Towards healthy power dynamics at work [Bartlett]

Itamar GoldminzFollowMar 25

These are 2D representations of the same 3D shape. Left: “friendly circle” (top); Right: “evil triangle” (side).

“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. (…)

“As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

— Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, 1970

A colleague recently reminded me of the “bounded specialization” piece I wrote about a year and a half ago. It was written during the short break that I’ve taken in between AltSchool and Grammarly in a cabin at the Gualala hills overlooking the Pacific ocean. It is one of my pieces of writing that I am still most proud of. Serendipitously, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about hierarchies lately. From “The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy”, through “Why hierarchies thrive”, to “In praise of hierarchy”. But none was as elegant and compelling as Richard D. Bartlett’s 2-part series on hierarchy and power dynamics:

Hierarchy is not the problem (Part 1)

11 Practical steps towards healthy power dynamics at work (Part 2)

He starts by diffusing some of the loaded reactions that hierarchy tends to trigger, reminding us that that the term itself is just a useful metaphor to efficiently explain that this is contained by that:

If you tell me you hate fruit, I know not to offer you an apple. It would be impossible to make sense of the world without these hierarchical relationships.

Bartlett argues that the obsession with “hierarchy vs. flatness” is an unhelpful distraction from the issue that really matters, which is power dynamics. He builds on Mary Parker Follett’s distinctions to define 3 types of power dynamics:

  • Power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
  • Power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
  • Power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another

With those in mind, he defines the approach to power dynamics that we actually strive for and often hides behind the hierarchy-related language:

Maximize power-from-within, make power-with transparent, and minimize power-over

Note the directional and relative (as opposed to absolute) language that’s used to describe this aspiration. The more descriptive articulation of that aspiration is also worth including here:

  • Maximize power-from-within: everyone feels empowered; they are confident to speak up, knowing their voice matters; good ideas can come from anywhere; people play to their strengths; creativity is celebrated; growth is encouraged; anyone can lead some of the time.
  • Make power-with transparent: we’re honest about who has influence; pathways to social power are clearly signposted; influential roles are distributed and rotated; the formal org chart maps closely to the informal influence network.
  • Minimize power-over: one person cannot force another to do something; we are sensitive to coercion; any restrictions on behavior are developed with a collective mandate.

In part 2, Barlett outlines specific behaviors and practices in support of this aspiration, which I’ll only include here in their headline form:

Maximize power-from-within

  • Encourage your peers
  • Discourage “permission-seeking”
  • Create practice spaces
  • Find your mentors
  • Rotate roles

Make power-with transparent

  • Break the power taboo
  • Name the level of engagements
  • Limited decision mandates

Minimize power-over

  • Consent-based decision-making
  • Celebrate dissent
  • Share the ownership

This framing strongly resonates with me and the mapping of specific practices and behaviors to the key pieces of healthy power dynamics is really powerful. The next here would be to explore some of the nuanced tensions between these practices and their implications.

Understanding Group Dynamics

Go to the profile of Sandra Ahnkron

Sandra AhnkronFollowJan 9, 2018

If you care about how well a team is performing, group dynamics is crucial for you to understand. A great start towards influencing group dynamics is by understanding the archetypes described in the extensively researched Integrated Model of Group Development (IMGD) by Susan Wheelan. Here you will get my concise summary, animal metaphors and illustrations, so it will stick for longer.

The 5 stages of group development:

  1. Butterfly — Dependency and Inclusion
  2. Lion — Counter-dependency and Fight
  3. Elephant — Trust and Structure
  4. Dolphin — Work and Productivity
  5. Final stage

Among business working groups you will find most groups in the Butterfly (28%) or Elephant stage (31%), and somewhat less groups in the Lion (18%) and Dolphin stage (23%). The percentages come from “A Descriptive Study of Work Groups in the Swedish and U.S. Economy“ by Wheelan and Jacobsson from 2014 based on 576 business work Groups in U.S. and Sweden.

Consider while reading:

  • Which group do you want to influence?
  • What do that group need to mature?
  • What can you do right now?

Butterfly stage

Dependency and Inclusion

Like the butterfly, you see your colleagues graciously acting in a pleasant way, very lightly adding to a positive atmosphere, but you do not know their real feelings, needs, full personality and potential.

Underlying question: Am I good enough to be in this group?

Dynamic: Polite and positive atmosphere where the members accept norms, rules and the leader. Members talk about outside events and topics that are safe and positively relationship building. There are conversations not connected to the goals of the team. Members can shy away while looking for signs of being included.

Leadership: Members depend strongly on leaders, want the leader to show they accept them, provide direction and usually agree with the suggestions made by the leader.

Help all members to feel:

  • included
  • appreciated
  • safe
  • empowered

Lion stage

Counter-dependency and Fight

Like the lion, you see colleagues daring to stand their ground, roaring when someone is overstepping their boundaries or advocating for a decision they do not support. Lions learn who they enjoy collaborating with, hunt together with some and not with others. Strengths are being shown off and the lions find their place within the pack.

Underlying question: Do I have enough trust and influence in this group?

Dynamic: Energetic tension where members explore how to interact. Team members talk about each other and test the boundaries of colleagues. In the quest of finding uniting goals and Ways of Working the members dare to bring forward different perspectives and express differences of values, acting out their need to break free from dependencies with the team.

Leadership: Leader gets questioned, challenged, ignored and can also be dragged into fights.

Facilitate team members to:

  • listen to each other
  • be vulnerable
  • resolve conflicts
  • commit to goals, norms and Ways of Working
  • make role expectations explicit

Elephant stage

Trust and Structure

Like the happy Elephants the group tackle obstacles with the wisdom of previous experience and thoughtful consideration. Together the Elephants are strong, care for each other and attain a high momentum moving forward.

Underlying question: How can we improve our way of working?

Dynamic: Positive interactions with mature negotiations about roles, goals and procedures. Members disagree and commit to the structures they create. There is appreciation of each other’s different strengths and positive feedback. People care for each other and trust is high.

Leadership: The group take on some leadership responsibilities themselves. If the group is lacking something in their leadership they will still expect their leader to help fill that responsibility.

Inspire team members to:

  • receive feedback
  • give thoughtful constructive feedback (lead by example)
  • clarify vision and goals
  • feel ownership
  • simplify rules

Dolphin stage

Work and Productivity

Like dolphins moving in a big pod you see your colleagues giving and receiving feedback in action, allowing all to move smoothly. When threats arise you take turn to lead. Together you facilitate extraordinary flexibility and speed while having fun.

Underlying question: How can we create even higher value for our customers and the company?

Dynamic: Intense focus on work and goal achievement in a joyful atmosphere and where members collaborate creatively and use the synergy of each other’s strengths. Right communication at the right time. Fail fast, ability to quickly redirect attention, effective task accomplishment and impressive productivity.

Leadership: Absent, on request from the group usually in a servant and coaching way. The group naturally share the leadership responsibilities.

Remember to check in with the team: Make it a habit to be with the team and see that they have the organizational support needed.

Final stage

Some groups go through resolution. If the ending is abrupt there are usually lots of emotions, frustration, anger, conflict and loss of motivation and lack of results from the group. Help all members stay committed to delivery by repeatedly inform and ensure all have clarity of what they are expected to work with short term and long term. Facilitate expression of appreciation to the group and time shared for members to extract learnings and relate more positively to future groups.

Caring about team performance!

The Lion stage is the least productive. And a lot of teams have a hard time working through conflicts that arise in the Lion stage, leading them to bounce back to the butterfly stage. Close to 60% of all teams are in the two stages where team performance is at its lowest.

And, since change happens much more effortlessly when everyone support the same changes I wrote this in a format that is easy for you to share with your colleagues. 😉

53. Tribe of 150

Go to the profile of Jaap Vergote

Jaap VergoteFollowJul 15, 2018

You only have mental space for 150 individuals in your life at one given time, including celebrities, politicians and athletes you might admire.

150 is a golden number for humans and group dynamics. Teams of that size work the most efficient while still being able to know each other personally. In companies employees often ‘feel’ when the company grows beyond 150 employees. You lose touch with some departments or people.

A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy

A speech at ETech, April, 2003Published July 1, 2003 on the “Networks, Economics, and Culture” mailing list. 
Subscribe to the mailing list.This is a lightly edited version of the keynote I gave on Social Software at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference in Santa Clara on April 24, 2003

Good morning, everybody. I want to talk this morning about social software …there’s a surprise. I want to talk about a pattern I’ve seen over and over again in social software that supports large and long-lived groups. And that pattern is the pattern described in the title of this talk: “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy.”

In particular, I want to talk about what I now think is one of the core challenges for designing large-scale social software. Let me offer a definition of social software, because it’s a term that’s still fairly amorphous. My definition is fairly simple: It’s software that supports group interaction. I also want to emphasize, although that’s a fairly simple definition, how radical that pattern is. The Internet supports lots of communications patterns, principally point-to-point and two-way, one-to-many outbound, and many-to-many two-way.

Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported point-to-point two-way. We had telephones, we had the telegraph. We were familiar with technological mediation of those kinds of conversations. Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported one-way outbound. I could put something on television or the radio, I could publish a newspaper. We had the printing press. So although the Internet does good things for those patterns, they’re patterns we knew from before.

Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table. There was no technological mediation for group conversations. The closest we got was the conference call, which never really worked right — “Hello? Do I push this button now? Oh, shoot, I just hung up.” It’s not easy to set up a conference call, but it’s very easy to email five of your friends and say “Hey, where are we going for pizza?” So ridiculously easy group forming is really news.

We’ve had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system, and we’ve only had 10 years or so of widespread availability, so we’re just finding out what works. We’re still learning how to make these kinds of things.

Now, software that supports group interaction is a fundamentally unsatisfying definition in many ways, because it doesn’t point to a specific class of technology. If you look at email, it obviously supports social patterns, but it can also support a broadcast pattern. If I’m a spammer, I’m going to mail things out to a million people, but they’re not going to be talking to one another, and I’m not going to be talking to them — spam is email, but it isn’t social. If I’m mailing you, and you’re mailing me back, we’re having point-to-point and two-way conversation, but not one that creates group dynamics.

So email doesn’t necessarily support social patterns, group patterns, although it can. Ditto a weblog. If I’m Glenn Reynolds, and I’m publishing something with Comments Off and reaching a million users a month, that’s really broadcast. It’s interesting that I can do it as a single individual, but the pattern is closer to MSNBC than it is to a conversation. If it’s a cluster of half a dozen LiveJournal users, on the other hand, talking about their lives with one another, that’s social. So, again, weblogs are not necessarily social, although they can support social patterns.

Nevertheless, I think that definition is the right one, because it recognizes the fundamentally social nature of the problem. Groups are a run-time effect. You cannot specify in advance what the group will do, and so you can’t substantiate in software everything you expect to have happen.

Now, there’s a large body of literature saying “We built this software, a group came and used it, and they began to exhibit behaviors that surprised us enormously, so we’ve gone and documented these behaviors.” Over and over and over again this pattern comes up. (I hear Stewart [Brand, of the WELL] laughing.) The WELL is one of those places where this pattern came up over and over again.

