Deploying intelligent collaboration

Most groups rely on authority to productively align and coordinate the activities of their members. With appropriate techniques, an intelligently collaborating group can out-produce an authority-based group, especially in terms of creativity, agility, and innovativeness.

Intelligent collaboration creates what practically amounts to a single, virtual mind, a mind that becomes optimally innovative, responsive, and flexible by taking full advantage of its participants' collective experience and of their diverging viewpoints and abilities.

Because a fully functioning intelligent collaboration actually cross-multiplies the creative capacities of the individual participants, its abilities can vastly exceed the sum of the abilities of the same individuals working separately.

Authority has been used throughout history as a kind of managerial shortcut. It is a simple and expedient way to organize human activity. A single person with power gives commands and delegates his authority to others, who obey, and the necessary work gets done.

Although the concentrated power in authority-based groups enables decisions to be reached more quickly and easily, it reduces the group's thinking to that of the single individual or small subgroup that has authority or access to power, while others take a subordinate or less active role, rarely reaching their full potential.

Authority interferes with intelligent collaboration, but because fully functioning, long-term intelligent collaboration is so rare, few organizations have the skills to cultivate it or to solve the many practical problems that arise when trying to deploy it without resorting to or depending on authority or hierarchy.

This article takes a small step toward solving that problem by outlining a few basic skills and attitudes needed for creating a more effective collaborative engagement.

Intelligent collaboration unlocks and then harnesses human potential more effectively than any other form of social organization.

Fruitful group discussions are at the heart of intelligent collaboration. The dynamics of collaborative discussions are tricky, especially for participants who are new to the process. Most groups lack the skills to make a collaborative discussion truly effective.

Here are a few guidelines for improving the quality of collaborative work sessions.

Tip: Appoint a lookout for each session.

At the beginning of a collaborative work session the group chooses a person to play the role of lookout. A good practice is to regularly rotate the person playing that role.

The lookout is like the sailor who climbed to the top of the mast and watched the horizon for land or approaching storms.

He or she is responsible for pointing out to the group when the principles of engagement for the discussion are not being followed.

The lookout pays close attention to the discursive practices themselves and on how the process is working, but does not contribute opinions or viewpoints of his or her own.

Once the group has chosen a lookout for the work session, the next task is to agree on the terms of closure. The participants explicitly agree on what they expect to have produced by the end of the session.

They take care to make those expectations reasonable. They state each expectation clearly enough that by the end of the session the group will be able to agree upon whether or not that expectation had been met.

Tip: Set terms of closure before starting.

Setting the terms of closure at the beginning of a discussion helps keep the group focused on finding effective action.

If the group consistently fails to meet its expectations during sessions, then the group adjusts the scope of its expectations until they can truly be met.

It is better to have lower but realistic expectations than inflated but unachievable ones. Setting the terms of closure is important because otherwise expectations will be left unspoken. Unspoken expectations generally lead to a sense of failure.

An important part of managing the terms of closure is that at the end of each work session the group decides upon what the next practical steps for the group should be.

Those steps are based on what has been resolved during the session and what still remains to be resolved.

A fully functioning intelligent collaboration actually cross-multiplies the creative capacities of the individual participants.

Intelligent collaboration requires an active, open resolve from every participant. Open resolve means a readiness to decide and to act, as well as a readiness to change direction if persuaded to do so.

People accustomed to authority-based hierarchies tend to be either dominant or submissive in group interactions.

water

Hierarchies tend to make people passive, in the sense that they look to their leaders for direction and motivation.

In intelligently collaborative groups, every member actively contributes toward deciding the direction of the group, as well as creating vision and motivation. In authority-based groups, only the person with authority is accountable for the outcome of decisions.

Every participant is directly accountable in intelligently collaborative groups, although for practical reasons every task should have a single representative, to avoid a task being left undone because several participants were thinking, "Oh, I didn't do that because I thought you were taking care of it".

In many ways, the greatest risk for a group is not to move at all, or else to move in so many directions at once that it is incapable of coherent, viable activity.

Indecision or lack of direction are the most debilitating conditions for a collaboration.

Tip: Beware of deferring to the voice of authority.

An intelligently collaborative group can be equally as decisive as a solitary power broker acting alone, but that requires the group to have a set of attitudes and skills that are rare in authority-based societies. Intelligent collaboration is difficult to achieve, precisely because it is intelligent.

An intelligently collaborative group aims to diffuse power, and diffusing power seems unacceptably risky to people accustomed to hierarchy and authority.

Hierarchically-conditioned people tend to avoid decisive action unless authority is present. Indecision may entail deliberating endlessly or it may entail waiting passively for someone with authority or a dominant personality to step in and take charge.

People accustomed to hierarchy carry those same tendencies with them when they attempt collaboration. Their dysfunction in work groups such as committees is due to in large part to their hierchical conditioning and lack of practical collaborative skills.

Committees in authority-based organizations are often regarded as an example of collaboration. In fact, they are poor examples of collaboration because they fail to manage terms of closure.

