Evolutionary Leadership Workshop: Final Exercise

For the last exercise of my guest stint at Alexander Laszlo and Kathia Laszlo‘s Evolutionary Leadership class a few weeks ago, I decided to have the group come up with a working definition of “collaboration,” as well as thoughts on patterns of and metrics for effective collaboration. If this sounds boringly familiar to regular readers of this blog, it should. This conceptual framework is fundamental to everything I do, and I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and leading workshops about it.    (MMQ)

It was all par for the course for me, except I only had 90 minutes. The way I usually approach this in my workshops is to start with storytelling, model the collaborative experience, then have the participants synthesize the framework themselves based on their own learning. We didn’t have time for that. I thought about giving up and doing a traditional lecture, and if I had had slightly less time (say, an hour), I probably would have. But, that would have been extremely lame, and I wanted to see if I could pull off something interesting in 90 minutes.    (MMR)

What I decided to do in the end was create a makeshift anthropology experiment, with the students acting as both the subjects and the anthropologists. I divided the class into four teams. The first three teams would spend half an hour working on the same problem: Define collaboration. However, each team would have different process and tool constraints. The fourth team would observe the other three working.    (MMS)

The three teams were Team Nike, Team Wiki, and Team Taylor. Team Nike’s constraints were simple: It had none. I gave them the challenge without guidance or constraints, and it was up to them to figure out how to go about solving the problem. Their task was to just do it.    (MMT)

Team Wiki was divided into three subteams. They were allowed to interact as much as they wanted and however they wanted with their subteams, but they were not allowed to verbally communicate between subteams. There was a laptop projected in the middle of the room running a text editor. The team’s final product would be whatever was written on the text editor at the end of their time. Only one group could be at the keyboard at a time, and they could write whatever they wanted on the editor.    (MMU)

https://i0.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1390/1424241488_9de86fefbb_m.jpg?w=700 https://i0.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1142/1423359835_cad0b5609b_m.jpg?w=700    (MMV)

The final team, Team Taylor, was given a process similar to one I’ve used in many other workshops. They initially broke up into small groups and shared personal experiences with great collaboration. They then regrouped and worked through a series of “Is it Collaboration?” scenarios. Finally, they were given the final exercise and asked to put together a definition given their previous work. (They were named after Blue Oxen advisor Gail Taylor and her husband, Matt Taylor, who were my advanced introduction to workshop designs like these.)    (MMW)

Why this breakdown? I really wanted the students to think carefully about their experiences collaborating with each other as much as the content of the exercise itself. By having three processes going simultaneously, it was clear that the compare-and-contrast would be an important element in this exercise. By having full-fledged observation teams, this process discussion would be a major part of the report-out as well as the resulting work products.    (MMX)

I think the exercise worked moderately well. The participants seemed to enjoy the process, and the comments in the debrief were excellent. The timing was predictably tight, and there were some aspects of the exercise that could have been tightened up some. The most frustrating omission for me was the lack of a collective synthesis process, but I knew that would be the case from the start.    (MMY)

I was most curious to see what Team Nike would do, since they had the least constraints. Both the team itself and its observers noted that initially, there was a lot of talking past each other. I think that’s very natural for large groups that are new to each other, especially when under time constraints. I observed something similar during the Hidden Connections breakout I participated in earlier in the day, and we all saw this during the group counting exercise as well.    (MMZ)

There are several ways to counter this phenomenon. The method most people tend to default to is “stronger facilitation” — having a designated facilitator maintain tight control over the process. There’s a time and a place for this, but I think the resulting order is largely artificial, and that the group will likely fail the Squirm Test. If you do have a designated facilitator, one simple technique that is remarkably effective and underutilized is to simply ask the group to listen to and respect their peers. We saw this work with the group counting exercise, and I’ve seen it work again and again in other meeting contexts.    (MN0)

Although there was no designated facilitator for Team Nike, a few individuals stepped up to take on that role. There was no decision-making process up-front. One student simply started acting as the facilitator, and the others followed. (Leadership is action.) Another student started taking notes and often validated what other people said, which helped slow down the discussion and validated individual participation. This is an outstanding example of the artifact playing a strong, facilitative role, a premise underlying patterns such as Shared Display and processes such as Dialogue Mapping.    (MN1)

At one point, Alexander Laszlo, who was participating in Team Nike, approached me and asked, “Can we collaborate with other groups?” I laughed and said, “You can do anything that wasn’t expressly forbidden.” Because of the time constraints, Team Nike didn’t end up pursuing this, but I was glad they had this insight in the first place. It’s always one of my favorite moments when somebody realizes, “Is there any reason why we couldn’t collaborate with others?” It often takes surprisingly long for someone to figure this out, even at workshops where collaboration is one of the stated goals. It’s a sign of how culturally engrained it is for us not to collaborate with each other.    (MN2)

