins, those kinds of things will come back to me now. And the, the, the, the project teams that I set up, they were, I mean, we didn’t really do anything within the performing arts. It was more kind of marketing that project. So I was bringing together, say an animator together with a graphic designer, together with a copywriter who would their roles.

You know, the way that they ran their businesses was to either create their own content and sell it, or they would work as freelancers. So this whole idea of kind of coming together into a team from scratch wasn’t something that they would do. They might do that when working with an agency, but not sort of independent of an agency in a sense.

It was almost like these mini kind of enterprises, temporary enterprises.

[00:06:37] Andy Polaine: I mean, that’s the model from film that I really liked too, which is this idea. I’ve just been watching. And so vicariously living out my unlived life and career, there’s a series on Disney plus about industrial light and magic, you know, the people who do the visual effects, they were put together for Star Wars, and then, you know, gradually increase their work, but there was, there’s always been this model in, in film and I think TV production as well, where there’s like a core production.

Company that might have a skeleton crew of a small amount of people and then it, it balloons and often there’s an actual, you know, legally, there’s a different company set up for that particular film and, you know, that’s how the kind of payroll is managed. But all those people come together and then, you know, it morphs depending on what stage of production it’s at.

And then it kind of, you know, dissipates again, and then they all come together again, sometimes a different constellation each time. And I’ve really liked that as a, as a model. Definitely. And I’m wondering, I’m jumping ahead actually, but I’m wondering about, you know, one of the things that’s quite nice about that is this idea of.

There’s a kind of, A, there’s very clear discipline, more or less, discipline boundaries. And when you just talked about, you know, an animator and an illustrator and things like that. But also there’s a very clear kind of production structure and an approach. But also it’s kind of time boxed, right? And Yeah.

Yeah. Your book is kind of more about an ongoing thing and culture and I’m wondering if you think you see there’s some advantages to this idea of like we’re going to be working intensively together for could be as little as a few weeks could be several months but then that’s kind of over and the idea of kind of reconstellation is a good thing or whether you feel like you know but teams and creating a culture that’s ongoing for say many years is really the thing to strive for or if I’m sort of making a straw man there.

[00:08:24] Alison Coward: I think it’s, it’s, it’s both. Firstly, I want to say that the model that you refer to in the film sector, it’s actually, it’s called the Hollywood model. And it was kind of something that was. you know, when I was doing my MA, it was spoken about quite a lot. I think it was Charles Handy that spoke about this kind of hub and spoke model that you mentioned.

So there was this kind of conversation around how can the Hollywood model be used in other sectors? So I think that’s probably one of the things that largely inspired me in terms of the temporary. Collaborative team as opposed to the ongoing team that needs to develop their culture. It’s really interesting because when I had set up this agency and I was doing, you know, I was, I took on the role of facilitator without realizing really that’s what I was doing.

It was actually companies that came to me after observing what I was doing in the room with this temporary team of freelancers and saying, what you’re doing there. We could do with that in our team. So I didn’t actually know that the tools and the techniques that I was using with these temporary teams would actually be of use to organizations.

And I kind of made that transition. Actually I saw that there was an opportunity there and it has been really organic because I had to say at the start, though, I didn’t know that this was something that organizations needed or wanted. And all of the facilitation that I was doing for these temporary teams was in light of a.

A team that would somehow at some point disband. And so it has been a very different journey because when you go into an organization, there’s the history of teams. There’s the system that the team exists within, in the organization. There’s a lot more to do with, you know, personality caches and emotions that come up.

doesn’t really come up in a temporary team because the freelancers are kind of in, they want to get the job done, they want to do it well because it’s important for their portfolio. So they often don’t really kind of, you know, there’s very little, I guess, politics drama that might exist in those temporary teams.

And so my journey really as a facilitator I’ve been learning all of that and understanding, you know, the differences and nuances that apply and exist when looking at team culture.

[00:10:40] Andy Polaine: So your first book was sort of very practical, you know, this is how you do workshops or effective workshops. And this book is, Workshop Culture is, I guess, is that transition you just described.

Why did you write it and, and what’s the kind of fundamental thesis would you say of, of it?

[00:10:56] Alison Coward: Yeah, so the fundamental thesis, I’ll start with that. The fundamental thesis is that what happens in workshops, in really well facilitated workshops, collaboration, creativity, a team that’s engaged, great conversations you know, great ideas.

