Doug Engelbart, Human Systems, Tribes, and Collective Wisdom

Sunday, December 9 was the 50th anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s The Mother of All Demos. There was a symposium in his honor at The Computer History Museum and much media and Twitter activity throughout.

Among the many things said and written that caught my eye that weekend was a Twitter exchange between Greg Lloyd and Mark Szpakowski. Greg tweeted a quote from this Los Angeles Review of Books article:

“At the very heart of Engelbart’s vision was a recognition of the fact that it is ultimately humans who have to evolve, who have to change, not technology.”

Mark responded:

And yet 99% of the Engelbart tribe work has been on the techie Tool System. … used to say “coming soon”; now it has disappeared. Time to join up with recent progress on Social Technologies for Complex Adaptive Anticipatory Human Systems?

I agree with Mark, with one caveat: It depends on how you define the “Engelbart tribe.” Let’s explore this caveat first.

Tribes and Movements

There are many folks specializing in process design (what Doug would have categorized as “Human Systems”) who consider Doug a mentor or, at worst, an inspiration. I’m one of them, although I didn’t start (exclusively) from this place when I started working with him in 2000.

Three others in this group have been direct mentors to me: Jeff Conklin, who spent a good amount of time with Doug, and Gail and Matt Taylor, who didn’t, but who knew of him and his work. David Sibbet, the graphic facilitation pioneer, came across Doug’s work in 1972 and worked some with Geoff Ball, who was on Doug’s SRI team doing research on facilitating groups with a shared display. Those four people alone make for an impressive, accomplished, world-changing group.

There are also many, many more folks doing important work in human systems who aren’t familiar with Doug’s work at all or who don’t identify with him for whatever reason. Doug himself thought that lots of what was happening in both open source software development communities and in the Agile Movement were highly relevant, although he had nothing to do with either. At the Symposium celebrating Doug, Christina Engelbart, Doug’s daughter and the keeper of his intellectual legacy, connected the Lean movement to her dad’s work and invited Brant Cooper, the author of The Lean Entrepreneur, to speak.

An effective movement is an inclusive one. What matters more: Seeing Doug’s vision through, or establishing tribal boundaries? If the former, then it’s important to acknowledge and embrace the work of those who may not have the same heroes or conceptual frames of reference.

I don’t think many of us who loved Doug and were inspired by his vision have been very good at this, and unfortunately, our tribalism has extended to technologists too. After the Symposium, I had drinks with my friend, James Cham, who is a long-time fan of Doug’s, but who wasn’t lucky enough to spend much time with him. James told me that Dylan Field (co-founder of Figma Design) was inspired by Doug and that he had hosted his own celebration of the Demo that same Sunday that 300 people attended. Amjad Masad (founder of, a tool that Doug would have loved) gave a thoughtful toast about Doug’s work there.

I didn’t know either Dylan or Amjad, and I certainly didn’t know that they tracked Doug’s work and were inspired it. I’m fairly certain that the organizers of the official celebration didn’t either. That’s pretty remarkable, given how small of a place Silicon Valley is. Now that we know, I hope we can start making some fruitful connections.

Capabilities and Collective Wisdom

The movement of folks committed to Doug’s larger vision is much larger than the “official” tribe to which Mark referred in his tweet. But even if we take into account this larger group, I think Mark’s criticism still holds.

Doug sought to make the world collectively smarter. He believed the path to achieving this would be a co-evolutionary process involving both tool and human systems. In other words, new tools would give us new capabilities, assuming we learned how to master them. Those new capabilities would inspire us to create even better tools. Rinse, and repeat.

As my friend, Travis Kriplean, pointed out to me this morning, we can already test this hypothesis. Technology has already evolved exponentially. Have our collective capabilities — or even more importantly, our collective wisdom — evolved with it?

Let’s narrow the question. Our ability to capture, store, and share information has improved by leaps and bounds since Doug’s Demo in 1968. Has our collective memory increased as a result of that?

If you were pinning me down, I would guess, “no.” The mere existence of those tools don’t guarantee that we remember more. Furthermore, the tools have a nasty side effect of overwhelm. But, these tools certainly create the potential for us to remember more — we just have to figure out how.

Right now, my eight- and 14-year old nephews have access to this blog, where they can read many of my innermost thoughts, including stories I wrote about them when they were younger. Right now, they can explore my Flickr, Instagram, and YouTube accounts without even having to ask for permission. If they asked for permission, I would probably let them go through my Google Maps Timeline, which is automatically harvested from my cell phone’s location data and which contains a comprehensive journal of my every day travels over the past few years. They already have access to lots of information about me, including my efforts to distill little bits and pieces of my experience. Most of this is purely the result of technology, with a little bit coming from my occasional discipline of sharing thoughts here and there.

But does any of this help them become wiser? If not, is it because our technology has not evolved enough, or is it because our human practices have not evolved with the technology?

The best example I know of a human system that evolved with the technology are wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular. Not enough people realize that wikis and Wikipedias aren’t just tools. They are a wonderful marriage of human and tool systems that created fundamentally new collective capabilities, exactly the type of thing that Doug envisioned. They are also 20-year old examples. I think this speaks very much to Mark’s critique.

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)

An Evening with Danish Bloggers    (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)