Tools and Culture

Tools reinforce power relationships. If you want a more emergent power model within a group, you have to make sure your tools support that. Git is a beautiful example of how a tool can support the right power relationships.    (MRK)

However, just because a tool has affordances doesn’t mean people will pay any attention to them. Linus Torvalds alluded to an example in a software development context: Giving everyone commit access to a centralized repository. He refers to this happening in companies, but there’s precedent for it happening in Open Source communities as well. For example, TikiWiki gives commit access to anyone who asks. The underlying philosophy behind this policy is very Wiki-like: Empowering everyone to make things better offsets the risk of giving everyone the opportunity to screw things up. By not imposing a power structure, the right model can emerge.    (MRL)

In the case of git, the tool explicitly supports an emergent power model. In the case of the TikiWiki community, the tool’s inherent model is overridden by the community’s culture.    (MRM)

What can we learn from this? Tools have the potential to transform culture, but transformation never comes easily. In the Wiki community, the classic case of this is when users email an administrator about a typo in a Wiki rather than fixing it themselves. We in the Wiki community use this behavior as a leverage point to explain that they have Permission To Participate and can change the content themselves. Once people start modeling this behavior, transformation becomes a possibility.    (MRN)

When I saw Michael Herman last month, we talked about how tools do and don’t encourage emergent models of behavior and how often we need to catalyze this process by other means. Michael brought up the phenomenon of a few people gathering at a circle of movable chairs, then sitting on opposite sides of each other with many chairs between them rather than moving the chairs they needed into a tighter circle. Even though the environment was adaptable, people chose to go with the default rather than optimize it for their needs.    (MRO)

I saw a similar phenomenon a few weeks ago at TAG, where I sat in on Eugene Chan, Lucy Bernholz, and Suki O’Kane‘s session on Web 2.0 and philanthropy. They had a very interactive design, which in the context of TAG (a very traditional conference format for a very conservative community), was highly unusual. They kicked things off by doing a spectrogram.    (MRP)

https://i1.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2197/1914433901_f1acf95cf8_m.jpg?w=700    (MRQ)

Not only did this establish a sense of self-awareness and Shared Understanding among the participants, it also got people moving (and laughing), which was especially important since the session was right after lunch. Without saying anything, it was clear that this was not going to be your traditional talking heads session. Smart, smart, smart. Then they led a discussion. They gave people Permission To Participate by explicitly setting expectations, catalyzed the discussion by asking broad questions, then held space and exercised self-restraint whenever there were awkward silences. Again, very nice.    (MRR)

But they also did something dumb. Look at the space:    (MRS)

https://i2.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2296/1915270732_369c6fa3e3_m.jpg?w=700    (MRT)

Whereas the leaders of the session were saying, “Please talk! Participate! Learn from each other!”, the space was saying, “Look at the leaders! Keep quiet! Check your email while pretending to listen!” And the space was really, really loud, much louder than the leaders.    (MRU)

In fairness to Eugene, Lucy, and Suki, it would have been a major pain in the rear to rearrange the space, and there were strong disincentives to doing so (specifically, the wrath of Lisa Pool). But space makes a huge difference, and even super smart people don’t account for this as much as they should. Even people who are in the business of collaboration and are constantly preaching about this sort of thing (i.e. me) make these mistakes all the time. Old habits and thinking die hard.    (MRV)

The online tool space is rampant with these examples. How often do you see Wikis where the “Edit this page” button is impossible to find?    (MRW)

Tools can encourage or discourage certain types of behavior, and it is in our best interest to choose and adapt our tools to encourage the behavior that we want. That’s not always enough, but it’s generally a good start. Eliminating obstacles can be as much of a catalyst as a good kick in the pants, but a combination of both is even more effective.    (MRX)

Walking and Learning in Chicago

The first time I met Howard Rheingold, he suggested we go on a walk. A few weeks later, I met Howard at his house, which lies at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, and we walked and talked. It was wonderful.    (MND)

Ever since I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I’ve suggested to many a colleague that we go on a walk. I live a few blocks away from Lands End, a beautiful trail along the ocean on the northwest side of San Francisco, with gorgeous views of the coast, the Presidio, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I still do the coffee thing, but when opportunity knocks, I tell people to meet me at my apartment, and we walk and talk.    (MNE)

There’s something about the act of walking that stimulates the brain. It brings a natural rhythm to conversation, giving you space both to talk and to listen. The Peripatetics knew this. So did Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s magnum opus was entitled, Sein und Dasein. Dasein loosely translates to “existence,” or “being alive.” Heidegger likened it to walking in the forest and suddenly coming to a clearing, an Open Space, a place to breathe. It’s in these places, at the end of a journey, where we become most aware of ourselves and our surroundings.    (MNF)

