Social Polyculture at PV2

What are working relationships?

Learning, the Permaculture Way was a pre-conference workshop by David Eggleton and me at the 2nd Permaculture Voices conference (PV2) in San Diego. Our session drew about 50 participants, some of whom continued a dialogue that seemed—on the surface—to have a narrow focus but, over the five days of PV2, grew wider, broader and was deepened considerably through Meet-Ups and collaboration with the Mycelium team of facilitators.

Working Relationships

One Day You Will Turn To Sustainability

A relationship that works is a relationship that does well with difference.
(Roger Fisher & Scott Brown)

Resilient Design yields results
Resilient Design yields results

For sustainability to function and endure, the overarching relationship that must function well is between people(s) and place(s). A resilient ability to balance the twin goals of being a Whole Person and living in a Whole Place is the aim and outcome of working well with the differences between peoples and places.

Many permies emphasize living in a Whole Place, so the Meaningful Makeover instrument brings an equal emphasis to being a Whole Person by elaborating the “Care of People” permaculture principle with insights from Stephen Covey (author of The 8th Habit and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).

Creatively identifying the interconnections and interdependencies between the two “paradigms” of Whole Person and Whole Place yields four working relationships that serve as touchstones for life-long learning and permaculture coaching. With the additional half-hour Diego gave us this year, we asked participants to gather in small groups organized by Working Relationship and come up with a guiding question relevant to their journey through PV2.

Two Paradigms/Four Questions

Motivation: a whole heart.
Motivation: a whole heart.

The Whole Place paradigm invokes two Working Relationships: interspecies and interelemental.

The Whole Person paradigm invokes two Working Relationships: intrapersonal and interhuman.

The overarching questions created by small groups this year were:

    1. Interspecies: How do we reconcile/balance our desire to integrate wildlife and net biodiversity (whole ecosystem health) with the human need for a system that ‘produces a yield’?
    2. Interelemental: How do my design elements fit together as a system?
    3. Intrapersonal: How can we become our best whole selves to care for ourselves, our communities, & the earth while at the same time welcoming the reciprocity of those things caring for us, our communities, & our earth?
    4. Interhuman: How do I connect with the right people, how do I properly communicate, and how do I create/find community?

 Working Well with Differences, Interhumanly

Soirée noted some problems with the phrasing of the interhuman question:

I would like to point out that the three-part inter-human question resulted when we were not able to distill the community question further in the time allotted. It’s my impression that “right people” was not intended to imply some people were wrong but rather how do I find people for real connection rather than a passing fancy. [Also] I’m not entirely clear what “how do I properly communicate” meant to the contributor…

Rick pursued a different but related question: “How can I improve community stability?

Our Silences: an installation by Rivelino
Our Silences: an installation by Rivelino
Our Silences: an installation by Rivelino
Our Silences: an installation by Rivelino

During the Meet-Ups and in the Closing Break-Out Session, we talked a fair bit about trying to increase the diversity of future Permaculture Voices conference participants and presenters. One strategy included becoming more aware of whiteness and how it can unconsciously get in the way of inclusion and diversification. More thoughts about how we/human beings can work well with the differences among us/human beings are shared at this Permavoices page. You are also invited to contribute.

Doing Transformative Research

Proposal for Potentially Transformative Social Scientific Action Research: Simultaneity is the Linchpin

You are invited to follow and participate in the next Tidepool experiment (idiographic case #2), to be conducted in conjunction with a conference on The Promises and Challenges of Dialogic Pedagogy. Emerging social theories are considering simultaneity in some fascinating ways. For instance, Levitt and Schiller are conceptualizing simultaneity “to rethink the terrain in which social processes take place . . . [and] challenge our understanding of social reproduction” (2004: 1016). This is relevant because unless and until scientists are willing to investigate and interrogate their own social rituals of doing scientific research, little (if any) transformation is possible.

Case #1: NSF Workshop on Transformative Research

There are four parts to this blogentry:

  • Informed Consent Process (specific to this case)
  • #NSFTR Data
  • Analysis of #NSFTR Data
  • Proposal for Potentially Transformative Social Scientific Action Research

Informed Consent

Background (Idiographic case #1, see Jaan Valsiner)

Those on the list into twitter may be interested in keeping an eye on the hashtag #NSFTR today and early tomorrow.

