Posts Tagged ‘collaboration’

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


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.

The Machine is [Changing] Us

July 18, 2009

Michael Wesch gave a very entertaining and informative presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum this year.  He discusses how the technology we create eventually changes us.

He criticizes the one-way, sound-bite culture that mass media created; he raises the possibility that online collaborative tools can invent new ways of engaging in deeper and meaningful conversation.

More information about his ideas is here.  Watching this presentation in person was exciting; he deserved the standing ovation.

I look forward to Micheal’s ideas becoming mainstream.  Currently most folks in the Gov 2.0 world are still focusing on social media.  Social media are useful, but getting everyone together in one place online is just the first step; the next (and more complicated) step is collaboration on a deeper level.

Integrating VSAS and wikis into a single workflow

May 18, 2009

Wikipedia is the most well-known use of wiki software.

Wikis are tools for creating documents that reflect a consensus position. The defining feature of wiki software is that anyone who has access to a wiki document has the ability to edit it. The most current version is available to everyone at the same time. Wikis have been around for a while, but they have become more popular as businesses, non-profit organizations, and government agencies embrace collaborative tools.

VSAS (the enterprise version of AthenaBridge) is a tool that works very well with wikis, because it helps the participants identify the common ground and the points of disagreement before they start to write the consensus document using a wiki.

How Wikis and VSAS are Different: Two Scenarios

VSAS helps organize many ideas in the form of a conversation map; related ideas are displayed near each other. VSAS is different from wikis, because none of the ideas that people publish can be edited by anyone else.

To illustrate why this is important, we’ll create an example scenario where three people are editing a wiki. Person #1 writes the first draft. Person #2 edits the first draft. Person #3 comes along and edits what Person #2 wrote. This situation will work fine as long as each person that comes along is making improvements to the document. If Person #2 makes the document worse, then Person #3 will not be able to see Person #1’s original contribution unless they know to look for it.

If we imagine the same three people using VSAS to accomplish the same task, we will notice some distinct advantages. Person #1 writes the first draft just like before. Next, Person #2 comments on the draft. When Person #3 comes along, she will see both the first draft and Person #2’s comments and will be able to comment on both– not just the most recent version of a wiki.

As additional people come along, they will be able to see the first draft and all the comments. If they were using a wiki, they would only see the most recent version of the document, and they would have to sift through all the previous versions of the document to see the comments of other participants.

Integrating Both Tools into One Workflow

After all the thoughts are captured in a conversation map, then it is time to summarize them in a consensus document like a wiki. In fact, it might be very useful to create to consensus documents– one on the pro side and one on the con side. Because VSAS measures the credibility of each participant, it is possible to grant access to the wiki documents to just the most credible particpants on each side.

Using VSAS in addition to wikis has several significant advantages:

  1. Diversity of ideas improves the quality of ideas: With just a wiki, previous versions all idea are not readily available. Wikis have an additional assumption that every edit is an improvement. VSAS does not rely on that assumption and instead records and displays each idea.
  2. Less work for the document’s creator: When participants comment on each other’s ideas, they will synthesize all the comments for you, so that you as the document creator are not left with the monumental task of integrating everyone’s contradicting feedback.
  3. Less work for the colleagues who are providing feedback: If their ideas are already present as someone else’s feedback, then they can indicate their support of those ideas rather than having to create them on their own.
  4. Reduces the risk of groupthink: VSAS can allow anonymous feedback if necessary, to ensure an honest conversation that is not disrupted by office politics.