Beating the Dead Horse of Collaboration: Thinking Versus Doing

My post on the dangers of professionalizing collaboration spurred some good thoughts from Chris Dent, which resulted in some good discussion over IM. Chris wrote:    (KP6)

What one does when collaborating is always more important than collaboration itself.    (KP7)

In the ideal situation, collaboration disappears into the background. If you find yourself enmeshed in the details of how your group should interact, you’ve missed a step.    (KP8)

This is so true, it bears emphasizing. Think about dancing. What could be more collaborative? If you’re thinking about your footwork or your next move as you dance, you are almost certainly not dancing well. On the other hand, how do you become a good dancer without thinking about footwork? More importantly, how do you improve if you’re not self-reflective? Obviously, actually doing it is crucial — and in the end, it’s the most important thing — but there’s still room for self-reflection and discussion. What’s the right balance?    (KP9)

The key is a cycle of reflection and action. You think and you talk, but when it comes to action, you forget all of that, and you simply do. All of that thinking, regardless of how good or how deep it is, is useless if it hasn’t been internalized, if it’s not actionable. If it has been internalized, then thinking or talking about it is not only unnecessary, it just gets in the way.    (KPA)

Chris’s point reminded me of something: People’s best experiences with collaboration often occurs when there’s a sense of urgency. Collaboration following disasters is a great example of this. A big reason for this is that people don’t have the luxury of overthinking a problem, and so if collaboration is good, nothing artificial gets in the way.    (KPB)

In my essay, “Everything Is Known: Discovering Patterns of Emergent Collaboration,” I talk a lot about William Langewiesche‘s book, American Ground and the emergent collaboration that occurred after 9/11. I didn’t get to talk in detail about what happened after the bulk of the recovery effort was complete, although I alluded to it in a previous blog entry. Langewiesche writes:    (KPC)

Safety restrictions were increasing by the day. Ken Holden was philosophical about it, and, as his father might have years before, he played a little word game — something like metaphor-cramming. He said, “When the smoke clears, the nitpickers come out of the closet.” And it was true: the regulators and auditors had arrived in force. Those from the federal safety agency called OSHA were most in evidence; they had been present from the start, and had been largely ignored, but were suddenly multiplying now and gaining the upper hand. They wore bright safety vests and had helmets equipped with red flashing lights. One afternoon, with about a dozen of them in sight, their lights blinking in the hole, Pablo Lopez said to me, “Look! The Martians have landed and they’re communicating!” A few days later one of them asked me to don safety glasses or leave the excavation site, and I remember my surprise when I realized that he was serious. It felt sort of silly, like being required to wear sunblock in a combat zone, but the truth was that the battle was over, and the hole had become a tame place. Lopez’s partner Andrew Pontecorvo explained it to me as a fact of life that he had observed before. He said, “The safer things get, the greater the restrictions.” He was a realist. He shrugged. (198-199)    (KPD)

How do we avoid this trap? One key is to build a frequent, regular cycle of intense collaboration followed by reflection into your design. You can’t do both at the same time, but you don’t want to do one without the other for too long. Deadlines are a pattern that facilitates this behavior.    (KPE)

If your team or community is aware of this cycle, then if someone’s self-reflection is preventing work from happening, you can call him or her on it. Chris suggested having a Horse Is Dead stick, similar in concept to a talking stick. I’m not sure exactly what you would do with the stick yet — beating the person over the head with it sounds right, but this may not go over well with management — but I think he’s on the right track.    (KPF)

If the reason for collaborating is more important than the collaboration itself, then what are the implications for metrics? Do you measure collaboration at all, or do you measure whether or not you’re achieving your mission? The example I often use for this are the 2000-2003 Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal Lakers. No one would point to those teams as models of effective collaboration, but who cares? They won three consecutive championships. Which metric is more important? Well, they may have won three, but they should have won four, and they had to break up the team because they couldn’t get along. The point is that you can’t measure one in isolation from another. You need to measure both, and consider one in the context of the other.    (KPG)

Shut Up And Listen

Okay, I’m out. I watch The Apprentice religiously.    (IDJ)

