Leave A Trail: Stigmergy and Effective Large Group Collaboration

One of the challenges with large group collaboration is keeping track of what others are doing. With a small group, the project manager or group leader can take on the responsibility of keeping others informed. If it’s a single organization, you can theoretically mandate a communication strategy from above, although in reality, this doesn’t work effectively when the organization is large and diverse. For large-scale collaboration between different groups, neither of these are realistic options.    (KCB)

How can large groups communicate most effectively? The answer is stigmergy, a term Chris Dent first introduced to me about four years ago. Stigmergy is a form of indirect communication where organisms react to signs left by others. Ants communicate by stigmergy. They leave a trail of pheremones that other ants pick up and react to. Stigmergy — not centralized command-and-control — is responsible for those amazing anthills.    (KCC)

There is an equivalent pattern in effective large group collaboration: Leave A Trail. I’ve called this pattern Think Out Loud and Visible Pulse in the past, but I like “Leave A Trail” better, because of its association with stigmergy. (Obligatory karma reference: I first heard this name from Peter Kaminski, who in turn credits Chris Messina for explaining it as a principle of Bar Camp.) MGTaylor calls this pattern Ship Product and often describes it in the context of Stuart Kauffman‘s work and patch theory.    (KCD)

The idea is simple. When you work, leave an artifact somewhere where others can find it. An artifact doesn’t have to be comprehensive; in fact, it’s often better when it isn’t. A brief meeting summary is usually more useful than a full transcript. A brief summary with links to specific instances in the transcript is even more useful.    (KCE)

When you Leave A Trail, you’re communicating to whomever wants to listen, which may effect how you express yourself. This can be disconcerting to some. People often point to the lack of response as a sign that tools like online forums, blogs, or Wikis aren’t working. That’s not necessarily the case. There may be a whole slew of lurkers who are reacting to the signs that you are leaving. (That said, Immediate Feedback is also an important pattern in Online Communities.)    (KCF)

This can also be difficult when determining what kind of trail to leave. Because you don’t know who will be reacting to your signs, you can’t target them. The solution is to Scratch Your Own Itch.    (KCG)

Emergence can’t happen without Leave A Trail. However, Leave A Trail is just one of many conditions for emergence. You can’t dictate whether emergence will happen, and when it does, you can’t control what actually emerges. The best you can do is create conditions for emergence and hope that good things happen. This is disconcerting to many, and folks often react by trying to assert more control, which makes things worse.    (KCH)

Leave A Trail and other principles are helpful in designing community spaces. For example, if you are trying to integrate blogs or Wikis into a community’s practice, the best way to do that is to apply the tool in such a way that it scratches an individual’s itch while also leaving a trail. For example, many good project leaders are good at doing meeting summaries. Instead of having them email a small subset of individuals, have them email a public, archived mailing list. Better yet, have them blog their summaries and email links to the blog. You’re not significantly changing individual behavior in these situations, but you are significantly improving your chances for large-scale collaboration.    (KCI)

Glass Plate Game

One of the hits from last month’s RecentChangesCamp was Dunbar Aitkens‘s Glass Plate Game. Inspired by Herman Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game, the Glass Plate Game stimulates interesting conversations, encouraging and capturing connections between different ideas that are raised. There are no winners or losers. The game serves as a facilitative device, encouraging civil dialog and learning, and in the end, you have an artifact from which you can transcribe the conversation.    (K9X)

https://i0.wp.com/static.flickr.com/38/95674441_357009e2cf_m.jpg?w=700    (K9Y)

The game consists of a set of cards (which you can create yourself) that represent a number of different themes. There are also 24 wooden blocks, sequentially numbered, that each represents a “move” and the state of conversation. There are four possible states: “P” (permit the latest connection), “C” (challenge the latest connection), “O” (mutual understanding; move on to the next move), and “blank” (no resolution; move on to the next move). There are also several colored, translucent pieces of plastic that you use to make connections.    (K9Z)

To start the game, someone picks a theme by placing the first piece and a piece of plastic on a card. Each move after that represents a connection between two themes (cards). You make a connection by placing a piece on another card and a piece of plastic whose color matches the plastic on a previous card. Once a connection is made, you have a conversation, turning the cube around throughout to represent the state of the conversation. Once the cube is on “O” or “blank,” someone makes a new move/connection. The game continues until you reach the 24th move or until no one has anything to say. At that point, you are encouraged to transcribe the conversation, using the game board as a memory device.    (KA0)

https://i2.wp.com/static.flickr.com/55/106395322_417512d869_m.jpg?w=700    (KA1)

