“Herding Cats” and the Art of Collaboration

In one of my last pieces, Growing an Evolved Society. I strongly suggested we take the resources and connections we have and think like Solutionists rather than farming out our thinking. And if the current American presidential election doesn’t make this obvious enough – what will?

The vehicle to the transition to this Solutionist mindset is civic collaboration. It’s time to use the creative power of the collective for the betterment of our communities. But for us to truly engage we need an operational platform to synthesize our efforts. In their rhizome societal organizational theory, French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called this platform the Smooth Space. And the players operating on it do so on the Front Porches of our communities; most often taking form at our locally owned businesses. It’s this participation by the collective, the “people in the streets,” that is the foundation of the collaborative hybrid governance model I metaphorically described using my daughter’s Bengal Cat, “Orion.

This Smooth Space mentioned above must be an open-ended platform where invitations are extended to all, regardless professional credentials, religious affiliation or rung occupied on the socioeconomic ladder. This all-inclusionary platform will provide us the tools and guidance. Diverse groups will align around the collective causes and solutions we seek to pursue – not those pre-picked by governments, the media or the marketing budgets of self-perpetuating national non-profits and NGOs.

This platform is not to be hierarchical, but organizationally flat, as describe in Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome metaphor. The nodes of this decentralized power structure form spontaneously according to need or Solution pursued. When a problem or opportunity arises, groups of Solutionists (Contributors) organically form around Front Porches, roles are created and activities dispatched using the resources and constructs of the platform and those involved. Volunteer Contributors move from cause to cause depending on their current passions, abilities and availabilities. Nothing is wasted. Resources are maximized and put towards the solution, not to the preservation of the organization and its ongoing administration.

Herding cats

“Herding Cats” 

Unfortunately this whole collaboration thing isn’t as easy as we would like it to be. Results don’t just magically happen with a wave of a wand … no matter the intentions (or alumnus status from Hogwarts). Working with the crowd is a lot like “herding cats.”

For many in avant-garde business and social circles, collaboration is next to godliness. Firms and organizations shovel their staff into open-plan office pits to encourage serendipitous encounters. Managers oblige their underlings to add new collaborative tools such as Slack and Chatter to existing ones such as traditional social media, e-mail and telephones. Corporate thinkers urge workers to be good corporate citizens and help each other whenever possible. (excerpts from The Collaboration Curse)

Gunther Sonnenfeld makes some very important observations as a veteran of over fifty collaborations. He breaks them down in what he calls The Truth About Collaborations.” Rather trying to paraphrase it (of which I couldn’t do it justice), I suggest you read it yourself. It’s good stuff.

Simon Tegg argues that while the internet makes massive on-line collaboration technically feasible, it also contributes to its cultural challenge.

A fundamental obstacle to scaling collective intelligence is that claimed benefit is vague and uncertain – and this by itself does not provide enough motivation for most people to participate. While there are civic-minded people who will contribute for social good, when the initiative depends solely on civic altruism it will struggle to scale beyond the core of committed activists and stakeholders. Initiatives are literally competing with cat gifs for people’s free time.

Efforts to scale collective intelligence must invest in social architecture — on-boarding, process and experience design, valuing and creating opportunities for participants at least as much, if not more, than software features. (Scaling Collective Intelligence – Simon Tegg)

As Simon pointed out, the internet can be an effective tool, but not one without problems. Identifying and synchronizing the different motivations and goals of the ‘players’ can be very difficult to do online. Whatever emotional momentum initially achieved is difficult to maintain. On the contrary, meeting face-to-face enables engaging in trust building complex conversations easier. And it’s trust that carries the interest and desire to continue when activity wanes or disagreement surfaces. This is a disadvantage of online collaborations.

The goal here is not to look at collaborative decision-making as an “either or” proposition (online or face-to-face), but rather determine what are its most effective applications and develop ways to make it work in the situations where it has the highest likelihood of success. Here the context is local and community driven efforts. Taking advantage of the physical proximity of community settings, let’s use the Front Porch as the conduit for participation and governance, as I covered in the last post. That’s not to say online collaborative tools can’t be used in conjunction. In fact their use is an integral part of the management of the implementation process.

Empathy and Inclusion

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli

Fundamental to the Community 3.0 Front Porch collaboration philosophy is talent. Every member of the community is unique and adds to the fabric of the community; and from this fabric its personality is sown. To not use all the fabric available, is to create a misrepresentation – a forgery of our communities. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. It’s up to us to find it and help them see it. Our communities are only as strong as their weakest and most unfortunate.

At the beginning of this series in the posts Empathy and Shared Experiences and Cross-pollination and Creating Your Personal Renaissance,” I went into great detail on the importance of practicing empathy and embracing diversity as an integral part of community building. Left to their own volition most people will associate only with others like them (including age). They seldom take that chance and step outside their comfort zone. But if we won’t make this step, how can we truly acquire the empathy and the trust needed to have constructive conversations? How can these conversations be the one required to build the relationships necessary to create the consensus and collaborations needed for our neighborhoods and communities to serve all its residents?

