Designing for Emergence

Towards the end of the St. Louis Collaboratory workshop this past Wednesday, I said something about designing for emergence. Dave Gray thought enough about the point to note it in his own special way:    (LBW)    (LBX)

(Full size picture at Flickr.)    (LBY)

It’s not an exact quote, and his sketch is a bit stingy on the hair, but it captures the essence of the point. A more verbose version of what I said goes something like this:    (LBZ)

Designing for emergence is scary. I’ve facilitated several of these types of gatherings, and I’ve attended several more, and they always work. But they always stress me out, because you never know what’s going to happen. And that’s exactly the point.    (LC0)

What prevents me from going completely nuts is complete and utter faith in the following principle: If you get great people together and get out of their way, great things will happen. Good processes ultimately get out of people’s ways.    (LC1)

If you have great people, and if you trust your process, you have nothing to worry about. But I still get stressed.    (LC2)

I said something similar, but more general, at the first “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshop. The gist of it was:    (LC3)

You can’t organize self-organization. You can’t control emergence.    (LC4)

The biggest mistake that people make is that they point to Wikipedia or to MoveOn, and they say, “I want that.” Then they install a tool or spend a lot of money, and they expect some grand end state to emerge. That’s not how things work.    (LC5)

You can create conditions and space, and you can facilitate and catalyze what happens in that space, but you can’t control it. As soon as you try, you break your conditions, and you will fail.    (LC6)

On a similar vein, Kellee Sikes passed along one of Marcia Conner‘s sayings: “Stay on course, not on target.”    (LC7)

Online Community Summit: DeanSpace

Zack Rosen, Zephyr Teachout, Nicco Mele, key contributors to Howard Dean‘s presidential campaign, spoke about their online efforts last Thursday at the Online Community Summit. Some key points:    (2EP)

  • As Dean volunteers started using MeetUp regularly, the campaign started hosting regular conference calls with MeetUp leaders as a way of disseminating information through its communities.    (2EQ)
  • One of the early grassroots activities was distributing flyers as PDF. Nicco recognized this and decided to distribute official flyers as PDF also. Once this happened, the grassroots flyers largely dried up.    (2ER)
  • Related to the flyers issue was the vetting process. Initially, the campaign reviewed contributed flyers, but on the advice of its lawyers, it decided not to officially approve of any outside work to avoid liability. This was not a problem, and according to Zephyr, the community tended to be more risk-averse than the campaign. After all, they wanted to elect Dean, not hurt his chances.    (2ES)
  • The cross-pollination between the different mediums was relatively low. In other words, folks who blogged didn’t necessarily participate in MeetUp.    (2ET)
  • Replacing volunteer organizers with paid organizers tended to kill communities, regardless of how good the people were.    (2EU)

The theme of this talk was that the campaign was reactive, not proactive. It tended to watch things happen and to try and facilitate the good things, rather than start things themselves.    (2EV)

My takeaway from the talk: You can’t organize self-organization. There are things that you can do to catalyze it, but in the end, if the circumstances aren’t right, it’s not going to happen. What you can do is get out of the way when it does happen. This is an important lesson for folks trying to replicate the success of the Dean campaign and other self-organization success stories — Open Source, MoveOn, Indymedia, etc.    (2EW)

Advocacy Developers Convergence in San Francisco

I enjoyed the Advocacy Developers Convergence last week, where about 40 super-passionate folks — mostly developers of advocacy tools — gathered in the Presidio to discuss ways to collaborate. Among those represented were Advo Kit, CivicSpace, IndyVoter, Groundspring, Identity Commons (one of three hats I was wearing), and many, many others. Aspiration organized and facilitated the event, and Blue Oxen Associates provided the Wiki.    (1JJ)

While the scope of projects represented — most of which were open source — impressed me, I was really taken by the collective energy in the room. These weren’t your average techies. These folks cared about improving the world, and their passion was palpable. Even the most hardened cynic would have walked away from that gathering with at least a smidgen of hope about our future.    (1JK)

I wore three hats. First, I was there to facilitate Wiki usage during the event. In this regard, I basically did nothing. Most of the people there were already highly Wiki-literate, and the rest picked it up quickly. Second, I was there to help Fen Labalme talk about the Identity Commons system and to identify other potential early adopters. Third, as always, I was there both to share what I knew about collaboration and to observe and learn from others. I was particularly interested in watching Gunner’s (Allen Gunn) facilitation technique. Gunner, who recently took over Aspiration along with Katrin Verclas, used to work for Ruckus Society, and has facilitated a number of interesting events, including several international Open Source boot camps.    (1JL)

Mapping the Space; Emergent Goals    (1JM)