The tag will mark tweets of ideas (no attribution to speakers, no identifying affiliations) coming from a workshop on the notion of transformative research:

With best wishes,


J. Britt Holbrook
Assistant Director
Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity
University of North Texas
Twitter: @jbrittholbrook

I am a member of the Science of Team Science listserv, “into twitter,” and curious about “ideas . . . on the notion of transformative research.” I immediately searched for the hashtag and discovered Britt’s tweet inviting “contributions from outside the room.”  Follow - contrib from outside the roomLooking at it now, I realize it was directed at very specific individuals; at the time, in conjunction with the email, I interpreted it as an open invitation and jumped into the conversation. My hope was twofold: to contribute directly and to showcase a Twitter tool which (in my active imagination) could be a “radical knowledge thing” that NSF could use in support of transformative research.

To announce my presence (@stephjoke), I tweeted “action today and tomorrow from a Transformative Research Workshop,” including the #NSFTR hashtag and website link. Periodically I tweeted, (in-between regularly scheduled events and other tasks of the day), waiting for my tech guy to get the visualizer (tentatively named Tidepool) up and running. (Last minute requests are always a challenge!) Don Blair came through, and I immediately shared the url and a series of screenshots.

Now, someone astute among readers will realize that a) Britt’s invitation may not have meant to include outsiders outside the room (since he clearly specified already-known insiders, and I do not know if I have previously met anyone who was ‘in the room’); and b) even if the invitation was meant to include strangers, I did not ask permission to run the visualizer, let alone analyzing the Tweet data. Which is why  (during the conference), I Tweeted my affiliation with the proactionary principle, especially in terms of how it “encourages taking risks”  – in contrast with the precautionary principle. My rationale was that Tweets are public data and more people than any of us can imagine are mining them for all kinds of things that we may or may not approve. At least I make what I do public!

social science challenge-danadolanTo be honest, I was not fully cognizant that I was actually already doing potentially transformative research (as described in @danadolan’s Tweet); only that I had an opportunity to demo Tidepool. The potential of analysis – of having enough data to justify engaging this as an actual case – came clearly into mind in the week afterwards, as I began prepping in earnest for an upcoming conference where Informed Consent is being negotiated in advance. Participants need an example in order to comprehend the implications of consent; what better way to provide them this information than to illustrate to what use I will put their Tweets?


Announcing the Tidepool open source visualizer at #NSFTR
Announcing the Tidepool open source visualizer at #NSFTR
2nd #NSFTR Tweet captured by Tidepool
2nd #NSFTR Tweet captured by Tidepool
The first #NSFTR Tweet captured by Tidepool
The first #NSFTR Tweet captured by Tidepool

Here are some of the screen shots I shared with the #NSFTR (click to enlarge), and also posted back to the Science of Team Science listserv where Britt had made his original announcement. You can click through here to see and read Tweets from the #NSFTR workshop (and possibly on-going, as Tweeters continue to use the hashtag).


I am not going to get carried away because no one has given consent for me to venture even tentative interpretations! This entry is long-winded enough, and hopefully the inclusion of Tweet screenshots and commentary gives adequate flavor as to my style. It seems important, however, to be as explicit as I can with the methodology and ethics motivating this as action research. For instance, there are many disclaimers, such as that the majority of Tweets are from @jbrittholbrook and are thus unrepresentative of the whole group of participants (emphasizing why more participation is better), and that the Tweets are only a selection of everything that gets said, and that people outside the room can only make limited sense of the meaningfulness of Tweets read out of context.

Yes. These are some of the obvious conditions of communication involving a Twitter backchannel to a live, face-to-face event. If we are to be purposeful about engaging these conditions (i.e., if we are going to do social science), then we take them into due consideration as relevant factors and explore the dynamics that they bring into view. I am going to select one dynamical instance of data that I recognize as an instance of a transactional (communication) process which brings the social field of interaction into view such that we can assess whether identities or ideas are particularly relevant. The argument is that only by recognizing these interactional moments – specifically, our participation in the social norms and rituals of generating knowledge – can we come to identify the transformational. This identification is prerequisite for research that intends to be transformative.