It’s great. And we want that in workshops, and it’s also what we need in our organizations on an ongoing basis, so we shouldn’t leave that magic to a time box event, which is a workshop. There is value in having time box events to focus. And we don’t want to, the minute that that time box event finishes, we don’t just want to go back to how things were before, because those are the things that we want in our everyday culture.

Through my experience of running workshops, I started, you know, from the very original iteration of Bracket, which was this virtual agency, if you like. transitioning into what I call workshop facilitation for teams. And it wasn’t, you know, the workshop facilitation that I did wasn’t necessarily team culture focused.

It was any time a team needed to get together and needed a facilitator to help manage that discussion, whether it was developing their plan for the year or generating ideas around a new. Product and that they wanted to deliver, or it could have been aspects of working together. I would go in and deliver these one off sessions.

And I had some opportunities to work with clients at this time over a period of time. And I started to see the impacts that running a range of workshops had not only on how the participants, the people in the company turned up to each individual workshops, but what was happening in between those workshops.

And I kind of thought to myself, there’s something more here than just running a great facilitated workshop. There’s something else to this, and that’s where I really started to do a deep dive into this idea of what, what I call, what I coined workshop culture, which is the impact that workshops can have on a team, how a team works together overall.

[00:13:02] Andy Polaine: So this is the kind of repeated nature of it is where you saw the, the difference. I mean, there’s a little bit of kind of both, I guess, there was also, you know, what if we could do this all the time seems to be kind of part of the thinking behind it.

[00:13:13] Alison Coward: Yes and no. So the yes is yes, we should be bringing more principles of workshops into our everyday.

So, you know, a big part of the book I talk about is the fact that meetings are broken and we could fix elements of meetings if we take inspiration from workshops and use some of that. the techniques and the tools that facilitators use to make meetings more effective. At the same time we know as facilitators That actually running workshops and participating in workshops can be quite exhausting.

We can’t work like that all the time. So then how can we take some of the principles of workshops without the need to almost like a continuous workshop, I guess. you know, we do need downtime. We do need time on our own, but how can we take principles of it? And you know, it might be how we set up, how we work asynchronously, but what is it that facilitators doing workshops to support communication that we could take and learn from when we’re working apart to make sure that we’re all aligned and in the same page.

But what can we take from workshops? to influence the one to one conversations that we have? What can we take from workshops in designing an overall process for a team throughout a project? You know, a workshop is designed and we look at the, you know, the dynamics that might Be it play, we look at the outcomes that we want to get from the workshop and we design, you know, we design a process.

Facilitators are process designers, essentially, aren’t they? And so what if we took a step back and said, okay, the process that we’re designing is this three month project and where are the times when we come together, when are the times we need to be a part? What are the tools that we need to support communication throughout?

[00:15:04] Andy Polaine: Yeah, there’s an intentionality to that, right? I guess there is, I think what you’re saying around, you know, I like you’ve had that experience with a facilitated workshop and it was all this amazing and then you know let’s go back to our boring jobs and the way we do this and it’s all kind of rubbish and and you know we know yeah well it was all in workshops get a bad name I think because that was all kind of lots of hot air and sticky notes and and now we but we have to kind of go back to the reality of the fact that you know everyone.

is fighting over stuff and we have to use these crappy tools and all the rest of it. So there’s an intentionality to the, the way we work and the way we have conversations with each other and where and when we have those that I think you automatically do if you’re going to do a workshop well. You, you automatically go through, you know, what’s the intent of this, what’s the outcomes we’re after, are there any outputs that we’re after, you know, what’s the cadence of it you know, is this, what are the kind of divergent, convergent so flows of those things.

All of those things we kind of think about in a workshop and then sort of go on autopilot when it comes back to daily work and, well, let’s have a meeting or we, let’s have a recurrent. My most hated thing are recurring meetings, actually. You know we’ve got a senior leadership, you know, meeting every Monday or whatever.

And and it’s just kind of really easy to partner that stuff.

[00:16:18] Alison Coward: Yeah. So what you described is a hundred percent it, you know, the intentionality of it. And there’s also something in terms of how the people Including the leader, the leader and the team show up and interact with each other and what are the qualities of a facilitator, you know, off the top of my head, a facilitator is curious, they ask questions and they’re good at synthesis, say, you know, generate ideas before, you know, facilitate the process of generating ideas before finalizing a solution.

