E39 - How to develop a collaborative leadership style - Interview with Simon Dowling
Simon Dowling is a collaboration specialist who works with senior teams to create environments where their people really thrive. It starts by building what he calls supercharged teams. He is the author of Work with Me - how to get people to buy into your ideas.
Simon had a wondrous start to his professional career: commercial lawyer in a big city firm and improv comedy, and even appeared on Thank God You’re Here.
- Why leadership decree is no longer working and what we need now instead
- How emotions are the key to getting people to engage and commit
- Why leaders need to let go of control to gain control
- Tips on working with mood and language to create engagement
- What we need to do in order to deal with change that is imposed upon us, and still have engagement
- What the heck Nemawashi is, and how it matters to bring your idea to life
Automated : Welcome to the Zoe Routh leadership podcast, your source of strategies and insights to make you a better leader. Influence, improve, inspire.
Zoë Routh: Hi this is Zoe Routh, and I am delighted to introduce Simon Dowling today on the podcast. I have to confess I know Simon already, he's a fellow thought leader in the business school and he is just a wonderful bloke. I enjoy his company, he is laid back, he's fun, he is just ... I guess Australians would say, fair dinkum, I'm not even sure that's appropriate use of the word but in any case he's authentic and delightful to be around.
So apart from my personal enthusiasm for Simon, he is professionally a collaborations specialist, who works with senior teams to create environments where their people really thrive. He specialises in developing super charged teams. I can't wait to hear what a super charged team actually looks like. He is the author of this amazing book called, 'Work with Me - how to get people to buy into your ideas' I love this book, it's one of the key things I hear from the people I work with all the time too, is like, "How do I get people to get on board, how do I influence, how do I manage? How do I get them to come along for the ride on this change initiative?" So this book answers a lot of those questions, and Simon's going to answer a few of them today hopefully.
Now, apart from being a guru and a nice guy, Simon has the really interesting background in that he started his professional career as a commercial lawyer, which I find terribly amusing. While also doing night-time performances as an improv comedian, he even appeared on the fabulous comedy here in Australia called, 'Thank God you're here'. So, welcome Simon.
Simon Dowling: Wow, thank you Zoe, that surely is going to take the cake as the best introduction I've ever had.
Zoë Routh: Yeah, I gave you a start.
Simon Dowling: Thank you.
Zoë Routh: You're welcome.
Simon Dowling: It's a ... yeah sorry, it's great to be here and yeah I think I'm glad that you take great pleasure out of my beginnings as a commercial lawyer because I think at the time I'm not sure I saw the light side.
Zoë Routh: Well I married a lawyer, I know there's not too many light sides, that's for sure. You do need a highly developed sense of humour to navigate some of that territory. How long were you a lawyer?
Simon Dowling: Just under six years, five and a half years I think.
Zoë Routh: Okay, so the biggest question I have is how do you go from being a commercial lawyer and the big Sydney town, and doing improv by night, and moonlighting doing that, to doing what you're doing now as a collaborations specialist and working with senior teams and organisations. How does that happen?
Simon Dowling: Yeah look it's one of those pathways that if you were to be sitting in your final year at school and thinking, "I'm going to design my career" it's probably not the one I would have designed but it's the one I'm most blessed and thrilled to have followed. Because I think when I was a lawyer I knew that, that was not the long-term game for me, but it was just one of those things that I fell into, in terms of my study up at uni. Studying both law, but also I was studying performing arts, so that's where the theatre bit came from, and I'd been interested in theatre for a long time before then. That's how I fell into improv, because being a lawyer, the thing with being a lawyer is that I found there was very little time for recreational activities outside of work.
So, if I wanted to keep theatre going, improv was the perfect thing because it meant that I could do shows on say a Sunday night or a Thursday night and there wasn't rehearsals required. So you rock up and you’re making it all up on the spot. But for me, and in some respects the improv piece has been a true line in everything I've done, because whereas being ... in the context of the law firm I was working in it was very much a sit in your cubicle, or in your box and do your work in 6 minute intervals, and there was very little in terms of collaboration and interaction with others. At the same time, I'm performing in this improv group where it's all about working with others in a very ensemble way, and I often think of improv as the essence of great ensemble work.
