How to design, so things get done in a group or community in a network?

About Mushin Schilling and Anne Caspari:

In the spring of 2007, Mushin wrote an essay called Collaboration Ecology, outlining his ideas on what type of social, economic and cultural environment would be conducive to collaboration. He has been pursuing this topic ever since.

Anne, combining in-depth experience and hands-on application of integral theory with her training as a landscape architect and environmental planner, has worked on projects and processes designed to intervene in systems with the intention of restoring the natural flow of things, both in external ecosystems and in internal personal development.

Both Anne and Mushin have extensive experience as facilitators of workshops geared to personal growth and deepening of awareness.

We met in 2010 when we started to consult and assist a start-up company for value driven collaboration in Switzerland – Mushin as CTO and software-architect and Anne as Strategist and Concept Designer. It is this very practical  experience in several dimensions of our work and communication that inspired us to collaborate on a process, meta-process and narrative structure to support change agents, change facilitators and change managers to do better what they love to do most.

In July 2012 we flew to Oslo, Norway, to see our good friend, Nobel laureate and IPCC member Prof. Karen O’Brien. We had developed some basic ideas on how collaboration could work across silos and organisations, and together we wanted to look at the conundrum faced by climate scientists and policy makers all over the world: “We have all the data and evidence in the world showing that we are on the brink of catastrophic climate change, and yet hardly anyone does anything about it.” The scientists are frustrated that no one is taking them seriously, the activists want them to “leave their ivory towers and do something”  and concerned citizens feel absolutely helpless.

Before and, much more intensively, after meeting with Karen, we had also started to analyze the core challenges that have to be overcome by such diverse groups as EU-funded initiatives, NGOs dealing with climate change issues, but also companies and organizations. Understanding that collaboration and communication flows are essential to rising to these challenges, we were struck by a couple of major deficiencies in systems- and process design that these organisations needed to address. For example:

  • organisations did not really learn
  • feedback did not go where it was needed
  • leadership was not adequate to the situation and,
  • most of all, there was a lack of intelligent collaboration.

It seemed to us that what was needed was a set of simple processes and procedures that would adequately connect know-what with know-how, make it simple to pack the know-how into tasks and feed the practical information gained by executing those tasks back into the system.

We (Anne and Mushin) first met around the State of The World Forum held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 2009, which launched a global leadership campaign platform for coherently tackling climate change. Mushin had architected some collaboration software for the event, and Anne participated as an integrally informed practitioner in the field of climate change and transformative processes. One of the most striking aspects of this State of the World Forum event was that the circumstances appeared most favorable to have a real impact: the people who showed up represented a good mix of artists, scientists, princes, politicians, entrepreneurs, therapists, coaches and activists, all bringing the right ideas, knowledge and great connections, with enough time in a beautiful place, and no lack of financial support. To top it all, cool facilitation methods were applied that really supported a generative interweaving of all the diversity intentionally invited into the room. And still, the follow-up was, simply put, a disaster! Nothing got done beyond what happened then and there; no lasting change was achieved. Collaboration that was stellar during the conference collapsed once it was over, despite the existence of an online platform expressly designed to provide a means for people to work together afterwards on the topics that fueled their passion.

We cannot help thinking that this state of affairs typifies the ‘state of the world’ in every global and regional arena of challenge – be it climate issues, social issues, or the economy. Collaboration has become a major “meme” in organisation and business in more ways than one. The promise of collaboration across silos and professions is that together we can potentially create the kind of change that is needed. This increasing need for collaboration is most prominent in systems that are designed according to concepts from the 19th and 20th centuries, which are grounded in competition along hierarchical lines of ossified power structures. On top of the inertia in these systems that results from immunity to change, the old adage that “Information is power” actively cripples the free flow of relevant information within the organisation. It is this very same idea that also makes generative collaboration and communication next to impossible.

