What Does Great Collaboration Feel Like?

What does great collaboration feel like? Here’s the legendary basketball player Bill Russell’s description from his book, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man:

Every so often a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter, or more. Three or four plays were not enough to get it going. It would surround not only me and the other team, and even the referees. At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball inbounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, ‘it’s coming there!’ — except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.

On the five or ten occasions when the game ended at that special level, I literally did not care who had won. If we lost, I’d still be as free and high as a sky hawk.

Thanks to Deborah Meehan for the pointer!

The Networked Nonprofit Board

I’ve served on the board of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) for four years now, and I recently became the board chair. The thing I love most about LLC is how it models its principles. It doesn’t just talk about how leadership should be. It practices it, and it shares its learnings, both good and bad.

Deborah Meehan, LLC’s founder and Executive Director, recently wrote a blog post about our most recent board meeting, where we spent an afternoon thinking about what it would mean to the board if LLC were a more networked nonprofit.

Of course, simply talking about the idea among ourselves would have been interesting, but not as gratifying. Instead, we modeled the idea by inviting guests to think with us. (Beth Kanter, one of our guests, reposted Deborah’s post on her blog.) Even though I and other board members (notably Grady McGonagill) spend a lot of time thinking about networks, the truth is that the LLC staff deserves all the credit for moving us forward in this way.

At the end of her post, Deborah tells an anecdote about me, which I’ve heard her share often:

Two years ago, when we extended an invitation to our community to join the design team for our national meeting over 20 people responded and our board chair, Eugene Eric Kim, had the radical idea about selecting the team, take everyone! Well, that would be an interesting approach to board recruitment wouldn’t it?

She always refers to this idea as “radical,” which always amuses me. What was so radical about it? Organizing a national meeting is super hard, so why would you turn down help? The more the merrier, right?

Those who answer “no” are generally designing for the worst case scenario. If your group is too large, you might get sidetracked. You don’t want to accept a bad seed. Etc.

These are all valid concerns, but designing for the best case scenario is equally valid. You can do more work with more hands. The larger the group, the more likely you are to attract a diamond in the rough. Etc.

I prefer to design for the best case scenario, but I’m no pollyanna. I’ve seen processes get hijacked, even by people with the best of intentions. If you’re going to design for the best case scenario, you want favorable conditions. In my experience, you want the following:

  • Crystal clear goals
  • A strong core group of committed, facilitative individuals
  • A strong network with shared language

If you have these three things, you should be designing for the best case scenario, not the worst. In the case of the Creating Space conference two years ago, we had all three:

  • People knew exactly what the conference was about and what organizing it would entail. It was the ninth time LLC was organizing this conference, so there was plenty of experience
  • The LLC staff was fully committed, and it had hired one of the best facilitators in the business, Odin Zackman (who also attended our board discussion on networks). There were also a few committed, experienced volunteers we knew we could count on, regardless of who else ended up volunteering
  • As its name suggests, LLC’s biggest asset is its diverse community, which is full of brilliant people who are strongly aligned around its values and who have fostered strong relationships and shared language with each other over the years

Like I said, given these circumstances, the idea of accepting everyone who wanted to participate didn’t seem too radical to me.

How can we apply this thinking to boards on a networked nonprofit?

There are obvious places where this applies, and there are places where it’s extremely challenging. The obvious possibilities center around leveraging domain expertise. For example, nonprofits often choose board members who bring specialized knowledge in certain areas, such as finance, fundraising, or technology. In this capacity, board members are acting as advisors, but also network weavers — people who connect the organization to their networks. There’s no reason why you couldn’t open up this role to anyone in the network who was willing to play it.

The biggest challenge centers around governance. Nonprofit boards typically have fiduciary and oversight responsibility. How would you handle this in a more networked way? Network-oriented organizations (membership networks, for example) generally approach this by making some number of their board seats elected positions.

I think a more radical shift is possible. Jack Ricchiuto’s essay on going beyond consensus beautifully describes how to move from planning to activation. I believe there’s a model that builds on this thinking, delegating as much as possible to small groups, with the board acting as weavers.

That all sounds well and good, but the devil is in the details. I don’t know what that model looks like, and I realize that there are some huge obstacles, including some legal ones, that make this very challenging.

Technically, as Deborah notes in her post, LLC does not have this problem. It’s a project of the Tides Center, which means that our board is technically an advisory board, even though we operate as an oversight board. This gives us a bit more leeway to play.

And play we will! At the end of the day, we won’t get to the answer by sitting in a room and thinking really hard. We’ll get there by staying clear about the overall goal, taking small, concrete steps, and repeating the cycle, failing early and often.

