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)

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)