“The meeting of self and others, of individual, or individual institution, and the community, is probably the most complex issue of our time.” Charles Handy

18 of us gathered on Monday in the Romney Room at the RSA to explore “the art and science of collaboration.”

Sponsored by the RSA and Oxfam, this gathering brought together experienced practitioners from diverse fields (the arts, industry, public sector, NGOs, education) all of whom are wrestling in some way with the challenges of collaboration. The aim was to see if we could shed some light on the nature of collaboration, bringing a cross-sectoral perspective in a neutral space.

It would clearly be too much to expect that we could make significant progress  in just one day; rather this was to be seen as establishing a base camp, to provide a platform from which forays could be made.

The challenge we faced was one faced by every group, and indeed by society as a whole – how to learn, share, think and decide collectively, in a way that serves the interests of the whole group and the individuals. You would think after 100,000 years of human evolution we would have worked this out by now!  Yet if you were to spend any length of time observing how our politicians behave in the House of Commons or in Congress, or if you were to reflect on the state of public discourse in our media, you might well despair for humanity. At the same time, we are learning – there is growing recognition that in an increasingly complex and interdependent world we need to find ways of drawing out our collective intelligence, whether it be through open space, world cafe, dialogue, council, Quaker process, appreciative enquiry or some other practice.

After a brief welcome from the initiators of the event, Isabel Carlisle (FRSA) and me (Patrick Andrews), we did a round of introductions. As we went round the room it became clear what a richly diverse and experienced group we had. Yet did the presence of so many experts in collaboration provide any sort of guarantee that the group would manage to collaborate effectively?  Not at all – collaboration is far more mysterious than that. There are never guarantees. Still that doesn’t mean that you can’t influence outcomes.

Firstly, there’s our intent. We had a clear intent to hold a deep conversation, to not fix too tightly to any particular outcome but to trust and focus on the quality of the conversation.

Secondly we had deliberately invited people who could function well in ambiguity and uncertainty. The best collaborations, I believe, enable new possibilities to emerge. This needs a certain emotional maturity – the path to new insights and innovations is rarely a straight one.

Thirdly we had arranged the physical space in order to encourage dialogue, rather than the ping pong of debate or discussion. In particular we laid the chairs out in a circle.  Very often the way that seating is arranged reflects the power dynamic that is being played out – we wanted to reflect equality, a necessary component of a healthy collaboration.

Professor Eve Mitleton-Kelly of the LSE then gave a brief introduction to complexity theory, explaining how it offered a multi-dimensional perspective through which collaboration could be viewed.

We then did an exercise where we put up on the walls a series of flip charts entitled social, cultural, technical, physical, economic, political and blank, and asked participants to list the sorts of things they thought facilitated (or inhibited) collaboration under each dimension. They were encouraged to identify additional dimensions where appropriate, and to cross-link the dimensions – it is rare for one thing to fit neatly into a single dimension.

In the next 45 minutes we filled up 10 flip charts, with additional headings including “mental”, “spiritual”, “language”, and “time and space”. What came up very clearly from the charts (which are being typed up as I write and will be shared through this blog), was the inter-dependencies.  Words such as language and power showed up in several places. We then came back into a circle and reviewed what we had come up with.

It was then time for lunch. I always make a point when shaping such events to make sure there is sufficient time allowed for proper breaks. Just as “Music is the space between the notes”, as Claude Debussy put it, so a healthy collaborative meeting is as much about the informal, unstructured periods as it is about those which form part of the formal meeting. This is was a key insight of Harrison Owen who devised Open Space Technology, one of the best well known methods for conducting leaderless meetings.

On this day lunch was a chance to break up into small groups, to have different sort of conversations, to chat to people we felt drawn to but didn’t have the chance to connect with and to digest what had gone on in the morning.  It was also very pleasant to get outside in the sunshine.

When we came back, after some stretching exercises to make sure we were using all of our body, we split into small groups to spend time exploring current issues that each of faced in our collaborative practice.  This was a chance to focus on the individual.

One of the fascinations of this work is the constant dance between the individual and the group. The more we work on ourselves, cultivating patience, humility, confidence (without arrogance) and listening skills, the more we can contribute to the group development. And the more we can contribute to the group development, the more we get back.

The challenge I came to the group with related to a project I initiated recently to establish a locally-owned, collaboratively-run hotel in the area where I live –  the New Forest. I have a number of ideas about how to structure the ownership but am less clear about how to run the hotel “collaboratively”. I have talked about abolishing hierarchy but now doubt this is practical – rather we need a flat and flexible hierarchy, where those in positions of authority (I hesitate to use the term leaders since it is over-used and much abused) retain their position only by leave of those over whom they exercise authority.

The insight I gained, as I shared my vision in the small group, was that a key factor in running the hotel successfully, as indeed in any collaborative venture, will be the level of engagement of those involved. One noticeable feature of our event was that everyone was present was highly engaged – taking responsibility not only for themselves but for the group as a whole. Thus as one of the organisers I felt no heavy weight of responsibility – the weight was shared amongst us all. What if a hotel could be run in that way? It couldn’t do anything but succeed.

At the same time this was a reminder of one of the fundamental dysfunctions of our current political situation – citizens are not in general sufficiently engaged. They prefer to leave the responsibility in the hands of their elected representatives and blame them for whatever happens. The newspapers encourage this. And the politicians play along because they like the feeling of power.

After the small group session, we came back again in a group to share. And then, almost before we knew it, the day was over and it was time to sit again together and reflect on the journey we had shared. Each of us offered up a thought or a feeling and then we sat in silence for a minute or so, simply enjoying the feeling of being together. And so it came to an end.

Isabel and I, as instigators of the gathering, are left with a big question: how to proceed from here? We all work in different sectors, are based in different parts of the country, use communication technology in different ways, have no shared project. How do we collaborate? How, putting it in complexity terms, can we build an enabling environment to encourage effective and worthwhile collaboration?

As Eva Trier put it in an e-mail to us all, “I find myself today rethinking our day yesterday and am beginning to understand the extent to which we only ever scratched the surface”. The potential of the group is huge. How to harness it?

Isabel and I have agreed to take on the task of keeping this community together somehow. Our initial thoughts (comments welcome) are to:

  1. use this blog to gather together and share:
    1. information about our community of collaborators, their experiences and their projects and their thoughts on collaboration.
    2. resources relevant to the theme of collaboration.
  2. Arrange a follow-up meeting in a few months time – say February 2012. We would love to make the next event a bit more playful and interactive – less in the head and more in the body. The play Isabel and I performed at Schumacher College was one of the best collaborative experiences we have had, and we have some very talented and experienced participants from the arts.  It would be great if we could bring in some performance to our shared exploration since it would reveal all sorts of information that might otherwise remain hidden.

That’s it. We look forward to continuing the adventure.