So I got hooked very early on how do you get more of this team work, spontaneous collaboration, do you get more of that going on in the context of the work place? Why isn't that happening? That's how I got really interested in that, the first opportunity I had to really explore that was when, once I'd made the decision to leave the law, it was a question, "Where do I go next?" I was actually going to become a secondary school teacher at one stage, but I had the opportunity to go and work with a company that was consulting and training people in influencing skills and conflict resolution skills and so on. My legal background made me the perfect candidate for them, that's really the stepping stone I took, and before I knew it I was working with a wide range of audiences, including lawyers.
Zoë Routh: I was going to ask, did you end up working with any legal firms around this?
Simon Dowling: Yeah, totally, and teaching law students at Monash Uni, which is where I studied law as well. We were focused on the skills and how to manage conflict and to negotiate in a way that was far more collaborative than I think my own mind set as a lawyer had always been. So that's where the shift really started to happen and I was in that context for about, well over a decade, almost 12 years. That was when I started to get really fascinated in the whole notion of how do we create truly collaborative work places, do that through leadership, how do we create a collaborative style of leadership? That just grew on me like a bug, and so about five and a half, six years ago I started my own practice in that area. The rest as they say, is history.
Zoë Routh: Yeah, and the fanfare happens. So I'm curious about one of the things you just said there, a collaborative style of leadership. So tell me a little bit more about what that looks like from your point of view?
Simon Dowling: Look I think there is obviously a very traditional version of, or model of leadership in management, and a lot of us grow up with that as a pretty clear archetype in our minds. That's where the manager or the leader is the most senior or experienced person in the room, and therefore they're also the person who calls the shots, and so there's this dynamic of leadership as a form of influence, because I think all leadership does ultimately come down to influence, but that influence is really influence through decree. So do it because I say so, now that might still have a very benevolent and friendly tone about it, but the dynamic is very much, I'm the boss, do as I say. It's born out of the very traditional way of working, but also a traditional kind of way in which the workplace does flow.
Whereas I think now more than ever, there is a need for leaders to have quite a different approach, and that is where their influence on which their entire leadership is based, that influence is not through decree but comes more through what I like to describe as win me. So, the shift from decree to win me, is more about, hey I want to create teams, I want to create work places, I want to create a group of colleagues and employees, or whoever is around me, it could be in a community group, who are engaged in the work that they do, not simply because it's a job and not simply cause it's what we've decreed is the way we're going, but because they want to do it that way. They choose to follow the initiatives, the projects, the strategy for directions that we create.
I think once you do that, that a couple of things happen. One is you tap an enormous string of potential in terms of people’s ability to do more, to do it more enthusiastically, to do it more creatively, to do it with greater flair, speed and all sorts of things. I think the other thing you do is you fill a very important human need, which is more than ever I think the modern work force saying, "Hey I want my workplace to be an extension of the way I like to live my life as well." Where I have autonomy, I have a sense of discretion, I have real contribution and meaning in the work that I do. I think once you kind of tap those two things you start to really kind of create a work place, or an organisation that's able to achieve a whole lot more.
Zoë Routh: I agree with that, I agree with lots of what you just said, and the fact that people want to have their work experience be a lived experience that is resonant from the core of who they are. I love how you mention that the ability to contribute and be part of something meaningful is a critical part of doing that, and I think also with that is a need and a desire for a sense of belonging. I'm wondering in terms of developing buy in and collaboration, how much is a sense of belonging a part of what you think is important in a collaborative place.
