Revisiting Agreements–Are Your Agreements Static-Dead or Dynamic-Living?

Most of us humans tend to act and interact as if our agreements, the guidelines for our interactions, are fixed.  If they are fixed, they are permanent, static.  Dead.  If they are fixed, then they cannot be changed.

And, if they actually are agreements, a mutual understanding, then we can decide what they are.  This means that we can change them.  They are just agreements.  They are changing, impermanent, dynamic.  Living.

If they are living, then agreements are constantly evolving, changing in content as the context changes.  If they are constantly evolving, then it would probably be a good idea to revisit them periodically.

In my own practice, I used to focus on making the best decision.  After all, I have advanced degrees in the decision sciences.  And, once I had followed a good decision making process, and made a good decision, I was done.  Complete.  On to the next decision.  A few years ago, I began to see the brilliance in “rushing to failure,” learning from trying something, making mistakes, and adjusting.  Much more interesting.  And, it was a mind shift to focus on getting to the awareness of the mistakes quicker.  While the rewards were high with this focus on failure, the fail language brought in lots of scarcity and feelings of weakness.  We were constantly asking about and focusing on our failures.  Good learning, and a bit debilitating in the language.

A couple of years ago, a colleague and I started experimenting with the practice of tangibilization.  Through the O Process, we would imagine possibilities, see a pathway of relationships and activities to manifest it, and a tangible outcome.  We would then look for the feedback in the pathway and outcomes, over time.  With this feedback, we would re-envision the possibilities, adjusting the pathways and outcomes we saw.  We were engaging an evolutionary process–learning and adjusting.  Over time, we saw that in this process we were constantly revisiting our agreements, adjusting them based on what we learned along the way.  With this realization, we shifted our language from “rushing to failure” to “revisiting our agreements.”  Now we actively seek and celebrate the feedback, with a reinforcing feeling, continuously evolving our agreements.

At first, this might seem inefficient.  Surely it is more efficient to decide once and be done.  Less time spent on process.  Right?  Back when we focused on making one decision and being done with the process, we observed that we actually ended up spending much more time on fixing the consequences of agreements that no longer worked.  This is analogous to the observation that most organizational work is spent correcting mistakes made from poor planning.  This does not mean spending endless time talking through every agreement over and over.  That IS a waste.

We found that it was far more efficient to continuously iterate the O Process, remembering the potential, pathways, and outcomes we saw, comparing those with what actually happened, and adjusting.  This is also known as the scientific process.  It turns out to be much more efficient and effective to revisit our agreements frequently, adjusting based on the feedback we received from the universe.  We learned that our agreements are dynamic, alive, so we revisit them continuously.

You Are Different AND Relevant: That Is Why I Need You

“In a community of knowledge, what matters more than having knowledge is having access to knowledge”…”The different bits of knowledge that different members of the community have must be compatible” (Sloman, S, and P. Fernbach. 2017. The Knowledge Illusion, New York: Riverhead Books, pp.124, 126).

To know what I need to know, I can either input everything I need to know into my brain and remember it, or I can know that it exists and where to access it when needed.  It turns out that our brains are leaky.  We forget most things that we see, and we remember wrong many things we think we remember.  And we are relatively good at finding out where to access knowledge, according to Professors Sloman and Fernabch, who I quoted above.

From the perspective of collaboration and co-hosting, the need to include others’ perspectives is the second step of the O Process for collaborative co-hosting.  The first step is to identify the deeper shared purpose that brings everyone together, uniting their will towards a common future.  The second step is to include those voices, those unique perspectives, that are required to generate the possibility of this deeper shared purpose.  Most things that bring people together, like K-12 education, medical care, or food systems require many different perspectives to come together, in a specific way.  The second step of the O Process invites in those different perspectives that we need.  We need them because they are different, because they see the world differently, and they contribute a different perspective.

While this second step seems obvious to everyone I work with–the need for differently-minded people–most do not act as if it were obvious.  Most who say they get this, then fill the room with like-minded people, not differently-minded people.  I also observe that most people in most meetings are not clear why their specific perspective is needed in the room, nor are they clear on why the voices or perspectives of the other people in the room are needed.  Not being clear on why I or others are in the room leads most people to not listen carefully, to not listen intently, and to not inquire into the differences someone else is seeing.  Conversely, when we are clear that we need other specific perspectives, then we are intent on understanding what they are seeing, what they are uniquely bringing to what we are seeing together.  Completely different processes, experiences, and outcomes.

