The Joys of Being an A-Lister

I’ve enjoyed the responses to my posts about the CIA workshop last month. The most surprising and amusing response has come from skeptics who have labeled me and the others who spoke at the workshop of being “A-listers.”    (LCT)

I know something about A-lists. I went to Harvard. I knew many brilliant, cool people there, so I know that A-lists can deserve their reputations. I also knew many idiots there, so I know not to make too much of A-lists.    (LCU)

I’m not naive about what it means to be an A-lister. I know that folks look at me differently when they discover that I went to Harvard or that Doug Engelbart is one of my mentors. I know that most of my business comes via word-of-mouth, which is a fancy way of saying “reputation.”    (LCV)

I know all of these things, and I don’t give a damn about any of them. I worry about being the smartest, most capable person I can possibly be, and about being the best human being I can possibly be. I apply these exact same standards towards others. I don’t worry about what lists I or others are or aren’t on.    (LCW)

This attitude not only pervades my personal and professional life, but my philosophy about collaboration. Given the right space and good process, I believe that large, diverse networks will always be smarter than any individual. I shy away from work where people are looking at me to tell them what to do. My goal is to help groups achieve their potential, not to convince them of how smart I am.    (LCX)

The authors at Kent’s Imperative wrote an insightful essay on how large-scale collaboration can affect how intelligence is gathered and analyzed. I thought everything they wrote was spot-on except for their read on last month’s CIA workshop:    (LCY)

The rapid rise of distributed collaborative analysis through the blogsphere has been an amazing thing to watch….    (LCZ)

The community would do well to pay attention to this phenomena. Some tentative steps have been made at documenting and re-creating this dynamic, most notably in response to the 2004 Galileo Award paper, “The Wiki and the Blog”, by Dr. Calvin Andrus; but much work remains to be done. It is not at all clear that the primum mobile has been established to support this effort within the walls. And your authors in particular are unconvinced that the best way to drive this effort is through the use of Beltway consultants “debriefing” teams of “A-list” and technology savvy bloggers. The native development of a culture of discussion and exchange, enabled by the new technologies and freed from the constraints of stifling managers and visionless mid-grades, is not something that will emerge from even the best run boardroom meeting, no matter how well intentioned.    (LD0)

What is most disappointing, however, is that out of this process (however flawed) no doubt emerged more insight and innovation than has been seen from many of the so-called academic experts championing intelligence studies.    (LD1)

I don’t blame them for interpreting the positioning of the workshop the way he did, and I actually liked the post a lot. However, their interpretation of the workshop is wrong in subtle ways, and there are larger lessons that warrant discussion.    (LD2)

First, I would hardly equate a two-day workshop to a strategy of bringing in A-list consultants to “drive this effort.” We weren’t there to kick-off some huge consulting gig to transform intelligence. We were there to talk to the CIA, and all of us were just as motivated to learn from them. This attitude was reflected in the process of the workshop itself.    (LD3)

When Mark Oehlert asked me to participate, most of the “panelists” had already signed on, and three things stood out to me about the group. First, two of the participants — Jay Cross and Marcia Conner — came from the learning world, not the world of blogs and Wikis, although both are active bloggers. (As it turned out, Mark falls under this category as well.) Second, we all cared more about helping than selling. Third, we all shared similar philosophies about collaboration, although I was undoubtedly the most zealous of the lot. Before signing on, I sent Mark an email suggesting that we not do a panel or presentations, but instead try something more collaborative and meaningful. Mark responded with a smile, and said, “We’re going to get along just fine.” Turns out he was way ahead of me.    (LD4)

The end result was a facilitated conversation between the CIA and the outside world, a conversation that the CIA could not have easily had under normal circumstances due to real constraints (unlike the artificial constraints that many organizations impose on themselves). There was also an important secondary effect that resulted from the workshop process: Stone Soup. This particular network inside the CIA became aware of itself. The champions within the organization were evident right from the start, and the conversation was as much between the analysts themselves as it was with us.    (LD5)

Second, bringing in outsiders can have a catalyzing effect on transforming an organization’s culture, provided their role is framed correctly. We weren’t there to fix anything. That would have been naive, because there was no way we could have fixed anything. We were there to tell stories and participate in discussion.    (LD6)

The path to shifting a dysfunctional culture within a homogeneous organization is to expand the network, to make the problem bigger. The CIA is not the only organization working on these issues, so by including other organizations in the conversation, you enrich your network and raise the collective intelligence of your group. Outsiders in the right roles are critical to change. If you try to solve the problem in a bubble, you are more likely to kill the organization than you are to change anything.    (LD7)

I have no illusions about whether or not we changed anything in those two days. My goal was to expand the group consciousness, if only slightly, and we certainly achieved that. That’s a small step in the right direction, but much, much more needs to be done.    (LD8)