This talk is in three parts. The best explanation I have found for the kinds of things that happen when groups of humans interact is psychological research that predates the Internet, so the first part is going to be about W.R. Bion’s research, which I will talk about in a moment, research that I believe explains how and why a group is its own worst enemy.

The second part is: Why now? What’s going on now that makes this worth thinking about? I think we’re seeing a revolution in social software in the current environment that’s really interesting.

And third, I want to identify some things, about half a dozen things, in fact, that I think are core to any software that supports larger, long-lived groups.

Part One: How is a group its own worst enemy?

So, Part One. The best explanation I have found for the ways in which this pattern establishes itself, the group is its own worst enemy, comes from a book by W.R. Bion called “Experiences in Groups,” written in the middle of the last century.

Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to defeat therapy.

There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it. And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?

He could never resolve the question, and so he decided that the unresolvability of the question was the answer. To the question: Do you view groups of people as aggregations of individuals or as a cohesive group, his answer was: “Hopelessly committed to both.”

He said that humans are fundamentally individual, and also fundamentally social. Every one of us has a kind of rational decision-making mind where we can assess what’s going on and make decisions and act on them. And we are all also able to enter viscerally into emotional bonds with other groups of people that transcend the intellectual aspects of the individual.

In fact, Bion was so convinced that this was the right answer that the image he put on the front cover of his book was a Necker cube, one of those cubes that you can look at and make resolve in one of two ways, but you can never see both views of the cube at the same time. So groups can be analyzed both as collections of individuals and having this kind of emotive group experience.

Now, it’s pretty easy to see how groups of people who have formal memberships, groups that have been labeled and named like “I am a member of such-and-such a guild in a massively multi-player online role-playing game,” it’s easy to see how you would have some kind of group cohesion there. But Bion’s thesis is that this effect is much, much deeper, and kicks in much, much sooner than many of us expect. So I want to illustrate this with a story, and to illustrate the illustration, I’ll use a story from your life. Because even if I don’t know you, I know what I’m about to describe has happened to you.

You are at a party, and you get bored. You say “This isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d rather be someplace else. I’d rather be home asleep. The people I wanted to talk to aren’t here.” Whatever. The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. And then a really remarkable thing happens: You don’t leave. You make a decision “I don’t like this.” If you were in a bookstore and you said “I’m done,” you’d walk out. If you were in a coffee shop and said “This is boring,” you’d walk out.

You’re sitting at a party, you decide “I don’t like this; I don’t want to be here.” And then you don’t leave. That kind of social stickiness is what Bion is talking about.

And then, another really remarkable thing happens. Twenty minutes later, one person stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. Which means that everyone had decided that the party was not for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.

This effect is so steady it’s sometimes called the paradox of groups. It’s obvious that there are no groups without members. But what’s less obvious is that there are no members without a group. Because what would you be a member of?

So there’s this very complicated moment of a group coming together, where enough individuals, for whatever reason, sort of agree that something worthwhile is happening, and the decision they make at that moment is: This is good and must be protected. And at that moment, even if it’s subconscious, you start getting group effects. And the effects that we’ve seen come up over and over and over again in online communities.

Now, Bion decided that what he was watching with the neurotics was the group defending itself against his attempts to make the group do what they said they were supposed to do. The group was convened to get better, this group of people was in therapy to get better. But they were defeating that. And he said, there are some very specific patterns that they’re entering into to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And he detailed three patterns.

The first is sex talk, what he called, in his mid-century prose, “A group met for pairing off.” And what that means is, the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of members.

You go on IRC and you scan the channel list, and you say “Oh, I know what that group is about, because I see the channel label.” And you go into the group, you will also almost invariably find that it’s about sex talk as well. Not necessarily overt. But that is always in scope in human conversations, according to Bion. That is one basic pattern that groups can always devolve into, away from the sophisticated purpose and towards one of these basic purposes.

The second basic pattern that Bion detailed: The identification and vilification of external enemies. This is a very common pattern. Anyone who was around the Open Source movement in the mid-Nineties could see this all the time. If you cared about Linux on the desktop, there was a big list of jobs to do. But you could always instead get a conversation going about Microsoft and Bill Gates. And people would start bleeding from their ears, they would get so mad.

If you want to make it better, there’s a list of things to do. It’s Open Source, right? Just fix it. “No, no, Microsoft and Bill Gates grrrrr …”, the froth would start coming out. The external enemy — nothing causes a group to galvanize like an external enemy.

So even if someone isn’t really your enemy, identifying them as an enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups often gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying external enemies.

The third pattern Bion identified: Religious veneration. The nomination and worship of a religious icon or a set of religious tenets. The religious pattern is, essentially, we have nominated something that’s beyond critique. You can see this pattern on the Internet any day you like. Go onto a Tolkein newsgroup or discussion forum, and try saying “You know, The Two Towers is a little dull. I mean loooong. We didn’t need that much description about the forest, because it’s pretty much the same forest all the way.”

Try having that discussion. On the door of the group it will say: “This is for discussing the works of Tolkein.” Go in and try and have that discussion.

Now, in some places people say “Yes, but it needed to, because it had to convey the sense of lassitude,” or whatever. But in most places you’ll simply be flamed to high heaven, because you’re interfering with the religious text.

So these are human patterns that have shown up on the Internet, not because of the software, but because it’s being used by humans. Bion has identified this possibility of groups sandbagging their sophisticated goals with these basic urges. And what he finally came to, in analyzing this tension, is that group structure is necessary. Robert’s Rules of Order are necessary. Constitutions are necessary. Norms, rituals, laws, the whole list of ways that we say, out of the universe of possible behaviors, we’re going to draw a relatively small circle around the acceptable ones.

He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.

In the Seventies — this is a pattern that’s shown up on the network over and over again — in the Seventies, a BBS called Communitree launched, one of the very early dial-up BBSes. This was launched when people didn’t own computers, institutions owned computers.

Communitree was founded on the principles of open access and free dialogue. “Communitree” — the name just says “California in the Seventies.” And the notion was, effectively, throw off structure and new and beautiful patterns will arise.

And, indeed, as anyone who has put discussion software into groups that were previously disconnected has seen, that does happen. Incredible things happen. The early days of Echo, the early days of usenet, the early days of Lucasfilms Habitat, over and over again, you see all this incredible upwelling of people who suddenly are connected in ways they weren’t before.

And then, as time sets in, difficulties emerge. In this case, one of the difficulties was occasioned by the fact that one of the institutions that got hold of some modems was a high school. And who, in 1978, was hanging out in the room with the computer and the modems in it, but the boys of that high school. And the boys weren’t terribly interested in sophisticated adult conversation. They were interested in fart jokes. They were interested in salacious talk. They were interested in running amok and posting four-letter words and nyah-nyah-nyah, all over the bulletin board.

And the adults who had set up Communitree were horrified, and overrun by these students. The place that was founded on open access had too much open access, too much openness. They couldn’t defend themselves against their own users. The place that was founded on free speech had too much freedom. They had no way of saying “No, that’s not the kind of free speech we meant.”

But that was a requirement. In order to defend themselves against being overrun, that was something that they needed to have that they didn’t have, and as a result, they simply shut the site down.

Now you could ask whether or not the founders’ inability to defend themselves from this onslaught, from being overrun, was a technical or a social problem. Did the software not allow the problem to be solved? Or was it the social configuration of the group that founded it, where they simply couldn’t stomach the idea of adding censorship to protect their system. But in a way, it doesn’t matter, because technical and social issues are deeply intertwined. There’s no way to completely separate them.

What matters is, a group designed this and then was unable, in the context they’d set up, partly a technical and partly a social context, to save it from this attack from within. And attack from within is what matters. Communitree wasn’t shut down by people trying to crash or syn-flood the server. It was shut down by people logging in and posting, which is what the system was designed to allow. The technological pattern of normal use and attack were identical at the machine level, so there was no way to specify technologically what should and shouldn’t happen. Some of the users wanted the system to continue to exist and to provide a forum for discussion. And other of the users, the high school boys, either didn’t care or were actively inimical. And the system provided no way for the former group to defend itself from the latter.

Now, this story has been written many times. It’s actually frustrating to see how many times it’s been written. You’d hope that at some point that someone would write it down, and they often do, but what then doesn’t happen is other people don’t read it.

The most charitable description of this repeated pattern is “learning from experience.” But learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That’s not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: “Don’t go in that swamp. There are alligators in there.”

Learning from experience about the alligators is lousy, compared to learning from reading, say. There hasn’t been, unfortunately, in this arena, a lot of learning from reading. And so, lessons from Lucasfilms’ Habitat, written in 1990, reads a lot like Rose Stone’s description of Communitree from 1978.

This pattern has happened over and over and over again. Someone built the system, they assumed certain user behaviors. The users came on and exhibited different behaviors. And the people running the system discovered to their horror that the technological and social issues could not in fact be decoupled.

There’s a great document called “LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction,” which is about the wizards of LambdaMOO, Pavel Curtis’s Xerox PARC experiment in building a MUD world. And one day the wizards of LambdaMOO announced “We’ve gotten this system up and running, and all these interesting social effects are happening. Henceforth we wizards will only be involved in technological issues. We’re not going to get involved in any of that social stuff.”

And then, I think about 18 months later — I don’t remember the exact gap of time — they come back. The wizards come back, extremely cranky. And they say: “What we have learned from you whining users is that we can’t do what we said we would do. We cannot separate the technological aspects from the social aspects of running a virtual world.

“So we’re back, and we’re taking wizardly fiat back, and we’re going to do things to run the system. We are effectively setting ourselves up as a government, because this place needs a government, because without us, the place was falling apart.”

People who work on social software are closer in spirit to economists and political scientists than they are to people making compilers. They both look like programming, but when you’re dealing with groups of people as one of your run-time phenomena, that is an incredibly different practice. In the political realm, we would call these kinds of crises a constitutional crisis. It’s what happens when the tension between the individual and the group, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups, gets so serious that something has to be done.

And the worst crisis is the first crisis, because it’s not just “We need to have some rules.” It’s also “We need to have some rules for making some rules.” And this is what we see over and over again in large and long-lived social software systems. Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.

Geoff Cohen has a great observation about this. He said “The likelihood that any unmoderated group will eventually get into a flame-war about whether or not to have a moderator approaches one as time increases.” As a group commits to its existence as a group, and begins to think that the group is good or important, the chance that they will begin to call for additional structure, in order to defend themselves from themselves, gets very, very high.

Part Two: Why now?

If these things I’m saying have happened so often before, have been happening and been documented and we’ve got psychological literature that predates the Internet, what’s going on now that makes this important?

I can’t tell you precisely why, but observationally there is a revolution in social software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is astonishing.

The web turned us all into size queens for six or eight years there. It was loosely coupled, it was stateless, it scaled like crazy, and everything became about How big can you get? “How many users does Yahoo have? How many customers does Amazon have? How many readers does MSNBC have?” And the answer could be “Really a lot!” But it could only be really a lot if you didn’t require MSNBC to be answering those readers, and you didn’t require those readers to be talking to one another.

The downside of going for size and scale above all else is that the dense, interconnected pattern that drives group conversation and collaboration isn’t supportable at any large scale. Less is different — small groups of people can engage in kinds of interaction that large groups can’t. And so we blew past that interesting scale of small groups. Larger than a dozen, smaller than a few hundred, where people can actually have these conversational forms that can’t be supported when you’re talking about tens of thousands or millions of users, at least in a single group.