I actually didn’t get to play at RecentChangesCamp — I kept getting pulled away by other things. I regretted it even more after the conference, because on the car ride up to Seattle, Michael Herman and Ted Ernst were saying really intriguing things about it. Fortunately, Dunbar lives in Corvallis, and on my way back from RecentChangesCamp and Seattle, John Sechrest graciously hosted dinner and a game.    (KA2)

https://i2.wp.com/static.flickr.com/36/106395321_9814c0d446_m.jpg?w=700    (KA3)

I think the concept is brilliant, and judging by the number of folks who played it at RecentChangesCamp and ordered a set for themselves, I’m not alone. I plan on hosting salons to play the game and to contribute to Dunbar’s compilations of transcripts (part of his bigger vision to transcribe a global, distributed Glass Plate Game).    (KA4)

I also think the Glass Plate Game could be a powerful device at face-to-face gatherings. The facilitative principles are similar to those espoused by Dialogue Mapping in that there is a grammar and that Shared Display is a big reason for its effectiveness. MGTaylor uses the principles of Glass Bead Game to great effect in their process. One of the best instantiations of the game I’ve seen was when I first worked with Gail Taylor at the 2003 Planetwork Conference. Each breakout group gets a white, 2’x2’x2′ cardboard box, and they are encouraged to capture their ideas on one or more side. In the report-out, the groups are encouraged to make connections with each other by positioning or stacking their boxes next to each other. It’s a great device that works really well.    (KA5)

In particular, I think the game could work really well with World Cafe. Instead of (or in addition to) butcher paper, crafts, and the other typical devices used for capture, you could setup Glass Plate Game at each table. I’m looking forward to experimenting with this possibility.    (KA6)

The Unjoy of Panels

I’m a veteran panel moderator. I’ve been doing it since high school, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But I’m thinking about retiring from the business.    (JKL)

Last week, I moderated the SofTECH / SDForum July meeting on “Architecting Community and Collaboration Solutions.” Tony Christopher had suggested me to Ron Lichty, the meeting producer. Ron and I, as it turned out, had met a few years earlier at a GivingSpace workshop. Ron explained to me his goals for the panel, told me who the panelists would be, and I said, “Sign me up!”    (JKM)

The panel went well. The panelists — Tony Christopher, Zack Rosen, Sylvia Marino, and Scott Wilder — were great. Everyone told lots of great stories, but also respected the other panelists, and no one tried to dominate the floor, which made my job incredibly easy. More importantly, the audience was engaged with the topic and the panelists. Ron was great also. He had done a masterful job of organizing the event and preengaging the panel.    (JKN)

The problem was that the panel format was wrong. Panels work best when they emerge as entertaining and informative roundtable discussions. As good as our panelists were, that was not going to happen, because the format did not optimally align with our goal — educating the audience. A panel format can achieve this goal — and ours did — but only in a broadcast model, which does not maximize group potential.    (JKO)

It was clear from an informal poll I took at the beginning of the panel and the number of faces I recognized that we had a lot of expertise in the audience itself. It would have been far more engaging and educational for all involved had we done a more interactive format, where we spent an hour in break-outs, possibly followed by a moderated plenary discussion. The panelists, in this scenario, would have been co-participants with the rest of the audience.    (JKP)

I moderated two panels and gave a talk at last June’s Collaborative Technologies Conference. One panel was in a traditional format for reasons largely out of my control, but I decided to play with the other two formats. In both of those cases, I turned the tables on the audience, rearranging the stage format into a circle, and basically played discussion moderator rather than panel moderator. Several people had already camped out in the back with their laptops open — almost assuredly planning to check email rather than listen to the talk — and a look of fear and shock came over their eyes when I told them to join me in the circle.    (JKQ)

Several people approached me afterwards and praised the format. (My favorite moment was one night at dinner, when I introduced myself to Stowe Boyd, who wrote a great essay on panels. Upon hearing my name, Stowe said, “I want to thank you.” I was completely baffled by this, as we had never met, and Stowe had not attended any of my talks. Apparently, he had heard about my panels — probably from Arieanna Foley — and he was grateful that someone had tried something different.) These folks were clearly suffering from panel fatigue, and just the fact that we were doing something different and engaging improved the experience wildly for them. I guarantee that the circle format was also more informative for the audience as a whole, because it addressed their specific concerns and it introduced a set of viewpoints far more rich than just mine or a panel’s.    (JKR)

As much as people respond to these more interactive formats, they are mere baby steps. Kindergarteners get in circles, for pete’s sake. Pre-school can be fun, but once you’ve been in kindergarten, you don’t want to go back. Facilitation techniques like Conversation Cafe and Open Space are at the first grade level, Aspiration is at second grade, and MGTaylor is at third. The latter techniques augmented with cutting edge collaborative tools is at least the fourth grade level, and we’ve only scratched the surface as to what’s possible. It’s just sad that the vast majority of conferences are at the pre-school level.    (JKS)

