The Collaboratory: Working Together in Finding Ideas that Energize to Take Action

Marcella Bremer Change 2 Comments

m_collaboratoryWelcome to the “Collaboratory”. This approach is a co-creative stakeholder engagement process for solving complex problems. I’m in Vienna at the Leadership in Transition conference. Join me below to experience this change method…

The Collaboratory is a nice mixture of Theory-U-like exercises and dialogue approaches. We will work together to see what answers emerge around the guiding question: What does it take for us as individuals and for the organizations we work in, to actively create a future we really want to live in?

Guided by facilitator Dr. Katrin Muff (Business School Lausanne and one of the Collaboratory developers) we will go through three phases: Downloading, Envisioning and Prototyping. This is like Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. Downloading as much information and perspectives as possible, Envisioning what could be possible and Prototyping: trying small things according to your vision to experience whether they work or need to be adjusted.

Starting in silence

First, we go into silence. In this silence, we explore a question we personally have regarding the evolution of organizations in a fundamentally changing world – the theme of this conference. Next, we discuss our questions with a partner.

Katrin Muff asks participants an interesting question: Do you have 100% control over your question, or not? Can you do something about it? Discuss this with your partner.

My partner is a project manager who is employed by an international chain of shops that advertises itself as cheap-cheaper-cheapest. That motto is no longer sustainable. Her dilemma is: How can I influence the customers who want the cheapest products? How can we change, together with our suppliers, as an industry? That is an interesting challenge. Simply raising prices and spending the money on sustainability and social equality will drive their current customers away. But they can’t go on like this either….m_people listening

Inner circle

Our Collaboratory starts with an open showcase round. Four people sit in a small, inner circle. We sit around them in larger circles. The “inner four” start sharing their question while the rules of dialogue apply: it’s not a discussion or debate. Everyone listens respectfully and may respond by building on the other’s statements, not by defying them. Try to focus on what seems important and resonates most. Add more information that you may have regarding the topic. Just like the World Café approach – we engage in collective dialogue. The one who speaks is not interrupted – we wait and take turns – passing the talking stick. Graphic facilitators catch the gist of the dialogue in drawings.

One person wonders how to create a world that can serve the common good. Another worries about the increasing number of suicides in Sweden because adolescents don’t think modern life is meaningful. The third wants to take away the fear of death in modern society. The fourth asks what we can do to decrease workplace stress and burn-out in today’s frantic organizations. They exchange points of view, then vacate the chairs.

The signal in the noise

Now it’s our turn to step into the inner circle and share our or our partner’s question with the collective. One by one, participants take place in the inner circle to voice questions and concerns, have a brief dialogue with the others present – and then leave again to listen in the outer circle. Whenever you feel like stepping into the inner speaking circle, you may tap one of them gently on the shoulder and take their place. Katrin Muff, the facilitator, warns us to not take this personally. It is not personal. It’s simply someone who feels that he or she has to join the dialogue now, to add something or change the perspective. The rule of thumb is: when you heart starts pounding – step in the inner circle. There is something that needs to be shared.

The inner and the outer circle are slowly swapping places all the time while we try to find the signal in the noise: what is emerging from this collective of people?

When your heart starts pounding - there is something wanting to be shared Click To Tweet

The diversity is great – probably because it’s a very broad topic. The evolution of organizations in a fundamentally changing world is about “everything” in a way. An excerpt of the dialogue that was “downloaded” from our gathering:

Downloading Dialogue

Change consultant: How can we change – while we know the right things to do – but we don’t do them…

Nurse: How can I find like-minded people in the hospital where I work? Everyone’s too busy. I want to be a whole person, not just an employee: a nurse.

Consultant: “How can I” – as if we can do so much. We have only a small impact in our organizations.
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Other: We can’t be whole until we know who we are – so we also have to face our fears.

Nurse: I am responsible for the current reality, too. So I can do something about it.

Other: People don’t need safety – they need love and pleasure. Embrace fear because it is part of wholeness.

Consultant: Change processes from A to B aren’t great. You want to arrive at B. But while you’re somewhere in between, you’d better be in that place and explore and accept the uncertainty that is here. See what happens now, between-A-and-B.

Nurse: Do I need someone else to give me permission – or shall I ask for forgiveness if my actions turn out the wrong way?

Coach adds: Fear is ubiquitous in organizations – many are bullied. We need courage for systemic change.

Another consultant: I worked 20 years in management and wanted out – I felt empty and angry. As a consultant, I was happier – but I started an educational organization and now I feel stuck again. Outside organizations, as a consultant, it’s easier to stay yourself. Inside organizations, it’s harder to be yourself. What do organizations do to us?!

Coach: Do we need to reduce the risk of vulnerability for ourselves and others?

Scholar: Let’s stay with the anger that was mentioned before. Anger can fuel creativity and bold action.
Manager: The purpose of wholeness in organizations struck me (refers to Frederic Laloux who states that we only bring our rational, masculine self-parts to work). I’m angry that we show only 1/16 of ourselves at work. I miss myself! Should we create an organization to address this? We should start with our children – help them stay whole in organizations.

Coach: The way out of fear is to acknowledge your pain – deal with it – to go back to love.

Outside organizations, it's easier to stay yourself but inside it's hard Click To Tweet

Consultant: Outside organizations, as a consultant, it’s easier to stay yourself. Inside organizations, it’s harder to be yourself. What do organizations do to us?!

What raised energy?

Facilitator Muff closes the morning circle and asks us to stay in silence, to digest what we have heard. Which topics raised energy within you? What feels like action? Connect with your partner for a short exchange of thoughts and experiences.

