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Work-Thrus:. Leveraging Collective Knowledge for Extraordinary Performance. Agenda. Why We Needed a Change How Work-Thrus Work Why Work-Thrus Work What We Learned. Background: 1997. Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program (FEP)

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work thrus


Leveraging Collective Knowledge for

Extraordinary Performance

  • Why We Needed a Change
  • How Work-Thrus Work
  • Why Work-Thrus Work
  • What We Learned

© 2009 by Rod Collins

background 1997
Background: 1997

Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program (FEP)

  • Business alliance of 39 independent BCBS Plans delivering a seamless national product
  • Largest privately underwritten health insurance account in the United States
  • $6 billion in annual premium revenue
  • 3.6 million customers
  • 43% market share

© 2009 by Rod Collins

why we needed a change
Why We Needed a Change
  • Signs of trouble
    • Medical loss ratio: 106.2%
    • Performance index: 78 (120 pt scale)
    • BCBS Plan satisfaction with FEP leadership: 79% (poor)
  • Our business world was suddenly moving much faster
  • Misaligned management model
    • Using command-and-control while lacking command authority
    • Meetings were perennial political debates
    • Major initiatives had lots of “bugs”
    • “Herding cats”

© 2009 by Rod Collins

the business alliance management problem
The Business Alliance Management Problem

How do you manage when you have no practical authority over many geographically dispersed workers in fast-changing markets?

© 2009 by Rod Collins

the business alliance management solution
The Business AllianceManagement Solution

The focus of management needs to shift from

Order and Authority


Knowledge and Speed

© 2009 by Rod Collins

why we needed a change7
Why We Needed a Change
  • We needed to move smarter and faster
    • Shift the politics from control to collaboration
    • Shift the conversation from debate to dialogue
    • Shift the decisions from command to consensus
  • We needed better meetings with lasting results
    • Best meetings are run by outside facilitators, but results don’t last
    • Train executives to be facilitators
    • Develop a meeting format that fosters listening, participation, consensus, and focused action – all in a short period of time

© 2009 by Rod Collins

how work thrus work
How Work-Thrus Work
  • Work-Thrus are 2 – 3 day offsite meetings of between 25 – 50 participants that provide companies with quick access to the most untapped resource in almost every organization: the collective knowledge of its own workers.
  • Work-Thrus enable meetings to be as fast and productive as “wiki pages.”
  • Work-Thrus are powerful tools that get to the heart of complex business issues or processes by drawing on an organization’s best collective thinking and moving to a clear consensus on action in a very short period of time
        • Critical Initiatives
        • Major Projects
        • Business Process Improvement

© 2009 by Rod Collins

three key roles
Three Key Roles
  • The Sponsor
      • The executive with bottom line accountability
      • The primary customer of the Work-Thru process
      • Sets the objectives for the meeting
  • The Facilitator
      • The steward of the Work-Thru process
      • Preferably an inside executive, but can be an outside facilitator
      • Cannot be invested in the outcome of the meeting
  • The Participants
      • Diversity of levels
      • Diversity of functions
      • Microcosm of the business in the meeting room

© 2009 by Rod Collins

pre work thru activity
Pre Work-Thru Activity
  • Facilitator meets with Sponsor
    • Define the 3 – 4 objectives for the meeting
    • Agree on the list of the 25 – 50 participants
    • Choose the outside location for the meeting
  • Facilitator drafts the work plan
    • Verbally review work plan with the sponsor
    • The work plan is not an agenda and is highly likely to change
    • The objectives are the agenda

© 2009 by Rod Collins

the work thru session
The Work-Thru Session
  • The Room
    • Round tables, 8 – 10 people per table
    • Invite participants to sit at any table as they enter the room
  • The Flow
    • Opening
    • Alternate between three different interactive activities:
      • Presentations
      • Small group exercises
      • Large group discussions
    • Wrap Up

© 2009 by Rod Collins

  • Two types:
      • Opening orientations
      • Report-outs from small group exercises
  • Two rules:
      • During presentations: no interruptions
      • After presentations: clarifying questions only
  • The two rules radically change the usual group dynamics by structuring listening into the start of the meeting
  • A simple provision: before we agree or disagree or express another opinion, let’s be sure that we’ve heard what’s being said first

© 2009 by Rod Collins

small group exercises
Small Group Exercises
  • The first exercise is always to list the 3 – 5 most important observations, opinions, or concerns about the key issue
  • Exercises are always focused on clear and specific deliverables for reporting out to all participants
  • The key dynamic that drives the effectiveness of Work-Thrus: the “depoliticizing of ideas”
  • Work-Thrus take the time to listen and to understand different perspectives before attempting problem-solving or agreeing on needed actions
  • A bias for fast results not fast action: “Slow down to move fast”

© 2009 by Rod Collins

large group discussions
Large Group Discussions
  • The time and the place for problem-solving and for conclusions and agreements
  • Conclusions and agreements about the group’s ideas rest with the group – period
  • When large groups process “depoliticized ideas,” the discussion is naturally focused on how to integrate the different ideas rather than on which idea is right or wrong
  • Five Types:
      • Clear Consensus discussions
      • Focus List discussions
      • Creative Alternative discussions
      • Key Questions discussions
      • Timeline discussions

© 2009 by Rod Collins

the four cardinal rules of work thrus
The Four Cardinal Rulesof Work-Thrus
  • Presentations are always delivered without interruption.
  • After presentations, clarifying questions only.
  • Small group exercises are always focused on clear and specific deliverables.
  • Conclusions and agreements about the group’s ideas rest with the group – period.

