Collective Emergence

olivos collaboration
A collaborative drawing by Claudia and Sergio Olivos

I‘ve told a few stories about great collaborations on this blog. Here are a couple of them:

  • A few years ago one of our neighbours sent out invitations to a ‘work bee’, to repair and refinish the century-old barn that serves today as their garage. Refreshments were offered as inducements, but my initial reaction was reluctance: Were we being ‘Tom Sawyered’ into doing someone else’s work? My wife, who has a lot more sense than I, dismissed this and volunteered us immediately. As readers know, my lack of manual dexterity and coordination are legendary, but I participated, learning how to do several things I’d read about but never understood, and making up in energy what I lacked in competence. I can’t describe what an incredible sense of accomplishment we felt, or how much sheer fun we had. Every time I drive by that barn, I say to myself with unrestrained joy: We did that!

  • A few years ago I watched our arthritic dog Chelsea sitting in the shade in the back yard with our visiting daughter’s small dog Laker. Chelsea always enjoyed canine company but after introductions they didn’t really ‘play’ together, they just sat around outside (kind of like their humans), watching the world go by. Suddenly, as I was watching, Laker spotted a chipmunk and raised her head sharply. Within fifteen seconds, Laker and Chelsea, who had never ‘collaborated’ on anything to my knowledge, and who certainly had never individually caught any of the abundant wildlife in our area, had together outflanked, flushed out, cornered and trapped the chipmunk, which simply gave up, lay down and closed its eyes. In that fifteen seconds there had been at least fifty moves made by each of the three ‘players’ in the drama, a sophisticated chess game of trial and error, signaling and tactical adjustment. It was absolutely amazing to watch. When we pulled the dogs away and rescued the poor chipmunk, the look of triumph and joy on the dogs’ faces was unmistakable. 

How do these extraordinary occurrences happen? Given the staggering complexity of social environments and interrelationships, how we get attuned to each other to work such magic with no plan? You could not orchestrate these collaborative outcomes, these ‘collective emergences’, nor could you predict them, yet they are not rare. Under the right circumstances, they are commonplace miracles: We see them in at least five areas of human (and animal) endeavour:

  • Sense-making: Working together to make sense of something, to understand, gain insight, obtain ‘collective wisdom’
  • Imagining: Working together to come up with ideas and possibilities
  • Innovation: Working together to come up with a design, an offering, a product or service
  • Creation: Working together to produce a construction or work of art or science
  • Performance: Working together improvisationally to enact or invent a piece of theatre, sport, or performance art

I’ve studied the collaborations that seemed to be the most successful ones, and identified seven elements that seem to be present in most of them. Here they are, along with some ways in which these elements can be nurtured to increase the likelihood of a collaboration achieving remarkable results:

  1. The Right People: The right number (not too many, not too few) with diversity of viewpoints, skills and knowledge. People who have a lot of practice in collaboration seem to learn how to self-select into, to coalesce into, collaborations that work. I don’t think imposing membership on a collaborative group is effective, no matter how well-intentioned.
  2. Capacity and Knowledge: Good collaboration requires a variety of left- and right-brained skills, gifts, talents, instincts, knowledge, and capacities such as openness, awareness and imagination. Some of these are easy to acquire; others are much more difficult. The more people in the group who have these capacities, the more likely the collaboration is to succeed. You need to urge potential members of collaborations to continuously learn these capacities, and provide ready access to needed knowledge.
  3. Attitude: A combination of passion for the subject of the collaboration, energy, and positive enthusiasm. Great collaborations are great fun. Black hats and those who are quick to lose attention, give up or disengage are absolutely toxic to collaboration. Your invitation should be such that it attracts those with the right attitude and discourages those with negative or unhelpful ones.
  4. Responsibility: This is both a personal responsibility to devote oneself to the task at hand, and to act on the results of the collaboration appropriately when it is over, and also a collective responsibility to the rest of the collaborators. I’ve seen self-managed collaborative groups eject those members who lack that sense of responsibility, gently but firmly.
  5. Mutual Respect and Trust: Some people start with this for strangers, and only lose it if it’s betrayed, while others don’t trust others until and unless that trust is earned. What’s interesting is that self-managed groups that contain both types of people seem to work it out.
  6. Environment: The best environments I’ve seen are natural, unconstrained places with lots of fresh air and room to move. This, I think, is more important than a ‘creative’ environment (with lots of toys to play with while working) or a technologically-rich one.
  7. Chemistry or Dynamic: It’s great when the chemistry of the self-selecting members works spontaneously and powerfully. But when it doesn’t, a good facilitator can create and enable the dynamic that can compensate for a lack of natural chemistry, enabling the group to work together effortlessly, and making them want to.

When you think about it, these same seven elements of great collaboration could also be the seven elements of great sex.

The collective emergence that comes out of great collaboration is worth all the work to create the right conditions, and all the practice andlearning that are needed to make it extraordinary.

Subject: Collaboration
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6 Responses to Collective Emergence

  1. Ayanleh says:

    I am from Somalia (East Africa) and currently live in the United States. When I was growing up and was learning about “modernity” and how to attain it, I remember modernity’s focus on the individual, from individual rights to individual freedom. Yet everything in my culture revolved around the group, or more specifically the clan or sub-clan. In its day to day activity, the clan was a colloborative effort. It sought to help individuals to survive in an often harsh and unforgiving environment. Clans often fought each other for these scarce resources but they more often collaborated than fought wit each other. There were many practices they instituted in order to mitigate the competition between clans such as intermarriage. But the clans then sent their kids to the West and their children came back with new ideas about collaboration. The colloborative efforts were to be restricted by new boundaries of class, ideology or nationhood. Some even tried to transform the clan into a closed colloborative effort that sought to simply eradicate (no longer inter-marry) with fellow clans. Our modern education swept away our traditional methods of collaboration, so we live in a state of perpetual anarchy. When the West looks at us now, they see in us the confirmation of our African “savagery”. When I talk to my elders, they wonder if sending their kids to be educated in the West was such a great idea after all. The irony is that in West, we are now educated about “team work” and building “collaborative” efforts. These were skills that our elders perfected over centuries and that are now slowly dying. My hope is to bridge the two somehow but I wouldn’t even know where to start.Thanks for the post. It got me thinking about many things that may not directly relate to it and probably need a more thoughtful analysis. If I missed the point completely, you have my apologies. Again, thanks.

  2. chosha says:

    That feeling you’ve described is just amazing. One of the challenges our organisation has had for a while now is falling retention of staff (we have merged and restructured, so the there’s been a long term atmosphere of change and upheaval). It’s so frustrating because teams take time to establish a collaborative relationship and then just when you do, someone else leaves.By the way, there will be a post on my blog tomorrow which passing on a ‘thinking blogger’ award to you. It’s just a meme going around, but I thought I’d let you know. Your blog does make me think, even if I don’t always stop to comment.

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