Archive for February, 2010

Tips for Building a Collaborative Environment

February 26, 2010

AthenaBridge co-organizes the OGD Workshop Series.

After completing the February Open Government Directive Workshop, we realized that it’s much easier to think about collaboration and build collaborative practices into an agency open government plan if you’re doing so in a collaborative environment.

In the spirit of “open-sourcing” our method, here are some of the collaborative elements of the February OGD Workshop that you may want to include in your collaborative projects at your agency or organization:

  • Small Teams: Collaboration is effective when group size is manageable for the team leader.  We suggest 12 as the maximum.  With more members than that, a team leader should have assistant team leaders.
  • Friendly Competition: Sometimes we put forth our best effort when we’re competing with another group.  To harness this element, we had three in-person teams and one online team competing with each other to present the best ideas at the end of the day.
  • Invite Great Participants: Although our workshop was open to everyone, we wanted to make sure that we’d attract a collaborative group rather than one that’s interested in networking only. The price of admission for this workshop was writing a few sentences about what skills or ideas a participant would like to bring to a group. This filtered out the folks that weren’t there to collaborate.
  • Responsibility AND Authority: We gave the four team leaders the responsibility for the success of their team AND we gave them the authority to succeed.  This meant loosening control so that they can determine the direction and choose the particular methods that their teams would use to collaborate.  Responsibility without authority would put the team leaders in a tough position.
  • Public-Private: We recognize that the public and private sectors both offer valuable (and complementary) expertise on open government, so we ensured we’d have nearly a 50-50 split.
  • Online and Offline: We had one online team working in parallel with the in-person groups.  This allowed more people to join in the collaborative process from outside the Beltway.
  • Inter-Agency: We made sure to draw from an inter-agency crowd to maintain a diversity of perspectives.
  • Cross-Team: During lunch we allowed the three in-person teams to mingle and cross-pollinate ideas from one team to another.
  • Top-Down and Bottom-Up: As the workshop organizers, we aimed to push “power to the edges”.  We provided the resources and just enough structure so the team leaders could focus on their teams.
  • Tight Feedback Loops: Tight feedback loops kept our teams on track.  Every hour we encouraged the team leaders to ask for the participants’ feedback on their team’s process; this conversation about the work process is different from a conversation about the work product.  At different times, we were able to interject feedback from outside observers on the team’s process.
  • Asynchronous and Synchronous: Online collaboration before and after your in-person meetings is critical for making the most of limited face time.
  • Common Operational Picture: We used the wiki on the OpenGov Playbook so that many editors could work on the same document at the same time.  This wiki also serves as a central directory of links to effective open government practices across the Web.  Many of your colleagues may have never used a wiki—invite them test one out—it’s a lot simpler than they would expect.
  • Build on Previous Events: We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel so we put the emphasis on “synthesis, synthesis, synthesis.”  There has been so much great writing and ideation about open government over the past year that what’s required now is combining and prioritizing the ideas that are already available via agency’s public engagement processes, draft agency open government plans, GovLoop, blogs, and the OpenGov Playbook.
  • Experiment and Iterate: This workshop was our third in a series, so we’ve been refining our process over time.  We aren’t afraid to fail; we have been willing to learn in public, build momentum, and improve the process by building one event upon another.
  • Provide Food: Food is key to maintaining energy throughout the day. Because the workshop was an entirely volunteer-run event without a budget, we had all the participants chip in $10 for their own lunch. The price was low enough that no one was excluded from attending, and by not providing a free lunch, we had participants who really wanted to be there.
  • Team-Building: We had a happy hour after our event to help folks unwind after an intense day.  This is also critical for building a sustainable community of participants for future workshops.

What did we miss?  What collaborative elements do you add to your events? We welcome any suggestions or additions in the comments section.

2 Teammates > 3 Individuals

February 25, 2010

Teamwork!

The scope and complexity of today’s problems are outpacing our ability to solve them.  Time and resources are chronically scarce; we have no choice but to collaborate.

It’s a fundamental tenet of our philosophy that two teammates working in synch will beat three individuals working separately every time.  Members of a team can complement each other’s skills, and every difference in opinion is a chance for everyone to learn something and strengthen the team.

We built our software to identify and resolve such differences in a productive fashion.

As entrepreneurs, we are hopeful about how our nation is recovering from this recession, but there is so much work ahead of us all.  There are many promising forms of collaboration which have not yet fully blossomed: widespread collaboration among agencies, among NGO’s, between the public and private sectors, online and offline.

We look forward to exploring these forms of collaboration with some great organizations in 2010 and beyond.  If you’re involved in some interesting projects, drop us a note and let us know how we can help!

Also, you may be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

Evolving Beyond Two-Way Dialogue

February 24, 2010

This article is written for non-profit organizations and government agencies that are having difficulty transitioning from a broadcast model of communication to one that is participatory and engaging.

