Dana Facilitates the Code for America Retreat

One of my goals is to figure out how to create safe opportunities for others to practice the skills needed to collaborate effectively. My main experiment in this regard has been Changemaker Bootcamp. Most formal learning emphasizes knowledge transfer — teaching a framework, for example, then perhaps creating some opportunities to practice it. My philosophy of bootcamp has been exactly the opposite: Move directly into the practice, then let the participants draw lessons and identify patterns from their experiences.

Many of my bootcampers have found this approach uncomfortable. I’ve mostly accepted this discomfort as the process working, as the results of this approach have been powerful and effective. It has helped the bootcampers viscerally recognize the wisdom they already have about collaboration and the even greater wisdom that any larger group will share. Once you are aware of that wisdom, you can not only tap into it, but you can also develop it further through intentional practice.

I’ve had one workout where this approach has not worked: designing collaborative engagements. I’m not sure why this particular topic has been resistant to this format. It could be that people generally do not have much experience designing collaborative engagements, so the exercise feels too foreign and unsafe. It could be that the language I’ve been using is too wonky. (What the heck is a “collaborative engagement”?!) Or it could be that my workout just isn’t very good.

Regardless, I decided to shift my usual approach with this particular workout and start my bootcampers with a framework. Not only has it helped, it’s made me realize that my approach is not universal, even for experienced practitioners. My approach consists of three parts:

  • Get clear about your goals
  • Know your group physics
  • Think beyond meetings

Get Clear About Your Goals

I’ve already written extensively about the importance of goal clarity, but it bears repeating. Having clear goals not only grounds your design, but it also guides your evaluation afterward. I use a success spectrum to help prioritize and gut-check my goals.

Know Your Group Physics

Physics is about space, time, matter, and energy. Designing an engagement for a small team of three is different than one for a thousand people. Designing a three-day engagement is different than one that is three years. Designing a meeting for ten people in a cramped, dimly lit room is different from one in a spacious, well lit room.

For meetings, it’s as simple as starting with these questions:

  • How many people will be there?
  • How much time do you have?
  • What does the space look like?

This may seem simple and obvious, but it’s amazing how many people don’t start with these very basic questions when designing meetings.

This is doubly true with online space, where the rules of group physics still apply. Time works the same way online as it does in the real-world, but the notion of space and proximity are different.

When I’m helping groups design collaborative engagements for distributed groups, I start with the following thought experiment:

What if you could take your entire group and magically transport them so that they’re in close physical proximity to each other? How would you design your engagement?

This thought experiment essentially duplicates how group physics generally works in online space, which changes the meaning of physical distance. And it often surfaces unconscious flaws in our design approach — namely, discounting the importance of time.

For example, when designing a community of practice for a distributed group, I often see people mistakenly focus their energies on figuring out what tool they’re going to use. That’s an important part of creating a delightful, online space, but the more important question is, what’s going to compel your community to make time for this? The reason most communities of practice fail isn’t that the tools are inadequate, it’s that the participants aren’t or can’t make the time to participate.

Think Beyond Meetings

One reason we are so baffled by this time problem is that we are overly dependent on meetings when designing collaborative engagements. Meetings can be tremendously powerful, but they are also time-consuming and resource-intensive. I often see people make the mistake of designing meetings that duplicate work or conversations that are already happening. The reason I call this a framework for designing “collaborative engagements” is to de-emphasize meetings.

Designing engagement outside of meetings does not have to be about interacting online. One of my favorite techniques is to assign pair exercises. For example, with the Delta Dialogues, we paired up our participants, and we asked each pair to touch base before and after each meeting. This not only served as a way to keep people connected to the process when they had to miss a meeting, it forged stronger relationships among the participants, and led to some unexpected friendships and collaborations that would not have happened through meeting interactions alone.


  1. Eugene, I have been having a ton of fun stringing different Liberating Structures as a different way to enter into a design – be it me alone (rare) or with others (common.) It has the same sense i feel as I read about your Bootcamp approach. The doing is the creating is the learning is the emergence is the fun and sometimes discomfort. It would be fun to find a way to play with this together. http://www.liberatingstructures.com — Keith has challenged me to “write the book” about LS online. And it has dawned on me that I CAN work less for pay (hubs retired yesterday, we can live simply) and maybe this is what I’m spozed to do. Sort of an epiphany, but one that I think has a seed that was planted as i watched you reinvent your life.


    1. Nancy, I’d love to find a time to explore this with you. Let’s find a time to talk (perhaps piggybacked with a little video interview)!

      In the meantime, how did you come across the Liberating Structures work, and how is it impacting your work right now?

      Who knows? Not only might this be the work you’re “supposed” to do, maybe you can still get paid to do it!

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