One of Aspiration’s stated goals for the event was to begin mapping the space of advocacy tools. That begged the question: What exactly is an advocacy tool? It was a question most of us conveniently avoided. Some tools are clearly and specifically designed for supporting the needs of grassroots advocacy, such as email campaigns, volunteer organizing, and friend-raising. Several (most?) other tools used by advocacy organizations (such as MoveOn) have multiple applications — mailing lists, contact databases, and so forth.    (1JN)

We never reached a collective solution to this problem, but we seemed to be moving in the direction that Blue Oxen has already gone in determining how to map the collaborative tool space: Map functions (or patterns) rather than tools, and show how different tools can be used for different functions.    (1JO)

The other goal for the event was to identify and pursue opportunities for collaboration among the participants.    (1JP)

Aspiration’s stated goal for the event was to begin mapping the space of advocacy tools and to facilitate collaboration among the participants. A number of interesting projects emerged:    (1JQ)

  • Several people expressed interest in incorporating the Identity Commons protocols into their tools for Single Sign-On and Data Sharing (all with user privacy built-in).    (1JR)
  • An Open Source legislative contact database that activist groups could freely use.    (1JS)
  • Face-to-face code (and other) sprints. A small group is planning a VoIP sprint somewhere on the East Coast later this summer.    (1JT)
  • Internationalization working group, basically a support group for folks internationalizing their code. One of the great things about the attendees was that international representation was reasonably good. There were folks from Poland, Uruguay, and Canada, and people dealing with many other countries.    (1JU)
  • Technical outreach to organizations. Connecting these groups with the right tools, and explaining to them the virtues of open source. A group is planning to use a Wiki to generate a Nonprofit Open Source Almanac.    (1JV)

The challenge with events like these is sustaining the energy afterwards. Face-to-face events that go well are often victims of their own success, because they create a level of energy that is simply impossible to match online. That said, there are certain things that can help assure continued collaboration:    (1JW)

  1. Individual commitment to shared goals.    (1JX)
  2. Group memory.    (1JY)
  3. Shared workspace.    (1JZ)

This group has all of the above. People were super action-oriented. Tasks were getting accomplished on the spot. Requests for information were often followed a few seconds later by shouts of, “It’s in the Wiki” — music to my ears. In general, folks who easily acclimate to Wiki usage — as this group did — are already inclined to share knowledge and collaborate.    (1K0)

Facilitation    (1K1)

Gunner is both high-energy and easy-going. He’s got a goofy, infectious grin and is quick to drop gut-busting witticisms. It would be easy to ascribe the effectiveness of his events to his personality, but that would be largely inaccurate. A well-meaning and amiable person can easily kill the energy of a group by under- or over-facilitating. Gunner has a strong fundamental understanding of self-organizing systems and very good instincts for when to sit still and when to perturb.    (1K2)

Every good event I’ve attended with large groups of people followed MGTaylor’s Scan Focus Act model, and this was no exception. The beginning of these events are always about discovery and Shared Language. Discovery (or “scan”) is inherently messy and unsettling, but when done correctly, “action” naturally emerges. Most bad events I’ve attended are bad because they try to skip this first step.    (1K3)

Each day consisted of several breakout sessions with groups of three to five people, followed by report-outs, yet another pattern of effective face-to-face events. The agenda for the later breakouts emerged as the event unfolded.    (1K4)

The first day began with a game called A Strong Wind, which was an excellent way both to build energy and to get a sense of who was there. Following that and at the beginning of the subsequent days were In Or Out exercises, a way to get a sense of everybody’s mood and to build individual commitment to the collaboration that would follow. The first day, Gunner asked people to describe their moods in one word. The second day, he asked for colors that described their mood. The third day, he asked people to describe the most beautiful place they knew, be it a geographical location (e.g. California) or a situation (e.g. time spent with family, friends).    (1K5)

As a way to accomodate a number of demos, Gunner organized a Speed Geeking session on Tuesday morning. I’m not sure yet whether I liked it or not. On the one hand, I enjoyed the interaction and the energy. On the other hand, it was incredibly draining for the people giving demos (including me), who also missed out on the demos happening simultaneously to theirs. I think the Planetwork Forum model of eight demos — four minute presentations (PowerPoint highly discouraged) and two minutes of Q&A — followed by two hours of unstructured socializing/networking is more effective, but I’m not ready to discount Speed Geeking entirely.    (1K6)

Good Folks    (1K7)

The most important prerequisite for good events and good collaboration is having the right mix of people. I really like MGTaylor’s strategy for achieving this: The larger the group, the more likely you are of having that mix. This group was relatively small (40 people), and I suspect that Gunner and Katrin’s people instincts played a huge role in making sure we had a good group.    (1K8)