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s start with the Donald’s not-so-trite advice from last night’s episode: Shut Up and Listen. Tara felt that as a native New Yorker and as an African-American woman, she would best understand Net Worth’s target demographic: males residing in Harlem, ages 18-35. It was clear from the start that she had a strong vision for what the ad should look like, and throughout the task, she consistently ignored what everyone else had to say. Even in the end, after watching folks from the focus group say how the ad didn’t appeal to them, whereas Magna’s did, Tara insisted that her ad was better.    (IDK)

Meanwhile, Alex, a white guy who grew up on a farm and admittedly had no idea what the picture should look like, stumbled onto a brilliant plan. He found his target audience, he asked them questions, and he listened. Surprise, surprise. Magna won.    (IDL)

There’s an important lesson here. I had Tara down as one of the top candidates, and I think Trump made a mistake in firing her. (Of course, his early round decisions tend to be a bit arbitrary, most likely for the ratings.) As Trump himself said, she’s smart and tough. But that doesn’t make you a good listener.    (IDM)

In writer’s workshops, the writer is often asked to sit outside of a circle of critics and is usually asked to sit on his or her hands. I learned this past weekend that the requirements are similar for designers or developers during usability testing. Sitting on one’s hands is an important pattern, because the instinct to defend is so strong in these circumstances.    (IDN)

William Langewiesche tells a beautiful story about listening in American Ground. He describes a meeting on November 12, 2001 between those running the World Trade Center recovery, including Rudy Giuliani, Mike Burton, and Bill Cote, and the widows of the firemen who died. The widows were furious about their treatment throughout the recovery process, and the strength of their feelings blindsided the recovery organizers. Langewiesche writes:    (IDO)

The mayor handled himself well that night. He was patient and compassionate, and he allowed the grieving crowd to rail, but he did not pander to it.    (IDP)

…    (IDQ)

Burton and Cote were badly shaken. When the meeting ended, after more than three hours of emotional storms, the two of them got into Burton’s Jeep and drove away through the quiet streets. At first they did not speak, except briefly to agree that the experience had been the worst of their lives. In the theater district they found a bar, and went in for a drink. The other customers there — tourists pioneering a return to the city, lovers hunched together before bed, late-night regulars of various kinds — could never have guessed the role of these nondescript men, or the utter seriousness of their talk.    (IDR)

The widows’ meeting turned out to be a watershed in the Trade Center recovery. Burton and Cote were tough guys, accustomed to seeing life as a struggle, and they would not have been unjustified had they responded impatiently to the encounter. This was dangerous to admit out loud, but it was on many people’s minds: the firemen’s widows were victims of victimization itself, and in their agony and myopia they were starting to blunder around; moreover, they clearly did not represent the thousands of others who had lost family on September 11 and were coming to terms with the events more stoically. It would have been understandable, therefore, if Burton and Cote had mentally stiff-armed the widows, privately dismissing their emotions as overblown and rededicating themselves to the efficiency of the excavation. They had it within their power to do this — and had they been officials in many other parts of the world, they probably would have followed such a hard line. It was lucky for the ultimate success of the recovery effrt that this was not the way they naturally reacted.    (IDS)

Instead, over a couple of beers they talked for the first time since September 11 about people’s emotional reactions to the attack, and they questioned why they themselves had felt so little affected by the death and destruction at the site. Burton called Cote a “cold fish.” Cote pointed out that neither of them had family or close friends who had died. It also had to be admitted that the project was going well, and that for both of them it was utterly consuming professionally, offering an emotional advantage that others did not have: they simply did not have time to dwell on the tragedy. Still, each had been moved that night by the suffering of the widows, and had been troubled by the realization that, though they had tried to do the best possible job, there were people who now believed that their actions were wrong, even wicked. It made them question the doggedness of their approach, and reminded them of a simple imperative that in the crush of daily decisions they were tending to forget: that the unbuilding was more than just a problem of deconstruction, and that for the final measure of success they would have to take emotions into account. They finished their beers, drove downtown, and walked through the site.    (IDT)