Simon Dowling: Oh, that's a lovely question, I think a huge element of it, and need to be ... again if I go back to that traditional model of work, which is I'm an employee who comes in and provides my service, whatever that might be, and I do that from 9 to 5 and then I go home, and really that's for the pay check so that I can feed my family. I think for a lot of people they're looking for a whole lot more out of work and they're looking for a place that they can feel they can be part of, and want to be part of. Feel that they can identify with and talk about with their friends and their family and say, "Hey this is where I work, and I'm really proud about that." You see it with organisations that struggle in some way or make a false step in some way, and that happens in the public eye. People who work in those organisations really struggle with the sense of, "Oh gosh what am I part of here? What do I belong to here? What do I identify with, or not?"
So I think we are creating little communities, tribes, call them what you will, where people bring their whole selves to work. Of course the other thing about that is that for a lot of industry the work is just no longer defined by 9 to 5 or whatever hours, which we traditionally could define it by. There's much more, there's focus on [inaudible 00:11:33] work flexibly and that might mean working a little bit in the office, a little bit at home, and the hours in which I do that might be fluid and improvised from week to week. So again, if I'm being asked to bring myself in and out of the work place like that and do so to the fullest potential kind of need to feel like it's somewhere I want to be.
Zoë Routh: Yeah, otherwise it's a long sense of drudgery, day to day, for sure. So, I'm curious though, because you talk a lot about buy in, and in fact the subtitle of your book is, 'How to get people to buy into your ideas' and I hear this a lot from clients who say, "Now how can I manage up? Or how can I get people to come along for the ride? To get behind this idea?" That's like a little bit different than talking about a nice collaborative, it sounds like to me anyway, sounds like a little bit different than, this is a nice collaborative environment, we all pitch in, we all get along and it's tip toe through the tulips. So I'm interested about this idea of buy in, what does that mean to you, and what do people struggle with around buy in?
Simon Dowling: You know the danger with all of these sorts of words, whether it's collaboration, or buy in, is that people form a sceptical view of it as well based on their own experiences. Like I had someone not that long ago rather, say to me, "I'll buy in, it just sounds like a management technique to get people to do more."
Zoë Routh: Yeah.
Simon Dowling: I guess truth be told it could be seen that way, cause it's been experienced that way, because it's been done that way, but when I wrote this book it definitely was not through that as a lense. It was through the notion of I think there is an awful lot that can be achieved if you create teams of people who aren't simply doing what their told to do, because they think they have to, or because that's the easiest way to operate. But because they choose to, they truly sign in.
So I think when I think of buy in, I think of it as being the, it's the emotional sign up, it's the part of me that says, "I buy in, at least there's an emotional investment on my part because I feel connected to what we have agreed to do, the direction we're taking" or whatever it might be. Because of that I push myself a little bit harder, I bring more of my creative energies to the table. I actually care about the outcome of this project, or this idea and so therefore I'm going to find ways to prioritize it or fight for time, or fight for resources. I'm going to have to get a bit more creative about it, because it's something I want to see happen.
Probably most importantly I start to become a leader myself, I don't want to sound trite about that, but I think someone who buys in becomes [inaudible 00:14:31] they become someone who is not just walking around like a courier of a project or a message but they're actually seeking to get others on board themselves. So you create this much more dispersed form of leadership amongst teams, which I think is really critical. So I think that's the notion of buy in, is to create a group of people who feel a sense of ownership in an idea, at an emotional level, and that fuels their action.
The second part of your question I think was what then gets in the way of that?
Zoë Routh: Yeah.
Simon Dowling: I think the real thing that gets in the way of it more than anything is just, to go back to your earlier point, is the traditional form of leadership and management. I think in particular there a couple of things happen, one is that people who are initiating ideas, or projects, or strategies, so think of somebody who's typically in that kind of leadership and management role, one of the biggest challenges I find in working with leaders is that they struggle to simply slow down enough, or to let go enough to let other people in to an idea.
Zoë Routh: Oh that's interesting, tell me more about that.