We’ve had things like mailing lists and BBSes for a long time, and more recently we’ve had IM, we’ve had these various patterns. And now, all of a sudden, these things are popping up. We’ve gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we’re getting platform stuff. We’re getting RSS. We’re getting shared Flash objects. We’re getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that lets us try new things very rapidly.

I was talking to Stewart Butterfield about the chat application they’re trying here. I said “Hey, how’s that going?” He said: “Well, we only had the idea for it two weeks ago. So this is the launch.” When you can go from “Hey, I’ve got an idea” to “Let’s launch this in front of a few hundred serious geeks and see how it works,” that suggests that there’s a platform there that is letting people do some really interesting things really quickly. It’s not that you couldn’t have built a similar application a couple of years ago, but the cost would have been much higher. And when you lower costs, interesting new kinds of things happen.

So the first answer to Why Now? is simply “Because it’s time.” I can’t tell you why it took as long for weblogs to happen as it did, except to say it had absolutely nothing to do with technology. We had every bit of technology we needed to do weblogs the day Mosaic launched the first forms-capable browser. Every single piece of it was right there. Instead, we got Geocities. Why did we get Geocities and not weblogs? We didn’t know what we were doing.

One was a bad idea, the other turns out to be a really good idea. It took a long time to figure out that people talking to one another, instead of simply uploading badly-scanned photos of their cats, would be a useful pattern.

We got the weblog pattern in around ’96 with Drudge. We got weblog platforms starting in ’98. The thing really was taking off in 2000. By last year, everyone realized: Omigod, this thing is going mainstream, and it’s going to change everything.

The vertigo moment for me was when Phil Gyford launched the Pepys weblog, Samuel Pepys’ diaries of the 1660’s turned into a weblog form, with a new post every day from Pepys’ diary. What that said to me was: Phil was asserting, and I now believe, that weblogs will be around for at least 10 years, because that’s how long Pepys kept a diary. And that was this moment of projecting into the future: This is now infrastructure we can take for granted.

Why was there an eight-year gap between a forms-capable browser and the Pepys diaries? I don’t know. It just takes a while for people to get used to these ideas.

So, first of all, this is a revolution in part because it is a revolution. We’ve internalized the ideas and people are now working with them. Second, the things that people are now building are web-native.

When you got social software on the web in the mid-Nineties, a lot of it was: “This is the Giant Lotus Dreadnought, now with New Lightweight Web Interface!” It never felt like the web. It felt like this hulking thing with a little, you know, “Here’s some icons. Don’t look behind the curtain.”

A weblog is web-native. It’s the web all the way in. A wiki is a web-native way of hosting collaboration. It’s lightweight, it’s loosely coupled, it’s easy to extend, it’s easy to break down. And it’s not just the surface, like oh, you can just do things in a form. It assumes http is transport. It assumes markup in the coding. RSS is a web-native way of doing syndication. So we’re taking all of these tools and we’re extending them in a way that lets us build new things really quickly.

Third, in David Weinberger’s felicitous phrase, we can now start to have a Small Pieces Loosely Joined pattern. It’s really worthwhile to look into what Joi Ito is doing with the Emergent Democracy movement, even if you’re not interested in the themes of emerging democracy. This started because a conversation was going on, and Ito said “I am frustrated. I’m sitting here in Japan, and I know all of these people are having these conversations in real-time with one another. I want to have a group conversation, too. I’ll start a conference call.

“But since conference calls are so lousy on their own, I’m going to bring up a chat window at the same time.” And then, in the first meeting, I think it was Pete Kaminski said “Well, I’ve also opened up a wiki, and here’s the URL.” And he posted it in the chat window. And people can start annotating things. People can start adding bookmarks; here are the lists.

So, suddenly you’ve got this meeting, which is going on in three separate modes at the same time, two in real-time and one annotated. So you can have the conference call going on, and you know how conference calls are. Either one or two people dominate it, or everyone’s like “Oh, can I — no, but –“, everyone interrupting and cutting each other off.

It’s very difficult to coordinate a conference call, because people can’t see one another, which makes it hard to manage the interrupt logic. In Joi’s conference call, the interrupt logic got moved to the chat room. People would type “Hand,” and the moderator of the conference call will then type “You’re speaking next,” in the chat. So the conference call flowed incredibly smoothly.

Meanwhile, in the chat, people are annotating what people are saying. “Oh, that reminds me of So-and-so’s work.” Or “You should look at this URL…you should look at that ISBN number.” In a conference call, to read out a URL, you have to spell it out — “No, no, no, it’s w w w dot net dash…” In a chat window, you get it and you can click on it right there. You can say, in the conference call or the chat: “Go over to the wiki and look at this.”

This is a broadband conference call, but it isn’t a giant thing. It’s just three little pieces of software laid next to each other and held together with a little bit of social glue. This is an incredibly powerful pattern. It’s different from: Let’s take the Lotus juggernaut and add a web front-end.

And finally, and this is the thing that I think is the real freakout, is ubiquity. The web has been growing for a long, long time. And so some people had web access, and then lots of people had web access, and then most people had web access.

But something different is happening now. In many situations, all people have access to the network. And “all” is a different kind of amount than “most.” “All” lets you start taking things for granted.

Now, the Internet isn’t everywhere in the world. It isn’t even everywhere in the developed world. But for some groups of people — students, people in high-tech offices, knowledge workers — everyone they work with is online. Everyone they’re friends with is online. Everyone in their family is online.

And this pattern of ubiquity lets you start taking this for granted. Bill Joy once said “My method is to look at something that seems like a good idea and assume it’s true.” We’re starting to see software that simply assumes that all offline groups will have an online component, no matter what.

It is now possible for every grouping, from a Girl Scout troop on up, to have an online component, and for it to be lightweight and easy to manage. And that’s a different kind of thing than the old pattern of “online community.” I have this image of two hula hoops, the old two-hula hoop world, where my real life is over here, and my online life is over there, and there wasn’t much overlap between them. If the hula hoops are swung together, and everyone who’s offline is also online, at least from my point of view, that’s a different kind of pattern.

There’s a second kind of ubiquity, which is the kind we’re enjoying here thanks to Wifi. If you assume whenever a group of people are gathered together, that they can be both face to face and online at the same time, you can start to do different kinds of things. I now don’t run a meeting without either having a chat room or a wiki up and running. Three weeks ago I ran a meeting for the Library of Congress. We had a wiki, set up by Socialtext, to capture a large and very dense amount of technical information on long-term digital preservation.

The people who organized the meeting had never used a wiki before, and now the Library of Congress is talking as if they always had a wiki for their meetings, and are assuming it’s going to be at the next meeting as well — the wiki went from novel to normal in a couple of days.

It really quickly becomes an assumption that a group can do things like “Oh, I took my PowerPoint slides, I showed them, and then I dumped them into the wiki. So now you can get at them.” It becomes a sort of shared repository for group memory. This is new. These kinds of ubiquity, both everyone is online, and everyone who’s in a room can be online together at the same time, can lead to new patterns.

Part Three: What can we take for granted?

If these assumptions are right, one that a group is its own worst enemy, and two, we’re seeing this explosion of social software, what should we do? Is there anything we can say with any certainty about building social software, at least for large and long-lived groups?

I think there is. A little over 10 years ago, I quit my day job, because Usenet was so interesting, I thought: This is really going to be big. And I actually wrote a book about net culture at the time: Usenet, the Well, Echo, IRC and so forth. It launched in April of ’95, just as that world was being washed away by the web. But it was my original interest, so I’ve been looking at this problem in one way or another for 10 years, and I’ve been looking at it pretty hard for the a year and a half or so.

So there’s this question “What is required to make a large, long-lived online group successful?” and I think I can now answer with some confidence: “It depends.” I’m hoping to flesh that answer out a little bit in the next ten years.

But I can at least say some of the things it depends on. The Calvinists had a doctrine of natural grace and supernatural grace. Natural grace was “You have to do all the right things in the world to get to heaven…” and supernatural grace was “…and God has to anoint you.” And you never knew if you had supernatural grace or not. This was their way of getting around the fact that the Book of Revelations put an upper limit on the number of people who were going to heaven.

Social software is like that. You can find the same piece of code running in many, many environments. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. So there is something supernatural about groups being a run-time experience.

The normal experience of social software is failure. If you go into Yahoo groups and you map out the subscriptions, it is, unsurprisingly, a power law. There’s a small number of highly populated groups, a moderate number of moderately populated groups, and this long, flat tail of failure. And the failure is inevitably more than 50% of the total mailing lists in any category. So it’s not like a cake recipe. There’s nothing you can do to make it come out right every time.

There are, however, I think, about half a dozen things that are broadly true of all the groups I’ve looked at and all the online constitutions I’ve read for software that supports large and long-lived groups. And I’d break that list in half. I’d say, if you are going to create a piece of social software designed to support large groups, you have to accept three things, and design for four things.

Three Things to Accept

1.) Of the things you have to accept, the first is that you cannot completely separate technical and social issues. There are two attractive patterns. One says, we’ll handle technology over `here, we’ll do social issues there. We’ll have separate mailing lists with separate discussion groups, or we’ll have one track here and one track there. This doesn’t work. It’s never been stated more clearly than in the pair of documents called “LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction.” I can do no better than to point you to those documents.

But recently we’ve had this experience where there was a social software discussion list, and someone said “I know, let’s set up a second mailing list for technical issues.” And no one moved from the first list, because no one could fork the conversation between social and technical issues, because the conversation can’t be forked.

The other pattern that’s very, very attractive — anybody who looks at this stuff has the same epiphany, which is: “Omigod, this software is determining what people do!” And that is true, up to a point. But you cannot completely program social issues either. So you can’t separate the two things, and you also can’t specify all social issues in technology. The group is going to assert its rights somehow, and you’re going to get this mix of social and technological effects.

So the group is real. It will exhibit emergent effects. It can’t be ignored, and it can’t be programmed, which means you have an ongoing issue. And the best pattern, or at least the pattern that’s worked the most often, is to put into the hands of the group itself the responsibility for defining what value is, and defending that value, rather than trying to ascribe those things in the software upfront.

2.) The second thing you have to accept: Members are different than users. A pattern will arise in which there is some group of users that cares more than average about the integrity and success of the group as a whole. And that becomes your core group, Art Kleiner’s phrase for “the group within the group that matters most.”

The core group on Communitree was undifferentiated from the group of random users that came in. They were separate in their own minds, because they knew what they wanted to do, but they couldn’t defend themselves against the other users. But in all successful online communities that I’ve looked at, a core group arises that cares about and gardens effectively. Gardens the environment, to keep it growing, to keep it healthy.

Now, the software does not always allow the core group to express itself, which is why I say you have to accept this. Because if the software doesn’t allow the core group to express itself, it will invent new ways of doing so.