Self-Organizing Collaboration at the World Trade Center Ruins

In early 2003, I had lunch with Richard Gabriel for the first time, and I explained to him my desire to uncover common collaborative patterns across different disciplines, starting with Open Source communities. Richard recommended that I read William Langewiesche‘s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, a book that described the dismantling of the ruins and the self-organizing process that emerged.    (2AW)

Over a year later, I finally got around to following Richard’s advice, and I’m glad that I did. Langewiesche’s book is a gripping, thoughtful account of what happened at the World Trade Center site immediately following 9/11.    (2AX)

Langewiesche first set the stage by vividly describing the challenge:    (2AY)

The weight alone defied imagination. What does a chaos of 1.5 million tons really mean? What does it even look like? The scene up close was so large that no one quite knew. In other countries clear answers would have been sought before action was taken. Learned communities would have been formed, and high authorities consulted. The ruins would have been pondered, and a tightly scripted response would have been imposed. Barring that, soldiers would have assumed control. But for whatever reasons, probably cultural, probably profound, little of the sort happened here, where the learned committees were excluded, and the soldiers were relegated to the unhappy role of guarding the perimeter, and civilians in heavy machines simply rolled in and took on the unknown. (12)    (2AZ)

The defiance of conventional process is a theme that Langewiesche returns to over and over again. The raw scale and emotion of the circumstances both required and made it possible for things to be handled differently. Traditional hierarchies broke down. The ability to act and to improvise trumped organizational charts. As a result, people from the “lowly” ranks, such as firemen and laborers, gained power and influence. (9-11) Leaders emerged from a group of people who arrived on scene and simply started doing things. No one told them what they had to do, and no one told them what they couldn’t do. (89, 94) Agility ruled.    (2B0)

A great example of a leader who emerged and the strategy for action he employed was Mike Burton, a top official at the Department of Design and Construction (DDC).    (2B1)

When he [Mike Burton] roamed the pile, as he did twice each day and once again at night, he seemed to accept the disorder there as being in the nature of an energetic response. Rather than hunting out infractions or putting a stop to unauthorized work, as a less confident ruler might have done, he watched for what he called “dead real estate” — unexpectedly quiet ground that resulted from supply-line breakdowns, trucking gridlock, or simple miscommunication between crews that worked the day shift and those that worked the night. (171)    (2B2)

This was by no means a volunteer effort. After the first few days, the only volunteers on site were the Salvation Army and Red Cross, who fed the workers. (180) Not only was there money available, there was a lot of money available, and the contractors involved were well compensated. This later led to accusations over motivation, but Langewiesche stresses that money was an enabler, not the primary motivation for those who worked the site. (9-11, 89)    (2B3)

While the circumstances at the World Trade Center site enabled a powerful new form of organization to emerge, it also caused some unusual problems. On the one hand, the strong stake people felt they had in the recovery process created a tremendous amount of Shared Motivation. On the other hand, it also resulted in jealousy over “ownership” of the process and territorialism between the police, the fire department, and the DDC. (69)    (2B4)

In addition to being a compelling story, American Ground is also a primer in self-organization and collaboration. Some key points:    (2B5)

  • Self-organization does not mean no organization. The process that emerged at the World Trade Center was hierarchical, and the roles were fairly well defined. What was different was that the process and the roles emerged, they were not imposed. Langewiesche wrote, “Later it seemed that one of the smartest was a back-room decision to scrap the organization charts, to finesse the city’s own Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and to allow the DDC to proceed. The federal government was poised to intervene, but agreed to hold off, and then to hold off again.” (66)    (2B6)
  • Intense, shared commitment is a powerful motivator, and as such, it has the potential to transcend many common obstacles. In reality, it takes intensely emotional circumstances to generate such a Shared Motivation, circumstances that are rare. As the job neared completion, traditional bureaucracy naturally asserted itself at the site. (198) That said, the recovery process clearly demonstrated that our assumptions about what motivates people and how things get done are not always right. The most important lesson is that the power of human fulfillment is a much stronger motivation than money.    (2B7)