Authentic Relationships and Networking

A few months ago, I received a card from Deborah Meehan and my friends at the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). It was the second card I’ve received from them since joining their board earlier this year, and there was a long, personal note inside.    (MQV)

When Deborah and the others at LLC do things like send a card, it is a manifestation of an authentic feeling, which is a fancy way of saying that they actually mean it. Deborah is a fantastic networker, but she doesn’t network. She builds real relationships.    (MQW)

Contrast this to an experience I had on Facebook recently. My MO with most Social Network sites is to be pretty liberal about adding people to my network. (There are exceptions to this, which are probably worthy of a separate blog post one of these days.) If you invite me, and I know you, I’ll accept. If I don’t know you, then you’d better have a good reason for bothering me.    (MQX)

A few weeks ago, I got a Facebook “friend” request from a woman I didn’t recognize. We did have one friend in common, someone I knew and trusted. However, she also had over a thousand friends, which was a tip off that I probably didn’t want to deal with her. Nevertheless, I sent her a polite message asking her how we had met. She said that we hadn’t. I then asked why she had “friended” me. She responded that she couldn’t resist the smile in my picture.    (MQY)

That lame response pretty much killed any chance of me ever giving her the time of day. Nevertheless, my curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to Google her. Turns out this woman is a “professional networker” (tip off number two for me to stay away). Even worse, one of her tips for networking is to always give people a valid reason for connecting to them. Apparently, she didn’t believe in practicing what she preached.    (MQZ)

This, my friends, is why I hate “networkers.” You want to build a better network? Here’s my two-step process. Go someplace where there are people. Have Authentic Conversations. That means, follow your curiosities and passions, and listen.    (MR0)

Lest you feel this experience is indicative of the challenges of building real relationships online, let me end this post with a good Facebook experience. About a month ago, I got a “friend” request from Ken Carroll. I had no idea who he was at the time, but in his initial request, he wrote a nice note explaining that he was the founder of ChinesePod.com, he was aware of my work, and that he wanted to connect. So I looked at his stuff and thought to myself, “Wow, this guy is doing incredible work. I’d love to learn more.”    (MR1)

I accepted his request, and we exchanged a few messages. That’s all so far. But I guarantee that there will be more to this story, whether it’s next month, next year, or longer. Maybe it will be a random bit of knowledge I cull from his Facebook page. Maybe it will be an introduction to another interesting person. Maybe it will be sharing stories over drinks. Maybe we’ll work together on something. Maybe it will be all of the above. The bottom line is that whatever happens, all it took to start was an authentic gesture.    (MR2)

Group Counting Redux: Behind the Curtain

When Kathia Laszlo asked me to be a guest “lecturer” for her class, “Evolutionary Leadership, Collaboration, and Systems Thinking,” I jumped at the opportunity. Kathia and her husband, Alexander Laszlo, speak my language when it comes to collaboration and learning, and I was as excited to learn from them as I was to practice my craft with their class.    (MLW)

I had a difficult problem, though. What could I possibly do in two hours that was meaningful and interactive?    (MLX)

When I design a workshop, my goal is not to teach, but to create a space for collaborative learning. When done well, the experience is far more meaningful and engaging, and it results in deeper learning, both for the participants and for me, the facilitator. As much as I know about collaboration, groups know more. The design challenge is figuring out how to tap the Collective Wisdom of the group rather than broadcast my own knowledge.    (MLY)

The design ultimately depends on the size and makeup of the group, its familiarity with the topic, and the amount of Shared Language on that topic within the group. In this case, the class had just started, and it met infrequently. The students were familiar with the topic of collaboration, but they had not yet established a high-level of Shared Language about the topic.    (MLZ)

My game plan was simple. I expected the students to be intelligent and introspective. I would focus on modeling collaborative behavior and on building the groundwork for Shared Language. I would accelerate the Shared Language process by explicitly making it the goal of the exercises, something I rarely do when I have more time. And I would count on the students to synthesize their learning on their own time, rather than as a group.    (MM0)

We spent the first half hour working on a group counting exercise, which I first learned from Deborah Meehan. The game is normally played as an icebreaker, but when I saw Deborah lead it, she always followed it with a debrief, which seemed appropriate, given her emphasis on leadership. Since this class was also about leadership, I thought I’d have an extensive debrief as well as a few twists on the game.    (MM1)

Previously, I wrote:    (MM2)

Playing this game successfully with large groups seems to be a task that is crying out for top-down hierarchy. Maybe our intuition is wrong. Maybe we can — as a group — be aware of each other and learn to act as one without having someone tell us how to act. The group counting exercise seems to imply as much.  T    (MM3)

