Cooperation in 28 keywords

Card's author : Jean-Michel Cornu
Card's type of licence : Creative Commons BY-SA
Description :

A multi-faceted cooperation

Very often we manage a group with common sense, trying to make our "best". This allows us to understand some aspects of the group: it may be lacking of conviviality or of a common culture, or else the group is too focused on itself. But this ability to analyze is also, paradoxically, our greatest weakness because it stops us to see other aspects of our group. Thus we focus on one aspect of the group or two or three, but neglecting others. Edgar Morin often talk of ''paradigmatic blindness''1: focus on one issue and all others become hidden!

We offer you a map of the different facets that enable to understand what is happening in your group and the different useful skills for its birth and developement. Some of these facets are counterintuitive, there are the one we will present first. This map is not the result of a single person who is subject by definition to paradigmatic blindness. It is the result of initial exchanges of the 130 members of the group Intelligence Collectif de la Fing2 and grew richer gradually with the latest works. With those 28 keywords, these 28 tools, you and even members of your group can understand better what is happening in your group and help it to grow and adapt to different situations.

A first counterintuitive aspect: the choice after the event (post factum)

They are several strategies according to our environment:
  • Planning: in a predictable situation of rare ressources, there is a need to optimize and not spoil them;
  • Negotiation: when ressources are rare and events unpredictable, negotiation allows to make a choice in the present for lack of being able to make it in advance. This is the case for example of pricing in the market economy;
  • The choice after the event (post factum) : when you enjoy an abundance of resources (a large group, loads of information), but when the situation is not predictable, then you'd better create an abundance of choices and choose post factum among all opportunities. This approach is the basis for cooperation as we will discover.

Often we do not choose our strategy but use the one we master, whatever the context. It is important to adapt to the environment and to select the best strategy. Sometimes the situation can be predictable for some events and unpredictable for others, some resources may be abundant and others rare. In this case, we need to adapt and even juggle with strategies. The one concerning cooperation is rather counterintuitive , because it compels us not to choose as early as possible while we bathe in a culture of anticipation, and they push us to work with plenty when we are used to focus on what is rare.

Size of groups and role of members

As soon as a group is over a dozen people, each member adopts a proactive, observer or idle position and can move from one to another according to a number of criteria. Rather counterintuitively, it is observed that the percentage of active persons stays remarkably constant (principle of 90-9-1): proactive people are one and over percent and reactive peoiple are between ten and a few dozens of percent.

Different types of groups differing from the number of members:
Small groups up to twelve people whom can be managed restrictively (expecting the action particular to each different member);
Intermediates groups between twelve and a hundred people whom need more efforts from the manager to get reactions;
Large groups between a hundred and one or two thousand people which allows to produce collaboratively... provided a focus is done on reactive persons;
Very large intermediate groups of several thousand people where the group composed by proactive people becomes easily illogical;
Very large groups over several dozens of thousand where proactive people are numerous enough to make management less restrictive.

Convergence and conflict

We consider often implicitly that each one should act in the interest of the group by forgetting his own interest. It is the definition of altruism. Although it is present in the animal kingdom and in mankind and even favors survival under certain conditions, it is not easy to develop it in all situations. Cooperation uses a different approach than altruism: it seeks the conditions that will converge individual and collective interest. There are cases where each one will genuinely act in favor of general interest: in an environment of abundance a gift economy develops, different from the economy of rarity, giving the group a long term vision, behaviors become more cooperative; mechanisms of esteem (a form of recognition dynamically assigned by the entire group unlike prestige) form a system of regulation that encourages acting for collective interest.

But too much convergence can turn the group into a herd of sheeps... A little divergence can be added (other points of view, other ways of questioning) as well as a dash of conflict to allow the group to question itself. The role of the coordinator is to feel the weigh the balance between convergence, divergence and conflict and to encourage one or the other to enable the group to go ahead and growingg richer of its diversity.