Simultaneity is the Linchpin

good def of transformative@JChrisPires’ Tweet came a few hours after the email I sent to the Science of Team Science listserv updating them on my activities with #NSFTR. In that email, I had also suggested a facilitative use of Twitter, such as asking everyone to Tweet the one word most characterizes transformative research. When I came upon@JChrisPires’ Tweet at the end of the workshop, I recognized it immediately. We were not asking exactly the same question, and we did not ask at exactly the same time, but the timing is close enough to suggest simultaneity. In physics, simultaneity requires a shared frame of reference, but in terms of social phenomena – such as the generation of new knowledge – simultaneity is a measure that incorporates both shared and different frames of reference simply on the basis of their co-appearance in the dimension of time.

The association may seem far-fetched, however emerging social theories are considering simultaneity in some fascinating ways. For instance, Levitt and Schiller are conceptualizing simultaneity “to rethink the terrain in which social processes take place . . . [and] challenge our understanding of social reproduction” (2004: 1016). This is relevant because unless and until scientists are willing to investigate and interrogate their own social rituals of doing scientific research, little (if any) transformation is possible. Anna Madoeuf (2006) explains how to study mulids (festivals) only a few days long (as you read, please compare with the similarly temporary/transient nature of scientific meetings):

“Festivals only a few days in duration offer the researcher little real time to construct an analysis. The evanescent character of the festival drives a researcher’s quest for fragments. During a festival, everyone seems to live and act in an accelerated way and it is impossible to grasp the simultaneity of situations and scenes. Thus we have experimented with adapting sociogeographic methodologies to the roller-coaster landscape of the mulid, instantaneously capturing data created during aleatory, virtiginous peregrinations. We have chosen to accept the immediacy of the mulid and adapt research tactics — impressionistic, sampling — to its constraints. However, a broader field of more empirical analysis is also open to the researcher, because the festival is also a long-term product of less-ephemeral social, state, and urban organizing patterns, and cultural-political contestations: a mulid is debated, decided upon, struggled over, programmed, permitted, policed, and organized.” (in Cairo Cosmpolitan, p. 475).

Organizational consultant and identity theorist Evangelina Holvino has created a theory and skills of simultaneity necessary for countering what Amartya Sen calls miniaturization (2006). Miniaturization, I suspect (along with other dynamics), is part of what inspired #NSFTR Tweets about Thomas Kuhn (presumedly referring to the operations of normal science, which is what enables progress yet also stifles change). Talk about transformation (indicating a perceived need or desire for paradigm shift) probably offers evidence as to the crisis underlying modern scientific endeavors: crises that involve the social (whether we want it or not). This slideshow by Janet Sternwedel on Kuhn: Paradigms and Normal Science nicely illustrates the resistant problems (i.e. unexplainable) anomalies characterizing scientific crisis.

Proposal for Potentially Transformative Social Scientific Action Research

I would like to invite #NSFTR Tweeters (and anyone – everyone! – else who is interested) to follow the next Tidepool experiment  (idiographic case #2).  You can read the original proposal that was accepted by the conference organizers of a mini-conference on The Promises and Challenges of Dialogic Pedagogy at Reflexivity – upcoming. The conference features experts on language and education. While, at first glance, there may not appear to be any relationship between the #Bakhtin and #NSFTR events, my colleague James Cumming and I have offered a potential frame in which to make sense of ” notable incidents of language use … [further defined as] challenging moments where identities surface as relevant in particular interactions.”

The catch is that “identities” are not usually ends-in-themselves, rather they surface in service of a task or function within a group that is working (more-or-less) “together” on a matter of common (or at least overlapping) interest. In the manner of most academic conferences, however, this group of Bakhtinian practitioners has not defined a collective goal or aim for a definitive conference outcome. (From the #NSFTR workshop Tweets, I gather that there was – likewise – no intentional deliverable. Is this a polarity to be managed or a problem to be solved for the conduct of potentially transformative research?)

We are currently in the process of extending the negotiation of Informed Consent with the conference organizers to include #Bakhtin conference participants. The global task we are proposing for the purpose of the action research project is to explore whether participants can collaborate on the scale of collectively co-constructing an outcome for the group-as-a-whole: i.e., a message of some kind that represents a voice of/from the conference, something considered meaningful enough by all (or at least most participants) to share with others. An example could be coming up with a definition of “transformative,” or perhaps a list of emergent interpersonal/interactional factors that indicate the presence of potentially transformative dynamics, or even a White Paper on communication skills for transformation. These examples are suggested with the hope that they might be taken up as actual proposals! Thus defining parameters for assessing stages of group development and creating a social container within which identities can be foregrounded if/when/as they become relevant. Whether conference participants agree to engage “dialogically” with such an “Other” as #NSFTR scientists is, of course, one of the crucial questions upon which the stakes turn.

