Tag Archives: collaboration

Some thoughts on Consensus vs. Collaboration

I’ve been giving some thought to the notion of “consensus building”. When I think of consensus building I imagine a situation where a bunch of people are sitting around debating an issue and the consensus occurs when the people at the table no longer wish to debate and can live with the proposed solution.  I don’t actually have any “official” definition from anywhere to back this up, as the definitions from dictionary.com aren’t too specific. I should mention that the entry in Wikipedia does briefly suggest that consensus “usually involves collaboration, rather than compromise”.

Despite this suggestion from Wikipedia, from my experience I tend to find that discussions around “consensus building” seem to be focused on compromise rather than collaboration. Again, it’s just a gut feel but whether the conversation is facilitated or not I find that the questions in the conversation tend to be along the lines of “if i gave up ‘x’, would you give me ‘y'”? In other words I find the conversations to be subtractive. Ie. how can the proposed solution be pared down until it isn’t disagreeable for most or all of the people in the room. (Apologies for the double negative.) This has to be a less than ideal situation for all parties. Nobody truly wins.

This differs from collaborative conservations which I would suggest are more additive. Ie. lots of “yes, and” with a goal of expressing and building towards an ideal solution for all parties and it would haven been impossible to have achieved individually.  My experience tells me that people leave these types of conversations energized, motivated and confident in their colleagues.

Maybe it’s just some pointless semantic babbling, but I’m thinking that “consensus building” is an oxymoron up there with “army intelligence” and “jumbo shrimp”.

Looking at the “ins” & “cons”

When designing large collaborative sessions with complex topics it is almost always the case that there is a big variance between the few people who know a lot about the topic and a few who have little to no context and everyone else falls somewhere in between. Sponsors are generally very anxious to do a lot of “education” around the project so that everyone gets up to speed. Usually this results in a desire to do a 3 hour PowerPoint presentation. This makes me cringe. (I don’t understand how the same people who complain about sitting through 3 hour presentations end up with a desire to present one.) I try to explain that people don’t learn well this way and the information will not stick. 

I started reading a book recently that has really helped me hammer my argument home. Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams by Mitchel Resnick of MIT talks about the difference between instructional learning and constructional learning. He argues that by telling people what you think they need to know, the results are mediocre at best. By having people create something on their own (or with small groups), the concepts are much more likely to stick. It’s a learn-by-doing approach.

With the type of work that I’m in, this concept wasn’t new to me, but the fact that I can now summarize the concept in a framework that clients really seem to get, was a valuable insight for me. I think most people know this as well, but with a lack of a better tool than PowerPoint to use for “education”, it seems to be the default. Suggesting the “instructional/constructional” framework to clients seems to introduce the contrast between socratic methods and constructional methods. They suddenly see “the other side”. By giving the other side a name, it’s easier to convince them of the benefits of giving it a try. Like the old saying goes, “A fish doesn’t understand water until it experiences air.”

I’m curious to know if anyone else has had this type of experience; where you don’t necessarily learn a new concept, but learn a new way to express it that seems to have a lot of resonance. Please comment!

John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity – Part I

Summary: Graphic designer and computer scientist John Maeda proposes ten laws for simplifying complex systems in business and life-but mostly in product design. Maeda’s upbeat explanations usefully break down the power of less-fewer features, fewer buttons and fewer distractions-while providing practical strategies for harnessing that power. (Amazon.com)

Maeda’s book discusses 10 key principles moving from the tangible to the abstract. His first principle of “Reduce” has three components:

Shrink: the smaller the object the more forgiving we are as users.
Hide: make the complexity go away, like a swiss army knife
Embody: once a product has been shrunk and features taken away embed a real or perceived sense of value in the product

So as a designer and facilitator of collaborative work events, the Hide concept really stands out for me, and here’s why: 

When getting 40 or 50 people to put their heads together and come up with something brilliant I try to make the session design as unobtrusive as possible while making the group activities as clear as possible. Participants have only what they need to do the task at hand and nothing more. As more information or tools is required, I introduce it and take away that which is no longer necessary (the Hide component).

The other two components (Shrink and Embody) are a bit more of a challenge to apply to a face to face collaborative event (but they were put to good use on the iPod shuffle), but it’s the process of finding a way to apply concepts such as those to face to face sessions that results in innovative new practices in my line of work and pushes the boundaries on what groups can do when working together.