If there is only convergence and opposition, a conflict occurs. A crisis is a difficult but very useful time for the group : several approaches require questioning. But conflict unlike a crisis will only head hin two directions: for or against, each sticking to his line. A good management of the conflict requires to turn it into a crisis by creating a third position, or even more. Mapping the members' different ideas by encouraging them to add new issues is a particularly efficient method in this case.

The three types of influence in a group

The first three previous aspects illustrate very well the three constitutive dimensions of all groups : these are of course influenced by their members, but the group's organization and its history as well as its relations with its environment :
  • Convergence and conflict illustrate clearly the influence of people on the group
  • The size of the group is a data specific for a group , regardless of the peculiarities of its members
  • Unpredictability and abundance which encourage to make choices after the event often depend on the environment

The following aspects are combined according to these three dimensions. Those describing the influence of people go along with a aspect more difficult to deal with, although it is not always negative (as conflict associated with convergence, which allows questioning). Involvement, with its opposite withdrawal, is the next facet and the fourth counterintuitive facets. The following will often call for our common sense.

Involvement and withdrawal

We often mingle mobilization and involvement . But if we mobilize people - often by paying them - so that they do what we want, they have to get involved themselves to take the risk of making what they think is good. Indeed, the coordinator is not always everywhere. The people who get involved can take initiatives according to information they have but not the coordinator. Involvement is absolutely necessary in an unpredictable environment which changes permanently, for example in the field of innovation or else when we working with people rather than machines or objects.

Three things can influence on the level of people's involvement :
  • Motivation (esteem, pleasure, learning new things...)
  • Restraints (lack of confidence, precarious self security, fear of being unable to withdraw...)
  • The threshold level of acting out (an easy-to-understand project, reactive managers ...)

A special alertness about withdrawal is neededbecause it is a contagious illness in a group. Two expressions must alert us:
  • "Holy Shit!" (spotted out by François de Closet on the problems with the ORTF, the former French TV broadcast)
  • "It's not my problem !" (we stay mobilized but not involved...)

Other aspects of peolpe's influence on the group

We have seen the convergence of ideas and interest (and the conflict when there are pros and cons) as well as involmement and withdrawal. Two other aspects concern people: the level of awareness of what is going on and the different coordination tasks.

The level of awareness of what is going on in the group varies. It can happen that no one is aware of a particular phenomenon. Nevertheless it doesn't prevent cooperation. Thus, stigmergy is a shape of auto-organization used in particular by social insects as ants or termites for which communication is made by the tracks left - not necessarily consciously - by others. If the coordinator becomes aware of what takes place in the group, then he can act to favor some balances (convergence/difference, size of the group, the level of involvement). But if members themselves become aware of what is taking place, then they can act on many more little things than one or several managers can. The ideal is to reach a level of collective consciousness, i.e. that not only members are conscious.
No group is completely aware and still, there is always even a phenomena that everyone ignores. But the purpose of the coordinator is to favor the maximum of individual and collective awareness. On the contrary any aggression, voluntary or not, aware or not, opened or hidden, causes fear or anger and brings the group back to a very low level of conscience. The coordinator's job must be a permanent fight to bring back more awareness in the group... by minimizing at most his own fears and angers in order to avoid becoming unaware himself.

There are multiple tasks of coordination. Some are turned towards people (making involvement easy, helping convergence or divergence, boosting exchanges), others towards group itself (defining objectives, preserving the history of the group, identifying the tasks to be made and the critical tasks, giving the members an overall view of the group and the diversity of ideas) and others are aimed towards environment (value what has been done). Some tasks can be done in a centralized way - by the group's coordinator or by a group of nominees – or in a decentralized way. It depends on the group and of its level of developement (definition of goals, one of the first tasks which can be decentralized).
But in all cases, the tools of coordination must remain the coordinator's tools and not replace him in order to prevent him from discarding his responsability.