We find this is a pattern wherever we look. And yet, our experience with the State of the World Forum and other such change initiatives showed us that the solution doesn’t just automatically appear when the system and processes are better designed. Buckminster Fuller famously said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Alas, even that doesn’t seem to be enough; something else is missing. Why is it that even with new models and processes for collaboration, in dedicated gatherings and organisations that recognise and express both their need and their will to keep on collaborating, still it rarely, if ever, works out?

The power of assumptions

By tuning in to the finer aspects of the inquiry, we found that the most probable reason why collaboration between the participants of initiatives like the State of the World Forum tend to fizzle out almost immediately after the event, had to do with a systemic phenomenon. Collaboration patterns are often anchored by a set of deep underlying assumptions, that are similar across the board. By ‘assumption’ in this context, we mean those propositions that – most often unconsciously – govern our behavior, thinking, and meaning making. In themselves, they are neither good nor bad. And yet, they exert a pervasive, invisible influence on all efforts to change. In our view, the following assumptions are instrumental in creating the basic patterns that inadvertently lead to the situations we have sketched above.

  • Unity trumps diversity
  • A group needs to need to be aligned before it can act
  • People, elements and units must be synthesized into a higher whole
  • Unity is of the future, therefore we must work hard to achieve it
  • Collaboration requires champions
  • Collaboration, to be effective, requires harmony, or at least consensus between collaborators

Phenomenal amounts of energy, attention and resources go into attempts at aligning people with “the right cause.” We believe that you, dear reader, will have no difficulty remembering the last time you witnessed people trying to convince each other of how important and right their position was in this or that “important matter”. Maybe it was around whether climate change was man-made or rather a natural consequence of strong solar activity, or part of a long cycle of our planet. Or maybe it was about how people need to change themselves before they can change the world – or, rather, that the system needs to change before people can. Or maybe it was a more practical issue. But underneath it all, lurks the conviction that we need to be unified on an issue, philosophy, ideology or theory before we can go ahead and do what is right. Grounded in the belief that like-minded people can collaborate more easily, an attempt is made to create a like-mindedness before we do things together. It follows that that’s where the lion’s share of attention and energy goes.

Paradoxically, in this day and age most people are convinced of the great intrinsic value of diversity. Everyone should be allowed to live their own way, whether they are gay or colored, belong to an ethnic minority, a different religion, or whatever. And yet, when it comes to collaboration, the assumption is that the community of collaborators needs to be like-minded, that they need to be aligned on how they understand “the situation”. In short, that “our unity is more important than our diversity” has somehow become a no-brainer, something that is so obvious we no longer need to question, or even think about it.

Participatory versus categorical unity

Often, when a group of like-minded people starts to collaborate – after having spent considerable time and energy aligning around minimal aspects of a view on what is what and how to do things – conflicts break out around differences of opinion or interpretation of what the “foundation” of their particular view is. Again, this sheds light on the basic assumption that “Our unity is more important than anything else.” Indeed, this may be true for traditional communities, which are united by a particular way of being. To distinguish this prior, given communal unity from what we are pointing to in this chapter, we will call it participatory unity. Participatory unity is what a child experiences in any family that is somewhat intact – even if it’s a single-parent unit. To maintain its place in this unity, the child will do whatever it takes to show how much s/he belongs. It is this very need to belong that is carried over into what we are calling categorical unity.

Categorical unity is what holds together religions, parties, and groups that want to change the world. We call it ‘categorical’ because the unity is provided by principles, perspectives, and views on reality; by beliefs, ideologies, philosophies. This is the unity we mean when we name the basic assumption as “Unity trumps diversity.” It seems to us that the need to belong – so active in the participatory unity of our core families – is unconsciously carried over into the need that drives adults into insisting on “unity first” in the context of getting things done in the world. When people in what we may well call the ‘change movement’ collectively operate from the assumption that unity must be achieved before we can really ‘achieve the necessary success’, they are seeking to realize categorical unity and the feeling of belonging that accompanies it. This, we believe, is what underlies the conviction that diverse people, elements and units must be synthesized into a higher or more encompassing whole before we can really make things work.