When I combine this observation with the three levels of collaboration I have described before, I see three ways people relate to their own knowledge and accessing that of others.

  1. When the group process is designed for segregation, I am clear that “I need” something.  I am paying attention to what I need to give and get from any given situation, at most looking to see what I can get from others, if they are aligned with giving me what I need.
  2. When the group process is designed for flocking, I know that “I need others.”  I pay attention to what I need and what others need, as we move in the same space, sometimes working on our own and sometimes cooperating.
  3. When the group process is designed for uniting, I see that “I need specific others.”  I am clear about what we are collectively trying to achieve together, our deeper shared purpose, and the need for very specific perspectives to achieve that deeper shared purpose.  I pay attention to the deeper shared purpose, to each person’s perspective, and to how these perspectives shine light on what we want to achieve.  I need each person to be different, united in a deeper shared purpose, and committed to collaborating with each other on that purpose.

I need you, because you are different, and because you are relevant, like I am, to what we want to give our will to, to the future we want to achieve.

Deep Collaboration Requires Three Kinds of Listening, Twice

Sometimes we find that no matter how hard we work at something, we are not capable of achieving our goals.  Our own experience and efforts are insufficient to the task.  We realize that we need others.  Other perspectives, other experiences, other energy to get it done.  In these circumstances, we find that we need to collaborate.  We need to bring our best, unique contributions together in a way that releases great synergies.

My colleagues and I have found in our field research in dozens of countries that this deep collaboration is best supported by three kinds of listening, each done twice in a continuous process, a process that we have come to call the O Process.  These three kinds are intentional listening, relational listening, and imaginal listening.  While there are many technical expressions of each of these forms of listening, here I will describe them briefly, what they do, and what they look like in practice.

Intentional listening.  Listening for intent, for the deeper shared purpose, for the motivating will force common to the group that brings everyone together to achieve one bigger goal that requires all of us to participate.  Here we listen for the “why” we are coming together.  It is most useful when made explicit, and when everyone gets clear on what it is and whether it is important to them.  When this deeper shared purpose is clarified, amongst all in the group, you have a very strong motivating force that also provides a container, a set of guidelines, for what is to be worked on as a group.  As the group moves into working together, they now have a clear standard to check whether the group’s exploration serves this purpose or serves another purpose.

Relational listening.  Listening for connection, for why each other individual in the group both (1) connects to the deeper shared purpose, and (2) what their unique contribution is to that purpose–why they care and why they are needed.  Since you already listened for the deeper shared purpose, you are now listening for why you want to be deeply curious about and interested in what this person has to contribute to your ability to achieve the deeper shared purpose, after all their perspective is critical, which is why they are part of the group.

Imaginal listening.  Listening for what possibilities the other people see from their unique perspectives.  Since their contribution is unique to the group, it is different from yours.  They are seeing something different, which begins to highlight different dimensions of the challenge the group is working on.  Through your listening, you can begin to see an image of what they are seeing, you can begin to imagine it.

As we come to the top of the O Process, we have used three different kinds of listening, with clarity now on why the group has come together, why each person is needed and what they contribute, and now what they see.  We can now begin to materialize–to tangibilize–what we see together.  We can now use the same three kinds of listening again, to now tangibilize, to make tangible, the possibilities we saw together.

Imaginal listening, part 2.  At one moment in the creative process of seeing possibilities together, we reach a point where we begin to see the same reality, and the possibilities converge into a probability.  At this moment, we bring our imaginal listening to seeing what each unique perspective sees of the emerging probability.  This emerging probability, which begins to feel real, has many different dimensions to it, which the different perspectives we have can help us see.  What image can you begin to perceive, as you build up the different dimensions each person sees?

Relational listening, part 2.  With a clearer image of what we are collectively looking at, from multiple perspectives, we can now begin to make this ours, to bring it into what we can each commit to.  Since what we are now imagining is in service of the deeper shared purpose we started with, which part of what we are seeing is mine to take up?  What part is yours to take up?  This is where we again use relational listening, to listen for how we each relate to the emerging image, each from our own unique contribution.