Their purpose is usually to give an air of legitimacy to decisions already made by power brokers, or to postpone a decision until a power broker weighs in.

Tip: Hold a firm line against interruptions.

An intelligently collaborative group must commit to giving each participant a voice. That discipline helps promote the broadest possible range of thinking and helps keep the group from getting mired by convention or the domination of a single person with unusually forceful rhetorical or persuasive skills.

Hierarchical or authority-based cultures often allow or even encourage leadership by people who are strongly committed to a single viewpoint and who can persuade others to follow it. In general, authority-based cultures lack the means to efficiently cope with dissent.

Part of the lookout's job is to point out whenever a participant is not being heard. In particular, the lookout watches for when one participant interrupts or talks at the same time as another.

Hierarchical cultures often tolerate vociferous people stealing the floor. That may happen because the person interrupting regards the speaker as having lower rank. Interruptions have a subtle but deleterious effect on the collaborative spirit.

Because authority is a simple and expedient way to organize human activity, it has been used throughout history as a kind of managerial shortcut.

Once a participant begins speaking, that person should hold the floor. If two people begin speaking at the same time, the lookout should ask them both to stop and to agree on who will cede and who will proceed.

If participants can see each other, a simple technique is to signal their intent to speak by using a gesture such as raising a finger in the air. Before beginning to speak, a participant should check to make sure that no one else has taken the floor since the last speaker finished.

Another simple, universally practiced technique is to pass a stick or some other object from speaker to speaker, to show clearly who has the floor.

The lookout's job is not to choose who should have the floor, but to be vigilant for when the principles of engagement are being violated and when a participant is dominating or being dominated.

Ironically, for people accustomed to authority-based settings where interruptions are quite normal, the practice of allowing each participant to speak until finished can feel less interactive and less collaborative.

Listening carefully while another person is speaking requires considerable patience and discipline, especially if you regard that person's opinion as less valuable than your own.

At the same time, of course, the lookout ought to beware of speakers dominating the discussion by not yielding the floor.

Tip: Summarize continually.

When a participant takes the floor, the first thing the participant should do is summarize the main positions taken by other participants during the discussion.

Although this principle of engagement might seem burdensome and unnecessary, it is an important part of building a collaborative flow and of enabling more vigorous dissent.

After summarizing each position, the speaker should pause and allow other participants to point out inaccuracies in the summaries. If a participant disagrees with a summary, then the speaker cedes the floor for emendations.

When finished, the floor returns to the original speaker, who then restates the summary in light of the emendations. That continues until all participants are sufficiently in agreement about the accuracy and completeness of the summaries (although not necessarily agreeing about the opinions themselves).

Authority reduces the group's thinking to that of the single individual or small group that has authority.

The practice of frequently and accurately summarizing positions keeps the discussion sharp and productive.

That requires considerable discipline and investment of time, but it is a crucial part of the magic potion that allows the unique social dynamics of intelligent collaboration to emerge. Without it, the group risks falling back into authority-based patterns or becoming paralyzed by disagreement.

A beneficial side effect of this practice is that it encourages careful listening, as participants understand that they will be expected to summarize the view of other speakers.

Tip: Listen.

Collaboration depends critically on all participants' having effective listening skills.

Effective listening is arguably more essential than effective speaking when it comes to fostering the kind of rich and nuance-laden communication needed for joint creativity and decision-making.

Although a successful intelligently collaborative group is capable of processing much more information than the solitary mind of a hierarchical leader, reaching that level of collaboration requires sharing experiences and viewpoints in richer detail than is necessary in hierarchies.

In a hierarchy, all that is needed is for the subordinates to understand the essential commands of their superiors, without needing to know the details or reasons behind those commands. That means that listening skills, probably more than any other quality, are crucial to creative collaboration.

Effective listening is far more essential than effective speaking when it comes to fostering the kind of rich and nuance-laden communication needed for joint creativity and decision-making.

What should the composition of a group be? How selective should the group be about who participates? If the participants have backgrounds and motivations that are too different, then the depth and extent of listening needed in order to bridge the experiential gaps will be unattainable.

People who are successful at intelligent collaboration will often choose to associate with people who are quite different in outlook and experience.

However, if the participants are all shaped in the same mold, the dissonance needed for innovation in collaboration will be missing.

The guiding principle is that the group should be as heterogeneous as the group's skills in effective listening can support.

Tip: Affirm points of agreement.

Another important practice for improving the quality of collaborative discussions is to affirm points of agreement. When the speaker has finished summarizing positions and the group is satisfied with the summaries, the speaker should explicitly reaffirm his or her major points of agreement with the other speakers.

In authority-based settings the custom is usually to be silent about points of agreement and to focus almost entirely on winning the disputed points. Surprisingly, that makes it harder to see precisely where the disagreements lie because the overall context falls out of focus.

The principle of reaffirming points of agreement is more than just a way to be nice. It actually gives the participants greater leeway to hone in on their disagreements.