So, I promise a future posting on how I was able to incorporate the “Shrink” component into a session. If the real skill in design is removing as much as possible rather than adding as much as possible, what

Frank Gehry, Collaboration and the Creative Process

As a consultant, facilitator and event designer what can I learn from an architect? What can any of us learn from the creative process?

When I am approached by a client to do some work, it’s entirely possible that I can draw upon my 5 years and 150+ engagements worth of experience and do some work for them that is pretty close to what I’ve done for a past client. It would be relatively simple to do that. But I don’t.

There is something in the creative process of coming up with a new solution to a new problem that is intoxicating. As Frank Gehry talks about in this interview from TED, if he goes in to a project with a preconceived notion of how he’s going to do it, he’ll start again or avoid the project entirely.

From around five minutes into the conversation, he says this (roughly):

Every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity almost like the first project that I ever did . I get the sweats. I go in, start working, not sure where I’m going. If I knew whereI was going, I wouldn’t do it. If I can predict it or plan it, I discard it.

I believe that this is a true characteristic of the creative process. It’s envisioning an end goal and having no idea how to accomplish it. This concept ties in very closely with the work of Robert Fritz, who writes that “creative types” don’t simply follow the Path of Least Resistance but carve new paths to realize their vision, despite the fact that the journey is bumpy and uncertain.

This approach to consulting and event design, even after 5+ years, causes sleepless nights, constant design iteration, occasional frenzied research and reassurance from my colleagues (and you know who you are) but in the end, it’s the most fulfilling and rewarding approach to collaborative work for us and the client. Part of the value that I bring to the client is this approach to work. I guide them through the process and their work is better off for it, even if it’s a bit messy in the beginning and middle stages of an event.

Once I have gained the trust of a client during an event, I will often reveal that I don’t know what the group should do next and that I’m figuring it out on the fly. I am engaging them in the improvisational creative process and they tend to enjoy the energy that the process often generates.

It’s living on the edge, but with a good team and a firm eye on the objectives, I haven’t fallen off yet!

Lo Fidelity vs. Hi Fidelity

My practice as an event designer and facilitator is pretty unique. It’s not the typical way of doing business. I’m part of a team that includes an artist, DJ, website designer, photographer…it’s an experience. People come to the events having never been to one before and can’t quite believe the art, music, the pace of work, etc. In that sense, the experience is very new and “cutting edge.”

delta1.jpgHowever, while the method might be cutting edge, the tools are not. We use simple whiteboards with dry erase markers (made by the fine folks at Kinetic Energies), poster boards, foam core, art supplies, etc. This contrast confuses some people, as they figure we should be using SmartBoards that automatically capture the writing, projectors, internet connections, and lots of other “techie” stuff.

The reason we don’t is because we find that all of that neat stuff becomes a distraction from the task at hand. The projectors, PowerPoint, etc. start to mediate the conversations between people and we feel as though it’s our job to provide the simplest possible environment for the right people to have the right conversations.

Welcome to Whitespace

Let me introduce myself. My name is Daniel Rose and I live and work in the bustling metropolis of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My living/passion (and topic of this blog) is in helping large groups to solve tough, complex problems by providing event design and facilitation so that the collective wisdom of the group can generate sustainable solutions in a rapid way.

Yeah…that’s kind of a mouthful and in subsequent blogs I’ll delve into what all of that means to me and I hope that you’ll take some time to help me define it. For now I’ll touch on the title of the blog, ie. Whitespace.

thebox.gifInspired by my good friends at Sente Corporation and Innovation Labs, I’m very intrigued by the idea that by getting diverse opinions and viewpoints together to tackle complex issues, the process of different knowledge sets and assumptions coming together and mixing can be the spark of innovation. That space between people is the whitespace. (Thanks to my friend Lisa Sorsa for sketching out the graphic above.) By creating opportunity for whitespace to exist, interesting conversations can occur, novel ideas can be combined and there is real potential for breakthrough ideas to happen.

The inclination in the corporate or not for profit sectors in North America is to pare down participation in meetings because it seems intuitive that the more opinions you have at the table, the less likely you are to reach consensus. While “consensus” will be the topic for a future post, my belief is that if breakthrough and innovation is the goal, there will be a greater possibility of that occurring if there is a large, diverse crowd contributing to the effort.

 Of course, it takes great skill and experience to generate and focus that energy towards valuable, tangible business outcomes and that’s where I come in!

Rather than having a discussion about “out of the box” thinking, I gently suggest to clients that what they really want is to expand the size of the box they’re playing in and by including other people, the whitespace is increased and opportunity for breakthrough innovation increases as well!