Intentional listening, part 2.  Now that we know how each of us is relating to what we saw together, we now move towards what we are going to each do, how we are going to each engage our own will, our own intentional force, to begin to do something to move this image into a reality.  Here we use the intentional listening to hear what each of us is going to do, the actions that we need to take up, aligned with our new commitment to our unique contribution to the image we are realizing.  What energy will I give to moving closer to the image we saw in service of the deeper shared purpose?  What will you give?

In this process, we see why we are coming together to collaborate, what perspectives are needed, what they can see, what we can see together, what that begins to look like as we manifest it, what we can each commit to in realizing that image, and what we can each do.  A great step forward in collaboration, supported by three kinds of listening, each used twice.

How Do You Organize for Collaborative Action?

How does one organize for collaborative action?  It seems that only a small percentage of lots of attempts at collaboration are being successful.

Sometimes people naturally segregate, with each one basically doing his or her own thing, singing their own song.  Sometimes people flock, flowing as individuals somewhat together, singing the same song.  And, sometimes people become a whole that brings out their individual best, creating a harmonic through a specific synthesis of their unique voices.  Three very different ways in which people interact: (1) segregating; (2) flocking; (3) uniting.

Does the difference matter?  As people we tend to organize our interactions to increase our ability to achieve greater impact, resilience, and creativity with a more engaging experience.  People seem to find these characteristics critical to being able to work together, and to being able to achieve movement on large-scale social issues.

What drives this difference in how people come together?  Whether they segregate, flock, or unite?  Current theories suggest this is driven by an endowment effect, leadership, or luck.  The endowment effect suggests that the difference is because of something special the people have—they are smarter, wealthier, better educated, more experienced.  The leadership effect suggests that an individual or group was able to envision and engage people in a specific form of interaction.  The luck effect suggests it just happened somehow.  Each of these three is hard to replicate.

Is there another, simpler explanation of why people tend to segregate, flock, or unite?  Maybe complexity theory can show us something.  Complexity theory looks for the simplest explanation: what is the simplest set of rules that guide the behavior of an individual can explain the observed social behavior when many individuals interact?  Can a high variety of behaviors be better explained by (1) complexity in the way 3-4 simple principles intermingle or by (2) the complicated number of ways in which a wide breadth of number of variables with a depth of details interact?  Complexity theory has shown that bird flocking can be explained by 3 principles: keep in the same general direction of the others; keep some separation from the others; and do not run into anything.  Ant trails can be explained by 4 principles: take a couple of small steps and turn; smell for pheromones; follow pheromone trail to food (where pheromones get weaker); drop pheromones on way home (where pheromones get stronger).

Likewise, maybe complex human behavior can be explained by 4 simple principles—how people consciously or unconsciously answer four big questions:

  1. How much is there (Economic)
  2. Who decides and enforces (Political)
  3. What criteria (Cultural)
  4. What rules (Social)

Can we explain the 3 observed behaviors with specific kinds of responses to these four questions?

  1. Segregating. Assume scarcity of resources—there is not enough—with one primary relationship deciding and enforcing (like the boss for the whole group), focusing on the outcomes to be achieved with the scarce resources in a way that satisfies the primary relationship (in this case, the boss).  Designed to separate, interactions are transactional, to improve one’s own health and growth.  Get people to do the jobs required to achieve the outcomes through their own specific tasks.  Each replaceable person is made to focus on doing only their own part.  These tend to be the principles when you find dozens to hundreds of small groups each working on their own part of what seems to be a higher principle, like how to reform education or health care.
  2. Flocking. While assuming sufficiency of resources – there can be enough for me and for you – primarily for your own self or your own group, pay attention to your relationship with others, moving generally in the same direction, toward a similar outcome, focusing on how being aware of others can help move you towards the desired outcomes.  Designed to flock, interactions are relational, working on one’s own together.  Everyone focuses on doing their part, as it relates to others.
  3. Uniting. Assume abundance of resources – in relationship to the potential and dynamics of systems of resources, there is enough for all – with vibrant relationships for self, other, group, nature, and spirit.  Designed to collaborate, focus on the interaction of the unique contributions each person makes to their own development and to the whole, as it tangibilizes the available potential.

What outcomes are we seeing?  With segregation-based principles, paying attention only to one’s own outcomes, individual efforts are able to achieve moderate levels of impact, usually with low resilience to the ever-changing environment.  Seeming success comes in spite of the huge costs of scarcity of not paying attention to others, creativity, and potential.

