Three criteria for working with others for change and action

working with others for change and actionHow can we successfully work with others for change and action?

During the last eight months, I’ve been striving to save a tiny liberal arts school, Marlboro College, from closure. I’ve felt compelled to do this work, not only because the school sits at the heart of rural Marlboro, Vermont, where I’ve lived since 1978, but also because I taught there for ten years (1983-1993) and have a deep affection for the College’s rare form of education.

Someone could write a book about the twists and turns in this struggle, but it won’t be me. Instead, I’m going to share three criteria I uncovered about how to successfully work with others for change and action. When I say “successfully”, I’m not talking about whether “my” side won or lost. Rather, these are pragmatic criteria that can make the process of working with other people on a social or political goal somewhat easier and more productive.

1. Be sure that fundamental motivations are aligned

Attempting to work collaboratively and fruitfully on a complex issue? Take a little time to find out whether your potential collaborators share the same fundamental motivations as you!

It’s tempting to quickly accept any offer of help. At first, all seems well. Sometimes, though, it turns out that a potential collaborator who shares your goals has fundamentally different motivations. I’ve learned that when peoples’ motivations aren’t sufficiently closely aligned, friction and disharmony eventually surface.

When this occurs, you’ll realize that a significant amount of the time and effort spent building the collaborative relationship has been fruitless.

Of course, no two people have exactly the same motivations to work together on a project. Minor differences are often irrelevant, or resolved quickly. Deciding whether fundamental motivations are aligned, therefore, is ultimately a judgment call. However, ignoring motivational differences, no matter how severe, is a recipe for disappointment and frustration.

2. Check that people are willing to work

working with others for change and actionWatch out for folks who are quick to share opinions about what should be done, but always leave the work they propose to others.

For example, during our campaign, many people made suggestions about legal grounds to sue those planning to close the school. Their ideas were plausible on the surface (certainly to a non-attorney like me). But they never offered to contact an attorney and discover whether there was indeed a legal case to make.

Those of us who did spend significant time talking to attorneys discovered that most of the proposed ideas were not good ones. Because we didn’t want to telegraph our legal strategy, it was difficult to openly repudiate the suggestions. The spate of proposals continued.

Ideas are welcome. Some supporters with good ideas simply don’t have sufficient free time to work, and that’s fine. But ultimately, someone needs to do the work of researching the plausibility of ideas and turning them into action. You may need to tolerate those who frequently opine without offering to do the work — but don’t spend too much time appeasing them.

3. Be able to work well with others in the group

working with others for change and action
There are numerous ways that folks who share common goals and motivations and are eager to work can still fail to collaborate successfully. I’ll mention a couple here.

One interesting requirement is a nuanced appreciation of confidentiality. When you’re working in an informal fluid group, you need to have a clear communal understanding of whom to trust with what. In my experience, some people don’t grasp the need for this, and don’t think through the consequences of passing on information given to them in confidence. Though I’m sure everyone’s made this mistake one time or another (I certainly have), someone who routinely breaks confidentiality is not a prime candidate for successful collaboration.

Personality clashes can be another collaboration breaker. For example, over the last eight months, a few people who had useful expertise and experience became more trouble than it was worth to work with because they unpredictably blew up at group members. Dealing with their outbursts significantly reduced the limited time working group members had available. Consequently, there was a reluctant but necessary passing of the ways.


There are, of course, many other factors involved in facilitating large-scale change. Even when a seemingly coherent group forms to address important issues, it still can be difficult to work with others for change and action. I hope the three criteria shared above help you use your energy for social and political activism more productively.

Learning in community at conferences

Legendary Apple designer Jony Ive explains how learning in community helped Apple make the iPhone:

“When we genuinely look at a problem it’s an opportunity to learn together, and we discover something together. We know that learning in community is powerful. It feeds and supports momentum which in turn encourages a familiarity and an acceptance of challenges associated with doing difficult things. And I’ve come to learn that I think a desire to learn makes doing something new just a little less scary.”
——Jony Ive, Apple designer Jony Ive explains how ‘teetering towards the absurd’ helped him make the iPhone

At conferences we also learn better when we learn in community. At traditional events, expert speakers broadcast content at attendees. But today our minds are increasingly outside our brains. Our ability to learn effectively now depends mostly on the quality and connectedness of our networks, rather than what’s inside our heads.

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Two scientists walk into a conference…

Two scientists walk into a conferenceOne of the most satisfying outcomes of the peer conferences I design and facilitate is how they bring people together who would never otherwise have met — and in doing so change the world.

This is obviously important, but why do world-changing connections seldom occur at conventional conferences?

Here’s an illuminating story from the pages of a New Yorker article about Jim Simons, the noted mathematician founder of Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, and a funder of a variety of research projects:

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Innovative participatory conference session: a case study using online tools

Participants working on the edACCESS 2010 Web 2.0 case study

Interested in a highly participatory alternative to talk-at-the-audience conference sessions? Then you’ll want to learn about a brilliant session format we used at the edACCESS 2010 Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop.

I’ve been running peer conferences for edACCESS, an association of information technology staff at small independent schools, since 1992, and just wrapped up our 19th annual conference, held this year at Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The four-day conference did not include a single traditional didactic session. Only two sessions were scheduled in advance: a Demo Session in which attendees, scattered around the exhibit area, gave short presentations on cool technology and applications used at their school, and the case study described below. All other topics and formats (33 in all!) were crowd sourced, using the Conferences That Work methodology, during the first few hours of the conference.