And. You know, turning up as a, as a team member with that mindset and that attitude also has an impact on the way. So there is the design of the process, but there’s also the kind of mindset and the behaviors that you would try to, you know, you, you display in a workshop, both as a facilitator and a participant that would make for an ideal collaborative.

Working environment for a team on an ongoing basis.

Yeah, it’s interesting, you know, that, well, that intentionality also is about purpose, right? We know why we’re here as opposed to that recurring meeting where no one really knows why they’re there. And you talk about purpose quite a lot at the beginning of the book.

Can you tell us, you know, everyone might think, well, of course, purpose matters. Andy, why are you even asking the question, but tell us why it matters. So

in the book, I share a five pillar framework that we use in my company bracket for, for high performing teams. And the first pillar is alignment.

And I mean, I’ve been influenced by a lot of great thinkers in developing that framework. And one of them that comes to mind is, is Daniel Pink and his, the model that he presents in Drive, Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. And for me having a clear purpose as a team you know, it’s about alignment. It’s about making sure that everyone’s clear.

We’re all pointing in the same direction. But it’s also about having, I guess, a purpose at a micro level when you hit roadblocks and barriers and conflict. At the micro level, you know, we’ve all been engaged in conflict and, you know, difficult conversations and arguments with our team members, relatives, friends, and having a clear purpose enables you sometimes to kind of step out of that.

Take a bit more of an objective view at the micro level. It can seem quite painful and it can seem like this is a really big issue. When you’re in some kind of, you know, you’re locking horns with somebody, but if you’re both clear on what it is that you’re trying to get to, then it’s like, do you know what?

It’s not us against each other. It’s us working together to get to that end goal. And this is just a blip on that road.

[00:19:05] Andy Polaine: This is what I like about that kind of film and TV and actually kind of music as well. Model is that there’s usually. You know, we all know we’re making a film and we can argue a lot about what it should be.

And you know, even if it’s a comedy or a horror movie or whatever, but certainly how it kind of looks and feels and everything else. But we all kind of know that that’s the purpose of why we’re here. We’re not, you know, we’re not unsure about that. And I think that really helps to have that kind of big end goal.

But I also think it helps And as I’ve just been writing about this in my book and I had that kind of crossover moment, you know, it’s the number one reason why people leave companies and hate their jobs and it’s a lack of purpose, right? You can be doing, I don’t want to say bad work, but you can be doing work that you perhaps don’t feel particularly thrilled by, but know it has a kind of purpose and know, you know, at least why you’re doing it.

I think that’s easier to put up with than the other way around, where you’re kind of might be doing fantastic work, but you’re not really sure whether it’s going to go anywhere. It doesn’t seem like, why am I doing this? That seems to eat people up much more than, than the other way around.

[00:20:03] Alison Coward: I think there’s actually some research.

I don’t know which of my books, I think it might be a Dan Ariely book where he he talks about a research where they were looking at students that were trying to get donations for a fund. And the students that knew exactly who or an individual that they were trying to raise those funds for did better than the ones that were just trying to collect funds.

[00:20:29] Andy Polaine: There’s a thing I, I wrote a kind of note about balance and there’s a couple of kind of things in there which was, the first one was about this sort of balance between productive conflict and psychological safety. Because we talk about, or you talk about that and you know, if you’re facilitating or even if you’re leading a team, one of the things you try and create is that psychological safety because that’s where…

I guess where productive conflict can happen right? You, you, you kind of, you need to know that I can critique your work without you taking it kind of personally or taking it out on me personally, but I also need to know that you’re not going to do personally attack me. So can you, can you talk about that sort of balance?

Because you talk about productive conflict and I think it’s the thing that’s often avoided conflict just in general. I might go so far. I know other people have gone so far to say there’s a bit of a generational thing that’s gone on there about, you know, a sort of allergy to conflict or even witnessing conflict.

But there is obviously kind of balance between, there’s like a relationship between the two. And I, I wonder what your view is on, on getting that balance right.

[00:21:30] Alison Coward: I just want to talk to the balance piece because I think this is probably one of the biggest, a big challenge that our modern leaders have in constantly having to search for for balance.