Something Special in St. Louis

There’s something special brewing in St. Louis, and it ain’t Budweiser. My side of the story begins in the Bay Area. We’ve got this special culture here in California. It’s a culture of openness, of collaboration, of entrepreneurship, and of tolerance. Combine that with a wonderfully diverse and intellectual community, and you get a tremendous amount of good vibes and innovation. The Bay Area is so wonderful, most of us don’t see any need to go anywhere else, and those who do often experience severe culture shock. Yes, Virginia, not everyone is like us Californians.    (LBJ)

In some ways, that’s a good thing, but in many ways, it’s sad. True, California is beautiful. True, the people here are brilliant and wonderful. But, there are brilliant and wonderful people who live outside of California, and there’s no reason why those folks can’t enjoy the same community vibe that we do out here. The Internet allows us to transcend geographical boundaries and form a virtual community with a similar vibe, but it still pales in comparison to the experience of being physical immersed in this type of environment. The barrier to this sort of vibe emerging in a geographical community is usually culture.    (LBK)

Is it possible to shift the culture of a community (or an organization) to be more collaborative, more tolerant, more innovative? Absolutely. It’s not easy, but it’s possible, and like all great things, it starts with great people, and it has to start small.    (LBL)

St. Louis has these ingredients as well as a growing consciousness about what is possible. The right people are there, and they are starting to discover each other. If this growing community fosters these opportunities, a wonderful prairie will emerge.    (LBM)

This past Wednesday, I did my part by co-facilitating the first gathering of the St. Louis Collaboratory, which was formed by Kellee Sikes and three of her colleagues (Mark Richman, Donna Mickens, and Valerie Hartman). (Pictures from the event.) The gathering was modeled after the “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” (TCC) workshops I co-organized with Jeff Shults earlier this year in San Francisco. Kellee attended our second workshop, and enjoyed it so much, she decided to try and bring a similar experience to her community in St. Louis.    (LBN)    (LBO)

Kellee, Mark, Donna, and Valerie recruited a fantastic and diverse group of participants. We had folks from both non- and for-profits, from large and small companies, from technology, health care, and organized labor. These people were thoughtful and open-minded. They came into the workshop with a healthy dose of skepticism, but also a willingness to play. What surprised me the most was that several of them had thought as deeply about collaboration as anyone else I’ve ever met.    (LBP)

I learned a tremendous amount listening to this group and watching them work. I could write 50 blog entries about the things I learned, stories I heard, and insights I gained. (I’ll be happy if I manage three.)    (LBQ)

At dinner later in the evening, I told several people that it would be a travesty if they did not continue engage with each other. You can do amazing things in a day. My goals were to expand their consciousness, to make them aware of each other, to start seeding Shared Language, and to give them an opportunity to experience a different kind of collaboration. We met these goals, but they barely scratch the surface of what’s possible.    (LBR)

The opportunity is there. Kellee and company are planning another workshop in January, and hopefully some of the participants from this week will play a more active role in designing the next event. Moreover, there are complementary events cropping up in St. Louis.    (LBS)

Through a serendipitous conversation with Jay Cross last month, I discovered Dave Gray, the founder of St. Louis-based XPLANE, which does visual modeling and facilitation. Dave introduced me to Matt Homann, a lawyer by trade who recently formed a company, LexThink, to organize more collaborative gatherings. Matt has been experimenting with a different kind of networking event in St. Louis known as Idea Markets, and the second one just happened to be this past Tuesday. It was an excellent event, and I’d encourage people from the area to go. This style of event is a dime a dozen in the Bay Area, but we rarely see the mix of people that Matt managed to draw.    (LBT)    (LBU)

What’s different about St. Louis Collaboratory and events like Idea Markets is that they’re not about Drive-By Networking. They’re not about, “What can you do for me?” They’re about, “What can we do with each other?” That, my friends, is what collaboration is about. I’ll be watching these developments closely to see what emerges.    (LBV)

On The Clock Goofiness

At the workshop earlier this week, one woman raised concerns over whether blogging about one’s personal life at work could be considered wasting tax payer’s money. This question isn’t just limited to the government. Many companies ask similar questions about similar tools. For example, a lot of companies were reluctant to adopt IM, because they were afraid that employees would spend all their time gabbing online.    (L93)

There are three problems with this kind of thinking. First, if you’re going to waste time gabbing at work, you don’t need IM. You’ve got water coolers, cubicles, copiers, lobbies, and lunchrooms. Options for wasting time abound.    (L94)

Second, banning a tool prevents you from using it for good or for ill. You have to be rigorous in measuring tradeoffs. In the case of IM, which had legitimate business uses, people’s response to not having access to it was to download freely available software and route around the company firewall.    (L95)

Third, Taylorism is so 1911. We are people, not machines, and people sometimes need to do things like call home from work (which up until relatively recently, government employees were not allowed to do). In fact, encouraging people to feel human can even be productive! Imagine that!    (L96)

