The Fractal Nature of Large-Scale Collaboration

Collaboration is a meta-discipline. It is usually the means, not the end. You don’t collaborate for collaboration’s sake; you collaborate to accomplish some bounded goal. Making the means the end is tricky business. When you eliminate the context, it’s easy to shift from thoughtful practice to ivory tower jibber jabber and suffer the consequences of Professionalization. All communities and networks centered around meta-disciplines are vulnerable to this, including Blue Oxen Associates. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is my foremost challenge as a social entrepreneur and as a scholar-practitioner.    (M65)

Being meta also has its benefits, however. Over the past few years, I have been helping more and more groups with the conundrum of being a top-down, command-and-control organization in a heavily network-centric world. Sometimes, this takes the form of coaching, where I talk the organization through principles and provide encouragement through what can be a painful and frustrating process. My approach is to tap into the existing organizational instinct and experience as much as possible while challenging assumptions by identifying and asking deep, underlying questions.    (M66)

Other times, it takes the form of designing a convening. These convenings play the same role as my coaching does, except it accelerates Shared Understanding among the stakeholders and it leverages Wisdom of Crowds.    (M67)

Here’s where the meta-ness of the collaboration business becomes useful. The act of co-designing a highly interactive convening, then experiencing it first-hand is a smaller-scale representation of the steps an organization would go through to transform itself into something more network-oriented and collaborative. Even though these convenings are smaller than the large-scale challenges that these organizations face, the principles are the same, whether you’re dealing with 20 or 20,000 people.    (M68)

These convenings are never meta. They are always about something concrete that is directly relevant to the organization.    (M69)

They start with the principle that everyone has different worldviews, but shares strong values. They facilitate interactivity, artifact generation, and continuous resynthesis of knowledge.    (M6A)

They don’t try to control participants. Instead, they let the right path emerge. They allow subgroups to form, to be creative, and to explore their own ideas and interests, without losing The Red Thread of the network as a whole.    (M6B)

By helping organizations design, then experience these convenings, I am indirectly helping them understand how to transform their organization in an experiential way. That’s a direct result of both the fractal nature of large-scale collaboration and the meta-ness of being in the collaboration business.    (M6C)

The Blue Oxen Way

Back when Chris Dent and I started Blue Oxen Associates, we often referred to something called the The Blue Oxen Way. It was something that we both understood and recognized, but that we never actually articulated. Over the years, I tried to rectify this, and I generated pages and pages of notes (including three years worth of rambling blog posts) in the process, to no avail.    (LVU)

Recently, Chris articulated his visions for “Wiki Everywhere,” where he referenced some of our early conversations. As I read it, I relived many of these discussions, and suddenly, it all clicked for me.    (LVV)

The essence of The Blue Oxen Way can be boiled down into three ideas, each of which form the framework for our entire philosophy about collaboration:    (LVW)

The Squirm Test    (LW0)

The Squirm Test is a thought experiment for measuring the amount of Shared Understanding in a group by observing the amount of squirming in a room. Shared Understanding (which is not the same as “same understanding”) manifests itself in the formation of Shared Language. Shared Language is a prerequisite for collaboration.    (LW1)

Much of the messiness of the collaborative process can actually be attributed to lack of Shared Language. Great collaborative design accounts for this rather than wishing it away, which is how most of us deal with it.    (LW2)

Shared Language is The Red Thread that binds all of the crazy things I’m involved with, from Pattern Languages to Wikis, from face-to-face facilitation to organizational strategy. The Squirm Test is a wonderful embodiment of Shared Language.    (LW3)

Be Less Dumb    (LW4)

If Shared Language is the tie that binds, then being Less Dumb is the state that we are all striving to reach. Why are we playing this game in the first place? To be Less Dumb, of course! As you go to bed every night, if you can’t look in the mirror and say, “Today, I became Less Dumb,” then you’re not doing your job.    (LW5)

Less Dumb is the negative framing of “augmentation,” but it sounds a heckuva lot better, and it embodies the same philosophy. Tools should make people Less Dumb. Processes should make people Less Dumb. How do we measure collaboration? One way is to see if we’re Less Dumb in the process.    (LW6)

That’s obvious, you say? If it’s so obvious, why do most tools and processes make us More Dumb rather than Less Dumb? And why are we so often willing to live with that? It may sound obvious, but are we really paying enough attention to this?    (LW7)

Bootstrapping    (LW8)

With Less Dumb and Shared Language (as embodied by the Squirm Test), we have our target and the glue that keeps us together. Our process — the way we get to our target — is bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is building on top of things that already exist, then building on top of that. (The notion of bootstrapping is also the reason why we called ourselves Blue Oxen Associates.)    (LW9)

The most vivid images of my best experiences collaborating have to do with movement — my actions resulting in other people’s actions, which result in even more actions, which inspire me to act further. This is bootstrapping at its best.    (LWA)

Purple Numbers are ultimately about building ideas on top of pre-existing ideas — knowledge synthesis (i.e. becoming Less Dumb) by reusing existing ideas. Also known as bootstrapping.    (LWB)

Red and Yellow Threads

Gail Taylor likes to talk about the need for The Red Thread and Yellow Threads in groups. The Red Thread is a concept from filmmaking. It’s the tie that binds, an element found in every aspect of a project that helps create a unified whole. Alicia Bramlett, an artist and filmmaker who often works with MGTaylor, has written a beautiful description of The Red Thread and its role in filmmaking.    (GFZ)

Gail first described Yellow Threads to me a few weeks ago as we were discussing the participants of an upcoming Blue Oxen Associates event. If you look carefully, you will find Yellow Threads woven throughout oriental carpets. They themselves are not apparent, but their presence makes the surrounding colors more vivid.    (GG0)