Speakers rarely disagree with each other absolutely and totally. Holding the points of agreement in mind before describing the disagreements helps strengthen cohesion, which then gives space for dissent to be even more vigorous.

Careful attention to showing outward signs of respect is another fundamental aspect of collaborative behavior. Not every participant will feel genuine admiration for other participants.

In fact, participants are likely to feel sincere scornfulness in the heat of debate. Courteous behavior requires disciplined and assiduous cultivation of overt signs of politeness.

Tip: Cultivate overt signs of respect.

Without an environment of respect among participants, intelligent collaboration is difficult, if not altogether impossible. Contempt and scornfulness are highly corrosive. Harshly judgmental attitudes sometimes masquerade as frankness or dedication to high standards, but such attitudes actually impede improvement because they diminish the level of trust among participants.

Trust is essential to intelligent collaboration, and participants work actively to build trust by openly discussing, in a respectful way, the issues that threaten trustworthiness.

Intelligent collaboration is like improvisational music, with each musician making a unique contribution, but with the band as a whole creating something emergent and otherwise unattainable.

Two opposing factors, cohesion and dissent, are always at work in a collaborative group. Diversity of viewpoints is fuel for the fire of creativity.

Many of the principles of collaborative engagement presented here are to build cohesion. They help achieve a functioning equilibrium between monoculture and randomness, between cohesion and disparity.

That equilibrium depends on the degree to which information can be shared and used by the group. Decisions and outcomes emerge from the balancing and counterbalancing of tensions.

Too much contention can paralyze the group or even cause it to disintegrate. An intelligently collaboration seeks to raise the level of dissent to the most intense degree that the group can withstand.

Vibrant communication and healthy respect are what hold the group together in spite of the potentially explosive level of dissent.

Tip: Use cohesion to maximize dissent.

Participants take advantage of cohesion in order to actively challenge the conventional thinking of the group. That behavior is welcomed and encouraged within the framework of the principles of engagement.

The culture of the intelligently collaborative group regards it as normal and expected for participants to offer critical views of the status quo during work sessions. In fact, the group systematically undertakes a critical review of its core assumptions on a regular basis.

One of the worst dangers is when momentum of opinion in the group suppresses alternate viewpoints and carries the group silently in an unfavorable direction or blinds the group to interesting and possibly transformative insights.

In a healthy, collaborative group, an anti-authoritarian spirit will prevail. Any authority should invite wariness and criticism at a visceral level.

Most people are accustomed to turning to persons who have authority to resolve disputes or conflicts. As a result, few people have the skills to work through conflicts in an authority-free context in order to transform a difference of opinion into an opportunity for creative insight.

The more heated the conflict, the more important it is that the participants listen to each other and thoughtfully summarize each other's viewpoints before asserting their own.

Tip: Create a zone of silence.

Persons in conflict should find a person willing to play the role of lookout. The lookout watches for signs that participants may not be listening to each other carefully or effectively.

An especially important practice during conflict is to wait in silence for as long as several minutes after one speaker finishes, before taking up a retort.

While in the "zone of silence", all participants relax and consider the points just made by the speaker. This practice requires unusual discipline, especially since modern societies rarely have this custom and few people will think to do it.

Vibrant communication and healthy respect are what hold the group together in spite of the potentially explosive level of dissent.

A large group discussion is a powerful tool for gathering diverse points of view, but it generally fails to create focused, directed activity.

The size of a forum must be appropriate to the complexity of the decisions that need to be taken. The optimal size of a collaborative work group is probably no more than eight persons.

As the number of participants in a high-functioning intelligent collaboration grows, the creative output increases rapidly, but as the number grows beyond eight, the time needed by the group to incorporate the contributions of each person becomes impractically large.

Listening becomes more challenging. The temptation to turn to dominant individuals to solve problems becomes greater.

Tip: Prepare decisions in small groups.

A general principle is that the difficulty in reaching a decision will be roughly proportional to the product of the number of factors to be decided multiplied by the square of the number of participants.

That is because in theory each participant must respond to every factor of each participant's viewpoint as that factor compares to every other factor in every other viewpoint.

For relatively simple problems, this nonlinearity is not noticeable. In practice, participants tend to become passive whenever a group faces complex problems, which effectively removes those participants from the equation, leaving only a few actual players.

If all participants were to take an active and adversarial role, the "participants squared" rule would make the group too unwieldy to solve the problem.

Other factors also mitigate the "participants squared" rule, such as whether each participant interacts with every other, or whether certain participants become the focus of the group to the partial exclusion of others.

Because larger groups find consensus hard to reach on a new project, a more effective approach is for sub-groups to work out the details in advance, and then to propose the results of its work to the larger group.

The challenge is to use the right tool for the job. The larger the group, the greater its potential for gathering differing viewpoints will be, but the more diffuse the group's decision-making potential.

The degree of focus needed will vary from one stage to another in a project, and the size of the groups working on a problem will need to adjust, depending on which aspect of the project the team as a whole is working on.