Simon Dowling: Well I think there's a paradox that in order to influence and shape direction in a way that creates buy in you actually need to let go of control in order to gain some control. So now if I give you an example of a group that I was working with recently was a leadership team in a fairly large organisation and they were developing strategy for the next three years and at the end of it the question was, well how do we ensure that we get our next layer of management on board with this? One of the people in the room said, "Oh well we've got a comms strategy around that and we'll get our comms team onto it." Comms being short for communications. I had to challenge them at that point and say, "What do you mean your comms team will take care of it?" They said, "Well we've got clear idea of what we want to do, we just need the comms team to articulate that and cascade the message down."
I think the instant reaction for me in that is well, it's one thing to communicate a message, to cascade it down, which is such a fabulous cliché you hear used a lot. But it's a different thing entirely to do something in a way that enables you to think, "Hey has that next group of management in our organisation bought into this? Have they emotionally connected with it in some way?" To get to that point is probably not going to be as efficient as simply rolling out a communication's strategy, in other words you're going to have to slow down, invite them into conversation, embrace some concerns, discuss, have some dialogue about it. To do that requires a bit of patience but also I'd say in leaders, a fair bit of vulnerability. Willingness to open their ideas up for scrutiny and discussion and to not be too defensive about it.
Zoë Routh: I think that's the hardest part because it's so much easier just to rest on authority and say, "This is it, we've worked it out, off we go. It's a good idea, can't you tell? Blah, blah, let's bulldoze on through." I think you're right, it's not as efficient perhaps to do a collaborative approach where you sit down, you discuss, you invite and you let it evolve with the contribution of your people, and yet it's way more effective if you do that instead of as you say, lead by decree. So one of the things you mentioned in your book ... oh sorry did you want to add anything to that?
Simon Dowling: No, I was just going to say, and I want to be really clear, I'm not just sort of painting a picture here that somehow people in management roles, or positions of authority are just trying to kind of fulfill some image in their head of being Alexander the Great here. I don't think it's about the power all the time, I think it's also sometimes the function of well I've got an awful lot I need to achieve, there's a lot resting on my shoulders, the things that I'm charged with.
I might have my own stakeholders, whether it's the CEO, or whether it's the Board of Directors, or an owner of business, or shareholders, or whoever. They're all looking at me and saying, "What are the results?" So I feel that sense of I need to get stuff done, and I need to get it done quickly and there's a lot to do. So therefore it sometimes seems like the most efficient route to simply punch through one idea, initiative or project after another.
But of course the cost of doing so without getting people to that place of buy in, and that place where they own it, is the big idea might get launched but they may not get very far. Might get all kinds of resistance, they might stall, they might run out of support and energy, or they may just never get off the ground. So I just want to clarify that perception because I think that's the complexity of this.
Zoë Routh: Yeah, it's not as black and white as I would make it out to be that's for sure. That sort of points me to one of the questions I'm going to ask you around language. One of the things you mention in your book is how important management language is to creating this atmosphere where collaboration thrives. Tell me a little bit more about that? What do you mean specifically with mood, and how do you create mood? What is it about language that we need to be mindful of?
Simon Dowling: Yeah, look I mean I think the mood you create around an idea is instrumental to how people feel about it, and therefore the heart quite often ... it's the heart that determines what the heads going to focus on. The hearts taking all kinds of cues unconsciously around how to feel about something. That might be as simple as, your questions focused language, that might be as simple as an organisation using, or leaders using language that feels easy and familiar, but becomes just jargon or management speak, or cliched, or hollow. I think there's that lovely term, weasel words as well, you know a CEO who stands at the front of the room and says, "I want to talk about cascading and strategy that's going to take us forward into the future." These are all terms that probably sound like a cliché of leadership speak, but they're likely to leave an audience feeling at best cold, and at worst deeply sceptical of what they're hearing. I've heard it all before.