Weather and Uncertainty: Warn or Wait?

Crossing the Rubicon?
Crossing the Rubicon?

One of the striking things that I learned about Americans when I began doctoral studies in the field of Communication is that there is a positive identity function to talking about the weather. If you’ve got to interact with a stranger one thing we all experience is the weather. Rather than being superficial, talking about the weather is a small ritual of interpersonal communication done in similar ways by so many different kinds of people that it aggregates into the significantly large effect of contributing to a common sense of shared national citizenship.

Source: (retrieved 4 September 2011)
Source: NOAA (retrieved 4 September 2011)

The economic cost of big weather events is increasing. What about the social costs? What I mean by “social” are the quality and types of relationships among individuals in the United States, between these individuals and the publics we make up and belong to, the scientists and businesspeople involved in the weather enterprise, and among all these groups and the government. Whether or not the degree of public awareness and engagement with the weather is indicative of climate change or is merely a statistical blip that will wash out over time, media hype and active debate suggest a ripe opportunity for intervention in improving the emergency infrastructure so that everyone can better prepare and respond more resiliently to severe weather events (and other disasters).

Problem Definition: A Matter of History

Anyone who’s done research knows that how you ask the question has a lot to do with the results. The challenge of intervention is to ask the right questions; to ask these questions at the right times and in the right places, among the right people, and about the right thing/s; and then to see the discussion through. In Thinking in Time: Uses of History for Decision-Makers, Neustadt and May explain and illustrate the necessity for conceptualizing in terms of timestreams.

Thinking of time in such a way appears from our examples to have three components. One is recognition that the future has no place to come from but the past, hence the past has predictive value. Another element is recognition that what matters for the future in the present is departures from the past, alterations, changes, which prospectively or actually divert familiar flows from accustomed channels, thus affecting that predictive value and much else besides. A third component is continuous comparison, an almost constant oscillation from present to future to past and back, heedful of prospective change, concerned to expedite the limit: guide, counter or accept it, as the fruits of such comparison suggest. (1986:251)

I summarize Neustadt and May’s mini-methods, and argue for their application as a strategy for design, in this blog entry: Implementing an Organizational Vision through Thinking in Time.

Problematic Moments Signal the Potential for Powerful Change

WAS*IS problem definition exercise, 10 August 2011, at UCAR in Boulder
WAS*IS problem definition exercise, 10 August 2011, at UCAR in Boulder

The most lively discussion held at the 2011 WAS*IS Weather and Society Summer Workshop involved how to improve tornado warnings. Even though I was not formally in my action researcher role, I had been authorized to do ‘live blogging,’ so I was taking copious notes and paying close attention to the discourse and dynamics as they were unfolding. After this activity on August 10th (the 6th day of the workshop), Bob described it as “a barnstormer of a discussion” and Justin noticed a shift: “It’s all been happy-go-lucky so far, [and now] we’re going to have some disagreements – but the good thing is we all respect each other.”

watch your headFrom my vantage point, we had just gone through a group-level problematic moment. I’ve lived through several of them, and so have you – any time a whole group suddenly falls silent, or most members of the group spontaneously burst into talk – some underlying issue that effects everyone has somehow been tapped. James Cumming suggests these are “the same kind of moment that Bergson calls “durée:” a moment of silence that prepares the way for discourse, possibly new discourse, and with that the possibility of change.” [Noise is another kind of silencing: din obliterates sensible sound.]

Usually problematic moments are passed over, politely or awkwardly ignored. In our case, the discussion had already gone longer than scheduled and intruded into the break time. The moment of simultaneous talk became the excuse to end the activity and move into break and on with the rest of the program. Exceptionally, however, the vast majority of WAS*IS workshop participants kept talking with each other: over the next few minutes I counted at least thirteen animated interactions, from pairs to trios and one group of four, whose conversations continued as if there had been no interruption. If only we could have captured each of those unique conversations!

tornado shelterBarnburning: The “Warn on Forecast” Concept for Tornadoes

I typed as quickly as I could. This section is mainly the description provided by Workshop Leaders for a heuristic activity regarding problem definition. We were not supposed to try and solve a particular problem, rather, we were charged with the task of applying our collective intelligence to as many components of the issue as we could imagine to question.

