Cross-posted from The Open Coop and written by Oliver Sylvester-Bradley.

Having re-watched the webinar on Catalysing Collaboration at Scale I wondered if it might be possible to identify some of the key themes of collaboration.

Truly effective, synergistic, collaboration is an elusive beast at the best of times and the idea of making it work at scale, for decentralised projects and organisations, is possibly the essential challenge of our times.

If we want to work out how to work together more effectively, to build an equitable and abundant world for all, it seems important to recognise, what hinders collaboration, to identify great examples of effective collaboration and to at least attempt to identify if there are any key themes which we can build on and incorporate into our work.

I’m especially interested in what Group Works call the magic which sometimes happens at particularly effective meetings, which they describe in pattern language for bringing life to meetings and gatherings:

“At certain moments, something beyond the group emerges, accompanied by a sense of awe . . . and resulting in a unanimous feeling of astonished accomplishment. Conditions inviting Magic include shared passion, urgency, openness, energy and trust–yet the quality is always mysterious, never guaranteed.

Participants are not always sure why it happens. You can plan for it all you want and you may not get it, or it can sometimes emerge with no planning whatsoever. After it occurs, people are likely to have a variety of theories of what led to it. The most unified thing about it is that usually, when it’s present, people will agree right afterward that it was – even if they call it different things!”

That magic feeling – and the emergent, synergistic outcomes it can deliver – is the holy grail of collaboration. When we achieve that feeling, through the effectiveness of all our intra and inter-group work we will, presumably, feel more rewarded, be more effective and ultimately be heading for the synergy we need to break free from the competitive mind-set.

But, as the quote above mentions, collaborative magic can be elusive. Shared passion, urgency, openness, energy and trust can help it appear but don’t guarantee it happens… So I combed through the discussion on Catalysing Collaboration at Scale in an attempt to identify any other key ingredients. I started to assemble these into themes – but on closer inspection they turned out to mainly be subsets of a larger, over-aching main ingredient: the need for deeper, trusting relationships.

What follows are the themes, and the quotes from the panelists which describe them… plus some conclusions about possible routes to more effective collaboration.

The Key Themes of Collaboration

1. Understanding / Alignment / Resonance / Relationships
Collaboration requires understanding, both of the people and groups that are working together, but also of their shared objectives.
Understanding each other, and aligning to the point of resonance requires well formed and trusting relationships.

“The forming of relationship provides ways to collaborate in the future…”

Collaboration requires:

“…lasting relationships of meaningful solidarity…”

“…Face to face experience – recognising each other – coming into relationships…”

“…Creating an atmosphere to bring people into emotional resonance…
or at least so we are neutral – so we’re no longer potential competitors…”

“We don’t need alignment across the whole group – only those that are in a relationship…
We can be in alignment with others in different ways… this create flows of richer ecosystems”

“Coherence requires coming into alignment”

2. Recognition / Shared understanding / Definition of “The group” / “The self”
Collaboration requires we recognise who “we” are, who we are working with and where our goals align and diverge

“Who are “we”? – where does “our group” start and end…? Who does it include and exclude?”

“…Power and privilege is THE issue – There is no one size fits all answer…”

“…The individuals involved need to be able to define their own answers…”

“… a fluid boundary of self – enables us to come into alignment…”

“…In murmurations – we should be able to experience our own integrity…
to respond to the big ideas – without losing the tune that is “me”…”

“…There are no boundaries – everything is interacting with its environment, in a dance, of things which are themselves dances…”

“…Boundaries have a role – to help us see we’re not the same – and we peruse different goals – but we should be careful when defining them…”

3. Shared Purpose / Values / Vision
Collaboration requires a shared purpose. It is the goal of the collaboration.
Shared purposes, mission statements and values should be carefully developed, with the input of everyone involved.
Beware of any top-down mission or values which are imposed from above – they rarely help produce alignment.

“…We had a set of words – but we didn’t agree about the meaning of the words…”

4. Context / Place in space and time
Collaboration only ever exists in some type of context – and that context affects the best way/s to collaborate.
Just like nature, contexts constantly evolve, so methods of collaboration need to be fluid and adaptive.
Maps can help, but only within particular contexts and points in time. By default centralised maps are out of date.

“…collaboration is always in context … What comes before and after matters…”

“…It’s not a static thing – its not objects… collaboration is flows or dances…”

Check out these useful thoughts on mapping the space to get collaboration flowing much more smoothly and naturally, from Maptio who define initiative mapping as an enquiry into:

  • how the overall vision breaks down into the ever smaller ideas which contribute to it;
  • who has taken responsibility for each part;
  • and who is helping with what.

There’s also some useful mapping examples from the Real Economy Lab, listing initiatives and perspectives around the idea of what a better economics might look like, as well The Open Co-op’s own Mapping working doc, where you can collaborate directly.

5. Glue / Gravitational pull / Cohesion
Collaboration requires cohesion above that which can be articulated through shared purpose.
Effective, on-going collaboration, is held together by the people who provide the glue within any endeavour.