The group systematically undertakes a critical review of its core assumptions on a regular basis.

In general, the rule is to use larger groups to gather feedback and diverse, comprehensive viewpoints (divergence), but to use smaller groups to make decisions and choose a course of action (convergence).

A practical solution is for the larger group to assign a subgroup the task of recommending a decision for the larger group to review. The subgroup should build a case to support its decision, with the aim of presenting that case to the larger group.

It is unwise to expect a larger group to converge on a complex decision or course of action without the preparation that the smaller group can provide.

An important result of the "participants squared" rule is that a collaborative work group should never grow past six or eight people.

Teams can associate with other teams to form an extensive productive network, but each team should remain small. Intelligent collaboration in a group larger than eight people is impractical, as the pace of decision-making becomes unreasonably slow.

Tip: Kill an idea reluctantly.

Many ideas need time to incubate before their value becomes apparent. One of the greatest barriers to innovation is that groups tend to kill ideas before they have been fully formed.

In a typical scenario an idea is in gestation and the group is exploring its possibilities. Just as the idea is beginning to show merit, one of the participants steps forward and says, "Let me play the Devil's advocate for a moment..." and presents a devastating viewpoint. After that the idea quietly expires.

The interesting thing is that the participant who played Devil's advocate never needed to openly oppose the new idea (as that might have been seen as anti-innovative), since it was actually the "Devil's" objections being expressed.

He or she even seemed to be going bravely and justifiably against the grain by questioning what was being discussed at the time, yet the net result was that the new idea got squelched and the status quo was maintained, all by stealth.

The Devil should be given his due, but the group should be diligent to suspend disbelief and explore the full merit of an idea before dismissing it. Sometimes what makes an idea valuable is that it leads to other, more promising ideas.

Innovation and insight take time to develop, so the more time devoted to seeing where an idea might eventually lead, the better.

Inventive people develop an intuition for which ideas are likely to lead to interesting results. Some of the best ideas are those that cause the group to seek different results altogether.

The balancing factor is that the group may not have enough time to persevere with every idea long enough to lead to fruition.

The group must have the patience and discipline to pursue each idea until it is clear to everyone that the trail is cold. As with other decisions, participants collectively decide when to close the discussion about an idea.

An effectively functioning intelligent collaboration will be more successful over the long term at innovating than a hierarchy, even if the hierarchy is made up of highly capable people, because innovation depends on culling through a mass of possibilities.

Hierarchies prefer the efficiency of choosing a few ideas and developing those. However, that strategy assumes that the best ideas can be identified in advance.

In fact, finding the best ideas usually means shifting the frame of reference by which the ideas are vetted, and the new frame of reference can almost never be predicted beforehand.

A mountain of diverse ideas is much more likely to lead to a successful shift in frame of reference than a handful of carefully chosen ideas would be, and innovation is almost assured if the mountain is sufficiently large.

Intelligently collaborative groups provide a more favorable and tolerant environment for creating very large numbers of diverse ideas.

Tip: Watch out for satraps, magicians and heroes.

The satrap, the magician, and the hero are personality types that authority-based cultures esteem but that collaborative cultures need to be wary of.

The satrap presents the greatest threat to collaboration. Satraps radiate authority and certainty. The group finds it hard to resist the temptation to defer to the satrap's unassailable sense of authority whenever they meet adversity or doubt.

Hierarchical cultures value satraps highly and regard such people as having strong leadership potential. Collaborative cultures, in contrast, will regard satraps with the same sense of caution and suspicion that authority-based cultures have for rebels and mavericks.

Satraps threaten collaborative dynamics because the group can be too easily swayed by their regal self-assurance and persuasiveness.

An intelligently collaborative group can be equally as decisive as a solitary power broker, but that requires the group to have a set of attitudes and skills that are rare in authority-based societies.

Leadership in a collaborative setting differs from authority-based leadership. The collaborative leader is a person who is committed to the big picture and to the vitality of the process as a whole.

The collaborative leader, unlike the hierarchical leader, is not a forceful person who always knows the right answer and always knows what he wants.

Instead, the collaborative leader is a person who sees the activities of the enterprise in a broader context and has a sense of its pulse. Leadership is more a matter of breadth of scope than of forcefulness of personality.

The leader in a collaborative group is a coordinator or facilitator, a primer inter pares, or first among equals. Every member takes initiative and bears responsibility.

Leadership roles in collaborative groups should rotate regularly to reduce the influence of individual personalities and to share the perspective of each role among as many members as possible.

That kind of leadership is relatively new. In most cases leaders are mostly still the "alpha dogs" who have domineering or manipulative traits and who respect only those who are the even bigger bosses above them.

In an authority-based environment, arrogance is almost a virtue, while in a collaborative environment it tends to be seen as a type of aggression.

It is unwise to expect a larger group to converge on a complex decision or course of action without the preparation that the smaller group can provide.