Before the conference
Joel Backon of Choate Rosemary School designed and facilitated the Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop session, with input from Bill Campbell and a dose of “inspiration from reading Adrian’s book“. Before the conference, Joel described some of his thoughts in an email to me:

“I will provide structure, but I don’t want to be too prescriptive or we won’t learn anything. For example, if there is disagreement about which tools will be best to use for the project, that is a message everybody should know about Web 2.0 tools. There are so many, it is difficult to obtain agreement regarding which to use, and that impacts the productivity of organizations. At this point, I’m looking for feedback because I am clearly taking a risk.”

I told Joel that I loved the idea of using a case study format for the session, and suggested he add a little more detail (about the IT operations at the school) to his case study. Here are the final case study materials that attendees received. They were posted on the conference wiki several days before the session took place. You may want to check out the link before reading further.

Setting the stage
As we listened in the school theater, Joel spent ten minutes introducing the case study materials. He gave us a list of tools, including a blog already set up on Cover It Live—projected on a large screen in front of us—and told us we had to collaboratively create a one page report of recommendations on how to cut a (fictitious) $1,000,000 school information technology annual budget by 50%.

Oh, and we couldn’t talk to each other face to face! All communication had to be done online.

Normally, a project of this type would take an experienced IT staff days to complete, requiring extensive discussion of every facet of the organization’s infrastructure, personnel, services, and budget.

Oh, and we had ninety minutes! In that time, we had to choose appropriate collaborative online tools, divide up the work, discuss options, make decisions and recommendations, and write the report.

Finally, Joel explained, after the exercise was complete, we’d have half an hour to debrief using good old-fashioned talking to one another, face to face.

My experience
Some participants had traveled thousands of miles to edACCESS 2010, and now here we were, sitting in a theater auditorium, silently working at our computers.

During the first twenty minutes of the session, I was highly skeptical that we would be able to accomplish anything meaningful. (In the debrief, it turned out that most people had had the same expectation.) To see what transpired you may want to check out the complete blog conversation transcript, which provides moment-by-moment documentation of our online conversation. Notice that tweets that included the conference hashtag, #edaccess10, were merged in real time into the transcript.

At around 8:50 a.m., the group started to get organized. Communicating through the blog, people started to suggest online tools to work on specific projects. The tools mentioned were Google products: Wave, and Docs. Our sophisticated attendees were aware that Docs had been upgraded in April to support simultaneous editing by multiple (up to 50) users and they even knew that you had to choose the “new version” on the Editing Settings tab.

Up to this point I had not been working on the project, but was monitoring the blog conversation as a process observer. I asked to receive an invitation to the Google Wave, but a link never came. Eventually I found out that the Wave had only been adopted by a few attendees.

But when I clicked on the link for a Google Docs spreadsheet that had been set up I was astounded. (Check it out!) Attendees had created a multitab spreadsheet with a summary page that showed the current savings in different budget areas that people were working on linked to separate detailed tabs for each area. I was amazed at the work that had been done, and immediately added a small contribution of my own—a column showing the percentage budget savings so we could tell when we’d reached our 50% goal. People used free cells to annotate their suggestions and decisions.

Bill Campbell, who was moderating the blog, used Cover It Live’s instant poll so we could discover the tools we were using. The poll showed that most of us were working on the spreadsheet.

Thirty minutes before the end of the exercise, I suggested someone set up a Google Doc for the report (I didn’t know how to do this myself.) Within a few minutes the report was created and people started writing. I added a starting introductory paragraph and corrected a few typos. It was truly remarkable to see the report evolve keystroke by keystroke in real time, being written by a ghostly crew of 30-40 people.

With fifteen minutes to go, it became clear we could reach the 50% reduction goal, and that the report would be ready on time. The release of tension led to an outbreak of silliness (starting around 10:00 a.m. in the blog transcript) to which I must confess I contributed.

Here is the Final Report.

Lessons learned
So what did we learn? Here are some of my thoughts, feel free to add your own as a comment at the end of this post.

  • First of all, everyone was surprised by how successful our effort had been. I think all of us underestimated the advantages of working together online, where multiple channels of communication and collaboration can coexist simultaneously. This is so different from meeting face to face, where, in general, at any moment one person is monopolizing the conversation. I am pretty sure that if we had done the same exercise face to face, we would not have come up with such a high-quality solution!
  • I think the case study worked well because we trusted each other. The group members knew each other to varying degrees, and we were prepared to accept individual judgments about self-selected areas where each of us chose to work. The exercise would not have gone well if we had been concerned about the abilities of some of the participants.
  • One interesting observation is that we were working collaboratively on publicly accessible documents. As a result, we don’t actually know how many people contributed to our work, or even if they were all at edACCESS 2010! This made it very easy to add new workers; anyone who was given the link to a document could start editing it right away. A private workspace would have required some kind of registration process, which would have encumbered our ad hoc efforts.
  • One weakness in our approach is the lack of any formal checking mechanism for the report we generated. A few people went over the report during the last ten minutes and commented that it “looked good” but if one of us had made a serious mistake there’s a good chance it would have been missed. This exercise was akin to what happens when a group of people responds to an emergency—everyone does the best they can and is grateful for the contributions of others.
  • It surprised me that no obvious leaders emerged, although several people (including me) made group-directed suggestions that seem to have been accepted and acted on.
  • A number of people commented early on that they couldn’t use their iPads effectively for the exercise. We needed multiple windows open to be able to work efficiently, and the Cover It Live transcript wouldn’t scroll in Safari on the iPad (though there appears to be a work-around).

It’s hard for me to think of a more participant-driven format for a successful conference session. For two hours we were spellbound, working and playing hard on our laptops, and then excitedly discussing and debriefing. I wager that all the participants at the edACCESS 2010 Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop will remember this experience and their associated learning for a long time.

What other lessons can we learn from this experiment? Are there ways this collaborative process might be improved?