So I think at the first instance, there's this wonderful focus by now leadership authors around the importance of just speaking plain and speaking real. I think that's a critical piece in this. I think the other thing with language and mood is it is ... I think it's up to leaders to try and find a way to bring their ideas to life for people at an emotional level not just an intellectual level. So I think in some respects, sometimes in the corporate world in particular and governments as well, there's almost like a race to try and rationalise ideas till they are succinctly and smartly put as possible. So as a result we just still think down to if it's your business case, your return on investment, your ROY of course, or your graphs and your pie charts and all the rest of it. Things that again are kind of the familiar tools of the business analyst or the MBA.
But what about the age old art of telling a great story that really highlights peoples understanding of situation. A story that is vulnerable enough where a leader can say, "Hey let me tell about my own experiences over the last few years in dealing with some of our customers and some of the conversations we've had. You know I was sitting down having a fantastic conversation with one of our longest standing customers who had really expressed some disappointment around one of our products, and we were sitting there [inaudible 00:22:45] and I just looked at them and I thought, "You understand this business better than I do." As I sat there in that conversation and I was thinking about that, I thought to myself, "If this customer understands our business better than I do, then how many of our other customers understand things we just don't?" It was in that moment I realised that's something that I think we should all be engaging with is trying to tap this huge pool of knowledge and understanding and experience that our customers have that we don't."
I'm just improvising that story but I think stories like that are a much more powerful way to get more into the sit up and pay attention at first than simply hit them with pools of data and information. So I think that's a critical piece in this as well.
Zoë Routh: I love that, as a very useful practical and almost blindingly obvious point is to ask the people who are your customers, the people for whom you exist. It reminds me, I saw an American speaker, his names John Spence, he spoke at the Big Ideas Conference in Toowoomba last week, he was talking about what are the critical ... finding out in your business what are the critical key customer catch points in your business. You know what are the things that are, if you don't get these right, you've lost business.
So for a restaurant, was the example, you need to have great food, great service, clean bathrooms, as an example. If you get that bad food, or bad service, or bad bathrooms, particularly bad bathrooms, forget it, you're never going back there. So, my question to him was, well how can you figure out the key touch points in your business cause we're often blind to that? He said to me, "You just ask your customers."
I loved that because that's your point exactly, is let's actually talk to people, have heart to heart conversations about what's most important and to elicit the stories through real life experiences the way to win hearts. So I think that's a fabulous suggestion, in fact the narrative that's coming through in our conversation so far is to be really real with people. Is to drop the jargon and drop the rush and just show up and be mana on mana, or human to human with each other, which is a lovely message.
Simon Dowling: Yeah, it is, and I think we're at a point in time where there's all sort of interesting bits of research coming through about this at the moment, but we're at a point in time where our trust in leaders is at an all-time low. It's because I think we are more sceptical than ever about the rehearsed company line if you like, or the rehearsed message. We see it with our politicians who use expressions and language and slogans, over and over again, as if we are somehow going to be duped by that. But we, I guess we see through it, we go, "Well I know that you're somewhere in there behind that message and I want to know where you are." So we kind of have to let go of niche and tidy language and just be prepared to be vulnerable enough again to use kind of simple language that expresses what we're feeling ourselves.
I'm staying in a hotel at the moment, I'm calling you from a hotel, I won't say, which one or where it is, drop them in it, but there's some building works going on here at the moment. It's been horrendously noisy, and I was terrified it was going to be, I'd have a huge pneumatic drill popping through the wall as we were trying to do this interview. So I was speaking with the manager down, well first the poor bloke on reception and then the manager after that trying to get some kind of resolution, but in the three layers of conversation I had, I just literally heard the same message or line being recited to me, time after time. "It's the policy of our hotel to make sure that our customers are well cared for, however there are limitations to that as we only have a fixed number of rooms."
There's nothing untruthful about what they were saying but it was the veneer, again communications management that deeply irritated me and interrupted the connection between us. Just don't do it, just talk plain, "Oh I'm so sorry this is really difficult for us." You don't have to have a solution, just look real.