I hate to single people out, because I really liked and was very impressed by everybody there. Nevertheless, I can’t help but mention two people. First, I was glad to finally meet Kellan Elliott-McCrea, the author of Laughing Meme, in person. Time and again, I meet folks whose blogs I enjoy regularly and whose work I admire, and I constantly walk away even more impressed with their authenticity and their decency. It’s how I felt when I first met Ross Mayfield and when I met Seb Paquet, and I felt it again when I met Kellan.    (1K9)

Second, I was glad to meet Mark Surman, who’s based in Toronto. Mark founded the Commons Group several years ago, which is very similar in spirit to Blue Oxen Associates. I meet a lot of like-minded people, but it’s a rare treat to meet someone doing similar work. Mark and his group are doing great stuff. They’re an organization folks should keep their eyes on.    (1KA)

Joan Blades at PlaNetwork

Joan Blades just gave a great keynote at Planetwork. The first part covered MoveOn‘s history and accomplishments:    (1HJ)

  • Wes and Joan’s first email petition went to about 100 friends, and ended up reaching 1,000 people in a week. It eventually reached 500,000 people.    (1HK)
  • MoveOn raised $2 million for the 2000 presidential campaign. The average contribution was $35.    (1HL)
  • More than 300,000 members participated in the MoveOn primary (last summer, which Howard Dean won), more than the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries combined.    (1HM)
  • Over 1,000 people submitted commercials for the Bush in 30 Seconds contest, which were rated by 100,000 members and also field tested. (CBS refused to run the winning ad, Child’s Play.) Joan showed six of the ads; great, great stuff. The talent and creativity of the contributions were clearly evident.    (1HN)
  • Bake Back America was a nationwide bake sale that raised $750,000 dollars. Joan said, “It’s the only bake sale ever covered by the Economist.”    (1HO)

Ultimately, the MoveOn mission is about connecting people. The bake sales, for example, helped a lot of people with progressive values who felt out-of-place in small towns discover other likeminded people in the same communities. She told several great stories from MoveOn‘s recent book, MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country, written by 50 members (selected out of 2,000 submissions).    (1HP)

More quotes and highlights:    (1HQ)

  • “Connecting takes us beyond the foolish dichotomy of right and left.”    (1HR)
  • “Politics on television is becoming indistinguishable from professional wrestling. There’s lots of posturing and a detachment from reality.”    (1HS)
  • “The public sector has been hollowed out.” It’s been replaced by idealogues (neocons) and entertainers (Bill O’Reilly). However…    (1HT)
  • The Internet is changing all of that by giving everyone a voice. “Connection puts us all on equal footing.”    (1HU)
  • Because of this change, the leaders of tomorrow need, “Strong vision, big ears.”    (1HV)
  • MoveOn did a nationwide survey, and found that there was a consistently strong message in all of the responses: a hunger for connection to core values, things like compassion, fairness, justice, opportunity, family, country, freedom, responsibility, and democracy. It reinforces Joan’s assertion that…    (1HW)
  • Progressive values are American values.    (1HX)

Joan ended her talk with three suggestions:    (1HY)

  • Lead from the heart.    (1HZ)
  • Be bold. “The way to win is to be about something.”    (1I0)
  • Call to the best in all of us.    (1I1)

PlaNetwork Conference 2004 in San Francisco

The 2004 PlaNetwork Conference is next weekend, June 5-7, 2004, at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco. This will be the place to gather to talk about the upcoming election, Online Activism, Environmental Sustainability, Social Justice, and applying technology towards furthering all of these causes. Joan Blades of MoveOn and Ben Cohen (the “Ben” in Ben & Jerry’s) of TrueMajority will be keynoting this year.    (1FT)

As I mentioned previously, Blue Oxen Associates is codesigning this year’s event with Tomorrow Makers. The InterActive component is going to be a great place for people to gather, learn, and make connections (both the personal and the knowledge kinds). It will also be a great demonstration of some of the hybrid collaborative processes I’ve talked about so often in this blog and elsewhere.    (1FU)

We’ll also be demonstrating the first prototypes of the Identity Commons system. More on this later.    (1FV)

We’ve set up a conference Wiki for the event itself and also for conversing before and after the event. We also have an IRC channel on Freenode (, #planetwork) with logs. I’ll be on that channel a lot over the next week or so, so be sure to drop by and say hello. Finally, if you plan to blog about the conference yourself, please see Planetwork:BloggingTheConference.    (1FW)

I hope to see many of you there. It will be a great opportunity to meet, organize, have fun, and do lots of good.    (1FX)