Very often, we try to drive the group with a specific intention. If this is relevent for aspects specific to the group (size, vocation...), it is no longer when you expect the members to get involved or to take initiatives. It is not wise either to manage the impact of environment on the group because we do not always have great possibilities for action. In this special case, it is important to drive the group with care and not with an idea in mind. That means that we must keep aware to what occurs and know how to adapt by seizing opportunities. It is even necessary to accept a small dose of incoherence to allow the group to solve problems insoluble otherwise...

Other specific aspects of groups

We have seen the influence of size on groups. Three other specific aspects must be added : its vocation, its level of maturity and its commons.

There are three kinds of vocation for a group: a network has for goal to put its members in relation, a community creates mainly a collective identity and a working group is aiming to produce - documents, events... - for the rest of the environment beyond members. The three dimensions are there : persons, group, environment. The coordinator must identify the primary purpose of the group without neglecting the others.

A group grows following different maturity stages. When the group is a child, the coordinator is the one taking initiatives (we talk here of benevolent dictator). After 18 months to two years (sometimes more for "Tanguy groups5" which stay very long in the lap of the manager), the group becomes a teenager. Then some try to take initiatives and which in the beginning are against the coordinator. They adopt then a role of ''negative leader''. It's sometimes a tough time to go through for human but it's fundamental because it opens up on the appropriation of the group by the members. During this time, it is often difficult for the coordinator to justify himself, even protect the group from a negative leader who, if he goes too far, endangers the group. During the following stage, the group grows adult. Enough members have made the group their own and are even ready to stand up for it. It's no use going too far too fast, for a group as for a human, each step has to be taken. Willing to build an adult group from scratch could be called the '' Frankenstein's syndrome... Sometimes the group becomes senile. Then it may die, but perhaps it has disseminate giving birth or inspiring other groups, hence ensuring its offspring.

What is sharing in a group? First it has a common culture (a past, common events, sometimes its own vocabulory...). But is this culture reachable to all, including new comers ? Has the group found a good balance between collective and individual identities of the members ? A second aspect to share is absolutly fundamental. It is commons (information defining the group, its functioning, its rules and productions, tools and methods used by the group ... ). Are they easily accessible to all, including people outside the group ? In addition to the provision in an accessible location (web. ..) it is important that these commons respect some rules for sharing: Creatives Commons licenses for documents (particularly cc -by -sa which allow a real sharing and a constant improvement6) and free software for apps (particularly the Gnu license7). Tools and methods used in the group should enable everyone to develop personal autonomy and its radius of action without provoking masters and slaves (see in particular the rules of Ivan Illich 8).

Other aspects depending on environment

Besides the notion of choice after the event which bases the cooperation when the environment is at the same time unpredictable and plentiful, there are three other aspects which depend on environment : external constraints, legitimacy and exchanges.

Environment can have external constraints: expectations about what the group will produce, requests from the hierarchy when the group is included in an organization... But there are two ways of perceiving these constraints : they can cripple or otherwise stimulate and push the group to produce a result (without deadline, it is sometimes difficult to complete a task). We must therefore see if it is possible to organize the group so that such constraints are stimulating rather than paralyzing, if there is a space of freedom and whether to expand.
One of the biggest difficulties is the difference in pace between external expectations and the production in a group. Another aspect is to know whether we run after external demands and after other groups that do similar things or if on the contrary we feel that we run before, leaving others following us, which is more comfortable.

Legitimacy is the equivalent for environment of the level of maturity, which is internal to the group. As for the latter, there are three main steps (childhood, adolescence and maturity): at first the group is not very visible from the outside. In a second time he tends to carve out its own place often positioning against other groups doing similar things.
Once mature, the group and its members are considered as legitimate. This then becomes a force to attract new members. Some groups have trouble getting out of an "against" position, sometimes because of the group's goals themselves. But to fight against the outside can end up fighting... against the inside, and some of these groups go as far as disintegration. To ensure longevity, it may be important to know how to redirect its goals and transform a culture of cons in a constructive culture.