And it’s almost like, you know, I really recognize this as I was writing the book and I recognize it with a lot of the clients that I work with in that we are sometimes pushed towards an either or situation. It’s either psychological safety or you have productive conflict when actually most things are on a continuum.

And I find that the job of the leader is to like move up and down that continuum, but no, When you need a bit of, it’s almost like having a mixer, you know, like a, a sound mixer and you’ve got all these kinds of factors. And, you know, the leader is kind of constantly trying to find, you never find the perfect balance.

There’s never going to be a point when everything’s lined up, but you’re, you’re kind of, you know. Dialing up and dialing down depending on what the team needs at that particular time. So I, I do talk about balance a lot. If I don’t mention the word balance in, in the book, then I definitely allude to it a lot.

I think I’ve, you know, well, I know I’ve got a diagram, which is kind of balancing people in business and doing and thinking and this idea about balancing creativity and productivity as well. And I think the, the idea around the productive conflict is. is really important. I mean, I, I wonder whether it’s it’s less of a balance and just more of knowing when a team is experiencing conflict or when individuals experiencing conflict with each other, being able to identify whether that conflict is productive or not.

Because there are different types of conflict there, you know, on, again, on the sort of contradict what I said on a binary level. There are, there is destructive conflict in this productive conflict. Destructive conflict is when people have the personality caches and, you know, it gets very, very personal.

Productive conflict is around ideas and tasks. It’s kind of separate from the individual and what a leader wants within their team or what a team wants is to have the majority of conflict sitting in productive conflict rather than in the destructive conflict. I mean, you almost want to avoid. Or try to find ways of avoiding destructive conflict at all costs, because that’s where the psychological safety breaks down.

And there can be very high psychological safety in productive conflict when it doesn’t get personal.

[00:23:57] Andy Polaine: Yeah. Although, I mean, I, I think that one of the challenges in, in say design work is, is there is a certain amount of kind of pulling something out of you you know, you know, I say design and anything creative, right.

And, you know, you’re Pulling out of you a, you know, Johnny Ive talks about this a lot, these kind of very fragile kind of seeds and shoots of an idea at the beginning and it’s like, Oh, what about this kind of half baked thing? And you really need to have the, the safety to feel like I can kind of put this thing out there.

And you’re not, you’re going to recognize that this is a kind of fragile thing and not just going to stamp all over it immediately at the same time, you know, that’s the thing that comes out of the person and you do need to be able to talk about it. And, you know, the, yes, there’s the whole kind of yes and thing and stuff, but sometimes you actually do want to kind of really, you know, I, one of the things that gets frustrated at the moment, I said a little bit of a bug at the moment is that I think people move from can half baked idea to a.

You know a working mock up or even a kind of design because the tools allow it really easily Much much quicker than they ever used to and there’s a whatever you might think of Chris Sacca as kind of VC guy There’s a really good blog post he wrote called an email I’ll never open and there’s a thing in it where it says, you know Too many of you are moving from idea to kind of production because the barriers of that are so low now Without really going through the process with loads of people beat the shit out of an idea before you take it forward.

And I think that bit is really, really important. And I feel like sometimes I’m not at all advocating for toxic environments. I mean, I really kind of advocate against it all the time. But there is something there where I’ve seen people use… Psychological safety is a way of saying, I don’t want to hear criticism and that’s kind of different thing.

[00:25:40] Alison Coward: Yeah, that’s not psychological safety. That psychological safety is the ability to be able to speak up and be honest without fear of you know, being ridiculed. Yeah. And so there are a few things around what you said there that I want to point to. And one point is around. Making the space for that criticism.

Often, you know, these ideas are half baked and we sometimes don’t have the right tools or the right approach to feedback on those ideas when they’re half baked. So I talk a lot, I mean, I honestly believe that there’s one sort of, you know, tool that we can use in our conversations and our meetings that would instantly make a massive difference.

And it’s so simple that it’s probably too simple for people to believe it, but it is that separation of divergent and convergent thinking. The divergent thinking is the half baked ideas. It’s like, you know, I’m just sharing this. We’re just exploring ideas. And at this stage, we’re protecting those half baked ideas from criticism.

And because it is, you know, providing the environment for people to feel that they can speak up and say the ideas that don’t feel fully formed, or they might even be stupid ideas or, you know, in their heads, they feel that they’re stupid ideas, but you need that psychological safety. You need to protect that time.