Another personality type regarded favorably in authority-based cultures is the magician. The magician is a marketeering person who can persuade the group by manipulating the framework within which questions are asked and ideas are judged.

If a person can control the types of questions being asked, then he or she ultimately controls the outcome of the discussion. The magician, like the satrap, is a dominator.

Stage magicians create powerful illusions by reshaping the framework within which the audience looks at what is happening, causing them to exclude certain perceptions from their awareness.

In a similar way, the magician's powerful persuasiveness can create a "distortion field" around an idea. That distortion can be so strong that the group gets locked into the magician's point of view.

Magicians are not merely persuasive, they are seductive. They are highly regarded in authority-based cultures because they can quickly dampen dissent and enable bosses to "get things going". Magicians are effective agents for bringing about conformity.

Collaborative groups watch for signs of intellectual seduction and are vigilant for the effects of magicians, whose marketeering skills can be an impediment to dissent, open-mindedness, and balance, especially in moments of uncertainty or when ideas are only tentatively being explored.

Besides satraps and magicians, authority-based organizations value the heroic personality type. A hero is an exceptionally high achiever who has a favorable combination of natural ability and driving ambition.

Once a person becomes distinguished as a hero, an authority-based group will tend to give that person the benefit of the doubt. Opportunity piles upon opportunity, and even the hero's mistakes will tend to be interpreted in a more favorable light than an ordinary person's.

Heroes themselves do not necessarily threaten intelligent collaboration. The problem is hero-worship, a great temptation for success-oriented groups. Hero-worship is another form of domination and submission.

The collaborative leader, unlike the authority-based leader, is not a forceful person who always knows the right answer and always knows what he wants.

People who believe in the value of the hero role will argue that only societies where domination is possible will produce outstanding individuals.

It's true that collaborative groups should recognize and certainly not suppress the disproportionately great contributions that heroes can make. The challenge is to avoid allowing the hero to dominate the attention of the group.

The psychological effects of domination dissipate the collaborative spirit. It's also important to remember that once fully underway, the emergent virtual mind of the intelligently collaborative group as a whole is more powerful in the long term than any single individual, no matter how heroic or capable.

Tip: Don't do democracy.

While excessive individualism can interfere with collaboration, so can excessive collectivism. The group itself can dominate individuals, and domination in any form prevents the power of collaboration from emerging. In other words, intelligent collaboration and collectivism are not the same.

Collaborative groups should avoid making decisions by voting. Democracy is dictatorship by the majority, and is not at all the same as intelligent collaboration.

The power of intelligent collaboration lies in the joint imaginative interaction that creates a new, distinct set of ideas.

Those ideas are more than just a composite or merging together of the diverse viewpoints and experiences of individual participants.

Intelligent collaboration is like improvisational music, with each musician making a unique contribution, but with the band as a whole creating something emergent and otherwise unattainable.

Democracy is dictatorship by the majority, and is not at all the same as intelligent collaboration.

Although decisions in an intelligently collaborative group are made by consensus, without resorting to a vote, a consensual decision is not the same as a consensual opinion.

Decisions sometimes need to be made for practical reasons, even if not every participant fully supports it. Ideally the participants discuss the misgivings of the dissenting voices and work to form a new idea that all participants can embrace. In practice, that may be too difficult.

Tip: Distinguish preference from action.

A collaborative group distinguishes between unresolved disagreements about viewpoint and unresolved disagreements about action. Participants will sometimes accept decisions to take action without being fully convinced of the reasons behind that action.

On the other hand, some differences in opinion will mean that a participant will not be able to accept the decision. In that case, discussion will resume until the participant's views are addressed.

Intelligently collaborative participants are all aware of the importance of taking eventual action, and are willing to agree to an action even when that action is not their preferred choice.

There is an essential distinction between not preferring an action and not being able to support it. A participant may still support an action, after arguing unsuccessfully for a different action.

Intelligent collaborators understand viscerally that the information needed to make a fair choice is often not available to the group until some action is taken, even if that action is not the optimal choice.

A collaborative group distinguishes between unresolved disagreements about viewpoint and unresolved disagreements about action.

Hierarchical groups tend to emphasize the development of satraps, magicians, and heroes. The skills of other types of people, such as synthetic thinkers, clarifiers, and generators are important to collaborations.

The mindstyle of synthetic thinkers gives them a facility for drawing principles from disparate swathes of information.

Unlike analytical thinkers, who excel at taking problems apart into smaller, solvable pieces, synthetic thinkers put pieces together in novel ways to create meaningful wholes.

Collaborative groups need synthetic thinkers as well as analytical ones. Synthetic thinkers can often see the proverbial blind-man's elephant from more than one perspective.

Clarifiers have special facility for overcoming barriers to communication, especially of concepts, and extracting the gist of a discussion from disjointed ideas.

They can quickly understand one participant's point of view and then help other participants also to build an understanding of that viewpoint. Clarifiers serve as concept-translators, accelerating the communications metabolism of the collaborative group.