Zoë Routh: I think some of that is lack of experience too, like I don't know if they were younger staff or whether they'd just been institutionalised through their work effort. I had a lunch in Brisbane last week and I went there 10 minutes before the lunch, because I was hosting it, to make sure that everything was all sorted, at 10 to 12 and I went in to go get seated and she's like, "Oh I'm sorry, we only let people in at PM, that's when ... we are between services right now." I was like, "Are you kidding me? Can't I just come in and sit down at my table, I don't care if you're still putting knives and forks out." But it was just like this blanket, "Go away. Thou shall not pass." Kind of experience, and looking at this young, she was a young lady, she clearly was following the rules, and I'm wondering if it's sometimes it's just lack of experience or whether it's just been hammered into us to follow the rules. That gets in the way of us actually connecting authentically with people around us. What do you think around that?
Simon Dowling: Yeah, absolutely, I was going to add to that and I think if you go down a layer again, and this is why it's particularly important for any leader ... I don't think it has to be a lack of experience, but I think the issue that sits at the core of it is fear. Fear that I will lose control or I will lose power, or I will lose influence. That's why I often talk about how important courage is in leadership generally, but these kinds of conversations because I have to have the courage to be open to other people’s point of view, and to spend time listening to them without allowing myself to be governed by the fear that I'll lose control by listening. Or that I will lose control and influence if I allow some of their ideas into the mix, or if I allow the possibility that when they say, "No." And when they say, "Ah that's not going to work." That I allow the possibility that there might be something truthful in that for me.
The moment I allow that I allow also the possibility that my entire idea and my entire proposition is going to come crashing down around us. So out of fear I think we often try and shore up everything that we're thinking and everything we have to say, and that stifles the real conversation again.
Zoë Routh: So I'm wondering if this style, approach works better in private sector than public service. You might have some experience with that. The reason I ask that is cause I'm thinking about how some of my public service clients really are on the receiving end of a dictum, and I'm trying to imagine them trying to build a sense of collaboration and [inaudible 00:30:12] in an environment where they are told, this is happening. They really don't have any recourse to make it any different. What's your experience with that? Do you work with much in public service versus private sector and see how people respond to change that's mandated like that?
Simon Dowling: Yeah, look the majority of my work is private sector but it's a very [inaudible 00:30:38] right now, because I've got one pretty large public-sector client that is grappling with that question right now. There is a constraint as you say within the system in that there is very much this hand down of policy or of priority or direction, and that can change on a day to day basis. It's coming from people who feel like they sit outside their immediate systems, the Minister or whoever it might be. But what I do kind of still think is that even if no ones that constrained for a second, and I think you have to, is then the question of well how do we as a department for example overall, or as a public agency overall, how do we manage and cope with those demands? How do we deliver against them in a way that is clever, efficient and effective, so we actually deliver on the results? How do we do it in a way that makes the experience of doing work a positive one?
So there's a life question, for example with one group I'm working with, which is how do we ... given that there's so many priorities coming down the pipeline, and we're not getting quite as many resources as we thought we would to be able to deliver against those, how do we cope? The answers staring them in the face, which is, we're going to have to get better at sharing across these very large agency, how do we share resources, information, knowledge? How do we cooperate, how do we streamline? There's no way we're going to be able to do that unless we change things both in terms of our leadership mind set and secondly make some changes in terms of systems. I think you have to think of both of those in this, particularly institutions like that.
Zoë Routh: It's a tough gig, that's for sure, so I like that you give us a little ray of hope with that, even though that many organisations are on the top down receiving end of orders and priorities etc. As you say, that we can actually respond in a collaborative way, I think that's a useful tip, that's for sure. One thing you mentioned there; ...
Simon Dowling: I once, sorry, I was going to say, I once read someone was writing about their experience of working at Apple, and they said during the tenure of Steve Jobs, there was an enormous amount of pressure and demand in terms of the amount that the organisation would do, the priorities that would come through. Sometimes they would change direction quite dramatically. They said, there was an enormous amount, as a result of that, an enormous amount of collaborative spirit throughout the organisation in terms of how do we best cope and adjust with that? I thought that was interesting, cause it's almost like the same issue but in a private sector context.