And so that people do feel free to speak, but be very clear that we can’t stay in that That’s that stage. We do have to move to a phase of critique, which is the the convergent thinking and we also need to know how to manage those conversations in convergent thinking. It’s not kind of a free for all and kind of making you know.

Going for the jugular and not being careful around our words. I mean, another issue that we have which is kind of so widespread and it’s so interesting that, you know, I feel that this is something that I’ve become more aware of as I’ve got deeper into my knowledge and expertise around team culture, is that.

We are not naturally good at giving constructive feedback, and we’re not naturally good at taking constructive feedback. Both sides are difficult. And there’s a really great film that I watched, which was, it’s one of those it’s funny, but it’s also painful, funny, you know, like the whole kind of club, your enthusiasm type painful, where you’re just cringing the whole way through.

It’s called you hurt my feelings. And it’s about a a writer who actually, I mean, the central character is a writer, but it’s actually about all the characters about how difficult it is to give honest feedback to your loved ones, because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. And also. What it feels like to have really kind of straight blunt feedback when someone really doesn’t care about her and your feelings.

And just that whole conversation about how awkward it is on all sides. And it just really highlighted for me that we, I mean, we naturally do kind of shy away. We’re even too straightforward without kind of thinking about how that’s going to impact the other person. Or we shy away from giving straight feedback because we think they’re going to hurt the other person’s feelings.

But at the same time, no matter how well crafted our feedback is, it’s always going to sting when you receive it. I don’t think there’s anybody that can honestly say that they get feedback and they don’t think like that initial moment when they have some kind of criticism, regardless of how well it’s delivered, that you don’t think, ouch.

you know, you might sort of become a little bit more immune to it, but it does always sting. So I think we need to get better at giving and receiving feedback. Yeah, I

[00:29:10] Andy Polaine: agree. I think when you get to know, when you’ve worked with someone, that is one of those things where you’ve worked with someone for a long time.

And there’s a spoken or unspoken sense of respect for each other and love for each other, actually, if you’ve worked with each other for a long time, where you, you can kind of get over that, where you know that’s a sort of given and so it doesn’t sting in the same way, because you know it’s not really about you, but I agree.

There’s a kind of paradox there I’ve found, which is this thing I’ve often said, which kind of rules set you free. And it comes in my, my PhD was about sort of interactivity and play. And one of the things in, in playing in games is you have rules in order to enjoy the game. All right. And if you break the rules in a game, you actually kind of ruin the game.

You ruin the enjoyment of the game quite often, unless that’s, you know, unless that’s what the game is. It’s how you kind of sneak by the rules. And I think there’s a very true thing in, in sort of feedback culture as well, which is, as you kind of pointed out, it’s a thing that you have to learn and sometimes structure.

And I think I’ve seen a lot of leaders go, Oh, my teams aren’t really kind of critically thinking enough and they’re not really, you know, in, in feedback sessions, that it’s not really going deeply. And we often ask whether they’ve sort of intentionally structured that or not, or whether it’s, it’s more like a kind of showcase with, Hey, everyone come and show, show us your latest work.

And in that. You don’t set up the kind of permission space, right, in, in the sort of whole play and game kind of theory. There’s this idea of the magic circle that was by this guy Heusinger from, from some time ago came up with this. But, you know, if you think, you know, in a boxing ring, you’re allowed to hit someone in the face.

You’re not allowed to hit them beneath the belt. Or in rugby, you know, you’re not allowed to, you know, kick the ball. Yeah. Or in football, you can’t, you know, use your hand. So there’s kind of things like that where actually, you know, once you set that up, everyone knows, okay, these are the rules here. And I think it’s a kind of, it sets you free because everyone knows that what I’m saying is because that’s the rules of the game.

And this is allowed in this space, but not in this other space, right outside of the

[00:31:04] Alison Coward: sort of, you space for divergent thinking. It’s like, okay, the next 15 minutes we’re generating ideas. We are not allowed to critique the ideas. It’s just, we share freely, we share openly, we share what’s on our mind. And then being clear that when we move into the. the, the constructive criticism phase of convergent thinking.

That, you know, again, putting the guardrails around that we feedback on the idea, not the person. Your, your idea is stupid. Not you are stupid. Which I’m not sure makes any difference. Yeah. It’s

[00:31:33] Andy Polaine: weird because people know that from, from brainstorming, right? People, a lot of people know the rules of brainstorming, if you like, but not the other end of it.