Flow leadership

Unveiling this set of assumptions around the need for prior alignment/unity allowed us to formulate an alternative hypothesis: that effective and generative collaboration doesn’t require alignment. To test this hypothesis, we have designed the Integral Collaboration Service, an online collaboration platform that can serve what may be only a temporary constellation of people coming together to act on a shared vision or a joint project of any scale. Collaboration may well result in community (for instance the formation of flexible talent teams that flexibly adapt to opportunities that arise), but collaboration does not require community to succeed. And because it doesn’t require community, nor does it require a champion or permanent leader in order to function effectively. Much of what the Open Source movement has accomplished, creating software that anyone can edit or add to, it has achieved without any central authority directing the work. Rather, what is called for is flow leadership. Individuals who just step up and do what the situation requires, when they recognize that they have the skill or capacity to do what is needed. Typically, this behaviour is rewarded by the appreciation expressed by the larger constellation, because the contribution has moved the whole a step closer to the desired outcome. Flow leadership, then, is topical and timely: it addresses an issue as it arises, and moves the overall situation forward a step or two, when somebody else might pick up the baton and address the next issue.

When the group or project does its business, guided by flow leadership, consensus is not needed. Nobody needs to be asked for permission before collaborators move ahead. It is enough that a move is transparent, so that all collaborators know what is going on and who is doing what, and can themselves choose where they want to contribute and when. The only valid question to be answered by a person going ahead and doing their thing is:  “Does this move or action impede the other people directly involved in or affected by it, or make further work impossible?” All we need to consent to is that this isn’t the case. Consensus is a feature of the “old paradigm”, which requires us to all be aligned before we do anything. The “new paradigm” of collaboration doesn’t buy in to the ‘tyranny of consensus’ –  instead, it springs from from what we have come to understand as the fractal of collaboration: the single task to be executed by anyone willing and capable.

Communities operating from the old paradigm easily fall prey to power games in which leaders and would-be leaders struggle for power. Assuming that unity must be achieved before we can really collaborate intelligently brings up all the age-old hierarchy-based dysfunctions that currently mire politics and all the other systems that form the status quo of the world. Conversely, as soon as we begin to see the healthy consequences of flow leadership – whereby those people momentarily take the lead who best know how to handle the situations, topics and requests at hand – another power dynamic can unfold, one that simply wants to solve concrete problems, however complex and all-encompassing these may be. This is a non-ideological power that is shared by all, not ‘equally’ but rather equal to the situation at hand.

The design principles of integral collaboration

In addition to the assumption that we do not need to be aligned to effectively collaborate, the Integral Collaboration Service incorporates a number of basic design principles:

  • Transparency, fair share, trust and joy/fun/insight are both basic preconditions and natural consequences of generative collaboration.
    To get change done collaboratively, as a constellation of equals operating as a local or non-local group or team, the process must be transparent to all participants. This means that each individual must be easily able to discern where at any moment (s)he can make a personal contribution to the collaboration. The outcome of the collaboration must be shared fairly among its contributors. This in turn enhances the trust that must already be there to some degree when collaboration begins. And because we’re talking about a process that people participate in voluntarily, for the collaboration to continue to inspire and motivate, it must bring joy, insight and/or meaning.
  • The collaborative fractal is the executable task   
    Tasks are collaborative fractals in the sense that, if you look closely, know-how consists of a number of tasks tied together into larger projects by a story. That know-how is in turn mostly embedded in a larger narrative of know-what : a map of what needs to be done and why.
  • An intelligent collaborative process is always dynamic, adaptive and therefore iterative.
    In other words: learning is embedded in the system through the feedback created with every iteration of a task. Up until now, so-called learning organisations are actually organisations in which some people learn. If these people leave the organisation, the learning leaves with them.
  • Collaboration systems require augmented memory.
    A learning organisation – and adaptive collaboration systems need to be learning continually – has a nervous system and a brain – an augmented memory. For instance, the additional knowledge gained by executing tasks and then fed back into the system in the form of written or spoken comments – also including tags, meta-tags and other information about information – is available at every access point to the system. This allows any collaborator to access the knowledge relevant to his or her task in real time, at the very moment it is needed.
  • An intelligent reward system helps collaborators experience the value of their work.
    This implies a tangible or intangible currency that respects the intelligence of the collaborators and is in tune with the joy that acknowledgement of one’s contribution brings.
  • Collaboration thrives with flow leadership
    We have already described how flow leadership is related to topics or issues in particular situations, rather than to authority and office. This means that individuals self-select according to their competence, know-how and the moment of application. Flow leadership takes the form of an individual’s contribution geared to helping to progress the project or larger task being executed by the overall constellation of collaborators. In ICS’s online system, this can be asynchronous and independent of place.
  • In a collaboration community, diversity is necessary. Tensions are welcomed as signals that there is potential for great material to be made actual.
    Studies highlighting how diversity greatly enhances the effectiveness of teams and the results of their collaboration are legion. It is less well known that tensions can help the team flourish provided they are regarded as signals that something needs to be made operational.


  • Simplicity – in the form of minimum elegant structures and rules – liberates both creativity and collaborative power


We are living in a hypercomplex and hyperconnected world in which complex systems abound. All the major challenges facing humanity can best be described as overlapping, interdependent complex networks of power, influence, information, and relations – and even this description is an oversimplification. Nevertheless, this hypercomplexity is only a problem if we want to make it predictable and controllable. Our experience has been that when we view our world as a socio-economic and cultural ecology that displays the patterns of natural evolution, more often than not simple patterns of collaborative and reciprocal engagement emerge that have a benign effect on the local and regional adaptive complexities. In a nutshell, things naturally fall into place and mutually beneficial systems emerge.


  • No personal alignment of values, opinions, worldviews, overarching theories and ideologies is needed within a collaboration ecology (or between different ecologies) in order to accomplish great things together.
    The 21st Century might turn out to be the age of generative diversity, where humanity learns that collaboration on Spaceship Earth is necessary if we, and the natural systems in which we are embedded, are to thrive. For this to happen, we will need to develop and use systems, tools and processes that are non-ideological by nature. This does not mean that we are headed for a bloodless, abstract and neutralised world – far from it! Rather, it will be one that honors the talents and development of all its inhabitants, and all the contributions they bring to the common table. If we needed to be aligned first, we would have no hope of making it. The local, regional, continental and global problems swamp us well before we manage to become “One World”. Instead, we’re into developing the tools, processes and systems that will allow us each to contribute our best unique contribution to the whole, when and where it will have the most beneficial impact.


We believe that the organisation of the future will consists of task-oriented ‘flex-flow talent teams’ that constellate on the fly in ‘worknets’ around the realisation of a project, product or service. Once their work is done, they might disperse or take on a new challenge. We imagine what is now called the “workforce” will be much more swarm-like in the future. Clearly, this will requires very different ways to deal with intellectual property, systems of compensation and ownership. Planetary societies, being hyperconnected and hypercomplex, will find numerous answers to these challenges, and we’re sure we’ll be surprised in many ways. Many hierarchies will dissolve because they’re simply too cumbersome – they take too much energy and attention to maintain: jockeying for position and upholding the stratified and rigid status quo is simply too expensive socially, culturally and economically. That energy is better directly spent on the issues that the hierarchy is supposed to address.

When it comes to dealing with the challenges humanity faces on every level of organisation, complex constellations of people — self selecting and collaborating flexflow talent teams — are much more effective, as well as being less expensive. This vision informs the development, design and construction of the Integral Collaboration Service, and this is how we collaboratively create the generative tools to make this future possible now.