I’m in the Midwest this week — South Bend, Indiana visiting my younger sister, then Cincinnati to visit my older sister, my brother-in-law, and my three year old nephew. It’s not vacation. Things are crazy at work (in a good way), and so I’m still chugging along, with breaks here and there to spend time with my family.    (MNG)

My original plan was to work from my sister’s place in South Bend. Then I decided that it would be wrong to be this close to Chicago and not visit some of my colleagues and friends in the area, and that it would be just as easy to work in Chicago as it would be in South Bend. So I made some last minute calls and spent yesterday in Chicago.    (MNH)

After spending the morning working, I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Sinclair in the flesh for the first time. He asked me where I wanted to eat lunch. I responded, “Somewhere distinctly Chicago.” He delivered.    (MNI)

Afterwards, I hopped on the El and headed north to visit Michael Herman. Michael’s still doing lots of Open Space, but he’s also got a new project that’s been keeping him very busy: Restoring an 80 year old home, which he and his wife, Jill, recently purchased. After assessing the state of the house and seeing the most magnificent radiator I’ve ever seen, Michael suggested that we go for a walk.    (MNJ)

And so we walked. We walked through his neighborhood and along the Chicago River. In between catching up on life and work, Michael talked about the city’s architecture and history. We discovered new streets and old bungalows. We saw kids playing in parks with their parents, and houses decorated for Halloween.    (MNK)

We walked, and we talked, and we ended up at the local elementary school, which also serves as the home for a community garden, “community” in every sense of the word. Only the students have plots; the rest of the space is community owned. Anyone in the community is free to garden any spot, weed any plot, pick vegetables and herbs from any plant. In the middle of this beautiful, old, urban neighborhood, amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, was this clearing, this beautiful, Wiki-like, community garden where the city seemed to disappear. Dasein.    (MNL)

I began the day with my nose to the grindstone, working on my various projects. I ended it walking, breathing, talking, learning. As I rode the train back to South Bend, reflecting on the day’s events and conversations, I couldn’t help but feel thankful.    (MNM)

My life and my work is ultimately about people, about maximizing our collective potential. As I’ve pursued this passion, I’ve found myself surrounded by incredible people with similar values and passions. I take great pride in the number of groups I’ve helped, the movements I’ve helped catalyze, and the knowledge I’ve shared, but all of this pales in comparison to what I’ve learned from others. What motivates me is the opportunity to share these same experiences and learnings with as many people as possible.    (MNN)

I’ve got a clear vision for how to do this more effectively, and while the mechanisms that make it work are complex, the actual actions required are relatively straightforward. Walking and talking are excellent ways to start.    (MNO)

An Evening with Danish Bloggers

https://i2.wp.com/static.flickr.com/62/218801606_2d3d0e5417_m.jpg?w=700    (L3I)

You can’t truly know another country until you know its food and its people. Thanks to Thomas Madsen Mygdal, I had a chance to do both last Friday in Copenhagen. Many thanks to all of you who came (14 in all!) and shared your stories and good vibes (and restaurant recommendations). Evan Prodromou teased me later about having a Danish posse. Well, you all can consider me part of your American posse.    (L3J)

I arrived in Denmark two weeks ago knowing almost nothing about the country, much less the goings-on there related to my professional world (other than Reboot). I left a week later, not only personally and culturally enriched, but also professionally enriched. There is a lot of interesting thinking going on in Denmark, and while the startup culture is not as active as it is in San Francisco or even other European countries, the desire to do with the group I met was very strong. That’s not always the case at these blogger meetups (which is why I generally avoid them, at least here at home.)    (L3K)

The evening began casually (other than a minor mixup over the meeting place) with drinks at the Barbar Bar in Vesterbro. We then walked over to Carlton for an excellent dinner. I had told myself beforehand that I wasn’t going to stay out too late, but I was enjoying myself too much. The whole group shifted to Joachim Oschlag‘s place (which was conveniently just upstairs from the restaurant) for more beer and conversation. It was hyggeligt!    (L3L)

Ah yes, hyggeligt. Hygge is a Danish word for… well, apparently, it’s hard to translate, and I’m not sure I fully grasp it. According to the English Wikipedia, hygge is equivalent to the German word, Gemuetlichkeit. Hygge denotes a sense of intimacy and closeness, and is often used to describe gatherings of people, where you share a sense of familiarity and fun with those around you. Think “hug,” but not as wishy-washy. It’s a sense of wholeness that comes from being around others, and there’s a strong association with the space that helps create this wholeness. You can see why I like this word. The notion of hygge resonates strongly with community, and I would argue that it’s a common pattern in High-Performance Collaboration as well as another aspect of Quality Without A Name.    (L3M)

