Effective collaborators: Structural conditions vs. personal development

An exchange with a colleague leads me to note a contrasting “structural” approach on the issue of effective collaborators to the one presented in a recent series of posts, where I noted:

An effective collaborator draws on many skills and dispositions [listed in the posts].  We can cultivate these skills and dispositions through participation in suitable activities and through creative habits, such as always taking stock of what we did (and did not do) and planning ways to improve. Participants who cultivate themselves as collaborators can bring their skills and dispositions to any collaboration (or workshop, group process, etc.) they get involved in. To the extent that participants in a collaboration have been cultivating themselves as collaborators, the people organizing or facilitating the collaboration can expect their efforts to be more fruitful.

In contrast, a facilitator could create the conditions (or rules or structure or process) for collaboration, which facilitates participants being more collaborative without asking them to change their behavior—or having to draw explicit attention to the cultivation of collaborators.  There is a “which comes first, chicken or egg?” aspect to this, given that rules or structure or process work better when there are at least some participants who already have developed the skills and dispositions I list.  At the same time, one way to cultivate those skills and dispositions is through well-facilitated demonstration or real-life activities.

Nevertheless, people who write books on group process and facilitation, e.g., Senge et al. 5th Discipline Fieldbook, do not give much emphasis to the cultivation of collaborators.  Most weight is put on creating the conditions for collaboration among whoever signs up for or is roped into the group process a facilitator is leading.  (Readers should point me to works that disturb this assertion of mine.)  If a facilitator has confidence in handling all-comers, then it is simpler to set a small set of guiding themes, such as balance advocacy with inquiry, or start from concrete observables and don’t climb quickly up the ladder of inference.  My longer listing of skills and dispositions of effective collaborators would then seem unnecessarily complicated.  Let me just say, however, that I want some more eggs with my chickens.

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Re-engagement)

Re-engagement— Respect, risk, and revelation combine so that participants’ gears are re-engaged (to use a machine metaphor), allowing us to mobilize and sustain quite a high level of energy during the collaboration. But re-engagement goes beyond an individual’s enhanced enthusiasm. It is a collective or emergent result of the activities that bring people who have generative differences into meaningful interactions that can catalyze transformations. In other words, meaningful social engagement and opportunities for personal introspection contribute to participants discovering new possibilities for work with others on ideas they brought to the collaboration.

  • inquire further on the issues that arise in our own projects.
  • select and focus on a subset of the specific plans or knowledge generated during the collaboration in our subsequent work.
  • engage actively with others.
  • inquire further into how we can support the work of others.
  • are reminded of our aspirations to work in supportive communities.
  • make the experiences of the collaboration a basis for subsequent efforts to cultivate collaborators.
  • arrange to assist or apprentice with the facilitator in a future collaboration.

(Of course, what we state in the end-of-collaboration evaluations cannot show that we will follow through on intentions to stay connected or to make shifts in our own projects and work relations. A need or desire for periodic re-charging of our ideas and intentions is evident when past participants return to subsequent collaborations.)
[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Revelation)

Revelation—A space is created by respect and risk in which participants bring thoughts and feelings to the surface so as to articulate, clarify and complicate our ideas, relationships, and aspirations—in short, our identities. (Recall the principle that we know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge.) Our own self-understandings are extended when we are respectful partners with others in the risky business of self-exploration. In this spirit, we:

  • do not fill up quiet spaces that occur.
  • take time to reflect on and digest our experiences.
  • gain insight into our present place and direction by hearing what we happen to mention and omit in telling our own stories.
  • bring to the surface knowledge that we were not able, at first, to acknowledge.
  • “re-mark” the various ways we understand ourselves, others, and the world, together with the understandings and expectations—some welcome, some not—that are pressed back upon us.
  • integrate experience from the collaboration with our own concerns.
  • make our entire thought process visible, including tacit assumptions.
  • invite others to add new dimensions to what we are thinking.
  • strive to find ways to make un(der)expressed voices articulate.
  • examine decisions we had made in advance about what the other people are like, what they are and are not capable of.
  • take notice of who exposes their ideas and questions in one-on-one interaction with us.
  • limit advocacy—making a statement—in favor of inquiry—seeking clarifications and deeper understanding; we do not impose our opinion or use questions to expose weakness.
  • generate new possibilities for knowing and being through activities that bring participants into revelatory relationships, that is, actively implicated us in one another’s revelations.
  • reflect on each phase—together or individually—leading to a tangible product to take into next phase.