There are situations where panels work well as a format, but they are vastly overdone. In any case, don’t let this post prevent you from inviting me to moderate a panel. Just expect me to make some strong demands concerning format.    (JKT)

(See also Mary Hodder‘s excellent panel diatribe.)    (JKU)

J. Fairchild and Community Space

Katrin Verclas, co-director of Aspiration and co-organizer of the FLOSS Usability Sprint, wrote a fantastic piece entitled, “Great Good Spaces for Community, Activism, and Better Software.” It’s no accident that we connected when we first met at the Advocacy Developer’s Convergence last June. Even though our missions are different, there’s great overlap in our thinking and philosophy. That holds true with the other organizations Blue Oxen Associates has partnered with as well.    (ID7)

A critical element in building strong community and in facilitating effective collaboration is having the right space. As Katrin points out, this holds true for both physical and metaphysical (or online) spaces. I had three intellectual inspirations in starting Blue Oxen: Doug Engelbart, Christopher Alexander, and George Lakoff. Christopher Alexander is an architect who wrote about Pattern Languages in the 1970s, which was all about designing great spaces, spaces that were alive, that had this Quality Without A Name. Blue Oxen is trying to understand and discover patterns of effective collaboration, which encompasses issues of space.    (ID8)

When Katrin wrote her piece, we were looking for a space to hold our sprint, and we weren’t finding a place that satisfied us. Luckily, I had a wildcard in my back pocket. Jeff Shults was the manager of the knOwhere Store in the late 1990s, which was MGTaylor‘s showcase for its collaborative environment and process. When the store closed, Jeff purchased all the furniture and bided his time until he could open his own space. That time came late last year, when he struck an agreement with SFIA to manage their new space on 10th and Mission in San Francisco.    (ID9)

I first met Jeff at Planetwork in 2003, but the first time we worked closely together was at the 7-Domains Workshop last July. Jeff is literally an environmental master. He has this sixth sense for configuring spaces to maximize collaboration. He has both thought deeply about the subject and has practiced it for some time. He’s also a fantastic listener, which is an attribute he shares with all the great facilitators I know.    (IDA)

I had seen the space last fall, and to say that it was in rough condition is an understatement. But in early January, when we still hadn’t found a good space, I decided to call Jeff anyway. The transformation the space had made in the course of two months was amazing. Although Jeff hasn’t officially opened his facility, he not only let us use his space, but he agreed to be one of our sponsors.    (IDB)

I can’t tell you how many people walked into our event last week, looked around, and said, “Wow, what a great space!” I’d hear this, laugh, and respond, “You don’t know the half of it.” All of us have an intuition that allows us to recognize a great space when we see one, an intuition that sadly doesn’t wake up often enough. But you have to discover the thinking and hard work that goes into creating such a space before you can truly appreciate it.    (IDC)

Jeff’s company and space is called J. Fairchild. If you need a great meeting space in San Francisco, talk to Jeff and let him know I sent you his way.    (IDD)

Hiding the Agenda

Before last weekend’s sprint, several people approached me about the agenda. I responded by offering a general overview of the weekend (Friday, meet each other and plan for Saturday; Saturday, test, analyze, and maybe implement; Sunday, wrap-up), but I did not offer anything more detailed than that. It made many people nervous, but all I could do was to ask folks to trust me. Why the secrecy? Was I being coy, or was I just disorganized?    (ICV)

For highly interactive events with large, diverse groups, I’ve found that the best processes do not share agendas with participants. There are two reasons for this. First, you want the participants to focus on the work. The facilitators (or in the case of MGTaylor, the KreW) watch the clock for you. Second, you want flexibility in the agenda, so that you can self-organize. On the one hand, participants hate meetings that waste your time. On the other hand, they tend to freak out when they see, “To be planned later.” It’s not lack of organization, it’s an acknowledgement of self-organization. You have to be really confident in your process to make it work.    (ICW)

”Leaping the Abyss”, a book about the MGTaylor process coauthored by Blue Oxen advisor, Christine Peterson, has a great story about why agendas aren’t given in advance, and what effect this can have on participants.    (ICX)

If your design and facilitation are good, it works beautifully. Several people approached me after the event saying how skeptical they were during and at the beginning of the event, and how amazed they were afterwards about how it all came together.    (ICY)

Allen Gunn (Gunner), our facilitator, is good, maybe even a little cocky. On the morning of the first day, he was constantly throwing out statements like, “We’ll make it up as we go along.” I’d laugh to myself and cringe at the same time when I heard him say this, but I knew what he was doing and kept my mouth shut. As Gunner explained to someone afterwards, in a way, he’s hustling the crowd. But, as I noted to the same person, you can only get away with hustling if you win.    (ICZ)