In my opinion, strong design is much more powerful than strong facilitation, and those were principles I hoped would emerge when comparing Team Wiki and Team Taylor’s processes with Team Nike’s. Two design constraints all three teams shared were a concrete goal and a time constraint. Nothing motivates a group to collaborate more effectively than a sense of urgency, and both of these constraints help to create that urgency. One of the most important elements of Blue Oxen‘s definition of collaboration is the notion that the goal is bounded — that it has both a beginning and an end. If there’s an end, then the goal is measurable, and you can have a time constraint. None of the teams identified this in their definitions of collaboration, although I’d be willing to bet that it would have emerged if we had more time.    (MN3)

Another useful design constraint is the power of small groups. Conversation flowed better within both Team Wiki and Team Taylor, and that flow carried over when Team Taylor got together as a large group. It’s a simple principle, and yet it’s also vastly underutilized.    (MN4)

Besides being broken into small groups, Team Wiki’s major design constraint was the use of a Shared Display as a medium for both creating their deliverable and communicating between the group. My goal was to simulate a Wiki-like collaborative pattern in a very short timespan. Given my well-known love of Wikis, I enjoyed watching this group the most. The content itself evolved predictably in a way that was reminiscent of Wikis, starting with a straw man of content, some side conversations in the document itself, and plenty of refactoring. The group dynamic, however, was anything but predictable. One group went directly to the laptop and started working. Another group saw this, realized only one group could type at a time, and decided that it would spend most of its time talking amongst themselves. Throughout the half hour, two groups regular switched off on the laptop while the third group didn’t participate until the very end. The last few minutes was mostly frantic typing while everyone else stood around and watched.    (MN5)

Several people noted the challenge of having only a single keyboard, and expressed curiosity about the possibility of having multiple people work simultaneously. We could have accomplished that a number of ways, the best of which would have been to use a real-time collaborative editor such as Gobby or SynchroEdit. However, the point of this exercise was to simulate asysnchronous collaboration. I think this was an exercise that would have benefited from a bit more time.    (MN6)

Two interesting things emerged from Team Taylor, one which I expected and one which I didn’t even notice until the team itself pointed it out. At one point, the team observed that two people were monopolizing the conversation, and that they were both men, even though the majority of the group comprised of women. This observation was complicated by the fact that the observation team — in this case, all men — were sitting with the group in a circle rather than outside of the group. As a result, it was hard to say whether this was indeed a gender dynamic, or whether the two who spoke the most just happened to be the biggest talkers in the group. Nevertheless, the awareness of the gender dynamic was an important one that a lot of facilitators — especially males — miss.    (MN7)

Team Taylor didn’t do a particularly good job at the stated exercise, but one participant observed that if they had five more minutes, they would have done an amazing job. I believe this, and I think the resulting definition would have scored the highest on the Squirm Test. The reason for that was that their process was optimized for building Shared Language and trust. The personal storytelling was especially important for trust-building. When you have both of these in great amounts, the actual collaboration is far more effective. Truthfully, they were also hamstrung by the fact that I didn’t tell them what their actual goal was until the final ten minutes of their exercise. That would have been an appropriate thing to do if they had much more time, but given the time constraints, it probably would have been more fair to tell them the exercise ahead of time. I agonized over this when designing the exercise, and I chose not to tell them the exercise in advance because I was afraid the urgency of the deadline might cause them to skip through the first two exercises.    (MN8)

Finally, a word on the actual definitions. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by any of the definitions, again largely due to the time constraints. I was more interested in the group learning. However, I thought all three definitions were pretty good, and I was impressed by the context and the patterns that emerged: the importance of trust, communication, and Shared Language, for example. I also saw something that I’ve seen with other folks and with other definitions. Everyone tried to define “effective collaboration,” when in fact, the exercise called for simply defining “collaboration.” I think it helps to separate the two. Ineffective collaboration is still collaboration. There is something cognitively liberating about separating the question of whether or not you are collaborating from whether or not you are collaborating effectively.    (MN9)

I was very impressed by the quality of the group, and I had a blast working with them. I recommend folks interested in learning more about collaboration, systems thinking, and leadership in a business context to check out the Presidio School program, and in particular, to take a look at the various classes that the Laszlos teach.    (MNA)

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)