Generators have minds that are especially fertile for recombining or stepping around old ideas to come up with a stream of new ones. Most of those ideas are too raw or extravagant to be useful. This type of person is often less valuable to authority-based groups, which have little leeway for coping with the noise and discord caused by the flow of ostensibly useless ideas.

The intelligently collaborative group relishes the presence of a generator because the group may use his or her ideas as starting points for invention, or to help break free from silent conventional thinking.

Intelligent collaborators understand viscerally that the information needed to make a fair choice is often not available to the group until some action is taken, even if that action is not the optimal choice.

What happens if a participant is unreasonably stubborn or malicious, and consistently impairs the group's capacity for action? Or worse, what happens if a participant is parasitical and is baldly taking advantage of the collaborative spirit for personal gain at the group's expense?

A collaborative group invests much effort in cultivating constructive dissent. Because a destructive member can poison the whole collaborative effort, that type of situation requires immediate and judicious action.

The group must be able to decide readily whether a member is being destructive to the collaborative spirit of the group, and then to decide what corrective action to take, including expulsion if all else fails.

Tip: Discuss accusations with the accused present.

Except under extreme circumstances, the member accused of having a negative impact on the collaboration ought to be present when the group is discussing his or her situation.

That is similar to the legal principle of habeas corpus, and is important in helping keep the group from expelling a member for the wrong reasons. The accused member has an equal voice during those discussions, just as in any other discussion.

Arguably the behavior that causes the most damage to the collaborative spirit is when members of the group privately complain about a troublesome member. Human beings love to gossip. A group that professes to intelligently collaborate must resolutely resist the temptation to gossip.

The whole group must meet to openly discuss the troublesome member, with that member also present. The group expels the member when the entire group, minus that member, reaches a decision to do so.

The ultimate challenge that any collaboration faces is that each member must realize that he or she ultimately has more to gain by cooperating with the group than by taking a solitary approach, although he or she nearly always has more to gain in the short term by going it alone. This is the prisoners' dilemma.

Tip: Be frank about motivations.

Hidden motivations are perhaps the factor that is most detrimental to intelligent collaboration. The group should make every effort to regularly summarize and publicize the positions and interests of every stakeholder member of the group.

Make sure that the motivations of all members have been made sufficiently explicit. That will make it easier for individuals to relinquish their immediate interests for the sake of longer-term group benefits.

Bringing motivations to light takes persistent effort, because stakeholders themselves may often not be fully aware of every motivation in depth.

The guiding principle is that the group should be as heterogeneous as the group's skills in effective listening can support.

Face-to-face verbal discussion is obviously only one of many ways to create intelligent collaboration. Technology provides many alternatives, with e-mail and newsgroups being familiar examples.

We can easily imagine communications technologies that will capture and transmit more of the hidden value of face-to-face discussion. Besides improved video displays, examples of what we might someday see are acoustical ambience matching and fragrance transmission.

Because people are sensitive to almost unnoticeable qualities in the acoustical environment where a conversation is taking place, the way sounds are modified in a particular room in accordance with the emotional exchanges between participants may affect the tenor of the discussion.

Participants respond to acoustical feedback in the room where they are sitting, but participants who are connected from a remote location will be sitting in a different acoustical environment. Ultra-high fidelity sound as well as digital manipulation of sound wave interference might be used to produce a similar acoustical environment in both locations.

Fragrance transmission might also help make remote collaboration more effective. Some evidence suggests that humans respond subconsciously to trace aromas emanating from each other's bodies during interaction. Those could conceivably be detected in one location and reproduced in the remote location.

Because technology is never perfect, it can mask or amplify the effects of domination. The principles of engagement outlined above still apply, and even more so in situations where body language, tone of voice, or other nuances are not being transmitted.

Tip: Don't underestimate emotion.

The role of emotions is one of the most critical elements, if not the single most important element, in intelligent collaboration. It is also one of the most difficult to affect.

Intelligent collaboration can become an almost spiritual activity as the human potential of one or more of the participants begins to unfold rapidly and as the group finds a shared, creative flow.

Emotions are the doorway to human potential. If a person's emotions are blocked or frustrated, so too may be the person's ability to let the subconscious mind lend depth and expressiveness to the work at hand.

The person may find it hard to transcend habitual responses or become impassioned by probing unexplored aspects of a problem.

Many problems in group dynamics are rooted in issues related directly or indirectly to an urge to dominate or submit. If members of the group vie against each other for dominance, they trigger reactions, often complicated chains of reactions, as participants maneuver to manipulate each other. That can provoke discord and strong emotions in the group.

Dominance, arguably the most important obstacle to collaboration, is tolerated or even admired in authority-based societies.

Intelligent collaborators ought to carefully question the tacit assumptions regarding the role of social dominance.

Emotions are the doorway to human potential. If a person's emotions are blocked or frustrated, so too may be the person's ability to let the subconscious mind lend depth and expressiveness to the work at hand.