On alt.folklore.urban , the discussion group about urban folklore on Usenet, there was a group of people who hung out there and got to be friends. And they came to care about the existence of AFU, to the point where, because Usenet made no distinction between members in good standing and drive-by users, they set up a mailing list called The Old Hats. The mailing list was for meta-discussion, discussion about AFU, so they could coordinate efforts formally if they were going to troll someone or flame someone or ignore someone, on the mailing list.Addendum, July 2, 2003: A longtime a.f.u participant says that the Old Hat list was created to allow the Silicon Valley-dwelling members to plan a barbecue, so that they could add a face-to-face dimension to their virtual interaction. The use of the list as a backstage area for discussing the public newsgroup arose after the fact.

Then, as Usenet kept growing, many newcomers came along and seemed to like the environment, because it was well-run. In order to defend themselves from the scaling issues that come from of adding a lot of new members to the Old Hats list, they said “We’re starting a second list, called the Young Hats.”

So they created this three-tier system, not dissimilar to the tiers of anonymous cowards, logged-in users, and people with high karma on Slashdot. But because Usenet didn’t let them do it in the software, they brought in other pieces of software, these mailing lists, that they needed to build the structure. So you don’t get the program users, the members in good standing will find one another and be recognized to one another.

3.) The third thing you need to accept: The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations. This pulls against the libertarian view that’s quite common on the network, and it absolutely pulls against the one person/one vote notion. But you can see examples of how bad an idea voting is when citizenship is the same as ability to log in.

In the early Nineties, a proposal went out to create a Usenet news group for discussing Tibetan culture, called soc.culture.tibet. And it was voted down, in large part because a number of Chinese students who had Internet access voted it down, on the logic that Tibet wasn’t a country; it was a region of China. And in their view, since Tibet wasn’t a country, there oughtn’t be any place to discuss its culture, because that was oxymoronic.

Now, everyone could see that this was the wrong answer. The people who wanted a place to discuss Tibetan culture should have it. That was the core group. But because the one person/one vote model on Usenet said “Anyone who’s on Usenet gets to vote on any group,” sufficiently contentious groups could simply be voted away.

Imagine today if, in the United States, Internet users had to be polled before any anti-war group could be created. Or French users had to be polled before any pro-war group could be created. The people who want to have those discussions are the people who matter. And absolute citizenship, with the idea that if you can log in, you are a citizen, is a harmful pattern, because it is the tyranny of the majority.

So the core group needs ways to defend itself — both in getting started and because of the effects I talked about earlier — the core group needs to defend itself so that it can stay on its sophisticated goals and away from its basic instincts.

The Wikipedia has a similar system today, with a volunteer fire department, a group of people who care to an unusual degree about the success of the Wikipedia. And they have enough leverage, because of the way wikis work, they can always roll back graffiti and so forth, that that thing has stayed up despite repeated attacks. So leveraging the core group is a really powerful system.

Now, when I say these are three things you have to accept, I mean you have to accept them. Because if you don’t accept them upfront, they’ll happen to you anyway. And then you’ll end up writing one of those documents that says “Oh, we launched this and we tried it, and then the users came along and did all these weird things. And now we’re documenting it so future ages won’t make this mistake.” Even though you didn’t read the thing that was written in 1978.

All groups of any integrity have a constitution. The constitution is always partly formal and partly informal. At the very least, the formal part is what’s substantiated in code — “the software works this way.”

The informal part is the sense of “how we do it around here.” And no matter how is substantiated in code or written in charter, whatever, there will always be an informal part as well. You can’t separate the two.

Four Things to Design For

1.) If you were going to build a piece of social software to support large and long-lived groups, what would you design for? The first thing you would design for is handles the user can invest in.

Now, I say “handles,” because I don’t want to say “identity,” because identity has suddenly become one of those ideas where, when you pull on the little thread you want, this big bag of stuff comes along with it. Identity is such a hot-button issue now, but for the lightweight stuff required for social software, its really just a handle that matters.

It’s pretty widely understood that anonymity doesn’t work well in group settings, because “who said what when” is the minimum requirement for having a conversation. What’s less well understood is that weak pseudonymity doesn’t work well, either. Because I need to associate who’s saying something to me now with previous conversations.

The world’s best reputation management system is right here, in the brain. And actually, it’s right here, in the back, in the emotional part of the brain. Almost all the work being done on reputation systems today is either trivial or useless or both, because reputations aren’t linearizable, and they’re not portable.

There are people who cheat on their spouse but not at cards, and vice versa, and both and neither. Reputation is not necessarily portable from one situation to another, and it’s not easily expressed.

eBay has done us all an enormous disservice, because eBay works in non-iterated atomic transactions, which are the opposite of social situations. eBay’s reputation system works incredibly well, because it starts with a linearizable transaction — “How much money for how many Smurfs?” — and turns that into a metric that’s equally linear.

That doesn’t work well in social situations. If you want a good reputation system, just let me remember who you are. And if you do me a favor, I’ll remember it. And I won’t store it in the front of my brain, I’ll store it here, in the back. I’ll just get a good feeling next time I get email from you; I won’t even remember why. And if you do me a disservice and I get email from you, my temples will start to throb, and I won’t even remember why. If you give users a way of remembering one another, reputation will happen, and that requires nothing more than simple and somewhat persistent handles.

Users have to be able to identify themselves and there has to be a penalty for switching handles. The penalty for switching doesn’t have to be total. But if I change my handle on the system, I have to lose some kind of reputation or some kind of context. This keeps the system functioning.

Now, this pulls against the sense that we’ve had since the early psychological writings about the Internet. “Oh, on the Internet we’re all going to be changing identities and genders like we change our socks.”

And you see things like the Kaycee Nicole story, where a woman in Kansas pretended to be a high school student, and then because the invented high school student’s friends got so emotionally involved, she then tried to kill the Kaycee Nicole persona off. “Oh, she’s got cancer and she’s dying and it’s all very tragic.” And of course, everyone wanted to fly to meet her. So then she sort of panicked and vanished. And a bunch of places on the Internet, particularly the MetaFilter community, rose up to find out what was going on, and uncovered the hoax. It was sort of a distributed detective movement.

Now a number of people point to this and say “See, I told you about that identity thing!” But the Kaycee Nicole story is this: changing your identity is really weird. And when the community understands that you’ve been doing it and you’re faking, that is seen as a huge and violent transgression. And they will expend an astonishing amount of energy to find you and punish you. So identity is much less slippery than the early literature would lead us to believe.

2.) Second, you have to design a way for there to be members in good standing. Have to design some way in which good works get recognized. The minimal way is, posts appear with identity. You can do more sophisticated things like having formal karma or “member since.”

I’m on the fence about whether or not this is a design or accepting. Because in a way I think members in good standing will rise. But more and more of the systems I’m seeing launching these days are having some kind of additional accretion so you can tell how much involvement members have with the system.

There’s an interesting pattern I’m seeing among the music-sharing group that operates between Tokyo and Hong Kong. They operate on a mailing list, which they set up for themselves. But when they’re trading music, what they’re doing is, they’re FedExing one another 180-gig hard-drives. So you’re getting .wav files and not MP3s, and you’re getting them in bulk.

Now, you can imagine that such a system might be a target for organizations that would frown on this activity. So when you join that group, your user name is appended with the user name of the person who is your sponsor. You can’t get in without your name being linked to someone else. You can see immediately the reputational effects going on there, just from linking two handles.

So in that system, you become a member in good standing when your sponsor link goes away and you’re there on your own report. If, on the other hand, you defect, not only are you booted, but your sponsor is booted. There are lots and lots of lightweight ways to accept and work with the idea of member in good standing.

3.) Three, you need barriers to participation. This is one of the things that killed Usenet. You have to have some cost to either join or participate, if not at the lowest level, then at higher levels. There needs to be some kind of segmentation of capabilities.

Now, the segmentation can be total — you’re in or you’re out, as with the music group I just listed. Or it can be partial — anyone can read Slashdot, anonymous cowards can post, non-anonymous cowards can post with a higher rating. But to moderate, you really have to have been around for a while.

It has to be hard to do at least some things on the system for some users, or the core group will not have the tools that they need to defend themselves.

Now, this pulls against the cardinal virtue of ease of use. But ease of use is wrong. Ease of use is the wrong way to look at the situation, because you’ve got the Necker cube flipped in the wrong direction. The user of social software is the group, not the individual.

I think we’ve all been to meetings where everyone had a really good time, we’re all talking to one another and telling jokes and laughing, and it was a great meeting, except we got nothing done. Everyone was amusing themselves so much that the group’s goal was defeated by the individual interventions.

The user of social software is the group, and ease of use should be for the group. If the ease of use is only calculated from the user’s point of view, it will be difficult to defend the group from the “group is its own worst enemy” style attacks from within.

4.) And, finally, you have to find a way to spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations. In conversational contexts, Metcalfe’s law is a drag. The fact that the amount of two-way connections you have to support goes up with the square of the users means that the density of conversation falls off very fast as the system scales even a little bit. You have to have some way to let users hang onto the less is more pattern, in order to keep associated with one another.

This is an inverse value to scale question. Think about your Rolodex. A thousand contacts, maybe 150 people you can call friends, 30 people you can call close friends, two or three people you’d donate a kidney to. The value is inverse to the size of the group. And you have to find some way to protect the group within the context of those effects.

Sometimes you can do soft forking. Live Journal does the best soft forking of any software I’ve ever seen, where the concepts of “you” and “your group” are pretty much intertwingled. The average size of a Live Journal group is about a dozen people. And the median size is around five.

But each user is a little bit connected to other such clusters, through their friends, and so while the clusters are real, they’re not completely bounded — there’s a soft overlap which means that though most users participate in small groups, most of the half-million LiveJournal users are connected to one another through some short chain.

IRC channels and mailing lists are self-moderating with scale, because as the signal to noise ratio gets worse, people start to drop off, until it gets better, so people join, and so it gets worse. You get these sort of oscillating patterns. But it’s self-correcting.

And then my favorite pattern is from MetaFilter, which is: When we start seeing effects of scale, we shut off the new user page. “Someone mentions us in the press and how great we are? Bye!” That’s a way of raising the bar, that’s creating a threshold of participation. And anyone who bookmarks that page and says “You know, I really want to be in there; maybe I’ll go back later,” that’s the kind of user MeFi wants to have.

You have to find some way to protect your own users from scale. This doesn’t mean the scale of the whole system can’t grow. But you can’t try to make the system large by taking individual conversations and blowing them up like a balloon; human interaction, many to many interaction, doesn’t blow up like a balloon. It either dissipates, or turns into broadcast, or collapses. So plan for dealing with scale in advance, because it’s going to happen anyway.

Conclusion

Now, those four things are of course necessary but not sufficient conditions. I propose them more as a platform for building the interesting differences off. There are lots and lots and lots of other effects that make different bits of software interesting enough that you would want to keep more than one kind of pattern around. But those are commonalities I’m seeing across a range of social software for large and long-lived groups.

In addition, you can do all sorts of things with explicit clustering, whether it’s guilds in massively multi-player games, or communities on Live Journal or what have you. You can do things with conversational artifacts, where the group participation leaves behind some record. The Wikipedia right now, the group collaborated online encyclopedia is the most interesting conversational artifact I know of, where product is a result of process. Rather than “We’re specifically going to get together and create this presentation” it’s just “What’s left is a record of what we said.”

There are all these things, and of course they differ platform to platform. But there is this, I believe, common core of things that will happen whether you plan for them or not, and things you should plan for, that I think are invariant across large communal software.