Guest “Lecture” at the Presidio School of Management

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of guest “facilitating” Kathia Laszlo and Alexander Laszlo‘s class, “Evolutionary Leadership, Collaboration, and Systems Thinking,” part of the Presidio School of Management MBA program. I sat in on the first part of the class, where the students did report-outs on Fritjof Capra‘s Hidden Dimensions, followed by a lecture on system dynamics by Ty Cashman. I then took over the remaining two hours of the class, leading them through some exercises designed to tap their collective wisdom about collaboration and leadership. Pictures from the day are on Flickr.    (MLM)

The Presidio School of Management is my kind of school. Kathia and Alexander aren’t “professors,” at least according to the course description. They’re “learning facilitators,” and they’re damn good at it. I met both of them last year on the planning committee for ISSS 2006, where I was struck by how much they knew and how playful they were. They preach what they practice in a way that you almost never see in other academics.    (MLN)

This was evident in their class from the get-go. They didn’t lecture about the assigned reading, Capra’s book. Instead, they had two groups create their own learning exercises for the entire class based on specific themes.    (MLO)

The first group offered some quick commentary on several themes of the book, then divided the class into breakout groups to discuss each theme. Each group had about ten people and about ten minutes to talk. There were some provocative comments, but the discussion predictably lacked cohesion. More on this in a later post.    (MLP)

The second group invented a board game called, “The Web of Life.” One of the creators explained, tongue-in-cheek, “It’s almost like you’ll be competing with each other… in a collaborative way.” There were two alternating sets of questions, which were drawn from Capra’s book. They ranged from multiple choice to charades. (The charades word was “autopoesis”! Stunningly, the team got it right!)    (MLQ)

https://i0.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1348/1423338665_73f6e8a4e3_m.jpg?w=700    (MLR)

There were multiple pairs of team “competing” against each other. Each team was assigned a color, and the teams alternated turns/questions. When a team got a question right, it got to draw a colored line on a hexagonal board. When a team closed a hexagon, it filled it in with its color.    (MLS)

The questions were engaging and fun, a great way to see who had actually done the reading, and the creators were surprised to see collaborative behavior emerge from the final game board. First, a group consisting of members from each team self-organized to draw the lines. Second, most of the teams chose to share filled-in colors, rather than occupy the entire hexagon themselves. Perhaps the only sign of outright competitiveness was the purple team, who repeatedly scribbled, “Purple rules!”    (MLT)

https://i0.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1036/1423340065_25d08fe959_m.jpg?w=700    (MLU)

In my next two posts, I’ll describe the group counting and other exercises I led in the class.    (MLV)

April and May Gatherings

Normally, I love to travel, but last year tested that love. I was out of town almost twice a month for work. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and ultimately, too much. I resolved not to travel for the first four months of 2007. It’s now April 2007, and I’ve successfully fulfilled my resolution (depending on how you count), wonderfully refreshed and ready to travel again.    (M5D)

As I noted earlier, I’ll be in Baltimore next week for Creating Space VIII, the Leadership Learning Community‘s (LLC) annual gathering. The theme is Collective Leadership. They’ve already got record attendance, and I believe registrations are still open, so if you’re in the area and want to attend, I encourage you to register. I joined LLC’s board late last year, participated in some of their gatherings, and was blown away by what I saw. Can you tell I’m excited?    (M5E)

Next month, May 2-3, I’m co-chairing the Compendium Institute‘s 2007 workshop at the NASA Ames Conference Center in Mountain View, California. It’s going to be awesome — highly practitioner-oriented, with lots of close interaction with some of the most experienced folks in our community. If you’re already a Compendium user, or if you’re interested in learning more, I strongly encourage you to register and attend.    (M5F)

May 14-16 is Internet Identity Workshop 2007a, once again at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. There will be some major Identity Commons announcements there, as well as cool demonstrations of the latest advancements in interoperable Digital Identity systems. If you’re at all interested in the identity space, I strongly urge you to register.    (M7H)

I get a day to recover, then it’s off to Montreal May 18-20 for RoCoCo (RecentChangesCamp Montreal), hanging out with my fellow Wiki compatriots and other community builders. I’ll be releasing a vision paper on Wiki interoperability that same week. I’ve had tremendous fun researching and writing it, and I can’t wait to hear my community’s reaction to it.    (M5G)

Finally, I just joined the advisory board of Tiffany Von Emmel‘s Dream Fish. They’ll be holding a workshop on Leadership for Sustainability on May 30 in San Francisco. It will feature four outstanding teachers, including Alexander Laszlo and Kathia Laszlo, two of the smartest and most decent people I’ve ever met. Register before the end of this month for a discount.    (M5H)