Your organization is probably better at organizing its members and its public rather than empowering them, and that’s understandable– after all, that model has been successful for a long time!

But culture change is running deep and wide across our economy; entire industries are being reshaped by the decentralized nature of the Internet.  These trends reveal an opportunity for you to connect with the public and authentically empower them as partners in solving the problems that your organization set out to solve.

There are three generations of organizational communications: one-to-many, two-way, and many-to-many.  If your organization has resisted the trend toward two-way dialogue of recent years and currently uses a one-to-many model, there’s still time for it to catch up and perhaps even leap ahead of its peers.

Just as many developing nations skipped the era of land line telephones and jumped straight to mobile technology, your organization can skip the growing pains associated with two-way dialogue and ease right into a more resilient, networked model of many-to-many communication.

Three Models of Communication

One-to-many communication includes TV ads, speeches, and brochures. Two-way dialogue includes Facebook pages with limited discussion capabilities. Many-to-many communication involves large conversations with advanced forum software, just one of which is AthenaBridge.

Each form of communication is useful for different purposes, depending on the level of engagement you desire and whether you are seeking convergent or divergent thinking:

We’re definitely not saying our software is the only solution; we are saying that methods involving many-to-many communication offer significant advantages over two-way communication:

  • It’s easier (and more cost-effective) for your organization to listen to 500 people converse with each other than it is to respond to 500 individual emails.  After listening, you can engage your network with the benefit of learning where they stand and hearing what they are prepared to do to help you.  After all, every person you hire to respond to emails and Twitter messages is a person you could have hired to help you directly with your mission.  However by effectively tapping the network, your communications staff can create a disproportionately large and positive impact on your mission.
  • Many-to-many communication empowers your network to embrace your mission on a deeper level; it’s easy to forget that you are not alone– the public, your public, cares. Members of your public are eager to help you accomplish your mission at their local level while these large conversations help you flex your network and prepare for focused and synchronized action at the national level.
  • As more people engage, the value of the conversation increases while your workload does not.  Larger audiences provide balance and serve as more resilient filters and quality control.

Successful communication is work, and many-to-many communication faces the following obstacles:

  • More often than we’d like to see, non-profit organizations are afraid to lose control.  They fear that if they empower their members to speak, then the ensuing conversation will reveal internal divisions.  Solution: This shouldn’t hold you back; a diversity of opinion makes your organization more resilient and relevant by injecting vital ideas into your decision-making cycle.  Healthy discussion is essential.
  • Government agencies and non-profits are understaffed and are not enthusiastic about handling waves of public comments.  Solution: Rather than relying on a channel for two-way communication and collecting isolated and conflicting comments that your staff will have to process, enable a conversation among your network.  It’s far easier to take a listening role, have your network sort out their disagreements, and filter out the best ideas for you.  Once you’re at this stage, you will know exactly how to reach and inspire them to action.

There is no easy path, and many-to-many communication takes significant work to get right.  Fortunately, it’s less work than two-way dialogue which often gives the public the unreasonable expectation that you can respond to every email with a unique and personal note.  Here are some of the key elements for successful many-to-many communication campaigns:

  • Trust your public.  Harness the best of their energy and expertise.
  • Stay engaged and curate the conversation.  A little structure and guidance up front can provide significant returns on investment down the road.
  • Demonstrate that you’re eager to learn and not afraid to innovate.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the trends are becoming increasingly clear: the transformative organizations of the next decade will embrace a networked model of openness and mass collaboration.

You may also be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

Current Statistics about the Field of Dialogue and Deliberation

February 23, 2010

Caroline Lee and Francesca Polletta recently completed a remarkable survey on the field of dialogue and deliberation.

We at AthenaBridge have been big fans of this field for years and it’s great to understand its demographics on a deeper level.  This survey is definitely worth a look!

Do You Need Comments or Conversation?

February 7, 2010

There’s a big difference between comments and conversation online.  Sometimes comments are more useful and sometimes conversation is more useful– each method has its place, and choosing the right one depends on the purpose of your outreach effort.

Comments are great for brainstorming and getting a lot of ideas quickly; conversation is more appropriate for in-depth problem solving and for helping participants ask each other questions and learn from each other.

(click to enlarge)

With AthenaBridge, we’re focusing on the conversation side of the spectrum, because our national dialogue leaves much to be desired.  Interest groups have no option except to simplify an issue to fit it into sound bites and the subject lines of emails.  This helps get attention for individual issues, but it does a disservice for the health of our democracy in the long-term.

We’re excited to see the possibilities that the Open Government Directive and “Gov 2.0” create.  Government agencies and elected officials can effect lasting change when they open spaces for citizens to connect, converse, and learn from each other. Through conversation, we can learn from each other.

Does the above diagram represent how you see comments and conversation?  How would you improve it?  Also, you may be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.