Writing social software is hard. And, as I said, the act of writing social software is more like the work of an economist or a political scientist. And the act of hosting social software, the relationship of someone who hosts it is more like a relationship of landlords to tenants than owners to boxes in a warehouse.

The people using your software, even if you own it and pay for it, have rights and will behave as if they have rights. And if you abrogate those rights, you’ll hear about it very quickly.

That’s part of the problem that the John Hegel theory of community — community leads to content, which leads to commerce — never worked. Because lo and behold, no matter who came onto the Clairol chat boards, they sometimes wanted to talk about things that weren’t Clairol products.

“But we paid for this! This is the Clairol site!” Doesn’t matter. The users are there for one another. They may be there on hardware and software paid for by you, but the users are there for one another.

The patterns here, I am suggesting, both the things to accept and the things to design for, are givens. Assume these as a kind of social platform, and then you can start going out and building on top of that the interesting stuff that I think is going to be the real result of this period of experimentation with social software.

Thank you very much.Published June 30, 2003 on the “Networks, Economics, and Culture” mailing list. 
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Microsolidarity Part 2: a Theory of Groups and Groups of Groups

Richard D. BartlettFollowDec 2, 2018

This is part 2 of a 4 part series about ‘microsolidarity’: a plan for people supporting each other to do more meaningful work. The other parts are here: 134

A fractal map of belonging

Definition of terms

For me to explain my theory, I need to invent some language. Unfortunately in English, we are missing words for different kinds of group. When I say “group of people” I could mean 3 people, or 300, or 3 million. These missing words are symptomatic of missing ideas.

So I’m going to propose some new words, to access new ideas. I’m not attached to the specific terms, and this is not a comprehensive map of all the different kinds of group, it’s just a subset of terms that will be useful for this argument.

1: the Self

The first group has only one person, it’s Me (or You). In this article, when I say “Self” I’m thinking of a tight network of overlapping identities who share custody of this body we call Me. Viewing my Self this way invites me to treat all my parts as worthy of respect and compassion. We’re all lifetime members of the consciousness called Richard D. Bartlett, even the ones I try to disown and shut down.

For more on this, Emmi’s article on consent and autonomy is a good introduction to the idea of a “networked self” and it’s implication for your relationships.

2: the Dyad

A Dyad is a relationship of two. If you can forgive the tremendous oversimplification: let’s imagine society is an enormous Lego structure, but the only building blocks we have are Dyads. And now let’s say a Dyad can only be in one of two states: Domination or Partnership. Domination is imbalance, coercion, abuse, colonialism, the most controlling parent of the most acquiescent child. Partnership is like the balanced and consenting intimacy of two interdependent adults. Could also be a best friend, sibling, therapist, mentor, imaginary friend, spirit guide, etc. Because we learn so much through mimicry, an intentional Partnership Dyad is the best method I know for growth, healing, and development of the Self.

If you want to follow this logic that domination relationships are the root of all injustice, and partnership relationships are the root of all freedom, here are some juicy links: check out ‘NO! Against Adult Supremacy’, an anthology of zines available online & in printTransactional Analysis is a therapeutic method for understanding interpersonal behaviour as parent-, child- or adult-like; and Aphro-ism is a Black vegan feminist argument that all oppression can be understood through the human-subhuman divide.

I reckon if the old domination society is finally disintegrating, let’s grow the next one around partnerships. I’m talking adult-to-adult, not parent-child relationships, from home to school to work to community to government. Are! 👏🏽 You! 👏🏽 With! 👏🏽 Me! 👏🏽

3: the Crew

A Crew is a group that is small enough to fit around a single dinner table, around 3–8 people. This is about the same size as a nuclear family, but without the parent-child power dynamics. This is a long-term set of relationships with singular purpose, like a co-op, shared house, or affinity group. The size is important, because it is small enough to stay highly coordinated with minimal explicit rules & roles, and large enough that your enhanced impact is worth the cost of collaborating. If you observe many interactions in a Crew, you get many opportunities to learn about different ways of being a Self and being in a Partnership.

4: the Congregation

There’s another crucial size somewhere between 30 and 200 people: small enough that most of the members can know each other’s name, big enough to support many Crews to coalesce. Coordinated impact at this scale requires some formal rules & roles, but mostly you can hold coherence just by putting a bit of extra effort into the relationships. In my experience the best way to find your Crew is to spend some time in a Congregation. Coordination gets a lot more complicated beyond this point.

If you use my language for a second, you can think of Enspiral as a Congregation of Crews. We fluctuate around 200 people, all supporting each other to do more meaningful work. We have a big annual gathering, a coworking space, a participatory budget, and many experiments in developing systems for mutual aid. Loomio is one of about 10 or 20 stable Crews in the network, each one focussed on a specific purpose, like fixing the diversity problem in the tech sector, or providing accounting services to social enterprises, or building an intergalactic communications network.

The Crews and Congregation are in reciprocal co-development. I can absolutely say Loomio wouldn’t exist without Enspiral, and Loomio’s success has made major contributions to the development of other Crews. So my proposal is to work at both of these scales simultaneously.

5: the Crowd

There’s probably a couple more useful distinctions beyond 200 people, but for the purpose of this map, all human groups bigger than Dunbar’s Number get lumped into this one category: the Crowd. This includes corporations, neighbourhoods, regions, nations, multitudes, swarms, and many different kinds of networks, conferences, festivals, etc. All of these groups share some important characteristics. Only a minority of people can expect to be recognised in a Crowd. To develop and maintain trust, peace, coordination & coherence over time requires a lot of infrastructure: formal articulation of rules and roles, enforcement of norms, and checks and balances to ensure the just application of that enforcement.

There’s an empty space between Self and Crowd

From where I’m standing, it looks like contemporary neoliberal urban westernised society is mostly designed for Selves and Crowds. There’s a little space for Dyads, and almost no room for Crews and Congregations.

Anywhere you look: government policy, media narratives, conferences, employee performance management, UX design, the healthcare system… in all these different fields you will usually hear people being treated as either individuals or anonymous mass populations. Check any story in today’s newspaper and you’ll see what I mean. Climate change will be fixed by “you recycling” or “government policy” or “a social movement”.

That’s what individualism looks like: the vast majority of our conversations are about individual people (you, me, a public figure, your boss or lover), or about very large groups (Americans, progressives, women, programmers), which are so populous that the individuals have lost their distinct identity. Individualism is a metaphysical virus that allows us to only see trees, never the forest. This virus leaves us poorly equipped to work in groups.

Over the past 7 years of working with people who are trying to make the world a safer, fairer, healthier place, I’ve concluded that membership in a good Crew is a critical success factor. People enmeshed in really great Crews are most resilient to the psychological cost of doing social change work, and therefore the most able to think and act strategically. It’s at this small scale that we decontaminate each other, recover from the individualist virus, and start to learn a new way of being together.

So this brings us to the core of my experiment: can we create the conditions for many excellent Crews to coalesce?

Read all about it in Microsolidarity Part 3: The Reciprocity Game


This story is published with no rights reserved: do what you like with the text. You can find it in many file formats on my website.No rights reserved by the author.

On rounds

The signature tool of sociocracy are rounds. Like all tools in sociocracy, rounds support equal voice and effectiveness. Everybody gets a chance to talk. Everybody gets a chance to listen. Rounds can easily be underrated. This article is a celebration of rounds!

Go to the profile of Ted J Rau

Ted J Rau May 9

1. Rounds support equal voice and effectiveness

a. How rounds support for everyone to be heard

Not having any format in a meeting typically turns discussions into debates. In debate style conversations, whoever speaks up will be heard. This works well for people who have an easy time with this kind of format. It does not work for people who don’t. Oftentimes, debate style requires over-talking people, and some people are more likely to do that than others. That means that we favor more extroverted people if we choose to talk in debate style.

Since debate style is what we resort to in the absence of a format, not being intentional about how we talk with each other will favor some voices and ignore others. It is crucial to understand that not making the choice to talk in rounds (or in any other format that supports equal voice ) is still a choice we make, and it has an impact on the conversation.

What a round is: everyone speaks, one by one. The facilitator picks one person in the circle to start — typically with a specific question or prompt. Then everyone in the circle speaks until everyone has spoken. Another round can begin, or the facilitator gives a new prompt.

When we talk in rounds, we know that we will have our turn to talk. We don’t have to sit in a discussion wondering how to get our contribution heard, and how to get a turn. We can prepare – to some extent – what we are going to say. We can relax and know that we will be heard.

b. How rounds support for everyone to listen

In debate style, everybody loses. We all lose valuable information which could be contributed. Because someone is less likely to speak up in a heated discussion does not mean their contribution is less valuable. If we choose to skip rounds, we lose out on valuable information.

Rounds change the dynamics of a conversation. In a round, we know when it is going to be our turn. When it is other people’s turn, we can sit back and listen. And by that I mean: really listen. I don’t have to wait for a good moment to jump in and interrupt. I don’t have to think about how to prove the other person wrong. I can just listen and take in the other circle member’s experience.

In debate style, we often tend to try and convince people of our viewpoint. With rounds, it feels more like everyone brings their ideas, perspectives and experiences to the table. We can only be a group when we are sure that everyone in the circle is included. Talking in rounds gives the confidence that this is the case. What we each bring individually becomes the group’s. The group wisdom starts growing in the middle of the circle. It is deeply satisfying when that happens, and rounds make it much more likely.

In debate style, our “aim” is to be heard. In rounds, we spend more time listening than speaking. It is so easy to forget that we all only have access to our view on the world. After taking in the experiences of a number of people in a row without even considering saying something for myself, it becomes obvious how my experience is just one way to see things. One way among many others.

c. How rounds support effectiveness and efficiency

When people start out learning about rounds, their first judgment is often that rounds will be lengthy and not time efficient. It takes a bit of practice and experience to see how the opposite is true. There are several ways in which rounds support effectiveness and efficiency.

  • In debate style, people feel compelled to re-state their contribution so they can be sure they can be heard. Rounds slow down conversations just enough so every contribution can be taken in and valued. That also means it typically does not have to be repeated. We all have been in discussions where the same thing was said by the same person multiple times. Rounds reduce the amount of redundancy because we can be sure we hear it the first time. In the end, we will save time.
  • In rounds, as much information as possible is heard early in the process. That means we as a group (or, more precisely, a subset of the group) don’t run into one direction just to find out it was a dead end. We move more slowly, taking into account a wider number of aspects and viewpoints. That way, we don’t have to change direction as many times. Slow and steady wins the race.
  • There is a subtle but powerful effect of rounds that is easy to miss. When we start a round, we all start with the same prompt. That means, everyone having their turn after the first person to speak has options: refer back to the prompt and give a reply that reflects the first reaction. In that case, we get someone’s genuine response which is valuable to increase the variety and to see an issue from different angles. The other option is to reflect on what other people have already said and let statements build on each other with increasing information in the group. Ideally, people do both, share their initial reaction and then their reflections on what has been stated before them. In a perfect world, people are transparent about that and build their statements according to the pattern “My first reaction/idea was …, and then I heard… and I learned that …., and now I think that…” In a “debate style” discussion, we miss out on first impressions from people because we jump right into the subject (and into trying to convince each other). Rounds give us the maximum input, both from individuals and from group wisdom.
  • When everyone is part of a decision, it increases the accountability and buy-in of everyone involved. Everyone in the group owns a decision. If members are heard and fully contribute to a decision, no one will undermine carrying out the plans you made together.