Many people are well aware of this experience, and experiment with flocking-based principles, where they share information with others, and attempt to work generally in the same direction.  We find through cooperative coordination these efforts are able to achieve more significant impacts with a bit more resilience, as long as each of the involved groups is also successful.

We are also finding groups working with uniting-based principles, who are able to continuously bring out the best in each other, constantly exploring each other’s individual and collective potential, resilient in shifting with the ever-changing environment, often generating those changes.

We are trying these principles ourselves.  Most of our work at Vibrancy focuses on taking on collaborative efforts based on uniting principles, whether large-scale social change, such as regional food systems, complementary currencies, toxic-free economies, retrofitting regions, or small-scale, community-based efforts, such as schools, companies, government agencies, or local communities.  We are learning about how to apply these principles in a wide variety of settings.

We synthesize what we are finding about co-hosting collaboration in the O Process, where highest impact resilience starts with the “we” available in a shared deeper purpose, then clarifies what specific voices are needed to make unique contributions to achieve the deeper purpose.  We can then understand together where to dedicate our individual and collective efforts to achieve the outcomes we desire collectively and individually within the resilient dynamics of the system of our interactions.  It turns out to be much easier than most of us think, once we shift the principles guiding our interactions.  From separating principles, we can only move alone, never together.  That would be impossible, blue-sky thinking.  From flocking principles, we can only move with others, never united.  That would be impossible, soft and fuzzy process.  From uniting, we can achieve our own health and growth, in relationship with others who are also contributing with us to what we want.

Differentiating and Integrating the “We” — What We Share and Why We Work Together

People show up, in support of each other, to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone.  This happens every day, everywhere.

Sometimes, to take on really audacious issues, we need other people.  In many cases like this, someone often says, “They won’t come talk with us.”  Agreeing, someone else says, “Even if they do show up, they will not agree with us.”  Someone else then chimes in, “Even if they agree with us, there is no way they will be able to do anything about it with us.”  The invitation is dead on arrival.  I hear some version of this at the beginning of almost all “multi-stakeholder” processes.  And, so far, in over two decades of attempts, it has never been true.  People will show up, agree, and act together.  It depends on the invitation.

I see the invitation as an issue of differentiating and integrating the “we”–what we share and why we work together.  Here is a recent example from my work in health.  What we share–a passion and deep commitment to healthy community.  Why we work together here now–to address the disparities in health outcomes in vulnerable communities.

Technically, we can differentiate between a higher-order, overall purpose (the ends) and an immediate, local purpose (the means).  The higher-order purpose, our deeper shared purpose, provides the context for what we see, the field of our Yes!  I find that when we get clear on the deeper purpose that we share, what we really care about, then the invitation gains a life of its own.  I often hear from folks coming together, often for the first time, “I didn’t know, after all these years, that you cared about this too.”  It seems that we tend to observe the intermediate goals of others and assume their deeper purpose, which it turns out we usually get wrong.

The immediate, local purpose provides the specific within the general–the specific game within the rules of the game.  This is the problem we are coming together to address, within a bigger  opportunity envelope, the game we are going to play in the sandbox.  When we can agree on the sandbox, and we can agree on how the immediate, local purpose connects to the higher-order purpose of the sandbox, we can begin to play together.

This distinction between what we share, described with the higher-order purpose, and what we come together to do, described with the immediate, local purpose helps us delineate the general from the specific, any game we might play together from this game we are agreeing to play right now.

What does this look like in practice?  In our work in Guatemala, everyone wanted a healthy, safe Guatemala.  We worked together on understanding the dynamics of generating self-determination for every Guatemalan.  In Vermont, everyone wanted sovereignty for Vermonters in deciding their own energy future.  We worked together on how to realize a 90%-renewable-energy portfolio across electricity, heating, transportation, and efficiency in the next generation.  For Food Solutions New England, everyone wanted an equitable, healthy food system.  We worked together on how to get half of the food consumed in New England being produced in New England, a 5x shift.  In the World Green Building Council, everyone wanted to redefine access to healthy buildings.  We worked on the dynamics of experiencing regenerative buildings for everyone everywhere every day.  In our organization Vibrancy, we want a world where everyone has more vibrant experiences every day, achieving better results every day.  We are working together to figure out how to leverage everyone’s capacity to do that, starting with our own research and services.