[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Risk)

Risk—Respect creates a space with enough safety for participants to take risks of various kinds. In particular, we:

  • speak personally.
  • share knowledge we bring to the surface.
  • get to know more about each others’ not-yet-stable aspects.
  • share the experience of being unsure, but excitable and open to learn and to change.
  • make use of opportunities to reveal and remark upon oneself.
  • view the collaboration as a journey into unknown areas or allowing us to see familiar areas in a fresh light. (A journey involves risk; requires support; creates more experiences than can be integrated at first sight; yields personal changes.)
  • ask for help and support during the collaboration.
  • participate—perhaps quite playfully—during unfamiliar processes.
  • are open to surprises and spontaneous insights emerging from interactions among people who were strangers beforehand.
  • expose our ideas and questions in one-on-one interaction with participants who have more experience and formal status.
  • allow ourselves to probe conclusions we began with.
  • accept uncertainty and instability—”What exactly is going to happen? What should I be doing?”—as the collaboration unfolds (even without an explicit agreement on where we are headed and without certainty about how to achieve desired outcomes).
  • stay in there when the process seems rough—not stepping back into the role of critic or consumer.

(In all these aspects of risk-taking, collaborations benefit from the participation of “veterans” who have participated in collaborations conducted along similar lines.)

[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Respect)

Respect—Effective participants in a collaboration (or workshop, groups process, etc.) draw on the skill or disposition to:

  • listen attentively to others as commonalities and differences are brought to light
  • take an interest in points of view and work and life experiences that are distant from our own.
  • suspend judgment and listen empathetically.
  • have repeated exchanges that are meaningful and generative with participants who differ from us (which is enhanced by small size and mixed composition of the collaboration).
  • notice the experience of being listened to.
  • hear ourselves better as a result of being heard.
  • bring to the surface and into play knowledge we already have about the topic of any meeting or session.
  • recognize that there is insight in every response—there are no wrong answers.
  • recognize that each participant, regardless of background or previous experience has something valuable to contribute to the process and outcomes—we need everyone’s insight for the wisest result.
  • develop relationships that will enable us to keep getting help and support when the collaboration is over.
  • find opportunities to affirm what is working well.

In all these ways, Respect is not simply stated as a ground rule, but is enacted.

[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions

An effective collaborator draws on many skills and dispositions, such as the qualities listed in the posts to follow. We can cultivate these skills and dispositions through participation in suitable activities and through creative habits, such as always taking stock of what we did (and did not do) and planning ways to improve. Participants who cultivate themselves as collaborators can bring their skills and dispositions to any collaboration (or workshop, group process, etc.) they get involved in. To the extent that participants in a collaboration have been cultivating themselves as collaborators, the people organizing or facilitating the collaboration can expect their efforts to be more fruitful.

(Indeed, the list provides not only a checklist of qualities for cultivating collaborators, but also a checklist of conditions for organizers and facilitators to foster when running a collaborative process. Of course, we all find ourselves in some groups or teams where these conditions are not fostered. It is easy to fret over the shortcomings of our team leaders and colleagues. However, an antidote to fretting is for us to affirm the qualities below in our personal sphere and, more generally, to (re)claim space for our own creative pursuits.)

The list groups the qualities under four headings—Respect, Risk, Revelation, Re-engagement. (Note: An item under one heading may well contribute to the other headings.) The thinking behind these headings is, in brief, that a well-facilitated collaborative process keeps us listening actively to each other, fostering mutual Respect that allows Risks to be taken, elicits more insights than any one person came in with (Revelation), and engages us in carrying out and carrying on the plans we develop (Re-engagement). What we come out with is very likely to be larger and more durable than what any one person came in with; the more so, the more voices that are brought out by the process.

[These posts arose after teaching a two-day workshop on "Cultivating Collaboration" as part of a graduate course on "Creative Thinking, Collaboration, and Organizational Change.  A colleague asked me to make explicit the skills of a collaborator that the students were supposed to be cultivating.  In future years I plan not only to provide students with my list of skills and dispositions, but also make clear the following:  The activities of the workshop lead participants into using some tools and processes, making connections with each other, and formulating contributions to the topic of cultivating ourselves as collaborators. To reinforce and extend this experiential learning students should:

  • review each activity to identify which of the listed collaborator skills and dispositions applied to the activity and to identify possibilities for further cultivation of these qualities;
  • read the supporting material on each tool or process so the design and goals of each activity could be appreciated and perhaps replicated;
  • build on the two steps above to formulate more systematic plans for practice and evaluation with an eye to improvement.]

Fritz on creating (in contrast with ICA and Schwendener)

Continuing a series of posts on the development of the Collaborative for Exploration of Scientific and Political Change within the framework of Ben Schwendener’s Seminar on Creativity.