Zoë Routh: Yeah that's awesome, that's a good analogy. Respond in a collaborative spirit, it's like right, those are the whims of ... it's almost like being on a ship at sea and you might have one plan, but all of a sudden the wind changes and every bodies all hands on deck to get the ship rigged in different direction to cope with the new forces at play. So even though you have no control over the weather you do have control over how you run your ship and respond to the prevailing headwinds. So I like that, that whole collaborative spirit, in spite of things that are out of control. I'm dying to ask you about this, you talk about nemawashi, I don't even know if that's pronounced correctly, in your book. What is that? What's important about that?
Simon Dowling: Yeah, nemawashi, yeah no, spot on. Says he who has no deep expertise in speaking Japanese at all, cause nemawashi is a Japanese term. I love the idea of nemawashi, so it's not just a Japanese word it's actually sort of a core cultural concept within Japan. If you take the word nemawashi, it literally translates as pairing the roots to transplant. So if you can imagine it being applied for a second to a bonsai plant, and you're about to move the bonsai plant from one pot to another, to re-pot it. The idea of a nemawashi is that you would first of all spend time, before you can transplant that plant successful without it dying, keeling over, [inaudible 00:35:06] first you need to take time first to prepare the roots themselves. Whether that's a combination of fertilising them, trimming them, whatever it might be to make sure the plant is ready to be shifted.
It applies that idea in Japanese culture you apply that idea now to the whole act of getting your ideas across the line, to doing business in groups. So now the idea of nemawashi is ... and the Japanese, you know what I love, is they'll literally use the term, they'll ask, "Have you done nemawashi on this idea first?" So the idea here is now, if I've got a presentation I want to do to an executive management group, and there's eight of them in that room, the idea that I would walk into that room and present that idea to them in that room for the first time with all eight of them sitting there, and then ask them to give me their approval, there and then, is just cultural suicide.
You just don't do it. So the notion is, is you've got to prepare the roots for transplant, so you've got to spend time in the corridors, or in private conversations first, gently teasing out ... here in Australia the word's socialising the idea, the idea started to take root a little bit, so socialising ideas, spreading it, talking about it with my stakeholders and saying, "Here's what I've got in mind, I'd love to get your view on this." I suppose there's two things about that, one is there's a respect bit kicking in there, which is I don't walk into a group of senior people and ask them to commit their position on something in front of their colleagues, because that makes it very hard for them to save face if their answer is no, or if it's different from their colleagues. The second is that it respects their input, so over the period of consulting and getting their ideas on board, it gives me the opportunity to shape up my idea in a way that is fundamentally yes-able. So it's an idea that I know is going to fly with this group.
So it's a delicate art of consultation and it's actually been embodied into the Toyota way. So, Toyota being a classic Japanese company, the Toyota way embodies nemawashi as one of its operating principles as well. It's a great idea and I think there's an enormous amount, it's unique to Japan as a concept, but there's an enormous amount for us to learn about it in terms of this sort of whole idea of going slow in order to go fast. You want to get your ideas across the line.
Zoë Routh: I love that, so yeah it's similar to the idea of you have the meetings before the meeting, in terms of go around and you canvas opinions and not necessarily doing a sales job, which is the one way traffic kind of approach to leadership and engagement. More as you discuss it, as an invitation for conversation and perspective. I think that's great, nemawashi. So, I have one last question and it centres around this whole idea of ideas. When it comes to buy in and influence can a good idea be enough on its own to get buy in?