2. Supporting rounds

a. Do we always have to talk in rounds?

No. But reading through this, why would you choose not to? We understand that some free flow and some direct response can work well in a group. Do it intentionally and by consent:

“I propose we spend the next 10 minutes in free flow conversation and see if that brings up any new ideas.” What has worked well in practice is to always start a topic with a round. If you choose to do a period of free flow, then close that free flow period with a round. You always return to hearing everyone’s voice.

b. What do we do if there is a lot of cross — talk?

How harmful cross-talk is to group process is sometimes invisible. The impact includes

  • People silently resenting that someone is talking out of turn
  • People getting cautious about what they say in fear of being interrupted
  • Missing out on “group magic”

People who engage in a lot of cross-talk have to be educated on the impact of their behavior. A way to address this in a meeting is feedback during the evaluation round which is part of the closing round of every sociocratic meeting.

To deal with the cross talk in the moment, simply say “I want to hear what you have to say. Please hold that thought or write it down. Let’s get back to the round.

Here are some other blame-free phrases you can use to help live up to the discipline of rounds:

  • “I have things to say but I am noticing that I would have to over-talk other people to speak and I don’t enjoy that. Can we do rounds so we don’t have to over-talk each other?”
  • “I am noticing a lot of cross -talk. I would prefer to go back to our round.”

Phrases to introduce rounds in non-sociocratic organizations:

  • I would love to hear from everyone about this because I am curious about each one of us thinks. Could we do a go-round and have everyone say briefly what they think about this?”
  • “We could give everyone 1–2 minutes to explain their viewpoint. That way we could gather all the expertise in the room.”

c. Rounds 201 — boost your rounds

I have been part of many rounds, and it might be helpful to hear how we can make rounds even more effective and pleasant.

  • Passing. Oh, how I admire when people have the courage to say “I have nothing new to add. I pass”! Taming your ego and supporting a group process by saving time and redundancy requires maturity. It also means people will be more inclined to listen when you do speak.
  • Asking for more time. “It is my turn now but I’d rather think more about what I want to say and hear some more from others first” I will really listen the next time this person speaks because it is easy to assume it will have substance! This might be hard on the facilitator to track everyone to go back to. I would also not over-use this one because we are never fully prepared to make a perfect statement. But used in the right moment, this is a way to enhance your contribution to the group.
  • Write notes. I often note down what I want to say. That means I will write down all my comments while other people are speaking. That serves three purposes
     (i) I can manage my own impatience instead of talking out of turn
     (ii) I can prepare my own contribution and make it more to the point
     (iii) An unexpected effect: I will say less. Typically, something feels urgent and burning the moment I write it down. A few minutes later when it is my turn to speak, half of it does not seem all that relevant anymore. That way, all the unimportant stuff gets filtered out.
    This is a tool to use wisely. Since it requires some multitasking, you don’t want to prepare in detail a 5-minute statement while it is the time to listen to others.
  • We want to avoid redundancy but we also want to understand where everyone is coming from. If something has been said a few times that you agree with, just passing would be a loss in information. As a temperature check, it is helpful to know how many people in a group agree with something. Just saying “I agree with XYZ” might not be specific enough because not everyone might remember who said what in every moment. Give the highlights or keywords. “I agree with Charlie. Environmental impact and re-using instead of buying new.” Is a good enough statement. Don’t explain it all over.
  • Not being decisive is fine. In a round, it is perfectly fine to say, “I hear this side because…., and I hear the other side because…” You don’t have to be the judge or hero or savior. The groups will decide.
  • Timing rounds. Rounds do not have to be timed but if you are running out of meeting time or if you’d like to keep air time more or less equal for everyone, timing people is a good idea. Facilitators can do it themselves or appoint a time keeper. You might want to explain in a blame-free way that time keeping is helpful for everyone “Let’s time ourselves so we all have an easier time to stay on track.” Use a friendly sound — but everyone has to be able to hear it. Don’t get too tense when someone goes over time. What is important is that overall, everyone respects the group process. While maintaining equal voice, insisting on exact fairness kills group culture. Finding the sweet spot where everyone can express themselves without feeling too restricted and everyone sees the group respected will create ease.
  • In online meetings, time lag and technical issues can make flow in a group conversation hard. In that case, rounds are even more important. Since we lack the visual cue of sitting in a round, it is not obvious whose turn it is. It has proven helpful for the facilitator to call on the next person and the person after that. “So, next we will hear Kim next and then Diego.” That way, Diego can start thinking ahead about what to say.

3. What kinds of rounds are there?

Although all rounds are very similar, these are some differences in the nature of a round, depending on where in the decision process a group is. There are also more generic rounds, like opening rounds, closing rounds, evaluation rounds etc. The ones we are mentioning here are the most specific.

a. Clarifying questions round

A clarifying questions round is called whenever there has been a proposal or a statement that needs to be understood before the group can form its opinion about it. This could be a policy proposal, or a nomination proposal but it could also be a complex objection. We are transparent about the nature of the round: “Let’s make sure we understand the proposal/ objection before we talk about it more. Now is a time to ask the questions before responding.

A challenge in the clarifying questions round is that sometimes people will jump ahead and give an opinion. Or they may express their negative judgment about the proposal through a biased question. In either case, the facilitator can say, “Would you mind holding that for the next round when we gather opinions? For now, is there a question you would like to ask in order to understand the proposal as it is written?” Sometimes the facilitator will need to work with the speaker to tease out a real question that is mixed in with the speaker’s opinions.

b. (Quick) reaction rounds

Reaction rounds are a way to get a feel on where the group is at. It can be just reflecting the impact of what is up for circle members, it can have a concrete prompt like “what do you think could be done about this issue?”. Do not restrict this phase to only one round if what people contribute seems rich and productive. Keep going around until more and more people pass because they have nothing new to say. In that case, the facilitator can end the rounds asking if there is anything anyone wants to add to make sure no one gets cut off. “We did two rounds now and we heard a lot of good input. Is there anything that still needs to be said before we move on?

Time and attention span are often concerns in meetings. To introduce a quick reaction round the facilitator can say, “Let ’s do a quick reaction on that. And by quick reaction, I mean five sentences or less.” Some groups will find it supportive to use a talking stick and/or a timer to keep things moving in a round. It is also a good idea for the facilitator to remind people to not repeat redundant information.

Quick reactions rounds are used in the consent process. Assuming that any policy proposal has been worked on in the circle, and everyone has had a chance to be heard earlier in the process quick reactions should be very brief. They are more a temperature check than re-opening for discussion. They are also the place for appreciations, feelings. Someone once said “people will have feelings anyway so it is better to have them on the table than to pretend they are not there .” In addition, positive feelings of gratitude or contentment should have a place as well, as positive feedback (what is going well) is just as important feedback as feedback aiming to improve something.

Quick reaction rounds are also a place for critique, a statement of “I will object to this because…”. They are not the place for long elaborations of objections. Objections are addressed in details after the consent round, not during the quick reaction round.

c. Consent rounds

Consent rounds are very brief. They give only two options. ( In consent decision making there is no third option of standing aside. )

  • “I consent / I have no objections.”
  • “I have an objection.” 
    (You can give a 1-phrase statement about the objection, for example, “I have an objection regarding the time frame of this.” Or “I am not ready to consent. I have concerns I want to explore more.”)

You can get consent, especially on uncontroversial decisions (like for instance a non-controversial agenda) in a non -verbal way. In that case, the facilitator has to make an effort to get brief eye contact with everyone in the group. In online meetings, non-verbal consent can be given by showing your thumbs up.

d. What are “rounds on process”?

Rounds on process can be the most magical rounds. A good sociocratic facilitator will involve the group in facilitation decisions. In particular, this is a good idea whenever it is not clear how to move forward. For instance, when a discussion gets out of hand, emotional, or just plain muddy. Find your way out with a process round instead of losing more time. You can combine a process round with a moment of silence (or a stretch break, or other ways of re-focusing).

Examples can sound like this:

  • “Wow, there are a lot of emotions in the room right now. I suggest we all take a deep breath and a moment of silence. (pause) I’d like to do a round on what people think would be a good idea to do next.”
  • “I am not quite sure what would support the group best right now. Anyone have an idea? Let’s do a round, and I’d ask you to pass if you don’t have anything that comes to mind right now.”
  • We seem to be stuck here. Let’s do a round on any ideas for how to get unstuck.”

Rounds a very effective way of getting your feet wet and giving sociocratic tools a try. If you like them, there is more to learn where this came from!

Ted is co-author of the sociocracy handbook Many Voices One Song and teaches facilitation classes online (see Sociocracy For All’s event page).

Group Dynamics

Go to the profile of jordangonen

jordangonenFollowNov 4, 2018

I find the study of group dynamics to be really interesting. Whether or not you spend a lot of time purposefully thinking about the formal study of organizations, chances are you have picked up on the tendencies of group development simply through your own life experiences.

I think college is perhaps the ultimate lab-ground for understanding people and groups. It really is an amazing thing that happens at University. It happens so quickly that now, as a senior, it is really interesting for me to look back on. If you have never been to college, or if it has been a while since stepping on campus, I think you will find this phenomenon quite interesting.

Basically what happens across universities around the country is, during the first few weeks of schools, strangers become best friends. It is really quite an amazing thing that is rooted in human biology.

Almost immediately, like literally 2–3 days into college, people have found their friend groups. And normally, these groups are quite homogenous.

You find people who look like you, talk like you, and prioritize things like you.

Just like that…two days into school…you have found your friends. Sure, things do evolve over time and not everyone has their group that quickly. What is amazing to me, though, is how natural this all is.

And you blink…and then these are some of your best friends.

Group dynamics are amazing because they are applied pretty consistently across ethnicities and cultures.

Every group has a…

Quiet kid

Loud talker

Athlete

Etc. Etc.

This is awesome to me — that people have these internal cultures built up and still…no matter if you are on a WashU campus or Stanford or ASU or in Hong Kong…you see friend groups develop a very particular way.

I should spend more time understanding this field.


Originally published at Jordan Gonen.

9 lessons from Franck Underwood to CDOs about Digital Transformation

Go to the profile of Aref JDEY

Aref JDEY Mar 5, 2016

House of Cards is full of lessons, tips and guidance on how to run business, leadership, group dynamics and transformation. And Digital Transformation is a journey encompassing all of these aspects.

1. Relationships are they golden key

Ask yourself, like Frank Underwood and his stuff, “who do we know ?”. As a CDO, you’ll have to lean on your web of relationships, internal and external to your organisation. This is not a lone wolf game, you’ll have to work closely with other players and most of all, to keep them growing and continue building and consolidating these relationships. If you manage to understand what are the main drivers of the people you’re working with, then you’ll increase your chances to navigate through this endeavour.

Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source the higher your property value.