A community is the product of its people. Diversity is an advantage if not a necessity. A community is a living thing, a microcosm, and a lack of diversity makes itself open to disease (literally and figuratively). Social inbreeding creates a weak species, vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. A community that allows this inbreeding, assumes its byproduct, myopic thinking. It will not be able to combat the problems of the future … let alone realize its potential.

Rather than obsess on economic growth as most all civic governments do, the Community 3.0 Smooth Space and Front Porches will focus on destroying the “silos” that retard our evolution while stressing the improvement of the well-being of our populace including its physical, cerebral (avenues to self-actualization) and spiritual health.

The priority of the Front Porch is to create environments that nurture hope. By creating avenues for us to engage with our world and express our creativity through a Solutionist mindset, the inherent benevolence inside us can bloom. Making “helping others” our societal norms and expectations will empower us to supplant the hopeless climb up the ladder of our current economic caste system with more altruistic ones.

The Art of Collaboration

The Minneapolis-based rap collective Doomtree is a case study in collaboration. Going against a history in the genre where many would rather kill their peers than work them. For the record (literally and figuratively), this has changed in recent years – but still Doomtree is different. The five rappers who collaborate with the crew’s two DJs are forward-thinking in that they view the idea of hip-hop as a collaborative enterprise; and it’s evident in the group’s work. Their most recent album, I’m sure not unintentionally, is titled: “No Kings.” To accomplish their distinctive results, they religiously abide by four axioms:

  • Check your ego: Most of the members have been in situations where rap is considered a competition. In fact Eminem’s famed psuedo-biopic, “Nine Mile” was all about how he used a rap competition to rise above his sordid upbringing. But in the end, as troupe member Sims says: “We’re a band … there’s no killing anyone else here.”
  • Get to where you need to get: This sounds mundane, but if everyone can’t get together physically – you can’t collaborate. And by getting together, you committed. It says this matters and “I’m prepared and willing to take the time.” In Doomtree’s case, “We end up driving a few hours from home, out of cell-phone service, like a cloistered jury or something,” Dessa says.
  • “Let’s get this done:” Once they’ve set up shop, Doomtree doesn’t do a lot of waiting around. Once one of them throws a good idea, whether it be a beat, verse or rhyme – they run with it. Not having to be the one who starts it is liberating. “I don’t have to have a verse, or I can make my verse a little bridge. It’s freeing in a way,” Sims says. “I find it really fun—it allows me to be more playful and take more risks, because if they don’t work, I don’t care.”
  • Trust the collaboration: Trusting yourself and your collaborators to know how to run with a creative instinct is a gift that comes with the freedom that this sort of process brings. And it’s something that is easiest to find when you’re not looking over your shoulder, or trying to hoard all of the elements you think you need to be great.

Below are outlined the six components of the Community 3.0 “Herding Cats” collaboration model crucial to building a Front Porch and “holding the party” for your group’s collaborative Solution efforts.

  • Building the Front Porch: “The Where”
    • Create a personality
    • Be Solutionists
    • Move around your physical location
    • change up your gathering times
  • Building the Team: “The Who”
    • “The smaller the better”
    • Diversify your team
    • Train your collaborators
  • The Facilitator
    • Leaderless organizations aren’t really leaderless
    • Beware of hidden hierarchies
  • Selecting the Project: “The What”
    • The Menu of Conversation
    • Using demographics and maps
    • Getting past the first bad idea
    • Community 3.0 Solutions
  • The Collaboration: “The How”
    • The long-lasting narrative
    • The Doomtree Method
    • Understanding participation levels
    • The “Serendipity Portal”
    • Collaboration mechanics
    • Bottlenecks
    • Deep-thinking and the time drain
    • Don’t forget mentoring
    • Nurturing communications
  • Implementation: “Walking the Talk”
    • Resource maximization
    • Solution template
    • Solution guidelines
    • The post-mortem feedback loop

For a complete breakdown: see the “Art of Collaboration” in the Community 3.0 page.

“Herding cats” … revisited

Breaking from my normal utopian outlook, I can’t stress enough a transition to a participatory society won’t be easy. America’s founding fathers proclaimed democracy is a messy endeavor. And one where “the people” actually do the work will be even more so.

However well intended collaborations are, and how they attempt to represent an equality of views – they almost inevitably end in creating bottlenecks. Often little gets done without getting run past informal “top contributors.” Special effort must be made so the most active and overburdened collaborators know how to filter and prioritize tasks and requests. They have to know it’s alright to say no (or to allocate only half the time requested). And maybe best of all, encourage them to make an introduction to someone else when the request doesn’t draw on their own unique contributions. (insight gained from Collaboration Overload)

We also can’t lose fact that the “deep thinking” needed to bring a project to fruition is a solitary task. Collaboration runs contrary to this assumption. Collaborators need to know when to collaborate and when to remove themselves from “the party” and burrow down and inside themselves.