I’ve got pictures of the gathering buried in my Copenhagen Flickr set. Michael Andersen also posted some pictures as well as a blog entry.    (L3N)

I can’t possibly do justice to all of the conversations I had that night, but here are some highlights:    (L3O)

Reboot and Open Space    (L3P)

A lot of these folks were intimately familiar with Open Space. A few of them knew Gerard Muller, founder of the Danish Open Space Institute and co-facilitator of the Open Space at WikiSym with Ted Ernst. Thomas had tried incorporating Open Space into Reboot a few years back, and it apparently did not work well. We talked a lot about success patterns in group process, especially hybrid processes.    (L3Q)

One of the biggest challenges with network as opposed to organizational events, where your participants feel compelled rather than obligated to attend, is getting people there in the first place. Most people interpret “emergent agenda” as “no agenda,” and they treat such events as networking rather than learning events. This is exacerbated by the length of the event, which is optimally three days for emergent group processes. (See Michael Herman‘s Two Night Rule. I’m starting to realize that many people — even those who are very good at group process — are unaware of the forces underlying the Two Night Rule, and it affects the design process.)    (L3R)

Framing the invitation is a critical component for circumventing this challenge, but it’s not easy. I urged Thomas and the others not to give up on more interactive processes, and suggested as a possible framing question for an event, “What could we accomplish together in three days?” I proposed linking such a Danish event with a similar one here in the States, perhaps associated with our “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshops.    (L3S)

Semco SA    (L3T)

Several people told me the story of the Brazilian company, Semco SA, and its CEO, Ricardo Semler. Semco is a remarkable study in decentralized, emergent organization. It’s a relatively large company, with over $200 million in revenue and 3,000 employees, and it’s aggressively decentralized and transparent. Employees set their own hours and salaries. Workers evaluate their bosses, and they regularly mix with others, regardless of projects, thus developing multiple skills as well as a greater appreciation for the many roles that are required to make an organization tick. It’s really an amazing story. Semler has written two books, Maverick and The Seven Day Weekend, both of which I plan to read.    (L3U)

I did some followup research, and I was surprised to see how widely known the Semco story seems to be. I follow this space closely, and I also did a considerable amount of research on Brazil for my Brazilian Open Source adoption study published in May 2005, but this was the first I had heard of the company or of its CEO. It’s yet another example of the group being smarter than the individual.    (L3V)

Knowing What We Should Know    (L3W)

Speaking of which, I chatted quite a bit with Raymond Kristiansen, a vlogger, about how to get more people aware of the stories they should be aware of. It’s a very difficult question. On the one hand, the notion of Collective Wisdom does not mean that every individual needs to know everything. On the other hand, it does imply that we should be able to quickly learn what we need to know when we need to know it.    (L3X)

We talked about the Featured Content pattern as a way of trickling up useful content. It’s an especially important pattern with blogs, which are great for tracking conversations, but — like Mailing Lists and forums — tend to obscure older, but still relevant content.    (L3Y)

On a related note, Raymond also kicked my butt about not creating screencasts. I promised Raymond that I’d have my first screencast up before the end of September. There, it’s in writing now.    (L3Z)

Alexander Kjerulf    (L40)

I’m a little reluctant to single Alexander out, because I walked away profoundly affected and impressed by many people. Nevertheless, he and his blog, The Chief Happiness Officer, get special mention (not that he needs it; his blog is far more popular than mine!) and soon, a blog post devoted entirely to our conversations for two very important reasons. First, he recommended a number of excellent restaurants in Copenhagen, and we ended up eating at two of those together.    (L41)

Second, every time we chatted, I found myself scurrying for my pen and notecards. It will take me three freakin’ years to follow-up with all of his stories and ideas, generated over maybe 12 hours of conversation. I plan on trying anyway, because there was a very high degree of relevance and profundity in everything he said. He is a plethora of ideas, knowledge, and — as his title implies — positive energy. I urge all of you to check out his blog, and to make an effort to meet him if you’re ever in Denmark.    (L42)

Developing Shared Language

Drummond Reed recently wrote about the Identity Rights Agreements session at last month’s Internet Identity Workshop. While the outcome was fruitful, Drummond wrote, “The biggest frustration was that after an hour and fifteen minutes we were just really getting started – we needed a good half-day on the subject.”    (KNJ)

Jamie Dinkelacker told me a similar story last year in describing a SOA gathering of gurus. The goal was to share knowledge and to advance the state of the art, but the participants spent most of their time arguing over the definition of “services.”    (KNK)

The problem in the first case was with expectations. The participants should have expected some ramp-up time would be necessary to get started, because they needed to establish some Shared Language. The problem in the second case was with process. The participants did not have an effective strategy for developing Shared Language, and thus, the latter ended up monopolizing the whole workshop.    (KNL)