© 2009 by Rod Collins

why work thrus work
Why Work-Thrus Work
  • Quick access to collective knowledge
  • There is nothing as powerful as getting everybody – or at least a critical mass of everybody – in the “same room at the same time”
  • Nobody is smarter than everybody
  • Companies discover “what they don’t know that they don’t know”
  • A clear focus on what’s most important

© 2009 by Rod Collins

why work thrus work17
Why Work-Thrus Work
  • Demonstrate the attributes of “Liberating Structures”
  • Consistent with the Three Organizing Principles of Complex Adaptive Systems
  • Satisfy Surowiecki’s Four Conditions for “Wise Crowds”
  • Contain the Four Ingredients for Mass Collaboration

© 2009 by Rod Collins

liberating structures
Liberating Structures

Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless have identified the following attributes of Liberating Structures

  • Structured steps that guide group interaction
  • Constraints that focus the group’s attention (e.g., the Four Cardinal Rules)
  • Conversations among all participants affected by an issue
  • Bottom-up proposals and action
  • No control on the content of group conversations
three organizing principles of complex adaptive systems
Three Organizing Principles ofComplex Adaptive Systems
  • Intelligence resides in the whole system
  • Simple rules guide complex collective behavior
  • Order emerges from the interaction of independent agents

© 2009 by Rod Collins

surowiecki s four conditions for wise crowds
Surowiecki’s Four Conditionsfor “Wise Crowds”
  • Diversity of opinion
  • Independent thinking
  • Local knowledge
  • Aggregation mechanisms
four ingredients of mass collaboration
Four Ingredients of Mass Collaboration
  • Common Space replaces the Chain of Command
  • Open Conversations replace Stratified Voices
  • Consensus Agreements replace Top-Down Directives
  • Self-Organized Work replaces Assigned Tasks

© 2009 by Rod Collins

what we learned
What We Learned
  • Nobody is smarter or faster than everybody
  • You have to slow down to move fast
  • There is nothing as powerful as getting everybody in the “same room at the same time.”
  • The smartest organization is not the one with the smartest individuals; it’s the one with quick access to its collective knowledge

© 2009 by Rod Collins

what we learned23
What We Learned
  • There are two basic phases to every major project: order and chaos. Our only choice is the sequence – why would anyone choose chaos last?
  • “What you don’t know that you don’t know” is the prime culprit behind failed initiatives.
  • Shared understanding is a far more powerful driver of consistency than control
  • Knowledge workers are fully capable of “connecting the dots” once they have a realistic frame of reference

© 2009 by Rod Collins

what we learned24
What We Learned
  • Today’s management challenge is more about mass collaboration than mass production.
  • Mass collaboration radically redefines the challenge of organizing the work of large numbers of people.
  • The manager’s new challenge is how to make self-organization efficient
  • We discovered a new management model: wiki-management

© 2009 by Rod Collins

organizing models
Organizing Models



Mass Collaboration

The prime values are Knowledge & Speed

Leaders think “outside-in.”

Leverages collective knowledge

Basis of strategy: collective learning

Basis of execution: self-organization

Key Management Responsibilities

Customer Values

Collective Learning

Shared Understanding

Focused Measures

Collaborative Community

  • Mass production
  • The prime values are Order & Authority
  • Leaders think “inside-out”
  • Leverages expert knowledge
  • Basis of strategy: central planning
  • Basis of execution: hierarchical organization
  • Key Management Responsibilities
    • Planning
    • Organizing
    • Directing
    • Coordinating
    • Controlling

© 2009 by Rod Collins

ten years later 2007
Ten Years Later: 2007

Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program (FEP)

  • $19 billion in annual premium revenue
  • 4.6 million customers
  • 59% market share
  • Medical loss ratio: 90.6%
  • Performance index: 104 (unprecedented high)
  • BCBS Plan satisfaction with FEP leadership: 97%

© 2009 by Rod Collins

a final thought
A Final Thought

It’s just a matter of time before all of us will be asking the question that is causing so many twentysomethings to turn their backs on traditional companies today: “Why, when we are able to quickly collaborate in cyberspace with all kinds of people from all over the globe, is it so hard to get anything done whenever we get together in the same room?

© 2009 by Rod Collins


Thank you

Rod Collins


© 2009 by Rod Collins