This issue came up in response to an observation I made about the importance of play. Play is critical for effective learning, and yet, it can be hard to justify play, especially to the outside world, when your job is to protect national security.    (L97)

Mark Oehlert had a wonderful response to this. There are apparently two words for “play” in German. (I know one is “Spiel.” Can someone tell me the other?) One meaning of “play” describes the looseness that allows a wheel to turn. If there isn’t enough play, the wheel won’t turn. This latter meaning of play can be easier to rationalize in the workplace.    (L98)

We panelists were slightly guilty of playing on the job. The Backchannel (strictly classified) had me cracking up more than once during the discussion. (Did you know that David Weinberger used to write for Woody Allen?) And while this was not a classified event, they asked us not to take pictures of people. This is how we chose to comply:    (L99)    (L9A)

(Photos courtesy of Jay Cross. Clay, we’re missing you. Please correct this!)    (L9B)

By the way, I agree with everything Marcia says.    (L9C)

Extreme Learning

This “Extreme” business is getting a bit out of control, but Jay Cross has written a great piece for CLO (April 2005) entitled, “Extreme Learning: Decision Games.” Jay describes to Knowledge Management companies based in Singapore — Straits Knowledge and Pebble Road — who were commissioned to help companies learn how to do business in China.    (JS7)

Foreign businesspeople new to China have an extraordinarily difficult time learning to sense and respond to the culture’s complexities. They don’t need more information — they need to be able to read what’s going on so they will know how to use the information they’ve got. Until now, no one could figure out how to transfer the insight of experienced foreign entrepreneurs.    (JS8)

These two companies attacked the problem by creating decision games, asking participants to work through scenarios, then having experts explain what would happen and why.    (JS9)

These decision games repeatedly test a person’s judgment and knowledge while allowing them to engage with business colleagues in a complex and ambiguous environment. While they are learning about a particular domain, participants also gain insight into the perspectives, styles and capabilities of their colleagues.    (JSA)

Think about it: Exposing novices to multiple ways of seeing and sizing up situations is how expertise is built. Switching the focus from teaching content to challenging contexts intensifies learning. Participants become so involved, they don’t even break for coffee.    (JSB)

This is a fantastic, collaborative alternative to traditional top-down teaching.    (JSC)

Talk: Cheap, but Necessary

John Stafford had an interesting response to my recent blog entry, “Million Dollar Dialog.” John said, “The problem with dialogue is that talk is cheap,” and then proceeded to tell an anecdote about a series of town hall meetings on education that led absolutely nowhere.    (19U)

Before I respond, I want to share Tom Munnecke‘s thoughts, which I liked a lot. Tom wrote:    (19V)

It strikes me that we could have a lot more talk in many circumstances:    (19W)

Physicians could take more time to communicate with their patients (and be given it in their schedules)    (19X)

Parents could talk more with their children.    (19Y)

Americans could talk more with Europeans, instead of letting their leaders or the media do the communicating for them.    (19Z)

Muslims, Christians, and Jews could talk more.    (1A0)

…    (1A1)

Seems to me that we should be talking about the quality of the communication and the “rightness” of the action, not simply trying to pump up “action” at the expense of “talk.”    (1A2)

I agree with both John and Tom. Talk is cheap, but it’s also necessary. Talk leads to Shared Understanding, which is an absolute prerequisite to effective collaboration. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to collaborate is confusing talk with lack of action. The two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are highly complementary.    (1A3)

I’ve suggested in other posts that collaboration requires shared, bounded goals. Those goals generally manifest themselves as action. However, action that does not emerge from a Shared Understanding of ideas is not collaboration. That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable, but in many cases, its effectiveness is limited. Consider organizational mission statements. Suppose a CEO spent a week writing a mission statement for his or her company. Compare this to a CEO leading a six-month, organization-wide, facilitated dialog for collectively developing a mission statement. Even if the two statements were exactly the same, the latter would be far more meaningful than the former.    (1A4)

Action is important in two ways. First, it signifies progress — the achievement of shared, bounded goals. Second, action itself is a form of communication that helps strengthen Shared Understanding.    (1A5)

How do we facilitate action from talk? Representation, as John suggests, is vital. You need to have the right set of people, people who are capable and motivated. Jay Cross recently wrote about the Pareto Principle, more commonly known as the 80/20 rule. 20 percent of a group is usually responsible for 80 percent of the work. It only takes a small number of folks to get things done, but you need to make sure you have the right people in the first place.    (1A6)

Still, talk plays an important role here, because it gets ideas out there. When you Think Out Loud, there’s a possibility that someone who is action-oriented will hear and will do something about it. One of the explicit goals of our Collaboration Collaboratory is to capture the good ideas that emerge from our dialog. Even if nobody in our collaboratory decides to do anything about them, by capturing them and making them accessible, we increase the likelihood that someone else will. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen time and again.    (1A7)