12 June ’11
Notes on R. Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance

  • Result you want to create (for its own sake; love the creation)
  • What currently exists
  • Take action (invention, not convention)
  • Rhythms of creative process
  • Creating momentum

Tension between what you want to create and what currently exists seeks resolution, rather than oscillates in the reactive-responsive orientation/mode

Contrasting with:
ICA process
Group does brainstorming (“cardstorming”) of a practical vision, clusters the items and gives them names. The group then repeats the process but this time for obstacles to realizing that vision, resulting in clusters with names that convey the underlying obstacles. These then point to strategic directions. (This approach allows the vision to emerge rather than be identified at the outset.)

Ben Schwendener’s approach
When the elements of the vertical unity are identified, change flows from that unity. (The elements seem like the strategic directions of the ICA process.)

14 June ’11
Q: How to identify the elements?

Possible variants of the ICA process:
a. Start with a single vision, e.g., the Collaborative, then use Future Ideal Retrospective to tease out a more multifaceted (re)vision, then proceed as above.
b. Start with cardstorming about all the different tasks on one’s plate in the messy present, then Strategic Personal Planning, which identifies multiple strands, out of which a single vision emerges, then proceed as in a.
Try the variants for myself and see how they work in practice,

Q: What coaching is needed to keep one at the ICA task? (I ask this because it’s been on my to-do list since the 1st June and I am procrastinating.) A: Doing it with others in a course. Protecting some hours each day for it.

Open spaces teaching

Tools and processes; Connections; Contribution to the Topic: Could these aspects of Open Spaces workshop form the basis of teaching as well?   The stumbling block would seem to be the idea that students—learners—could contribute to the topic of the course.  A slight rethinking of the topic of a course is needed:

Constructivist learning aims to provide students with experiences that guide them to build an understanding for themselves instead of being handed a pre-packaged understanding produced by others.  Conceptual change learning extends this further by noting that students come to a learning situation with existing understandings, however rudimentary and incomplete, and these “private universes” need to be exposed and mobilized in order for appropriate constructivist learning to be fashioned for them.  The net result of constructivist, conceptual-change learning can be seen as contributing to the topic if the topic is not simply the ostensible subject of the course, but the challenge of generating conceptual change for persons X, Y, and Z related to the subject.

This perspective suggests that Connections might refer not only to connections among participants of the course that stimulate and support contributions, but also to connections among the elements of the subject matter (within and beyond the course proper).

Connections are enhanced by Tools & Processes.  Following the model of daily writing in recent workshops (see recent posts), these tools and processes might well begin with daily writing where students are asked to write about the topic, that is, about the subject and how it is understood by them, from the start, thus instituting active learning from the outset.

Why are Open Spaces workshops appealing and necessary?

The answer to the title question is that Open Spaces Workshops should not be necessary.  (Continuing the daily writing after the workshop “Open Spaces for Changing Science and Society.”)  They are appealing because the processes foster the interactions and insights that we hope for in other realms, namely, that of the academy or of activism and public engagement.  Ideally then, we would be employing those processes in the other realms and open spaces would not be needed.

At first sight, this leads to the question: In what ways are the open spaces processes closed off or closed down in the other realms?  This is a subject for investigation.  I notice, however, that I’m personally more inclined to create an open spaces workshop (or allied processes) away from the customary work, with its closed down processes, than I am to study and open up the closed processes from the inside.

Admitting this leads me to a second question: In what ways can open spaces experiences be mobilized to bring about shifts in the conventional academic or activist realms?  One answer is through activities that promote a little the Respect aspect of the “4Rs,” which make it more likely for little Risks in which participants in the activities stretch beyond the customary and for little Revelations to affirm these Risks.  The steady experience of these Revelations or insights leads to Re-engagement in the realms of our customary work.

Tangible and Experiential Objectives for an Open Spaces Workshop

Tangible & Experiential Objectives for an Open Spaces Workshop

Process as Product

Product in Conventional Sense


Tools & Processes





Contributions to Topic


Here & Now

  Tangible Outcomes Learn or refresh tools.Participate in processes.Practice facilitating processes (optional). Establish or thicken connections among participants. Probe, clarify, expose open questions.Insights about new direc-tions for participants’ research, writing, teaching, outreach.Daily Writing.

Respect->Risk->Revelation –> Re-engagement

(through Learning, Interacting, Sharing, Connecting, Communing)


–> Enthusiasm, Hope, Resolve, Courage Sustained

  Tangible Outcomes Cultivating ourselves as participants, collaborators & question-openers.Adopt, adapt, evaluate & develop tools & processes. Connections maintained & developed.Local (i.e., participants’ current realms) kept in tension with trans-local connections. Individuals move in the new directions.Compilation of daily writing—> Programmatic overview?

|——————-Flexible Engagement——————-|


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