Self-Organizing Collaboration at the World Trade Center Ruins

In early 2003, I had lunch with Richard Gabriel for the first time, and I explained to him my desire to uncover common collaborative patterns across different disciplines, starting with Open Source communities. Richard recommended that I read William Langewiesche‘s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, a book that described the dismantling of the ruins and the self-organizing process that emerged.    (2AW)

Over a year later, I finally got around to following Richard’s advice, and I’m glad that I did. Langewiesche’s book is a gripping, thoughtful account of what happened at the World Trade Center site immediately following 9/11.    (2AX)

Langewiesche first set the stage by vividly describing the challenge:    (2AY)

The weight alone defied imagination. What does a chaos of 1.5 million tons really mean? What does it even look like? The scene up close was so large that no one quite knew. In other countries clear answers would have been sought before action was taken. Learned communities would have been formed, and high authorities consulted. The ruins would have been pondered, and a tightly scripted response would have been imposed. Barring that, soldiers would have assumed control. But for whatever reasons, probably cultural, probably profound, little of the sort happened here, where the learned committees were excluded, and the soldiers were relegated to the unhappy role of guarding the perimeter, and civilians in heavy machines simply rolled in and took on the unknown. (12)    (2AZ)

The defiance of conventional process is a theme that Langewiesche returns to over and over again. The raw scale and emotion of the circumstances both required and made it possible for things to be handled differently. Traditional hierarchies broke down. The ability to act and to improvise trumped organizational charts. As a result, people from the “lowly” ranks, such as firemen and laborers, gained power and influence. (9-11) Leaders emerged from a group of people who arrived on scene and simply started doing things. No one told them what they had to do, and no one told them what they couldn’t do. (89, 94) Agility ruled.    (2B0)

A great example of a leader who emerged and the strategy for action he employed was Mike Burton, a top official at the Department of Design and Construction (DDC).    (2B1)

When he [Mike Burton] roamed the pile, as he did twice each day and once again at night, he seemed to accept the disorder there as being in the nature of an energetic response. Rather than hunting out infractions or putting a stop to unauthorized work, as a less confident ruler might have done, he watched for what he called “dead real estate” — unexpectedly quiet ground that resulted from supply-line breakdowns, trucking gridlock, or simple miscommunication between crews that worked the day shift and those that worked the night. (171)    (2B2)

This was by no means a volunteer effort. After the first few days, the only volunteers on site were the Salvation Army and Red Cross, who fed the workers. (180) Not only was there money available, there was a lot of money available, and the contractors involved were well compensated. This later led to accusations over motivation, but Langewiesche stresses that money was an enabler, not the primary motivation for those who worked the site. (9-11, 89)    (2B3)

While the circumstances at the World Trade Center site enabled a powerful new form of organization to emerge, it also caused some unusual problems. On the one hand, the strong stake people felt they had in the recovery process created a tremendous amount of Shared Motivation. On the other hand, it also resulted in jealousy over “ownership” of the process and territorialism between the police, the fire department, and the DDC. (69)    (2B4)

In addition to being a compelling story, American Ground is also a primer in self-organization and collaboration. Some key points:    (2B5)

  • Self-organization does not mean no organization. The process that emerged at the World Trade Center was hierarchical, and the roles were fairly well defined. What was different was that the process and the roles emerged, they were not imposed. Langewiesche wrote, “Later it seemed that one of the smartest was a back-room decision to scrap the organization charts, to finesse the city’s own Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and to allow the DDC to proceed. The federal government was poised to intervene, but agreed to hold off, and then to hold off again.” (66)    (2B6)
  • Intense, shared commitment is a powerful motivator, and as such, it has the potential to transcend many common obstacles. In reality, it takes intensely emotional circumstances to generate such a Shared Motivation, circumstances that are rare. As the job neared completion, traditional bureaucracy naturally asserted itself at the site. (198) That said, the recovery process clearly demonstrated that our assumptions about what motivates people and how things get done are not always right. The most important lesson is that the power of human fulfillment is a much stronger motivation than money.    (2B7)

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