2. It’s a “Give & Take” world !

And it starts with Give before the Take. Franck Underwood is always spotting the pain points and the critical needs for each one of his partners and opponents. There’s no a firm “NO”, but always a ‘not yet’ or ‘here’s something in replacement’ or ‘if not this, then what’. You’ll have to get to the bottom of the discussion, straight forward, when it comes to negotiating budgets, timelines, allocating resources, choosing vendors, etc. By understanding the needs and the desires of the different stakeholders, as a CDO you’ll have a strong competitive advantage in putting in shape your Digital Transformation strategy.

You can’t turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ without a ‘maybe’ first.

3. You’re nothing without a team !

Franck Underwood won the President Game because he was able to empower his team members, from his personal bodyguard to his wife to his private counselor and right hand, etc. You won’t be able to run this transformation without delegating tasks to your teams, without empowering them, and wihtout focusing on what you really enjoy and love doing.

4. Think long term instead of looking for short wins

Playing the long game is one of the main success keys of Franck Underwood. Never taken down by a short-term defeat, he always managed to see the opportunity window, looking to the bigger picture and gaze beyond the rain. It’s a matter of resiliency and opportunism, and Digital Transformation is all about these two aspects. You’ll have obviously and certainly, with the help of your team, to manage the “micro frustrations and pains” in order to “design the macro ideal state”. Avoid to be dragged by the mundane daily business and focus on the more ambitious vision.

That’s how you devour a whale, Doug — one bite at a time.

5. Change is painful and hard. Be Strong & Rational.

Digital Transformation is all about change. Changing behaviors, changing tools, changing people, changing processes, etc. And it’s painful and hard. And for that, to ensure that everyone will manage to get the the destination safely, your role as a CDO comes with additional responsibility : being strong & rational. It’s about putting your “emotional intelligence” into practice, showing at the same time empathy AND detachment. Be Passionate about it but always make it objective and not personal.

From this moment on you are a rock. You absorb nothing, you say nothing and nothing breaks you.

6. Always Be prepared and anticipate your next move !

Franck Underwood is like a Chess Master ! He always have a plan D for his plan C for his plan B for his plan A ! There will be always unpredictable reactions and situations in your Digital Transformation Journey, and the more you anticipate them and prepare your contingency plan the better you’ll be in managing the shift. Being prepared is a sign to the other stakeholders that you’re serious about your mission, you’re paying attention to the details and this is the base to build trust !

7. Know your competition !

As a CDO, there’s high chances that you will face some competition coming from other players (CMO, CIO, CTO, etc) and also you’ll be facing detractors that are not happy with your move. So, like Franck Underwood, be prepared and get to know them, to identify their motivations, weaknesses, etc. This is how you’ll be able to craft a better strategy and tweak your tactics to get to your final destination.

8. Learn to play the Diversion Game

Will you be able as a CDO to make people forget about what they were complaining about a few weeks or months ago ? The key for this is to offer them alternatives in the form of Quick Wins. Show them that you’re up to this game by sharing concrete small steps toward the ideal vision you painted for them. And the more you share frequently these “snack wins” the more you can focus on the bigger whale and get traction from the stakeholders.

If You don’t like how the table is set, turn it over.

9. Be bold and swift

A “Yes Man” attitude won’t be your best approach. As a CDO you’ll face many situations where you have to say NO, to show strong believe in your plan and ready to challenge your CEO or your board. It’s not about simple raw confrontation. It’s more about showing your analytical skills and your wreckless global vision and how you’re going to roll it out, even if it comes with a higher price.

Sometimes the only way to gain your superior’s respect is to defy him.

So, which one is the most appealing for you ? Do you think about others lessons to learn from Franck ?

The Structure of Tyrannylessness

Go to the profile of Simon Tegg

Simon Tegg Oct 8, 2017

Some people are born to followership, some go on to achieve followership, and some have followership thrust upon them. In my case it has been all three.

I pause for as much as 3 whole seconds before speaking, making me a natural, born follower. Several dumb things I have done have inspired people to lead me. And leaders have often blustered their way into my business expecting deference when none was due.

On the first point, most people pause for an average of 200 milliseconds, but I must have been dropped on my head as baby, or am the offspring of a failed alien-human hybridisation scheme. Even on a good day I struggle to get a response out in less than 2 seconds.

If you think a single digit second pause is bad, when I was younger I would pause for 10’s of seconds while my unfortunate conversation partners were:

a) abandoned to the horrors of their own internal dialogue,

b) attempted to fill the silence , inadvertently worsening the situation as I reset my double digit pauses to the end of their last utterance,

or, c) (in group conversations) moved on, flittering between topics like butterflies between flowers, never visiting the carnation of my conversational contribution 😥.

I believed “conversation” meant one person spoke, other people listened to what they were saying, reflected on the implications and responded in a way that elaborated, questioned, or integrated these prior points; conversation as collaborative sense-making. Obviously, I was conversing correctly, and eventually people would come to their senses and to my way of doing things.

After years of hyper-rational attempts at conversation I began to realise it doesn’t work this way. People don’t really listen to each other:

The brevity of these silences is doubly astonishing when you consider that it takes at least 600 milliseconds for us to retrieve a single word from memory and get ready to actually say it. For a short clause, that processing time rises to 1500 milliseconds. This means that we have to start planning our responses in the middle of a partner’s turn…

Pessimists among us might view this as the ultimate indictment of conversation, a sign that we’re spending most of our “listening” time actually prepping what we are going to say…But really, this work shows that even the most chronic interruptor is really listening. “Everything points to what astute observers we are of every word choice, every phonetic change,”

Yeah, sorry chronic interrupters but I draw a distinction between “listeningfor the best time to interrupt and listening to the content of what the person is saying.

To participate in society I had to bring my response time down to regular-person tolerable levels, and, even though it seemed terribly impolite, to interrupt people like everyone else didI began storing up unthinking catch phrases like “Really?, “Mhhhmm”, and “Yeah..” to feedback to speakers while I practised partitioning my attention into two parts: one to shallowly track utterances for superficial meaning and Estimated Completion Time, and another to formulate ready-to-launch responses.

These habits are now second-nature and I can pass as normal, if somewhat slow-witted. With the aid of 2–5 beers, it’s like I’m a regular person! I also broadened the scope of this endeavour to include varying the tone of my voice from a robotic drone and body language that doesn’t freak people out.


The games we play

My years as an alien anthropologist amongst the neurotypicals laid the foundations for my current conversational acumen. Later, I would learn advanced techniques like deliberately skirting the borders of incomprehensibility; and by adulthood I had enough to make my way in the world. Even today, I still keep my interaction skills sharp with regular visits to pubs, lunchrooms, and other such places where normal people are known to gather.

Yet at the time, I could not settle into complacency. Something nagged at me. There was a bigger picture to conversation than helping some people feel less anxious. When I zoomed out from the individual trees of word choice and timing I began to notice a forest of conversation patterns.

Photo from when I stumbled upon The Patterns

In some groups, a few people spoke much more than others. The conversation always circled back to them. If group conversation was a game of rugby these folks played as half-backs, receiving the ball from the breakdown and directing play:

An association between emergent leadership and amount of talking has long been established…[researchers] found that high-ranking members of informal discussion groups had a greater proportion of aggregate speaking times…Similarly [researchers] found that high-ranking group members were more successful in gaining turns by interruption…

The way people in these groups described this phenomenon was that these folks possessed “Leadership” — a mystical quality connected to rightness and an oft-proposed solution to all manner of problems. In practice leadershipmeant that the “leaders” did most of the talking. Leaders had a mix of genuine merit, high motivation for group success, and confident body-language. Leader counter-parties, “followers”, possessed sufficient enthusiasm for the role the leader played or perhaps sufficient smarts for knowing when to keep quiet.

In other groups conversation was more like hacky-sack. A virtual ‘talking ball’ would move about the group unpredictably, sometimes passed amongst a few people for a while, other times moving around the group until everyone had had a go:

First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’…‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’

The mystery was that while the hacky-sack groups worked well together, they were much rarer and, other than results, had nothing to show for it.

Conversation wasn’t the raw exchange of information, nor was it a mere social grooming nicety. It was somehow deeply connected to working well with others. To understand group conversation, and how it can go awry, I had to understand leadership. And to understand leadership I had to practice it.

Respect My Authoritah

I wasn’t going to win followers with my magnetic personality or quick-witted repartee. The nearest substitute for natural leadership was to oblige people to listen to me through positional authority. This meant teaching.

Young dewy-eyed teachers believe that teaching precipitates learning. Old, grizzled teachers know that teaching is mostly crowd-control and improv theatre.

To teach you switch up to a character with an authoritarian personality. But play high status/high authority too much and you’ll stunt student capacity for self-direction or start a resistance . Play high autonomy too early on and students (especially ones conditioned by high authority institutions) won’t know what to do. Good teachers can switch out the character they play in a blink, lowering their status to let “the student become the master”, raising status to head off students from stumbling into a well-trodden blind alley.

Teachers (and leaders) who soak too long in their high authority character risk absorbing it into their soul. But with enough deliberate practice the status you play in any moment separates out from your self. Once you get the macro character right, you can start fine-tuning the status plays for general purpose applications beyond teaching:


As conversation commences we select a status vis-a-vis the other participants. We might play for higher status, offering a firm handshake, a knowledgeable-sounding interpretation of a current event, or a tale that one-ups the one just told. Or we might play for lower status. Perhaps a tale of a discomforting experience in which they looked foolish, or deference to the better judgement of another.

Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I 
said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed 
to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The 
scenes became ‘authentic’, and actors seemed marvellously observant. 
Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies 
a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’. It 
was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our 
secret manoeuvrings were exposed. If someone asked a question we 
didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. 
No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly 
grasping what lay behind it. Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status 
transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality status trans- 
actions continue all the time.
 In the park we’ll notice the ducks 
squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when 
they are not.

– Keth JohnstoneImpro

Friends (or people becoming friends) turn status transactions into playful capoeira — never quire sure if they’re sparring or dancing. The friendly tease, for example, raises the teaser’s status to just above that of the teased. If the teased responds in the defensive a nerve has been struck. Instead the teased may counter with the exaggeration into self-deprecation (a personal favourite) which indicates the teased gives no fucks and has transcended status threats in this domain:

WILL
It's Will, the really funny good looking guy you met at the bar?

SKYLAR
I'm sorry, I don't recall meeting anyone who fits that description.

WILL
Okay, you got me. It's the ugly, obnoxious, toothless loser who got drunk and wouldn't leave you alone all night.

SKYLAR
Oh Will! I was wondering when you'd call.

Another defence is the counter-tease. Though anyone who went through a New Zealand high-school knows the counter-tease can start an escalating arms race of counter-counter-teases culminating in a tease crossing the indeterminate Actually, That Was Quite Hurtful line.

The rough and tumble of status transactions may be too much for some and a consistently low status strategy will carry less risks. Many live out their lives in a low status groove:

DOBBY
Harry Potter! So long has Dobby wanted to meet you, sirSuch an honor it is …

HARRY POTTER
Th-thank you. Who are you?
DOBBY
Dobby, sir. Just Dobby. Dobby the house-elf,

My belief (at this moment) is that people have a preferred status; that they like to be low, or high, and that they try to manoeuvre themselves into the preferred positions. A person who plays high status is saying “Don’t come near me, I bite.” Someone who plays low status is saying “Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble. In either case the status is a defence, and it’ll usually work. It’s very likely that you will increasingly be conditioned into playing the status that you’ve found an effective defence.