A well known mode of non-discursive collaboration is the brainstorming session, in which the group completely suspends disbelief and gathers the broadest possible collection of ideas from which to select later. When the group goes into brainstorming mode, the group simply plays with ideas without attempting to judge their worth.

True brainstorming can be difficult because the temptation to judge is strong, especially if the group is under pressure to come up with conclusions quickly.

Tip: Practice chainstorming.

Another collaborative mode is chainstorming. This is similar to brainstorming, except that the rule of the game is that each idea has to build upon the previous one. This technique also requires that members of the group suspend disbelief and set aside evaluative filters.

Chainstorming requires even more discipline than brainstorming because each participant has to pick up the viewpoint of the previous idea. That idea may be alien and discordant.

Chainstorming is similar to improvisational theater, where actors play off each other's gestures and speeches.

The basic rule in improvisational theater is that an actor must not play down any move made by another actor. In other words, an actor must not refuse a suggestion.

For example, if one actor says, "What a beautiful parrot you've got sitting on your shoulder," the other actor must not say, "What parrot? I don't have a parrot." Doing so dampens the performance and possibly brings it to an awkward halt.

Instead, the partnering actor might build upon and open up the idea by saying, "Thank you. This parrot belonged to my eccentric aunt, who died last year. You wouldn't believe the bizarre things it says sometimes."

Chainstorming follows the practice of saying "yes, and..." instead of "yes, but...." Most people are not accustomed to building upon ideas that they have not thought of or that they do not believe.

Practicing chainstorming or improvisational acting is an excellent technique for cultivating creative collaborative skills.

Chainstorming is similar to improvisational theater, where actors play off each other's gestures and speeches.

Questions are an important part of the collaborative process. They represent a starting point for a new discussion or line of inquiry. Questions can be delivered with differing intentions and purposes.

A question can be a simple request for information, as in "Is it raining out?", or it can be an unanswerable philosophical problem, as in "Can truth be absolute?"

Tip: Ask questions as questions.

Sometimes, however, a question is not a question at all, but a statement of opinion delivered in what is meant to be a less confrontational or perhaps ironic way.

Phrasing a statement as a question weakens the collaborative flow by obfuscating the real viewpoints of the participants.

A question ought to be an open request for insight or information. If a participant has doubts about a point, the participant should articulate them clearly as doubts.

Hierarchical cultures have many ways of hiding viewpoints or leaving them vague. Keeping dissident viewpoints veiled is part of negotiating the politics of an authority-based social setting.

People reared in authority-based societies have become adept at masking their true intentions and keeping their viewpoints poorly articulated. A collaborative culture looks for more forthrightness and a richer signaling of where each participant stands.

Many problems in group dynamics are rooted in issues related directly or indirectly to an urge to dominate or submit.

Hierarchy can focus power very intensely in the hands of a few individuals. Power, in itself, is neither inherently destructive nor beneficial. It is simply the capacity for execution, or the ability to get things done.

Once power is concentrated, of course, history shows that it is almost unavoidably abused in ways large and small.

Because hierarchies are so effective at gathering and focusing power, they have become the dominant social structure since agriculture raised the density of human populations and at the same time made large-scale coordinated effort necessary for building and maintaining agricultural infrastructure.

Urbanization followed closely on the heels of agriculture, and required even greater investment in infrastructure to support life in villages or cities, leading to governmental hierarchies.

Those hierarchies led to the rise of organized militaries, as urbanized societies were tempted to seize resources from other groups. Organized militaries required even greater coordinated effort and therefore more highly concentrated power.

Humanity has been locked up by authority-based social structures for millennia. Democracy has been the first crack in the wall, and it has in many ways been a response to the appetite that modern economies have had for a more creative population.

The so-called knowledge economy requires more talent to be unleashed in a more intelligent way than is possible with hierarchies, where reliance on power brokers creates choke points in the business processes of complex organizations.

Although a relatively small portion of the world's population participates in inventing and implementing new scientific, artistic, or business applications, people in those industries are looking for social structures that coordinate talent more effectively in complex environments than hierarchy can.

Authority makes people stupid, at least relative to how they could otherwise be. It stunts their ability to tap into their highest potential by causing them to rely on authority for direction and intent. It makes them less alive and more automatic.

Intelligent collaboration unlocks and then harnesses human potential more effectively than any other form of social organization. A healthy collaborative group becomes an environment where individuals can quickly develop their potential.

The group's collective experience, input, and feedback provide a fertile ground for individual development.

Intelligent collaboration may have been more common in pre-agricultural times. If so, then it has been the social structure that humans have lived with throughout most of evolutionary history, as agriculture was invented relatively recently.

Although intelligent collaboration may have been common before agriculture, the intervening millennia have purged the vital behavioral reflexes from most cultures. It is the next wave, but relatively little is known about it now.

Intelligent collaboration means that every individual in the group has to be able to listen and as well as to persuade, to scale out to see the big picture and also to scale in on details, as needed, and above all to be focused on making and living by decisions.

Most people have been reared in cultures where hierarchy prevails. From the cradle, they have been conditioned either to submit to authority or, in the case of members of the ruling classes, to wield it with determination.