There are many processes available for exploring these two “we” questions.  One that frames how I work with the question of “what we share” acknowledges a hierarchy of values in a conversation.  We each have means to the ends we want to achieve.  We each have values that guide these means and ends.  Many of these values, means, and ends overlap with those of other people.  Approaches to values hierarchies structure these overlaps, showing what is common in what we want, either along the way to an ends or the ends itself.

For framing the question of “why we work together,” I often work with the behavior over time graph to determine what problem behavior we want to understand and shift.  In mapping out this behavior over time, we begin to see the dynamics that generate that behavior, leading us to insights into the dynamics needed to shift that behavior.  I use these insights to see how the interactions of whose perspectives influence both the current and desired behaviors, and how shifts in the interactions of these perspectives might lead to the desired behaviors.  This lets me know who needs to be in the exploration and how I can invite them to work on a problem together, which is why we work together.

I find that people will show up, in support of each other, to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone.  It can happen every day, everywhere.  It is an agreement.  The invitation to an agreement is a choice.

Being Curious — Most Viewed Posts

Something piqued my curiosity about the most viewed posts of my blogging on ecosynomics and vibrancy since mid-2009.  Of 282 posts, the two most viewed looked (1) at the big questions every culture has seemed to explore for thousands of years, and (2) at the process we observe when people are able to align in a deeply collaborative way.  As both posts seem very appropriate to much of the work the global Vibrancy community is co-hosting with groups around the world today, I thought I would repost the links to them today.

Some people have shared with me that they have favorite posts that they like to share with others.  Do you have a favorite one?  I would love to know.

Guest post — Similar Fundamental Assumptions Found in 17 European Groups Living the Ecosynomic Paradigm (#4 in a 4-part series)

Guest blog by Christoph Hinske, ISC Senior Fellow

In earlier posts, I shared observations from 17 European groups living the Ecosynomic paradigm about how they were similar in outcomes and experiences, and in processes and structures.  In this last post, I will share some of the similarities I have found in their fundamental assumptions, trying to highlight similarities that distinguish them from their peers.

One of the patterns I saw underlines one of the major research findings of Ecosynomics. It is closely connected to the story I shared in my first blog; groups with high levels of harmonic vibrancy (HV) often collapse when working with lower HV groups. One expression I hear, over and over again, “After listening to your research findings, I finally understand why our project costs always explode when working with certain groups. With other groups it just works fine. I now see the obvious. We are working on the basis of different agreements.” This insight is also underlined in their practices of recruiting. “I now also see why our very strict recruiting process is vital for our future success. We would rather invite an interested person into an ongoing dialog and lasting relationship than just looking at her current abilities, skills and past achievements.”

To understand this expression I had to first understand one of the unique practices, structures and processes: in these high HV groups it is not possible to apply for a job. They do not “sell positions,” as they describe it, rather “the right people with the right competences grow into a specific organizational need.” Their recruiting and matching process is more one of growing together over a period of time by creating relations. This period can last from several months to a year. When I asked one of the group’s leadership why they do not solely focus on job interviews and or assessment center techniques, they nearly laughed at me and said, “How will you ever really grasp a person in her full potential, her drive to do things, and her actual capabilities to work, if you create a competitive, resource limited and transactional setting?” I asked “So what do you do?” They replied, “We start to build relationship with as many people as we can… the best of them stay. It is as easy as that.”

Other patterns I see include:

In all of the high vibrancy and some of the high to medium vibrancy groups, I found a collective willingness to work on agreements. One of the most striking examples is the case of a 25-year old NGO based in Germany. Their survey results reflect a group suffering the costs of sub-group competition as well as medium effectiveness in using and developing existing capacities to enact higher level outcomes in their projects.  The data in this case is based on the responses of more than 90% of the group members. All of them validated and agreed with the diagnostic results in a two-day strategy workshop.

Despite my experience in other medium vibrancy groups, the members of this group described many experiences of high levels of Harmonic Vibrancy in temporal and spatial pockets, leading me to an understanding of what this might look like. This created a very fertile ground for a fast-paced process. Our common analysis brought us to the understanding that the group suffered a collapse in vibrancy due to collapsing the agreements that enabled them to realize a balanced interplay of the five different allocation-mechanism relationships.  They noticed that, some years ago, they started to focus on the OTHER as the dominant mechanism for allocating the resources they need to generate the outcomes they want. Thus, they unintentionally collapsed the primary relationships to SELF, GROUP, NATURE and SPIRIT. To make the next steps and to move to higher levels of vibrancy, we started to walk through the first steps of the O-Process.