Shared Language is a prerequisite to collaboration. Without Shared Language, we can’t collaborate. It’s as simple as that. When a group tries to collaborate without having Shared Language, the group will try to create it, whether it’s aware of it or not. This creation process is often frustrating and painful, and as a result, people sometimes try to skip this step or belittle the process. This is a problem. You can’t skip this step.    (KNM)

When designing collaborative spaces — both online and face-to-face — you have to build in time and space for developing Shared Language.    (KNN)

If you examine every good collaborative, face-to-face process for large groups, you will find that all of them generally recommend a minimum of three days. I haven’t found a rigorous explanation for why three days work so well, but the pattern is consistent, and we can certainly speculate. Much of it has to do with building in enough time to develop Shared Language. (Michael Herman, Open Space facilitator extraordinaire, has suggested that it’s less about the three days and more about the two nights — having our minds go through two natural work-process-rest cycles. I think he’s onto something.)    (KNO)

The first day is always about developing Shared Language. MGTaylor calls it the “Scan” day. Phil Windley calls it the “butt-sniffing” day. Regardless of what you call it, you need to design for it. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not. The question is whether or not it will happen effectively while leaving time for action.    (KNP)

There are two myths regarding how you create Shared Language. The first is that “shared” is equivalent to “same.” They’re not. Shared Language means that you understand how others around you are using terminology. Some level of sameness is obviously useful, but when you’re dealing with something relatively complex, sameness is both impossible and undesirable.    (KNQ)

I devised a metric several years ago called the Squirm Test that’s similar in concept to Wikipedia‘s Neutral Point Of View. The test is simple. Sit your team around the table. Have each person stand up and give a brief project description and status report. During the pitch, no one is allowed to talk, other than to ask clarifying questions. You have a perfect level of Shared Understanding and Shared Language if you make it around the room without anyone squirming.    (KNR)

The second myth is that creating Shared Language consists of creating a dictionary. That’s certainly one way to approach it, but it’s not the only way, and often times, it’s not the best nor the fastest way.    (KNS)

There are three elements to creating Shared Language:    (KNT)

  • Share individual contexts    (KNU)
  • Encourage namespace clash    (KNV)
  • Leave enough time and space to work things out    (KNW)

Sharing individual contexts is a fancy way of saying, “Know your audience.” Or, more accurately, know who you’re working with — their world view, their values, etc. You don’t have to use the same terminology the same way; you just have to understand what people mean and where they’re coming from. For some techniques on how to do this, see Collab:KnowTheParticipants.    (KNX)

I’ve written many times about how Wikis and tagging encourage namespace clash, which in turn encourages Shared Language. From a facilitation standpoint (both face-to-face and online), if you pose questions that stretch the mind, you also draw out namespace clash. MGTaylor is especially good at doing this with its Design Shops. Allen Gunn uses a technique called a spectrogram where you stretch a piece of masking tape across the room, ask a controversial question, then tell people to go to the place on the tape that represents their position on the question. You then ask people along the spectrum why they’re standing where they’re standing, and you give people the chance to move around based on other people’s answers. If you ask the right question, you’ll not only quickly get a great sense of your audience, but you’ll also draw out different interpretations of language.    (KNY)

Finally, simply scheduling time and space where Shared Language is the primary goal is useful. People are good at figuring out how to communicate with each other if you give them the space to do it. If you set unrealistic expectations on the first day of a three day event, then you just stress out your participants. If you spend the first day exploring broader questions, your participants may feel flustered or frustrated, but they will find that the work goes much more smoothly in the ensuing days.    (KNZ)

Developing Shared Language is an ongoing process. Doing actual work is one of the best ways to build shared context, which in turn builds Shared Language. The trick is to have stagger your work goals based on the Shared Language that already exists. The exercises you go through can become more and more focused over time, as the amount of Shared Language increases.    (KO0)

At the Blue Oxen Associates Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration workshops — one-day workshops with about 25 participants — we don’t do participant introductions. We assign teams and have people go straight into their exercises. However, we pay careful attention to how we assign the initial teams, and we structure the exercises accordingly. For example, at our January workshop, we started by pairing people who either already knew each other or were in similar fields, and we had them start their exercises immediately. We then grouped pairs and had them present their work to each other. Finally, we had a plenary session where each group reported on their work, followed by a plenary discussion. Our participants were engaged right away, and the shared experiences acted as an icebreaker, which made it easier to meet new people and to talk in our designated networking times (e.g. lunch). We also had online profiles up on our Wiki, so that people could find out more about the other participants before, during, and after the workshop. Several people commented afterwards about the lack of group introductions. All of them liked it.    (KO1)

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://i2.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://i0.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://i0.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)