– Keth JohnstoneImpro

Discovering the status subtext was like discovering a secret society. Everyone was a member of Status Club, but the first rule of Status Club was you weren’t supposed to talk about Status Club. Of course people did talk about it; but only obliquely in the smaller follow-up meetings to deal with the emotional fallout from the main meeting.

The invisible hands of the unseen economy

Viewed through the lens of status the two group patterns came into focus. Hacky-sack groups guaranteed members generous minimum standards of dignity. When someone felt their status creeping too high, they dutifully paid their status taxes and stopped talking. The Swedens of status.

Leadered groups lack a safety net and they only sure way to get one’s needs met was to compete for, and leverage status into more fulfilling roles and greater autonomy. And like twitter followers, Tupperware and investment capital the more status you had, the easier it was to gain. The group would settle into insiders who did most of the work and earned most of the status — a “status quo”; and an outsider group of followers who “drank the kool-aide” or checked out”.

For their trouble, leaders could parley immaterial status into real material gain via the gig opportunities market. For followers, status was supposed to trickle down, but more often arrived as praise — status’ homoeopathic dilution.

Leadered groups were numerous and worked. But with status transactions obscuring authentic communication, I supposed leadership must give groups a hidden advantage. The peacock’s beautiful tail does help him attract a mate. An acceptable trade-off for all that time he spends preening.

Everything is awesome when you’re part of a team

What is it about the way we try to fill the empty places in our hearts with, not the companionship of other frail, flawed humans, but with avatars of our projected craving for superheroes and archetypes? — Anon

The advantage was meaningfulness. Unlike our existentially untroubled animal brethren (labradors come to mind) we needmeaningfulness to guard against thehorror of an insignificant life extinguished by permanent and inevitable death.

The decline of traditional sources of meaningfulness — organised religion and sublime contact with the natural world, leaves modern people empty on the inside, wandering the wasteland of late stage capitalism eking out meaningfulness from less savoury sources.

Leadership fills this void and mediates two powerful forms of meaningfulness for the unfulfilled follower:

Meaningfulness # 1 — Cultural Fit

The leader is the group’s prototypical member, embodying the group’s norms and signalling the appropriate conduct. A follower only need observe and emulate the leader to achieve cultural fit and group acceptance. While prosaic, the norm signalling aspect of leadership serve as a guiding beacon in a follower’s quest.

Meaningfulness #2 — Transformational Leadership

The leader applies personal anecdotes to a complex situation, weaving these into a simple and inspiring vision of the future. The leader connects this vision to followers’ hopes, dreams and identities.

Cultural fit only asks us to modify our outward behaviour. Transformational Leadership asks us remake our identities in alignment with the leader’s vision. A greater investment for sure, but for the unfulfilled follower the promise of a Purposeful Lifeᵀᴹworking towards a Better Worldᵀᴹ is all too tempting.


Leadership was giving people what they wanted. But was it what we really needed? I knew I couldn’t Rise to Accept the Mantle Of Leadership, deepening the grooves and conditioning others to deference. I needed a clean break. A third way. Neither leading nor following, neither conditioning nor being conditioned.

A Clean Break

For those who wish to try such an alternative, I have found the following four techniques useful for shirking leadership and escaping followership:

#1 — The Antidote

To apply the antidote you must gauge where your colleague positions their status relative to yours and give them the opposite of what they have come to expect.

When a person plays low status, seeking your approval and the like, this is relatively simple. Say things like:

I don’t know”, or “What do you think”?

When someone positions their status higher, the antidote is trickier. You could try some phrases a leader may not hear very often. Perhaps:

No.”, or “Huh?”

When their status is just slightly above you this works well, but many leaders are too far gone or are too smart. De-conditioning a fully-fledged leader is beyond the scope of this essay, and requires specialist intervention.

In the ideal case the antidote will help establish egalitarian norms in your group. Failing this, it may still be wise protect yourself and your colleagues from becoming followers to begin with.

#2 — Protective Cynicism

I work in a startup and this brings me in frequent contact with people and places with known high rates of transformational leadership transmission. You wouldn’t go out and have unprotected sex with a stranger, nor should you fail to use proper protection from leadership; otherwise you may wake up next morning willing to devote your life to someone else’s vision.

When preparing for startup events I like to practice a few cynical phrases i n the mirror: “Cool story, bro”, “What’s your business model?” etc. I don’t necessarily say these things out loud in person. Wellington is a small town and its wise to maintain a certain level of polite decorum. The good news is that repeating these phrases silently in my head has the equivalent effect.

#3 — A Course of Nihilism

A strong dose of nihilism helps a follower understand their insignificance, drops them into an existential crisis, and dissolves all meaningfulness into a grey ooze.

In some cases the cure can be worse than the disease. Nihilism will rid the follower of a leader’s vision but a scorched earth approach can leave them susceptible to even more virulent ideologies once the crisis has run its course.

A more sensible approach is to gently ramp up a series of interventions known to trigger the collapse of everything meaningful in your life while simultaneously remaining upbeat.

Fortunately long-term followers of transformational leaders are often quite close to slipping into a nihilistic loss of everything meaningful without much outside intervention at all. A couple of Werner Herzog films or a rainy Sunday afternoon listening to Coldplay may be all that is required. Severe cases of followership can require a visit to Hamilton or even taking a job with a government department.

Despite its bad rep a tempered and unserious approach to nihilism is quite joyful and comes heartily recommended.

#4— Knowing more than one story

Consider Knowing more than one story as the macrobiotics of your psychosocial health regimen. When you only know one story (typically “The Good People Got Into A Tricky Spot, But Came Together and Triumphed Over The Bad People”) you’re susceptible to narrative takeover and overgrowth from visionary storytelling. All a leader has to do is match the story they tell to the only one you know, and they’ll be dangerously close to monopolising your meaningfulness.

The principle is the same fermented foods and gut flora. You want a diverse range of stories populating your subconscious. Incoming stories will have to compete with those already present, and chances of narrative overgrowth will be much diminished.

Try watching a film that wasn’t made in Los Angeles or a reading a book that isn’t about wizards or targeted at children. Side-effects include being more interesting.


The Structure of Tyrannylessness

With luck you’ll find yourself playing conversational hacky-sack, listening for more than the opportunity to interrupt, and treating status as an ironic game rather than the core of your identity. No promises, but if this sort of thing catches on, you and your team may achieve more than the usual routine dysfunction.

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Group Dynamics: Back to the Basics? – New Organizational Insights – Medium

Learning From the Past to Inform the Future

Go to the profile of Paul Thoresen

Paul ThoresenFollowJun 29, 2017

Group Dynamics

Irecently read a trio of pieces which got me seriously thinking about the “level” at which we do research and provide interventions in organizations. We often look at organizations through an individual lens, at least here in the United States, and especially those of us with a Psychology background. But what about the system, and overall group dynamics?

Ed Schein

The first piece I read was “Organizational Psychology Then and Now: Some Observations” by Dr Edgar H. Schein. Then I re-read it to let it soak in further. This Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior article is full of truth bombs and provocative observations. I won’t attempt to summarize it in its entirety, but I will pull out a few key points as Dr Schein looks over the years 1965 to 2015.

“The biggest change has been the decline of work on group dynamics and group interventions reflecting Western cultures of individualism”.

And it is difficult to disagree. There has been a massive amount of work done on pre-employment assessment, leadership development, coaching, training etc. But work on group dynamics has taken a back seat to the assessment and development of individuals in organizational psychology. Schein notes the rise of coaching in his article, but observes this has been predominantly coaching for individuals, not groups.

There have also been great strides in teamwork research and practitioners trying to do team building. However, Schein’s view is that team research and practice is part of a larger world of group dynamics. Essentially overall group dynamics is downplayed, ignored, or given lip service as opposed to studied and worked with by people in the organization.

Dr Schein also laments how the divide between what the academics are researching and what the practitioners are doing is truly huge. For sure, he does point out a few notable exceptions, such as the “teaming” work by Amy Edmondson. But in general he sees the two halves of academia and practitioners as not being in alignment.

He does not mince his words on what, in his view, is behind the problem in understanding Group Dynamics:

I have always wondered whether our earlier preoccupation with teams was a reflection not of their importance but of the fact that we were culturally not very good at teaming. The jokes and complaints about committees and meetings, the headlines that tout teamwork in sports but always feature the quarterback or star performer, and the obsession with individual accountability and reward systems all suggest that what is driving our attention are the deep cultural assumptions that, in the end, (a) it is the individual who makes the difference and (b) getting the job done is much more important than relationship building and teamwork.

I am sure we have all seen examples of this obsession with individual reward systems when teams are discussed as important. But how we are compensated plays a huge role in how we execute our job tasks when the rubber hits the road.

Overall, Schein urges us to “look at all parts of organizations and to develop a systemic view.” Of course, a reductionist view is needed to understand and research behavior. But unless it is put in the context of a system then it is of limited use. In fact one could argue that, with the workplace growing more complex as it shifted from the industrial age to the knowledge age and whatever comes next, a systems view is much more important than it was in the 1900s.

We, as a culture, are hooked on individual accountability. Many of my clients have told me about how their companies are now espousing teamwork, but I have yet to find one that pays groups or that lets groups decide whom to promote.

We will find exceptions to this and in fact there are those who will hire a teaminstead of an individual. But this is the exception, not the norm.

Breakthrough in Organization Development

The second piece was an HBR articleby Blake, Mouton, Barnes and Greiner — very long for the HBR (more than 12,000 words). I read it in chunks of time, but would estimate my total time was an hour to read and digest it. But the striking thing was not how long it was… it was truly fascinating to read a large scale intervention in a factory that dates back 5 decades ago. Yes, the article was published in 1964 (!)

There was a bit of outdated terminology and of course all personal pronouns were male-centric. But the thrust of the effort was to improve the organization through team led individual learning.

It may have been a top down effort, but with the line managers owning the effort, it was in many ways also a bottom up organization intervention. I do not know that “participatory leadership” or the “managerial grid” (see image to left)are on everyone’s tip of the tongue nowadays but…

If you have an hour to spare, and want to see how far we have come, as well as how much we have forgotten, I would encourage you to give it a read. One of the key take aways …One of the conditions under which (behavioural science and) human relations education can help with large-scale OD is an “Educational strategy that effectively and continuously builds team problem solving and mutual support into work-related issues.”

Competition in organizations: good or bad?

The last of the trio was a post by Niels Pflaeging. Although the article mostly focused on competition, what caught my eye in particular was this bold statement:

Individual performance, in organizations, does not even exist. The notion of individual performance is a crude over-simplification of organizational reality: Performance is not something that individuals within an organization can do, or create by themselves, individually.

So it sounds to me that it is time to embrace (once again) the study of group dynamics in the workplace. And more importantly, to work on translating that research into effective and efficient methods for managers. No more stupid kumbaya in the forest. If you are going to work on teamwork, actually facilitate teams how to become high performing teams. Skip the trust falls or ropes courses to do the hard work of delineating roles, rules, and responsibilities. Teach real conflict management and decision making skills. Help teams, groups, inter group, and inter-organizations with collaboration and communication.

Stop playing around and get to work on group dynamics.

(written by Paul Thoresen and Koen Smets)

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