    1. We started by making visible the current state of their shared reality, in their underlying agreements and costs of scarcity.  All of the group members agreed that they would want to let go of the scarcity-enacting agreements, in order to be able to enact new, more abundance-based agreements.
    2. By applying collaborative inquiry techniques, the group created an alignment about the deeper shared purpose of their NGO. They made explicit that they could not reach this purpose with the old agreements. “We agree that we have to change our agreements, and we collectively decide to change the agreements that will lead to the reality that we experience.”
    3. The very self-reflective leader of the group started the next step by sharing her deeper values, needs and possible contributions. It was amazing to observe that, despite the presence of very strong personalities, no aggressive egos mutilated this invitation. By making this first move, she opened the space for individual reflection and inner stillness to happen. Every single member of the group started to share his and her deeper values and possible contributions to the deeper purpose of the organization. Since all of them aligned in step one and two on the deeper purpose of the group, it was a straight forward move to bring their intentions and possible contributions into alignment as well.
    4. Due to the alignment on the deeper purpose of the group and of the individual values, needs, and possible contributions, they all started to create a first understanding of the possibilities they have to make that move. This happened during the second day of the workshop and was a very intense process. People started to let go of the old. Afterwards they said, “It felt like a healing or cleaning process… amazing.”

Their journey is not yet over: it just begun. And, what makes all the difference, they now share a space of possibilities they all see and relate to together. They have to find ways to transfer the existing commitment into shared actions. This workshop happened nearly one year ago. Just three days ago, I received a message stating, “Thanks again for the process we started. We made big moves and the doors you started to expose to us are still wide open. We are on a good path.” I was very touched by this e-mail since it reflects why I am doing this work: “Support groups to move into abundance-based agreements.”

Finally, another very simple but obviously powerful assumption can be framed as, “As long as we can laugh about our self and our ego, we are fine.” In all of these vibrant groups, I found a very strong sense of self-humor.  In German we would call it “Selbsthumor.” To me it is amazing to see that this kind of basic principle serves as a cleaning mechanism for the group. It helps them stay focused on the issue and the common purpose and not get lost in energy-depleting structures that emerge when single egos are way too dominant. Self-humor nearly always helped to equalize the energies in the room and to bring all into one movement, a movement towards the shared purpose.

Enlightened Brainstorming or Collaborative Inquiry?

Creativity continues to reign.  In The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin reminds us that all humans are creative and the task is to unleash that creativity.  The exploration for processes that unleash the most creativity continues, with every observer suggesting something different, including yours truly.  One of the mainstays in this ever-expanding  exploration is called “brainstorming.”  As most widely applied today, the accepted technique is attributed to Alex Osborn, who describes the technique he developed, in the 1930’s, in his book Applied Imagination.  While adopted widely, the merits of brainstorming are still widely debated.

In Creative ConspiracyProfessor Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management suggests an upgrading of the brainstorming technique to deal with the many criticisms of its basic form.  Brainstorming 1.0 uses Osborn’s original four rules: (1) all individuals should freely express any idea, (2) with no criticism from anyone on the ideas, (3) focusing on the quantity of ideas to their quality, while (4) building on each other’s ideas.  Thompson suggested Brainstorming 6.0 adds four new rules: (1) stay focused on the task at hand, (2) without diving into details or explaining through stories, (3) encouraging everyone to contribute, and (4) reminding everyone of the problem being addressed when idea-generation slows down.  She cites lots of research to demonstrate that these enhancements greatly increase the flow of creativity.

What do the Ecosynomics framework and experience of harmonic vibrancy have to say about Brainstorming 1.0 and 6.0?  Let’s look at what happens when you stick to just the rules Osborn and Thompson suggest.  With Brainstorming 1.0, it is about the generation of lots of ideas, by whoever is in the room.  In the O Process, which I described in a previous post, this means starting the process in the thinking realm.  Everyone shares what they see as possible.  Clearly this is more generative than not asking people to share what they see or shutting people down when they start to share.  People are creative, as Seth Godin reminded us, and sharing is more generative than not sharing.

