Author Interview with Jim Benson-The Collaboration Equation

Author Interview with Jim Benson

How can organizations create cultures of continuous improvement? How can we overcome the reasons many lean and agile transformations fail? How can individuals come together in alignment to create value for customers?

The answer: collaboration!

In his latest book, The Collaboration Equation: Strong Professionals Strong Teams Strong Delivery Jim Benson highlights the solution to the problems most organizations face in really achieving the outcomes they want: how to foster human collaboration, where individuals work together in teams to create value, where professionals act with confidence, and where work can be visualized.

I recommend The Collaboration Equation for any individual or team seeking to create a culture in which continuous improvement will thrive and flourish, where individuals at all levels are engaged, and where creativity and innovation thrives. Plus the book is visually beautiful, with a color interior filled with photographs and images that support the stories, lessons, and insights Jim shares along the way.

I was thrilled to sit down recently to talk with Jim about his book, the insights within its pages, and the stories and personal experiences that inspired him to create The Collaboration Equation.

Check out our interview to dive into our rich conversation about collaboration, continuous improvement, and how to create cultures that foster connection and innovation.  Be sure to watch or listen to the interview to get all the insights from our discussion! Jim is a fabulous storyteller and you won’t want to miss it.

The Collaboration Equation - Jim Benson Book Giveaway

A Chance to Win!

Jim generously donated three copies of his book for three lucky winners around the world.

If you would like to hear about my next book giveaway and be offered the chance to win, you can sign up here.

This giveaway ended on March 29th at 11:45pm Pacific.

About Jim Benson and The Collaboration Equation

Jim and I have known each other for years and I was so happy to reconnect. We are both on faculty with the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) and met for the first time in person in 2017 at the Lean Coaching Summit in Seattle.

Jim’s background is diverse, with a uniting thread of applying new technologies to work groups – in each case asking how they can be leveraged to collaborate and cooperate more effectively. He initially started his career in urban planning and civil engineering and worked on big, complex projects including subways, freeways, and things that required a lot of inter-jurisdictional collaboration.

Along the way he also ran a major part of the NAMES project – the AIDS Memorial Quilt –  and started a software company and more. All of these experiences led to him starting to build tools for collaboration and lean, such as Lean Coffee, Kanban, Personal Kanban, and writing Personal Kanban.

Jim now consults with global companies and runs an online school and community called Modus Institute, where people around the world talk about lean and agile and the future of work.

After many years of writing (and revising – as you will learn in this interview) his latest book, he published The Collaboration Equation at the end of 2022.

As I read the book, I was brought back to my early days when I was first learning and practicing lean and continuous improvement while working at a children’s hospital. The thing that really made me convert to “kaizen” (continuous improvement) was the process of pulling people together with a focused purpose to solve problems, where they had maybe never had that opportunity to collaborate so openly. They were working in their silos and never had the chance to see each other’s work or to solve a problem they all cared about.

When we foster collaboration among people to make progress aligned with a shared purpose, we create joy and real problem-solving happens. Jim highlights this so well in his book and provides methods and tools that people can use to foster this collaboration.

(By the way, Jim partnered with my friend and colleague Tom Ehrenfeld, who has been my editor for articles in the Lean Post for LEI and interviewed me and Isao Yoshino for the Lean Enterprise Institute’s “WLEI Podcast” back in 2020)!

Author Interview with Jim Benson and Katie Anderson: The Collaboration Equation

Please enjoy our discussion on collaboration, leadership, and lean. We both share stories from our experiences in working with leadership teams around the world to foster cultures of continuous improvement – and share why it’s about the process, the people and the collaboration – not the tools – that are the key to success.

You can watch our interview below on Youtube, or as a podcast on the go, or read through the questions and sample highlights below!

(The podcast episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify!)

Interview Questions and Highlights:

Below are some of the questions I asked Jim (with timestamps) and some lightly edited highlights of his answers.

1. What inspired you to write this book? What was the problem you were trying to solve by writing this book? (4:36)

I am a person of copious inspiration. So, trying to pull something coherent out of that question is going to be interesting for me. All of the things that I have enjoyed doing have involved groups of people who actually care about the product coming together and figuring out how to create that product.

My main inspiration was to tell a set of stories that really help people learn that they need to do the work, that somebody’s not just going to come in and bless them with the “lean stick” or the “agile stick” or something.

2. A quote from the book that really stood out to me was: “Today we regularly build and maintain anti-collaborative cultural patterns without realizing it. Our lean and agile rhetoric works against its original intent. We are anxious to blindly follow the patterns, not thoughtfully deploy them to solve problems or make things better.” (page 30)

Could you talk a little bit about what you’ve observed and how this led to the content of the book? (8:42)

As lean practitioners, I think we’ve all had the experience of hearing people say they hate lean.

It is actually functionally impossible to hate lean, as all lean means is that tomorrow sucks less than today, and you really can’t hate that.

But, what they actually hate is that they’ve had senseis or bullies or jerks come in and use lean as an excuse or have interpreted lean in a way that’s heavy handed. …. I spend so much time deprogramming people from bad lean and agile coaches because they come with the tools first. And that just chafes me.

Author Interview with Jim Benson Callout 1

[When they come to the Modus website] many people are like, “We’ve started our lean journey. We’ve started our agile journey, our CI journey, our whatever we want to call our journey. And we keep getting lost.” And they keep getting lost because they’re focused on the tools and they haven’t taken the time to actually not just define, but also instantiate their culture. And so if you build an obeya [a “large room” to visualize work],  if you do an A3, it should not operate at cross purposes to your culture.

