Over my years of working in complex collaboration projects and institutional change management I noticed that certain elements consistently shift actors into more collaborative spaces. These elements show up as personal competences which people bring in or jointly develop with their collaborators.
I continued my inquiry and started to observe more closely. What was present when a cross-sector group agreed on a plan of action in an atmosphere of joint commitment? What kept a diverse group of actors together when each had to overcome hurdles in convincing their institution to collaborate? What emerged when a group of managers from competing industries patiently persisted in creating an industry-wide approach to tackling a sustainability challenge despite all legal impediments? How did people build committed teams both within and across organizational boundaries? How did they manage to integrate different organizational cultures into joint initiatives and foster collaboration between diverse stakeholders?
When I looked behind the scenes of collaboration initiatives that included a wide range of actors, one insight emerged. It was simple and at the same time complex.
It reminded me of the writings of the American architect Christopher Alexander. He sometimes started his lecture with a simple exercise, showing two different photographs and asking the students the question: In which photograph do you see more life? The answers were surprising. About 80% of the students agreed on one photograph. But what did this mean? After having had many trials with students Christopher Alexander concluded that their perception of a degree of “life” in an external structure – a photograph, a building, a painting – was not arbitrary. Nor was it simply a matter of taste.
There was a pattern in the structures that resonated with the human heart and mind.
The architect then took off on a journey of discovery that led him to formulate a language of patterns, a way of ordering architectural space that enhances the life force in human beings[i]. He discovered that built structures are dynamic in that the different parts have an impact on each other. The feeling of awe and deeper connection that many people have when they stand in Chartres Cathedral is not just subjective, but is caused by an ordered pattern of elements – in relation to each other and impacting a person standing in their center. Alexander described his insight in the following way: “…all systems in the world gain their life, in some fashion, from the cooperation and interaction of the living centres they contain, always in a bootstrap configuration, which allows one centre to be propped up by another, so that each one ignites a spark in the one it helps, and that mutual helping creates life in the whole.”[ii]
We all know this feeling of aliveness – when we are happy, what makes us calm, when our heart resonates, when we feel most connected with life, when our humanity expands.
We are intrinsically linked to the order of life within us and around us – people, architecture and nature – and we are constantly being created by this order while simultaneously participating in creating this order.
So my (rather simple) conclusions is the following:
Co-creation works best in a collaborative space where there is “life”, a sense of vitality rather than superficial harmony. For example, have you ever been part of a team that achieved something remarkable? There is usually a strong feeling of igniting each other’s vitality. You have fun. You feel alive. Your energy is boosted.
What then would this mean for our collective ability to co-create in a more constructive, in a more sustainable way?
Christopher Alexander developed an elaborate pattern language, a way to order space for art and architecture, modeled after patterns of nature. Would it help us if we too understood a little more about the patterns of interaction between people that further collaborative co-creation? If we know a little more about “living centers” and how they support each other and come together as a pattern of vitality, could we too create an atmosphere in which collaboration works? In such a space could people more easily connect with sustainable goals, goals which support present as well as future generations in creating patterns of aliveness and vitality?
You may argue that this concept of aliveness is too far away from your world of logical frameworks for project plans, impact monitoring, balanced scorecards, quarterly growth reports, risk management procedures, performance evaluations and deliverables. My experience is, it must not be as we really have no other choice. Now more than ever, we need to co-create a better future.
[i] Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. California: Oxford University Press.
[ii] Alexander, C. (2002) The Phenomenon of Life – An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book 1, Nature of Order. Centre for Environmental Structure Series. p. 134.
This blog post looks at the Collective Leadership Compass as a way to generate patterns of aliveness. For more information on the Art of Leading Collectively, checkout the inside the book and reviews on amazon.com, or get inspired by an onsite course that takes the compass into the daily challenges of navigating complex change.