[00:31:40] Alison Coward: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly. And it’s, you know, I mean, the There’s tools out there for that. There’s like Edward de Bono, six thinking hats where you, you know, you, you have a different color for a different way that you give feedback or you, you know, assess ideas, or you can agree as a team on a set of quality criteria.

It’s like, okay, let’s generate lots of ideas or even before you generate the ideas. In fact, no, not before you generate the ideas, because that might lead, but after generating the ideas, what are the criteria? What’s the, you know, what is it that would make a good idea for us? Now let’s assess all of the ideas that we generated against that, that, that set of criteria.

[00:32:17] Andy Polaine: Yeah. Rather than just kind of voting with a dot. Exactly. Yeah. And Rose Thorn Bud is nice because as a feedback structure, but I think the nicest bit about it is one of the rules is you take, so for those who dunno rose roses, the good people think the things that people think are good thorns are things that people think are, aren’t very good and bad are the things that have.

And a lot of those get sort of inverted, like, you know, here’s a thing that could be better, but I don’t think it is. And people get a bit muddled up with it. But one of the rules, at least the way I learned it, was when you’re the feedback receiver, you just say, stay silent. And you say thank you at the end, and that’s it.

There’s no kind of justification going on halfway through. And I think that’s a really important thing too. You have this framework, you have these five pillars, tell us what

[00:33:04] Alison Coward: they are. So the five pillars are alignment, cohesion, communication, design and change. And the idea is, is that it’s not a step by step process.

It’s almost like sort of having an awareness of to what extent. Each of those are present within your team, but it does give you an indication of kind of where you need to start. You know, if you are, if you have a team that is experiencing lots of conflict and there’s low productivity, you have, you can’t skip past the alignment and the cohesion pillar.

You have to, you have to do those. And the more sort of high performing teams that I tend to come across, we, it’s not that we don’t have to focus on the alignment cohesion pillar, but we can kind of go through those. Yeah, you know, a lot more rapidly. So alignment is, are we all on the same page? Are we all put in the same direction?

Are we clear on our vision? Have we developed values that we agree that we’re working towards all of those kinds of things around, you know, what do we need to do as a team? And. How do we need to be as a team to make it happen? Cohesion is around individual working styles and kind of just developing those connections in the team.

You know, the, one of the biggest sources of conflict in a team, not research backed, but from my observations is different working styles and people not being able to see things from other perspectives. So. You might have someone who is like really great at ideas development, but they can be a sort of a little bit fluffy around getting things done and meeting deadlines.

And you’ve got sort of the

producer type person who’s really good at hitting deadlines and, you know, they may clash, they may clash, but the cohesion pillar is about helping people to understand that there’s different ways of approaching work and that actually. Those different ways of approaching work are valuable within a team.

The communication pillar is Just that how a team interacts, what are the kinds of conversations that a team needs to have to stay on track and up to date and how they’re going to have those conversations. So largely in the way that not exclusively, but largely how teams meet and have meetings and how those meetings are run.

And design is around ways of working. So is there anything additional to meetings that could be designed, like you mentioned, intentionally to support connection, collaboration, rituals, routines, systems, processes that can bake in the way that a team needs to be into the way that they work and kind of support that.

You know, rituals and routines can really support the values that a team has created through kind of, you know, developing a process that reflects Those values and then changes all around continuous improvement. So this again, this idea that. This is not a one and done thing. We need to be working and discussing and having conversations around our team culture on a continuous basis because things change, and even more rapidly now.

You know, what worked six months ago you may need to take a stop. I mean, I know we spoke about, at the beginning, about continuous team culture as opposed to temporary teams. Actually, I’m kind of seeing a little bit more of these, sort of, the elements of temporary teams coming into teams that are working together.

On an ongoing basis, because things are changing, whether that is, you know, the team structure changes, the team makeup changes there’s new conditions on the way that they work, or there’s new requirements of them. And all of that requires a recontracting. Of the culture is the culture that we are working to or the way that we work is it’s relevant for the context that we’re sitting within now.

And so that’s the change pillar, sort of around having those conversations and staying accountable and just keeping it all top of mind, basically. Yeah. So,

[00:36:40] Andy Polaine: yeah, I mean, you’ve talked about them as pillars, but your diagram is a wheel, actually, isn’t it? It’s a couple of segments. And, and so that idea, I guess, of, you know, you can come in at any point on that wheel and sort of.