Brainstorming 6.0 addresses the critiques of 1.0 that people will get off topic or begin to dominate the airwaves, taking up most of the bandwidth.  So, what is being shared is irrelevant to the problem at hand or some people are not sharing.  Version 6.0 strengthens version 1.0 by adding the feeling-relating realm of the O Process.  Everyone is now included in the process.  These upgrades generate more creativity.

The full O Process (see figure below) highlights the remaining criticisms of version 6.0.  Is the initial problem statement the right one?  If the real problem is something else, then any brainstorming is irrelevant and inefficient.  Are the people in the room the right ones?  Do they provide the necessary breadth and depth of understanding of different dimensions of the problem?  More important than the number of people in the room is the requisite diversity of people in the room.  When building on each other’s ideas, the depth of knowledge each brings is important, and the breadth of relevant perspectives is important.  Does each individual see how his and her experience relates to the agreed-upon problem?  If she does not see how her experience and expertise relates to the stated problem, then her ideas are less relevant.  Does each person agree on the importance of the problem?  If she does not see that she cares about the problem and how her experience relates to its solution, she is much less motivated to see deeply into new possibilities — it becomes a simple mind exercise versus something she wants deeply to see resolved.

O Process

The O Process for Collaborative Alignment

As the O Process suggests, people engage much more deeply when they are clear that they share a common higher purpose, to which each individual brings a critical, unique contribution everyone needs to be able to generate and see the best possibilities from which to choose a future course of action that everyone can commit to and enact.  Said more abstractly, engaging the willing-intention provides the shared container and the relatedness in which each individual is invited to contribute the best possibilities they can see in their own minds from their unique experience and expertise.  When these possibilities are seen together, the probabilities that emerge are much easier to relate to and enact, for each individual.

From an Ecosynomics perspective, this suggests that Brainstorming 1.0 engages freer individual thinking in a group process than does stifling of the individuals in the group.    This might be more accurately labeled “competitive idea-generation” — each individual competes to share ideas and build on other ideas.  [The term “brainstorm” means a storm, a violent disturbance, in the brain.  This grossly limits what is actually generating the creativity, thus I suggest a more accurate relabeling.]  In this framing, Brainstorming 6.0 upgrades by adding the feeling-relatedness of the contribution each individual makes.  This might be labeled “cooperative idea-generation” — working together, the group seeks more ideas from everyone.  The O Process suggests the full dynamic of willing-feeling-thinking, invoking the shared higher purpose in which the requisite voices contribute the possibilities they uniquely see, which might be labeled “collaborative inquiry.”

The O Process for Collaborative Alignment

Over the years, colleagues have taught me much about good processes for building collaboration.[1]  I have distilled these processes into an overarching process with six elements, which I draw out in the figure below.  After enough people began to call it the “O Process,” the name stuck.  The O Process supports two forms of alignment that I have found critical to deep collaboration.  The first alignment is within six areas, and the second alignment is across them.  I find that most high performing groups have strength in both alignments, that most mediocre and weak groups have little of either, and that people working independent of each other have none of either.

O Process

The O Process for Collaborative Alignment

The alignment is around the shared higher purpose, the unique contribution of each stakeholder, the specific possibilities each perspective can see, the common seeing of a future reality – a shared probability, the commitment each stakeholder can make to realizing the shared future reality, and alignment around the actions that can achieve collaboration on those commitments.  When aligned these six areas bring great strength and sustainability to any endeavor.

I first seek to find and make transparent the alignment that exists in the higher purpose that everyone involved finds important.  Whether it is the health of children in a school community, a specific consumer focus in a sock company, or a patriotic sense among citizens of a country, something brings the stakeholders of a specific interest together.  When there is alignment around this higher purpose, a common goal can be seen, made transparent, and used to make explicit what is common among groups that seem to be at odds with each other.[2]  Sharing this deeper purpose provides the conditions for guided autonomy, as suggested by jazz pianist Frank Barrett, using limited structures and constraints to maximize opportunities for diversity.  This allows everyone the freedom to contribute their creative best.