When you play the game a few times, you’ll notice a few things. First, the group typically learns from experience. If a pattern emerges, the group often repeats it. Second, because there is no time to prepare in a typically hierarchical process beforehand (i.e. “Let’s figure out our strategy!), leadership needs to emerge in different ways. For example, someone could start the pattern of raising his or her hand before naming a number.    (MM4)

There were about 40 people in the classroom. I wanted the group to play the game a few times, then think about these strategies in silence. I then would ask them to play with their eyes closed, figuring that all of the potential strategies required some visual cue.    (MM5)

However, someone in the class outsmarted me before we even started to play. After explaining the rules, I asked if anyone had any questions. One woman raised her hand and asked, “Is there anything preventing us from going around the room in order?” I smiled and ignored her question, but this is what was actually going through my head:    (MM6)

  • “Damn it. Shouldn’t have asked if they had any questions.”    (MM7)
  • “It’s all good. Just because someone proposed it, doesn’t mean the group will actually do it.”    (MM8)
  • “Even if they do it in a circle, it’s still good learning. We’ll just play a second time and explicitly disallow it.”    (MM9)
  • “Okay, now that that’s resolved, pretend that the question didn’t throw you.”    (MMA)

Ah, the joys of facilitation.    (MMB)

Here’s what ended up happening:    (MMC)

  • The first time, after I said “one,” two people immediately jumped in with “two,” forcing us to start over.    (MMD)
  • The second time, people tried to play the game randomly, and we choked quickly.    (MME)
  • The third time, we started going in a circle. About a third of the way through, however, the next person in line decided to break the circle and not say anything, defaulting the group to more typical game play. We choked quickly after that.    (MMF)
  • I then asked people to spend a minute thinking of strategies, then asked them to close their eyes and listen to their breathing. We got to the mid-20s before we failed.    (MMG)
  • I decided to try playing the game one more time with our eyes closed, but the class was obviously sick of it at this point, as we ended up going around in a circle.    (MMH)

We closed with a wonderful debrief. I asked the woman who broke the circle the first time around why she did it, and she said that she didn’t think it would be very interesting. Several people echoed her comments, saying that their motivation was more to see what happened than to “win” the game.    (MMI)

Several people noted that when we started, people were jumping in, because they wanted to make sure they got their number out of the way. When we closed our eyes, however, the energy shifted away from being heard to listening to others. The pace slowed down, and even though we weren’t successful, there was a rhythm that felt more promising.    (MMJ)

One student was reminded of an experience he had had in a group, where he decided to suppress his usual “leadership” instinct and just listen. To his surprise, everything that he had wanted to say was said by others. He concluded, “Sometimes the best thing you can do is be a follower.”    (MMK)

His story resonated with me in many ways, not the least of which was this very debriefing session, where I didn’t state a single observation. It was unnecessary. However, I didn’t completely agree with the student’s final comment. I approached him afterwards, told him how much I loved his story, but added, “I have to disagree with one thing. When you decided to just listen, you weren’t being a follower. You were still being a leader, maybe even moreso.”    (MML)

In my next post, I’ll conclude my summary and commentary of the class.    (MMM)

“Learning Community” Words

Deborah Meehan led the Leadership Learning Community‘s board through a quick exercise today that was partially inspired by Gail Taylor‘s “love” experiment. She read us a quote from last year’s Creating Space conference, then asked us to write down five words we think of when we hear the words “Learning Community.” We each wrote our word phrases on Post-It notes, then proceeded to cluster our words on a large surface.    (M6L)

https://i1.wp.com/farm1.static.flickr.com/176/454816833_a28778125d_m.jpg?w=700    (M6M)

There were 12 of us participating, which resulted in a total of 62 word phrases. (I split two Post-It notes into two word phrases. One was separated by a slash, the other by “and.”) Out of those 62 word phrases, 10 were used more than once. They were (in order of frequency):    (M6N)

You can see a cloud visualization of the words we chose.    (M6Y)

Some observations:    (M6Z)

  • Only one person (me) wrote, “learning.” Only two people wrote “community.” That could have been because people assumed that they could not use those two words.    (M70)
  • No one wrote “teaching.”    (M71)
  • The value of the clustering versus the cloud visualization is interesting. The clustering exercise (which is similar to an Affinity Diagram in the usability world) is an exercise in semantic convergence. All the cloud view does is match words, character-by-character. Both tell you different things. Both are valuable.    (M72)

If we were to do this exercise again, it would be interesting to do 10 rather than five words. I think there would be more overlap in that case, although the beauty of this exercise is, one never knows. And it would be interesting to do this exercise again with the same group of people six months from now to see if the results are different.    (M73)