The group's balance is very fond of its exchanges with the outside. A group exchange ideas, information but also people (which come in but also come out of the group, some also taking part simultaneously in several groups). So that the group adopts a balanced diet, it is necessary to ask the question of the regularity of these exchanges (did the group stay for a long time without integrating new members ?), but also of their quantity, of their quality and their diversity, to find harmony between the appropriate identity of the group and its renewal.

Specific skills to cooperate

After seeing the 16 facets which allow us to understand what is occuring in a group, we still have to see the 12 skills to act better in a group.

The skills related to people are useful not only for managers but also for participants. They consist in knowing how to integrate people in a group (and integrate yourself ...) to behave collaboratively, to manage "info-besity" (which is inherent in an environment of abundance and of transparency) and to position oneself (including being aware of being a mere observer or even to act as a negative leader, while understanding that it is only a role and what place it has in the group). Skills linked to persons are useful for coodinators but also for members themselves.

Skills specific to a group are : how to start a group, to liven it up, to map ideas and position 9 (to produce collective intelligence or deal with conflicts) and how to evaluate the group to understand what is occuring and debate with other members of the group as much as possible (this last skill can it can be particularly useful to transfer to members of the group, beyond coordinators).

Skills turned towards environment consist in knowing to produce (a document can be produced in a cooperative way – by allocating parts, or collaborativelly - by working on the same text. It's even possible to produce that way with several thousand people10), to organize events open to the outside, to document what the group can do 11 and finally scale up. This last skill has not spread very much yet but it is fundamental to multiply the results of cooperation by reaching the larger number possible, including the ''non activists" 12.

There are several levels for each of these skills which we can go through progressively. This can be easily illustrated with the ability to organize an event. At first you may be exposed by attending an event, then you may have taken part in the organization. Next step is to understand and know how to explain the organization of an event. One can then develop an ability to do and even during the useful stage, to be able to innovate in this field.

Cooperation in 28 keywords: what to bear in mind ?

Coopération is sometimes misunderstood and hence rejected as a utopia or else as an idea which can not be implemented because of money or time constraints. But cooperation is above all to converge individual and collective interest. It can save time and money... or waste both 13. Depending on the context (search for innovation, involvement of people ...) and according to how it is implemented, it may be in some fields far more effective than other strategies.

It is not easy to remember all the 28 keywords. But fortunately this is not necessary. There are tools. Thus, a self-administered questionnaire14 shows each of the 16 facets that allow us to understand what happens in a group, under the form of questions. Rather than looking outside the group for answers, it is much more effective to ask the right questions (including to other members of the group) as the best answers crucially depend on a deep understanding of the group's peculiarities... and of the choices enriched by the diversity of points of view.

If it is useful to have tools to find 28 aspects which allow to understand cooperation, it is also essential to be able to keep in mind some observationtips which have to become a true reflex. There are three aspects to integrate. They constitute "the ICE conditions" (Implication, Commons, Exchanges):
  • 1. The involvement of some persons: not of all of them because as seen before, observers and inactive persons are a majority in a group of more than 12 persons. However, it is essential to be sure that at least one person or more get involved in the group and behave proactively. Hiding behind tools which would create cooperation magically is a utopia in groups under several thousands see dozens of thousand persons.
  • 2. Reachable commons: Are the fundamental of the group (objectives, rules of functioning, tools and methods used) accessible to all including new comers ? Are the productions of the group easily reachable and reusable including outside the group ?
  • 3. Means of exchanging : It is important tohave several tools and rules of exchange to insure comunication between the participants who will allow to make the group converge : in face-to-face and remote, during synchronous meetings and in asynchronous (on-line exchanges for example), during organized exchanges and during informal relationships (the "coffee corner")...
These three conditions have to be organized in a effective but also diversified way (Robert Ulanowicz showed that the maximal durability of a system depended on the balance between two opposite aspects: 1/3 of efficiency and 2/3 of resilience by diversification 15.