Tips for Building a Collaborative Environment

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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.

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