The way out of fear is to acknowledge your pain - deal with it Click To Tweet

Personally, I’m tired. It took energy to listen to the wide diversity of concerns. My partner, the project manager is not content at this point. She feels it wasn’t a dialogue, but 26 monologs… Listening is hard. Converging instead of diverging is not easy in this format: we’re listening respectfully but not interrupting, debating, correcting or manipulating the flow of conversation.

Maybe this is easier with colleagues of one organization when you focus on one specific question. I think that our question is too broad to lead to concrete, pragmatic results and take action. But maybe I’m being too results-oriented, which is my favorite style.

The Collaboratory is a great exercise with a beautiful build-up – and maybe it is enough for today if people start thinking and hear what is alive in this collective field of coaches and consultants. What is on our minds? How do we feel…?
m_graphic 3

Envision the future

After lunch, we start with a guided visualization. We are preparing for Envisioning. Sitting in enveloping circles again, eyes closed, we envision what it would be like if we already had organizations that inspire us to create a future we want to live in? To contribute to the well-being of the common good?

What if our organizations inspired us to create a future we want to live in? Click To Tweet

After this, we share keywords of what we have seen. Hmm, I’ve noticed this before – when people summarize their insights for a large group: they utter generalizations, clichés. People share beautiful concepts such as respect, tolerance, diversity and support in the future workplace – but the pragmatist in me wonders: what are we going to do about it?

We take a silent moment with ourselves before the inner circle is opened to pitch action ideas. Having heard what is going on during the Downloading dialogue phase in the morning, what would you like to do? People are invited to pitch their ideas.

When about 10 people have shared what moves them to action, we choose which one appeals to us. We divide ourselves into 10 workspaces to elaborate these ideas with Prototyping.

And: Action!

Here’s the action phase: what can we DO? Some action ideas are: let’s develop academic research about new organizations as described in Laloux’ book. And: Develop a game or tool to find the purpose of an organization. Or: How can we hold the space for coaches and consultants to meet, exchange and learn together. And: Let’s develop stories to convince others that such a respectful, fun-to-work, new organization is possible. Or: How to apply self-management, purpose and wholeness in large organizations?

What if we had organizations that inspire us to create a future we want to live in?

Can storytelling entice even the cynics to save the planet? Click To Tweet

Can we use storytelling to entice even the cynics to try wholeness, purpose and self-management at work – and save the planet?

I joined the storytelling group. Can we create a story that shows that new organizations and a better world are possible? Can we use storytelling to entice even the cynics to try wholeness, purpose and self-management at work – and save the planet?

We’re using a talking piece to engage in respectful dialogue and listen to one another, build on what the others have said, and not debate. To be frank, our dialogue diverges widely, maybe too much.

Here’s what we explored: What conflict or tension would make a good story theme? Money versus love and bankers versus Hippies? Scarcity and abundance. Competition and collaboration. The paradox of our current economy that grows as if natural resources were abundant – while they are scarce. The only real abundance is our creativity as a species. We should build awareness – how to avoid death for the species when we keep exhausting the planet. How to design organizations so people will bring forward their best ideas and actions. What would the hero’s journey look like for organizations?

We don’t want a basic happy-ending format – isn’t life a continuous journey? Endings are artificial. There is no destination – only a journey. Heroes are outdated as well. We have to do it together – let’s create a story of connection. We need to connect more.

Connect to survive

After a break, we try to bring it down to one story. As an exercise, we create a story. We have fun doing this. “A rich tourist strands in Calcutta – when the electricity goes down for weeks. No flights, no light, no use of credit cards, no electronic devices, no electronic hotel keys – nothing works anymore. Now what, how do you survive without your material, monetary immune system? You need to connect with the beggars on the street or you won’t have anything to eat, no support, nowhere to be safe – because anarchy just set in. Only human connections will save the rich guy. He must overcome prejudice, fear, intolerance and diversity and see everyone as a human being. Assess whether people are to be trusted or not – go back to basic instincts and co-dependency. You have to connect to survive!”
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It was great practice – but our group didn’t create something to outlast this conference.

The Collaboratory ends with plenary circles where groups can share what they came up with. It seems many didn’t have enough time and experienced so much diversity that they couldn’t pin it down to actionable steps in one afternoon.

We get back to our initial partners to discuss what has emerged in relation to our question of this morning. The project manager of the cheap-stores-chain wondered what would be needed to get clients willing to pay more for their products to save the world as we know it. She takes home the possibilities of stories to help customers and suppliers and other stakeholders take on different perspectives. But there’s still a lot of homework to be done…

Engage & Energize

The Collaboratory is a dynamic, engaging approach. I like the alternation between individual, collective, and partner work. The dialogue form is strong, the talking piece helps people to listen. The inner and outer circles create community – there is no sage on a stage. I appreciate the reflection and meditation in between rounds. It’s important to silence the rational mind for a while, and access other knowledge.
It’s also vital to follow where the energy flows. Ideas that don’t get participants in work groups are not urgent or interesting enough – while other ideas generate energy and attract people to take action.

The Collaboratory could work well in an organization or team where coworkers share a problem that they feel needs to be solved soon. An organizational context will give more pressure, more convergence, and will likely generate more practical outcomes and actions that really energize people.

  • How could you use this approach in your situation?

More information about The Collaboratory and to order the book, go to: https://collaboratorybook.wordpress.com/

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2016. All rights reserved.

The beautiful drawings that were made during the Collaboratory workshop are by Martina Närr-Fuchs and Gabi Damm.

Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI-online.com.


Comments 2

    1. It is great to use elements of this dialogue form in my work on culture change, Carole! However, many clients don’t want to take a whole day as described here. So, you can use shortcuts. If you want more inspiration, check out the book Liberating Structures! Highly recommended dialogue approaches, quick and easy, that you can fit into any program, meeting or team day!

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