Each person makes a unique contribution to the shared purpose.  Most people only value their own contribution, believing that others are wrong-headed, a waste of resource, or secondary in importance at best.  Alignment around seeing each other’s unique contribution validates the other’s existence, builds appreciation, and strengthens the trust that came out of seeing a shared higher purpose.[3]  Each stakeholder brings a unique perspective on what is possible.  Given the specific pathway and specialization of each stakeholder, no two see the same possibilities.  Alignment around seen possibilities highlights how these are different perspectives on the same future reality that the different unique contributions can see.[4]

When there is alignment on these first three areas – shared purpose, values and contributions, shared possibilities – something incredible happens, shared probability, the fourth alignment.  When this happens, everyone involved sees the same future, and that future begins to become “real.”  This happens when people begin to dedicate resources to something, way before it shows up physically.  In the creative process, this coalescing into one shared picture is called an “aha” moment, an insight.  Many processes support the putting together of possibilities into forms that make the probabilities easier to see.[5]

As the new reality seen with others begins to sink in, it comes into the relational space where people begin to make commitments to the contribution they can make to this shared future reality in alignment with the higher purpose they share.[6]  Having made relational commitments about specific contributions each individual can make to the probability seen, it is time for action.  To act in alignment requires alignment around the will to go back to one’s own world and do something.  When the culture “back home” supports these actions, because they fit with what is already being done there, taking on actions and completing them is relatively each.  In many cases, though, the new collaborative probabilities seen require commitments to action that are not consistent with the existing culture back home.  For people to take these actions, then, they require support from the group.

Alignment within each of these six elements provides for a more collaborative process, which is even stronger when there is alignment across the six elements.  For example, this means that alignment around the shared higher purpose sets the context for the alignment around the values and contributions of each participant.  When all six elements are aligned internally and across all six, a completely new level of collaboration emerges.

Some people I have worked with say, “We do that,” meaning that they work through the O process.  Yet, when I explore what they actually do, I find that they often start at the cognition level of possibility and wonder why nobody shows up at the relational level of commitments or the intention level of action.  They often miss that they need alignment on the right-hand side, in deepest collective purpose, and values and contributions to convert the possibilities into probabilities that people will commit to and take action.  When I have seen the full O process engaged, it releases extraordinary power.  It seems that people shy away from alignment on all six elements, because they think it will take longer.  It will not surprise you now to see that, in fact, this alignment actually accelerates the process, leading to much greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation.  Why?  Greater efficiency results from people actually relating to the probabilities they co-created towards something they think is important, thus little energy is wasted in trying to push and coerce people into doing things they do not want to do – the reality of most projects.  Greater effectiveness comes about when people align on the purpose they share and on what each other uniquely contributes to that shared higher goal.  Innovation shows up because everyone present saw and contributed their unique perspective, providing a richer environment of possibility in which the probability emerged.  Greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovativeness from a bit more alignment – a great investment.

[1] This framework evolved out of my many years of working with Scott Spann (Spann, 2007; Spann & Ritchie-Dunham, 2008).

[2] The broad category of process and content tools for aligning around shared purpose describe the hidden purpose and shared values that are already present.  For a broad overview and integration of specific processes for forming and working with shared objectives and values, see (Hammond, 1996; Keeney, 1992).  Recent case studies highlight the benefits of shared purpose, as reflected in the “extraordinary economic and social value” they found in their study of 33 higher-ambition CEOs (Foote, Eisenstat, & Fredberg, 2011).

[3] Tools that align the values and contribution of others focus on: (1) the ability to see and appreciate another human being; and (2) the designer’s ability to see how different parts fit together.  The broad fields are inquiry and systemic design.  For more on emotional and social intelligence, see (Goleman, 1995).  For more on appreciative approaches to inquiry, see (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005; Torbert, 1994).  For more on systemic approaches to design, start with the classic treatise that influenced many schools of design (Alexander, 1964).  To see that each individual has his own values and plays a functional role, the distinction of part versus whole is useful, best described in systems language as a functional part and a whole (Ackoff, 1993) and in integral language as a holon (Koestler, 1967; Wilber, 2000b).

[4] The broader category of tools that align possibilities focus on collaborative idea formation.  De Bono provides two classics on appreciating different perspectives (De Bono, 1971, 1999).

[5] The conversion of possibilities to probabilities deals with different forms of sensemaking – How can I know what I think until I hear what I say? – characterized by the social psychologist Karl Weick (Weick, 1995).

[6] Most good processes have some form of commitment making, following some form of the RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed), or the “atom of work” by Flores, which provides processes for making and keeping commitments (“Using the Methods of Fernando Flores, an Interview of Jack Reilly,” 1997).  Also see (Connolly & Rianoshek, 2002).