Go around and, and you said you, you’ve got a tool, haven’t you? You’ve got like an assessment thing on the workshop culture co uk Yes. Yeah. We are coming close to time. Yeah, no, that’s, I could talk another hour again another time. One of the things that’s always interesting, I think when you’ve, you’ve finished a book.

You know, I think when I first got in touch with you, I said, Oh, you know, congratulations. You’ve just come to the end of life. I’ve just submitted the final manuscript or the first draft, I think even. And then there’s lots of kind of what I call sweeping up of the bits and pieces, loads of stuff to be done once you’ve actually written a book, you know, at the end of it.

But then there’s this other thing of, you know, it’s published, it goes out in the world. And quite often by that point you’ve got new thoughts you know, sometimes they, they’re the, the germ of a new book that might come or whatever else. Is there anything sort of having done it and having sort of seen some reaction to it and sort of put it out in the world that you kind of think, I, you know, actually there’s a thing now, I mean, you just mentioned one, but there’s a thing now that, or some stuff that I would add, or is it too fresh still?

[00:37:54] Alison Coward: It’s probably too fresh, but I, I smiled because I just, did a workshop last week and I took the team through some of the elements of workshop culture and I had a really lovely comment from someone after the workshop who said that the workshop was great and actually I was applying some of that to my own life as well, like some of the questions you’re asking I could apply.

To my own life. And I thought, Oh, is that the next book, which I’ve done effective workshops. I’ve got workshop culture. Is there a book which is workshop your life? I think, I

[00:38:23] Andy Polaine: mean, maybe, I mean, I, I, you’re a coach, I’m a coach. There’s a lot of, I’m going to use a lot of these tools in my own coaching. And I approach coaching kind of as a design process.

And, you know, let’s, let’s do the. you know, let’s do the initial sort of data collection and reflection and get something. Then what are the patterns that emerge and the synthesis on that? And then, you know, how might we, so there’s a lot of kind of stuff that I think you can, you can take through into, into

[00:38:46] Alison Coward: your work.

Definitely. I also think those five pillars could You know, I mean, they’re not rocket science, but I don’t think they’re rocket science. It’s kind of me pulling together everything that I know about team culture and making it a bit more digestible. But I also think that those five pillars could apply to personal relationships.

Right. You know, are we kind of, do we want the same things out of, you know, Our relationship are we really appreciating what we’re individually bringing into this relationship, all the, you know, are we reviewing, yeah, how we’re interacting.

[00:39:18] Andy Polaine: I mean, by which you mean sort of one to one sort of couple relationships, yeah.

[00:39:22] Alison Coward: One to one, yeah.

[00:39:22] Andy Polaine: Because I was going to otherwise sort of push back, because You know, the big lies in, in the world is this idea that it’s not personal, it’s just business, that our relationships with people at work are somehow not a kind of personal thing.

[00:39:34] Alison Coward: I can’t stand that phrase. I’m literally want to write a blog post about that because I cannot stand that phrase. It is of course personal, you know, because we’re people. I, I just, you know, I think that phrase should be eradicated from.

[00:39:48] Andy Polaine: I mean, I’ve seen people in. In consulting, particularly management consulting, and I’ve seen them treat either, you know, people they work with or who work for them, but also clients in when speak to them in ways I kind of just sat there thinking you would never speak to even a stranger like that, you’d let alone a friend or someone, you know, an acquaintance.

And, you know, how is that excusable that you kind of, you interact with a human being in that way. And it’s always kind of covered in that or masked in that idea of like, well, it’s, you know, of course it’s, it’s just business, but it can be a real excuse for terrible behavior. And one of the things I think I realized as a design leader was this thing of, you know, after about five years of experience, most designers know how to design and they don’t really kind of.

Get stuck very often on on design stuff and then need kind of daddy design director to come in and do stuff the opposite of anything but it’s it’s all people stuff it was always this stakeholders difficult this but I’m having a problem with this person in the team or you know that person in the team saying the rest of the team are the problem and all that kind of stuff it was all people stuff I mean like 98 percent of it was people stuff.

Not the kind of, we’re struggling with this idea or what to do with it, you know, or, I mean, most of the noise is people stuff.