Collaboration requires…

“…Recongising the value of the glue in the fabric… that supports a community…”

“…distributing the invisible glue evenly…”

“…We should recognise it and surface it…”

6. Communication / Grammars / Patterns / Protocols
Collaboration requires clear communication. You can’t have collaboration without communication.
So, effective collaboration requires a shared language and grammars via appropriate mediums of communication.

“…The architecture of how we communicate sculpt the possibilities of what can be done…”

“…Every interaction is a communication, which alters you…”

What stands in the way of collaboration?

The webinar panelists also identified a range of factors that can hinder collaboration… this is not an exhaustive list.

“…So much: our minds and thinking and our emotions…”

“We’re sub divided into representations – broad blokes backed up by ideologies which people haven’t had a chance to contribute to developing…”

“…centralisation, to some degree, is a way of preventing other forms of centralisation… so we should be more intentional about building these institutions…”

“…Beware of the top down, enforced taxonomy – Categorisation is useful for the party that is doing the naming…”

See also Nathan Schneider’s Co-ops Need Leaders, Too… and thoughts from Ethereum about Distributed governance as well as systems

Examples of collaboration in action

The following are just a few examples of successful collaboration that were mentioned in the webinar:

Linaro – collaborative engineering

“… it’s like a “club good” – all the collaborating companies benefit… That’s what collaboration is!”

Associated press – one of the most powerful media co-ops – founded by competing news papers

“…They found they could be more efficient together – on a narrow overlap… It’s powerful – creative competitiveness + Alignment of collaboration…”

Rural electricity co-ops – powering 80% of the US

New Economy Coalition – Build diverse networks – that would otherwise be separate – A Community of Makers… Building the Future of Giving

Collaboration in practice – requires a genuine shared need

The final words of the webinar came from Ben Roberts, from the Thriving Resilient Communities Initiative in the states. Through his work he has experienced the difficulties of increasing collaboration first hand, and that experience seems especially pertinent to others working on the challenge of ‘networking the networks’.

At the Thriving Resilient Communities Initiative they asked

“How do we do this across the states…? Like minded organisations should be working together more… They ought to be collaborating…”

So they set out to catalyse that – and found it was really hard. They discovered that, If the organisations they wanted to collaborate together had more capacity (in terms of time or money) they would simply do more of what they know works already, rather than collaborating. After all, if you have something that is working and delivering a positive difference, it makes sense to do more of it, rather than explore more complex challenges with no guarantee of results.

So, instead of trying to force collaboration – which is really hard – they identified that cooperating and coordinating can be easier and more powerful. By simply sharing information about what each organisation is doing, about their events and activities, they could start to grow more solid bonds, through which possibilities for collaboration might arise.

As a result of the increased coordination, and the identification of a shared need for income, the organisations in their network started thinking together about how to manage grant money.

“Suddenly we had a collaborative activity which really mattered to everybody”

What emerged from that was a genuine collaboration, with a direct incentive for participation. Organisations in the network started writing each other into their grant proposals – including people outside their “normal membrane”.

This is a key point:

suddenly, through the coordination work and the deeper relationships and understanding that evolved because of it, the definition of “self” changed.

The individualistic, “My organisation only”, mentally dissolved and was replaced by a wider definition of “self” which included other organisations and people. A genuine evolution of perception which paved the way for effective collaboration.

“…So we are now collaborating in more organic rather than forced ways…”

Once the organisation were collaborating in one way, via agreed communication channels with a shared language and shared understanding, they were able to explore other options for co-creation more effectively, by asking themselves:

“…What can we do that nobody is doing yet?”

The results became more distributed – collaboration became not only more possible but more effective at any scale.

“…This was happening at a national level – but it changes at a community level – so now we have regional scale relationships so new projects are showing up which build on the relationships – bringing in partners – to meet shared needs and goals – because its all there as an ecosystem…”

The conclusions:

  • Collaboration is hard – you can’t force it.
  • There are some key themes – and it pays to understand them and work with them…
  • But effective collaboration only really happens when there is a shared need…
  • And the best way to identify shared needs is to be aware of, and understand each other…
  • Which requires building trusting relationships…
  • So, before you try to launch a collaborative endeavour, it pays to work on coordination and cooperation, as stepping stones to future collaboration.

If you’re interested in building deeper, trusting relationships with other people and organisations that are building the collaborative, regenerative economy, please join us in London this summer at the OPEN 2019 Community Gathering.

For more background and further reading around collaboration see also:

Corina Angheloiu’s Weaving networks — when we all need to be spiders

“We’re at a point in time where different networks working towards systemic change are starting to see the need for deeper and more strategic collaboration to increase our reach, impact, access to audiences and funding.”

TRANSIT has mapped out 20 case studies of prefigurative translocal networks which ‘embody their ultimate goals and their vision of a future society through their ongoing social practices, social relations, decision-making philosophy and culture’.

Wise Democracy Project’s patterns to “further the development of wiser forms of self-governance.”

Group Works, “pattern language for bringing life to meetings and gatherings

Decentralized Thriving” a free e-book from DAO Stack – “A digital anthology from 19 innovators on the forefront of decentralised governance”

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