Few people have the social and communications skills necessary for making intelligent collaboration work. Intelligent collaborators have to know how to recognize and deflect domination in all its subtle forms.

The interesting effect of an atmosphere of humility is that it tends to bring out the best in people who might otherwise not explore their talents and capabilities as fully.

In an authority-based society, leaders are treated with deference and an extra measure of respect. To have power means to be superior.

That attitude impedes the collaborative process, where the balancing effect of each individual's contribution is essential. At the extreme, hierarchies promote a cult of leaders, as in totalitarian states.

When people turn to power for security, power can become a swirling vortex that sucks up everything in its path. Fascism is a vivid example of that. Fascism cultivates the mass adoration of power, in return for a sense of security that comes from the belief that the all-powerful state will defend the nation from all harm.

In collaborative groups, a kind of noble humility replaces the deference to power that prevails in hierarchies. Noble humility involves a willingness to listen and to accept being wrong.

Tip: Humility is more powerful.

The interesting effect of an atmosphere of humility is that it tends to bring out the best in people who might otherwise not explore their talents and capabilities as fully.

People who are skilled at manipulation or intimidation can easily overshadow others who are highly talented but less dominant.

Noble humility fosters development more effectively, as more individuals will find space to step forward and develop their potential. The net benefit is greater for the group as well as for individuals.

Since people who have been reared in an authority-based culture tend to be less effective in collaborative groups unless they have special training or conditioning, we can only speculate on what an entire mature intelligently collaborative culture would be like.

An important difference from today's cultures is how power would be exercised. Personal power is seen as a virtue in authority-based cultures.

People whose personalities project power and who seem to be in command are esteemed. In an intelligently collaborative culture, personal power is seen as a possible impediment to smooth social interaction, and personalities that dominate or project power are treated with wariness.

Power by means of authority and coercion benefits the person wielding it, and that fact reinforces the ways by which it is single-mindedly used. The ultimate interest of power is almost always self-preservation.

Because power is so effective at directing mass human effort, it is like a cancerous tumor, inherently lacking balance or constraints. It will hijack resources from surrounding tissue to feed its relentless growth, until it eventually meets some other source of power against which it must compete for resources.

Social change rarely comes from the mainstream itself. A wise strategy is to work quietly at the margins of society to perfect an alternative, rather than to try in vain to change the mainstream.

While achieving consistent intelligent collaboration in a single group seems difficult enough, it is also worth wondering whether intelligent collaboration could ever be feasible between intelligently collaborative groups.

We can imagine an economy made up of many small, intelligently collaborative groups, like cells in a body, cooperating in a productive network. Would the principles of engagement between those groups differ from ones between individual members within each group?

Effective listening skills, the crucial ingredient for intelligent collaboration within groups, are arguably also crucial to creative collaboration among groups. As with any single group, intelligent collaboration among many groups would mean creating a single virtual mind.

The degree to which the groups formed a single mind would depend on how profoundly they understood each other. That, in turn, would depend once again on trust, respect, and the effectiveness of communication and listening.

Part of what makes intelligent collaboration so powerful is that creativity varies as the number of dimensions over which variations in experience and viewpoint are free to range. Intelligent collaboration fuses minds together. The extent to which they fuse is the extent of their intelligent collaboration.

In effect, that fusion of minds creates more dimensions. Networks of intelligently collaborating groups would have even higher dimensionality than single groups would have.

We can imagine that networks of small, intelligently collaborative groups will someday replace corporations as the primary way of organizing large-scale economic activity. Because corporations are nearly always authority-based, they tend to become more inertial and less creative as they grow.

The outstanding creativity of a start-up company with only a dozen people rarely scales up as the company grows to be a corporation with thousands of employees.

In order to manage the organization's increasing complexity, the hierarchy usually becomes deeper and heavier, and as a result, it becomes less likely to achieve intelligent collaboration.

We can imagine that networks of small, intelligently collaborative groups will someday replace corporations as the primary way of organizing large-scale economic activity.

An important long-term change is underway in how human beings coordinate their activities. A few centuries ago democracy would have been rejected outright as absurd, as "rule by the rabble", but today it is an accepted standard, even if not always met, in many parts of the world.

The trend seems to be away from coercive power and toward various kinds of collaboration.

Social change usually happens first at the margins of a society, where the new patterns of organization have a chance to develop and work out their shortcomings. Later, perhaps at a time of crisis, the mainstream turns to these marginal solutions and co-opts them.

Social change rarely comes from the mainstream itself. A wise strategy is to work quietly at the margins of society to perfect an alternative, rather than to try in vain to change the mainstream.

By experimenting with intelligent collaboration and by trying to make it work at the margins of society, pioneers will give flesh to a new set of social patterns.

Intelligent collaboration will become not only practical, but necessary, in economic areas such as the creation of intellectual services, where it will inevitably prove its worth.

Michael Webb, April, 2006

home ]