What we would see all the time is people would put up a “Jim Benson” style kanban board on a wall, and then they would make themselves slaves to that board:  “Our work has to flow this way. We have to get this done this way.” And it’s like, no, no, no, no. Your process is the way that the people on your teams interact, and they need to have that as an agreement. It doesn’t come from a book somewhere. It’s about, what do you need to do to get the work done?

3. In the book (on page 130) you write, “Without understanding your culture, you will never obtain a culture of continuous improvement.”

What have you come to learn about the value of understanding your culture and how that influences how we create continuous improvement cultures? (17:21)

You can’t tell someone that they have agency. You  cannot command someone to be free. Freedom isn’t just the absence [of structure]… Freedom isn’t anarchy.

Freedom is a system that allows you to act with confidence. It gives you the information that you need when you need it. It recognizes when you’ve made a decision. It gives you the opportunity to learn and share learning and so on. 

And so… what happens all the time is bosses will come in and say, we have no tolerance for a lack of psychological safety, or there will be no more institutional bias in this company. And then they will leave and people are like, “Wow, I feel safe and unbiased now.” We actually have to do the work.

4. How did you come up with the succinct list of the 5 principles of collaboration (1 – Pay Attention, 2 – Give a Damn, 3 – Improvement is Your Job, 4 – Information Drives Action, 5 – Trust But Visualize)?

And then where do you usually start when you’re working with an organization? (20:40)

The first question I’ll answer completely honestly… because Tom Ehrenfeld [my editor] made me… You play with these concepts because you want to be general enough in them to inspire action, but you want to be specific enough to not inspire the wrong, the wrong action.

Secondly, I believe the last two principles are most important: 4 – Information inspires action and 5 – Trust but visualize. Because no matter how much I trust you or you trust me, there’s too much going on every day for us to keep track of it or update each other verbally or in a document. So if we have one place where all of the information is in there that keeps us informed – that passive information radiator allows us not just to continue trusting, but to build more trust.

So, if you’re off in your silo and you’re working and I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re doing. And the longer that goes on, the more I start to worry that you are not getting your stuff done… So in any organization that I’ve been in, healthcare, construction, software development, international development, or whatever – if people can see what’s going on, they do a better job.

5. You talk about how leadership differs from other functions such as administration and management.

What is one thing that you’ve personally had to adjust in your style to become a better collaborative leader? (25:13)

In chapter eight, I try my best to debunk almost every management book, every leadership book that’s ever been written… And, and the reason is because I commonly see management confused with leadership. Leadership is an action that helps further the progress of the project being undertaken. And that can be vision, it can be implementing a new tool, it can be an innovation, whatever it might be.

What I’ve had to adjust is the amount I talk. I can lecture and I can be really bombastic and I can just go for it. So, I have to go in with exercises that specifically make me shut up. Then I can point to things when they happen and say, “here’s a mini-lecture.” But the lectures always come with confidence…and with context, and the actions of the group then spur from those seedlings.

6. What is one thing that you discovered or learned with a new perspective through the process of writing the book? (29:35)


Life is a combination of discovery and rediscovery…What fascinates me about writing this book is the number of, a number of lessons that I relearned while going through the book.

I know that Jim Benson has this law – I haven’t quite written out yet, but there’s this law that basically says – “You will get it together and then you will fall apart, and then you’ll get it together again, and then you will fall apart. Even if you’re aware of Jim Benson’s law falling apart.”

So the key thing for me there is when we’re involved in a group, there’s always others that have your back that will keep the visualizations going. When you start to fall off, we’ll keep the process in check. When you start to fall off, they can watch you start to fall off and provide care and vice versa.

And it’s really hard to do that when we treat our work as solo work. Lots of people will say, “Hey, I read Personal Kanban, I loved it. I did it for a while, and then I couldn’t anymore.” And it’s like, really? Did your fingers break? Did you run out of Post-it notes? No, you fell off the wagon. You have to get back on.

7. What is a question that you haven’t, or are not usually asked about the book? What is that question? And what’s your answer? (35:01)

Question: Why are process and people the same? 

No one was paid to work on the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. But in creating it, we created the largest memorial in history, the largest public art project in history. And helped tens or hundreds or thousands, maybe millions of people grieve and express themselves. All of that was people coming together for a specific goal.

And there’s one story in the book where there’s this company, and the company is literally about to implode because of their own level of defects. And the whole company has to come together to fix this… Everyone had to come together to swarm on this one constraint.

Before we started, everyone was angry. They were angry with each other. They were angry with the problem. They were angry with having to interrupt their work to do this other stuff.

The moment they started working on it, the goal was clear. The huge complexity of solving the problem was clear. And everyone rose to that challenge because everyone rose to that challenge.

The people in that place were the process. We didn’t have to tell them, you do this and you do this, or you do this. They set up their own egalitarian system of how to do that. And when those things happen, the product is better, it happens faster, and you go home energized.

And that’s what the book is for. And that’s what I want for people. And I tried my best throughout it to provide practical ways to achieve it.

Check out the full interview and connect with Jim

Liked the summary of what you read above? Be sure to listen to or watch the entire discussion for all of Jim’s stories and our shared insights together.

To learn more about Jim Benson, you can connect with him on Modus website.

The Collaboration Equation - Jim Benson Book Giveaway

Three Chances to Win a Copy of The Collaboration Equation!

In March 2023, three lucky participants from around the world won a copy of the paperback version of The Collaboration Equation!

While this giveaway has ended, you have a chance to win my next book giveaway. Enter here to be notified of my next giveaway.

This giveaway ended on March 29th at 11:45pm Pacific time.

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