[00:41:10] Alison Coward: Yeah, and you know, I think this is one of I kind of talk about this at the end of the book a bit more, but maybe this is the next book. I honestly believe, you know, we spend a lot, particularly in the knowledge economy, we spend a lot of our time at work.

We put a lot of energy into our work. And like you say, 98 percent of the challenges that we face are people focused. So if we can improve the way that we. We have the tools and the awareness and the skills to improve the way that we interact with other people. And we even brought that percentage down to 70%.

Imagine the impact that that would have on our experience of work and therefore then our experience of life because we spend so much time at work. And so this is one of the reasons for me writing workshop culture. So I do, you know, I have the privilege. to be trusted by so many teams and going in and seeing some of those, you know, I work with some brilliant teams that are great.

And I also see some tricky situations as well. And, you know, from an outsider, as an, from an objective point of view, sometimes you kind of see. People are so, you know, when you’re in the state of conflict, you’re so intertwined in it that you can’t take a step back and sort of question whether this is necessary.

Whereas from someone on the outside, you can kind of say, you know, your work, your life would just be so much easier if you just took a step back and, you know, Thought about this in a different way or thought about repairing that relation. I know it sounds easy and simplistic, but it, this is one of my reasons for writing this book.

It is to kind of look at work. Some people, for some, for some people, work is that work is the challenging relationships they have with people. And that’s all work is for them. It is difficult. It’s not enjoyable or everyone else that they work with is the problem. And for me, Work doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be like that.

We should be solving big problems together. We should be putting our energy into solving the big problems rather than trying to figure out how we you know, solve the conflicts that we have. Some of which are very unnecessary.

[00:43:15] Andy Polaine: There’s a thing, there’s a blog post I wrote a while ago and I use it quite a lot.

And there’s this idea of… That leadership is a slow motion facilitation that you’re doing over kind of a very long period of time, the similar things to your, you know, really what your book is about actually of applying what you know from running a workshop over sort of what might be a couple of hours, half a day a day in, you know, over a kind of longer period of time, but there’s a thing you’ve just kind of touched upon there, which, and you said it right at the beginning, so it’s a nice way to maybe kind of round it up, which is, you know, people approach being a workshop participant, they bring a different kind of self to that than they do their kind of everyday life.

So maybe there’s something there about sort of developing a workshop mindset or something that you know, that you come to, to your work with that’s different from this, what I would say is more like the kind of factory mindset of, or industrial mindset of, you know, I’m just kind of there to do my widgets.

And you know, those people who get in the way of me making my widgets need to kind of, you know, get out of my way. Yeah. So, look the final question is always, the power of 10 is named after the Eames film Powers of 10. It’s all about the relative size of things in the universe. And so the, the final question is always, you know, what one small thing is either overlooked or should be redesigned that would have an outsized effect on the world?

[00:44:33] Alison Coward: Gosh, I mean, I was thinking about this question before and I don’t think I’ve really come to a a clear answer, but I think something along the lines of what we were discussing, is there something that we could design that could help people? Build more empathy for each other. It’s the relationship thing.

We often think about design in terms of, you know, things and you know, products even services. But I wonder what could be design or how could we use design in our relationships to, to help people get on more effectively with each other. I

[00:45:10] Andy Polaine: think you’ve just written a book about that, haven’t you?

[00:45:12] Alison Coward: Yeah

[00:45:12] Andy Polaine: So where can people find you online?

[00:45:15] Alison Coward: So my website business website is And I’m Allison Coward In most other places. LinkedIn is probably where you find me hanging out the most. The book site is workshop uk. The book is called Workshop Culture Guide to Building Teams at Thrive.

And it’s available from online, from most good bookstores

[00:45:37] Andy Polaine: wherever you get your books. Alison, thank you so much for being my guest on Power of 10.

[00:45:41] Alison Coward: It’s been wonderful. Thank you.

[00:45:45]Andy Polaine: You’ve been listening to me, Andy Polaine on Power of Ten. You can find me at @apolaine on on Mastodon, @apolaine on Twitter, or go to where you can find more episodes, check out my coaching practice and online courses, as well as sign up for my newsletter, Doctor’s Note, if you enjoyed the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. As you know, it tickles the algorithms and helps more people find the podcast. As always, get in touch if you have any comments, feedback or suggestions for guests. All the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and see you next time.