And we can’t forget the collaboration “time drain.” More collaborations mean more meetings. And more meetings mean more time spent in meetings … and less time actually doing the work. Even though the social aspect of collaborative efforts is important, having meetings for the sake of having meetings shouldn’t be the default. Just because it’s a collaboration … doesn’t mean it automatically needs a meeting. Make the time together worth everyone’s time. Collaborations should be synergistic … not antagonistic.

Not everyone flourishes under a system self-determination either. Gabriela Krupa illustrates this on her experience with Holacracy:

“I caught myself in a paradox: I’m happy to have leeway in my work and be able to do things as I see fit, but at the same time I would appreciate someone who could point me in the right direction: ‘this is right, just continue that way’ or ‘change direction, you can do better.’ I caught myself looking for confirmation that my choices and actions were right, wanted, or useful for my colleagues.”

Just because an open organization doesn’t have a formal management structure, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t set up informal mentoring arrangements. In fact these informal relationships can work much better than formal hierarchical ones. Making these informal arrangements easy to set up should be a priority of your collaboration as they can result in substantial member development.

The above obstacles are not normally encountered in traditional hierarchical structures. But just because collaboration based organizations have their problems doesn’t mean we should shy away though. We can’t accept the status quo and the inefficiency, inequality and ineptitude it’s giving us. A society based on collaboration and inclusion must be an ideal we strive for. We have to accept the fact its going to be a challenge, a challenge that will involve a collective effort probably unlike anything modern society has seen. “Herding cats,” especially Bengals is not supposed to be easy.

Fortunately, by definition … we will not be alone.


If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.


You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+.

11 thoughts on ““Herding Cats” and the Art of Collaboration

  1. You’ve listed many of the challenges to local, or global collaboration, or collective action, which I describe is “everyone headed mostly in the same direction, but not necessarily in complete agreement with each other”. I’ve been collecting links for about 20 years to articles about collaboration as part of my own efforts to bring dinosaurs, cats and various others to the table in an effort to help youth living in Chicago’s high poverty neighborhoods have access to well organized, non-school tutor/mentor programs that help them through school and toward jobs and careers. You can find those links at http://tinyurl.com/TMI-Collaboration. This is part of a much larger web library intended to support the efforts of anyone who is concerned about this problem. On my http://tutormentor.blogspot.com blog some of the articles tagged “network building” would reflect some of the challenges you’ve described.

    I think getting people together to solve small, local, or community-based, problems, has many challenges that you’ve described here. However, these are magnified as the size of the community extends beyond 100,000 or 1 million and/or beyond or the problem is global in nature. They are also magnified when the problem is complex, and will take many years to solve in all the places were the problem exists.

    Once we get to this level of thinking, one focus on the problem has to be finding and retaining a) visionaries who see a problem and are persistent in trying to bring others together to build a solution; and b) funder/benefactors who will provide on-going resources to support visionaries in doing this work.

    SSIR’s first article about collective impact, and the STRIVE initiative, appeared in 2011 describing a collaboration in Cincinnati that started in the mid 2000s. It’s 10 years later and still going strong. Will it still be in operation 10 years from now? Or will donors turn to another solution?

    1. You made an interesting point Daniel concerning donors. Will donors stay committed or will they become fickle and jump to the “newest greatest” solution. I believe physical involvement and volunteering is the key here. Money is great, but it’s fleeting. If a donor can also be involved from a street level they will have an emotional attachment to the project or cause. This attachment makes it a lot harder to walk away.

      1. That is the difference between local and global, simple and complex. Much can be done by volunteers. Long term commumity building, platform building and maintenance, etc. have costs.

  2. Well written article on a favorite topic.
    I enjoyed the phrase “Every member of the community is unique and adds to the fabric of the community; ”
    Our totally independent, weekly newspaper has shown citizens how to be empowered and work collectively.
    It has been a 5 year evolution, but has been effective in keeping the “Power Structure” aware and individual citizens realizing their ability to effectively to govern

    1. Thanks. Collaboration is a evolutionary process – always checking itself depending on the situation and the players involved. I hope this post didn’t come off as a “be all end all” guide to collaboration. It’s just my thoughts and hopefully it’ll help make the transition to a more participatory society more palatable.

      1. Your intentions did not come off as Dictum, rather insightful “food for thought’
        The basic concept that MAN is not a solitary entity, yet possesses the power of autonomy, truly encourages the development of the collaborative skill set.

  3. My personal experience of organizations that espouse leaderless, collaborative environments is that they are led by people who want out of the hard work of management and simply wish that others will do the heavy lifting for them. It results in a Lord of Flies competitive jungle interrupted by periodic acts of random dictatorship by the mostly absentee leader. It’s a nice idea. I have yet to see it actually work.

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