Simon Dowling: That echoes of if a tree falls in the wood, and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? It's a profound question, because I guess, in theory I would have to say yes, in practice I'd have to say, is an idea ever on its own? I mean is it ever not filtered. Of course if we're sitting a room by ourselves and we have an idea then you might say that's the purest form of an idea, and so that's why we buy into it. But the moment we want to get an idea across the line, we need to get it through all kinds of filters. Perception filters that might come about because of the relationship, how you feel about me is going to create necessary bias to yes, or to no. So a bias, if you trust me and you think I'm onto a winning thing all the time then obviously you're going to have a bias to yes when I come to the table with a new idea.
But I think you would have to say, I mean if you take out all those filters for a second, you would have to say the quality of the idea in the first instance is going to be a critical part of buy in. Otherwise the risk is that we focus on all of these other aspects of the buy in process IE; the way you message it, the relationship, the mood, the way you provide people with the scaffolding and the structure to actually take that idea and turn it into action. If we focus on all of those things alone then I think that is where we risk starting to see buy in as purely a matter of perception management. I think at the nucleus, now if I'm going to think of buy in as a truly, as a genuine exercise, I think it has to assume that the narrative of the idea in of itself, is the thing that gives this a positive effort from beginning to end.
So yes I'm trying to shake your perception of it but that's because I believe that if you were able to be with independently this idea would be one that you would want to take risk too. That this idea is one that meets your needs, it adds value for you, that your concerns can be overcome and I'm not trying to hoodwink you after all that. So I think at its truest form, the idea is where it's at.
Zoë Routh: Wow, I love that, it makes so much sense to me now, to think about why ideas have their day or don't have their day. It's not just the pure idea, it's all those other messy, complex interactions that you describe, that can bring it to life or not. So there is quite a lot to attend to when you're trying to evoke change, or a mission, or a vision, or a project that you are passionate about. That it's not just going in with this all guns blazing, I have the solution, there is a lot more to it in terms of engagement and co-creating. Which is the essence of your book, which is a fabulous book and I'm going to put a link to that. A link to your site, your website and to the book on the podcast page, which is at zoerouth.com/podcast/simon. You'll get to see all of Simon's work there. Is there any last message you want to leave to our listeners?
Simon Dowling: Other than that your podcast is fabulous, which I've listened to before, but then they should already know that. Look I think the real juice of collaboration and buy in comes from people simply being able to step into a place of what's possible. I use this expression, what's possible, all the time, and I think again what I'm always encouraging people to do is to let go a little bit of that need to drive an outcome so quickly, because it's efficient to do it, or it seems easier to do it. Just step back and be inclusive enough in their thinking to say, "Oh I wonder what's possible in this conversation?" To be abundant enough to think that actually by having a conversation that is around their ideas that when we put our two heads together we might actually come up with something better than my original proposition. For that reason to be courageous enough to actually sit in that possibility of not knowing for however brief it might be, to explore those possibilities.
I reckon that's, to go back to your first question to me about the lawyering and improv world, that's probably the most valuable thing I've got out of improv, and it's why it's true line in everything I do, and I keep improvising. Is because it forces you to let go, you can't barrel on stage and have a script that you want to roll out. You have to let go and be open to, I wonder what's possible? As we all step onto this stage in front of this paying audience, and if we could live our lives a little bit like that I think we'd get better results and people just feel like they're having a lot more fun doing it.
Zoë Routh: What a great message, and I think what folks don't know underneath if they're just listening to you for the first time, is that this whole spirit of what's possible and having an abundant mindset comes from your, I don't know if it's your natural tendency, but certainly your lived tendency to simply show up and appreciate the moment. I've read a lot of what you've written about your simple observations of the day, and just being present to what is. I remember this one description you had in one forum where you talked about appreciating a piece of salmon that you'd cooked for the evening, and the simple joy you took in cooking a piece of salmon was just so delightful. I think Simon that is your, one of your true gifts is that you bring into your life and into your work and with people around you, is your ability to show up and just be delighted in what is in the moment. I think if we could all adopt some of that we'd all be better off as people and as leaders. So thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and insight, it's always a joy to spend time with you Simon.
Simon Dowling: Ah, my absolute pleasure, the treat was all mine. Thank you Zoe.