Maureen McCarthy should have been dead 15 years ago. Doctors gave her just a few months to live after diagnosing McCarthy, an international leadership consultant and executive coach, with a rare fatal lung disease.
McCarthy’s still very much alive, even though her pulmonologist tells her frequently that she only has the next six months to live. She, like the rest of us, really doesn’t know how long she’s got. Her hearty laugh (even on just 10% lung capacity) underscores her assertion that she’s stress-free and healthy for now. For much of this, she credits creating and using a collaboration document called the "Blueprint of We."
It’s collaborative because each individual in the relationship, whether its a team, business partnership, or couple, is required to fill out five simple components including stuff that ordinarily gets avoided between colleagues. This includes talking about what they might need when stressed at work, and also about their expectations (read: non-negotiables). Writing it all down, McCarthy tells Fast Company, is a way to get past the euphoria of starting a new venture to build, sustain, and transition business and personal relationships with trust and respect.
Now used by businesses, nonprofits, schools, and families in over 100 countries combined, the first Blueprint of We was drawn up by McCarthy and her husband Zelle Nelson shortly after they met. Between her disease and his pining for a lost love, McCarthy asserts, "We were not doing this future thing." She believes many relationships fall prey to "the whole future forever myth" at the expense of building something honest and collaborative. McCarthy learned this firsthand when she witnessed a business partnership with her best friend end stressfully. That first Blueprint led the couple to cofound the Center for Collaborative Awareness (and another Blueprint, which you can see in the sidebar to the right—that they share with their clients and collaborators all over the world).
Failure to work well together is something that happens too often on the job, even though we know collaboration is at the heart of America’s happiest companies and businesses spend about $1 billion on cloud-based social tools to encourage working together, not to mention design office space to get to the holy grail: innovation.
McCarthy believes what’s missing is having conversations that matter.
Ashley Munday, leader of collaborative strategies for Barrett Values Centre, experienced the value of these dialogues with her four-person team. Based in England with staff scattered all over world, the company develops metrics and culture assessments used in over 3,000 organizations in 50 countries. Munday says the Blueprint of We process illuminated how they could work together while playing to strengths. For instance, Munday says there was an expectation that people should be available on Skype immediately. That was quickly brought out and dealt with before anyone resented being on the hook to answer even if they were deep in a project.
When inevitable conflicts arise, says Munday, "We already had that conversation, so there a shared sense of understanding of where things are coming from." Barrett Values Centre has incorporated the Blueprint across the board, one reason they were named to the WorldBlu List of Most Democratic Workplaces 2013.
But they also share it with clients and partners. Munday recalls drawing up a Blueprint with the development firm that was redesigning Barrett’s website. The creative director had a set of directives he was comfortable working with (don’t be vague in your requests, don’t ask for a hybrid of two designs) that were spelled out in the document before he sat down at the drawing board. "When we, as a team, reviewed the designs we had that in mind so we weren’t inadvertently setting him off," she says. "When peoples limbic systems go off, they are not able to use their prefrontal cortex," notes Munday, something that forces them into a blocked and fearful mindset.
The "state of grace" portion of the Blueprint eliminates those fear triggers by suggesting questions like, "What’s really working for us now?" and "what do we gain by continuing or ending this work together?" Facilitating such a direct dialogue moves the conversation beyond the irrational "you just don’t like me and it’s stressing me out" to a less personal, less fraught place. Not to mention how the ability to have this kind of creative conversation can completely reinvent a business, brand, or career.
Entrepreneurs take note: This is especially important at the start of your enterprise. Says Munday: "That is the point where people are most aspirational and have the deepest sense of appreciation." Documenting their vision and values makes it easier to incorporate them throughout the organization. "Really getting clear on what is important to the people involved and connecting [the staff] with why they are doing this will help them when the inevitable challenges show up."
[Image: Flickr user Nyuhuhuu]