a) The current system accounts for detecting a tornado threat (and issuing a warning) 0~45 minutes before it hits.
b) 10+ year goal is to increase this to ~2+ hours . . .
c) How????? Through better models, etc…. [although] “we have models that are coming out of our ears”


  • Kenny clarifies: a specific storm that does not exist yet, a particular threat in a given location…
  • Dan N: an area, maybe Boulder …
  • The default WarnGen shape – “I’m not crazy about that shape, but that’s sortof what they look like…”
  • Current system:
    • Assumes the public is homogeneous
    • ‘one size fits all’ – “you’re either in the warning or not, at risk or not
    • Purely meteorological polygon:
      • Purely bimodal
      • YES you are in or NO you are not
      • Orange dot could be (a popular state park, boy scout camp, county fair, mobile home park, school, hospital)
      • “ugly tornado, or we think it might be”
      • This is about the communication of uncertainty
      • Jay: “you might want to show where the expected tornado location is”
      • Bob: “I have a problem with that orange dot, apparently I have less value (having a bbq with my family) than the Boy Scout Camp.”
      • Mark: “How many dollars it costs for every hour somebody is under a tornado warning” ~ there is “an economic cost involved.” “It’s not a no-brainer.”
      • Jamie: “I’m being undervalued because I’m not in the polygon, but putting you in the polygon means increasing the area of uncertainty” …. five times you’re in the polygon, nothing happens, the 6th time you decide to ignore the warning…
      • Assign percentages?
        • Blue Dot: State Park
        • Green Triangle: Mobile Home Park
        • Red Star: State Fair Grounds
        • Green Square: College Football Game
        • “What is your probability threshold?” “How sure are you that locations inside the box will receive severe weather?” At receding distances beyond the boundaries of the polygon…
        • Greg: specific only to this one storm, not taking into account future/other storms
        • Dan N: only one/current to keep things simple
        • Talia: “How fast might a storm like this move,” influencing when you would move the boundaries…
        • Dan N: 20-30 mph (roughly)
        • Kenny: maybe there’s an on-the-ground report
        • Robert: that measure of speed is an average, some can move up to 70 mph
        • Dan N: just a simplified model for the purposes of the exercise: “Storms can do all kinds of crazy things.”
        • Ben: “Is that more of a fear that meteorologists will miss an event that impacts a lot of people, or is it to make the overall system more dynamic?”
        • Dan N: “Hold that question!”
        • Dan N: add  intensity of tight game – Buffaloes vs Huskies
        • Matt: are they playing in Lincoln?

Probabilistic Hazard Information (PHI)

At this point, it seems most of us have grasped the instructions and the scope of the example.  Now the types of question begin to shift, becoming more diagnostic: the group begins to address the task and interrogate the scenario.

  • Uncertainties/probabilities addedtornado outbreak
  • Longer lead times
    • Warnings for lesser certainty can be issued
    • 1-by-1 pixels

Holly: What happens if the storm regenerates? Could be misleading to the people in the blue?

Dan N: It’s extremely more complicated than this; storms could be popping up all over the place….”maybe in your discussions, you could kick all these ideas around” . . . presented this way “for simplicity’s sake” . . . aware “maybe that’s the problem”

Spinney: “Is each a different product?”

Eve: We had an advanced WAS*IS  about this in 2008.  “I thought, people just need to know each other, as soon as this gets explained, social scientists, emergency managers, hospital administers… total flashback, and a little of post-traumatic stress….. an anthropologist and others asked, “Why didn’t you ask us what we might need?” “why did you assume that this is what we wanted?” . . . “No one has really recovered from this yet….” Our assumption that …. How much trust in the NWS …. It would be magic.  “This is really hard; if we could make progress on this, it could really change the way these things go: we’ve got private sector people in the room, more social scientists in the room, much more sophisticated understanding… the dream was, we’ll explain it to you and you’ll make it easier for us….”  Look at webpage for 2008, _______ (?)…. She doesn’t do this anymore, she went back to lightning. This was too hard.”

Susanna: one of the potential mistakes here, going from warm colors to cool colors, these things we’re used to from – intensity indicated by hot colors…. If blue I’m thinking the weather is going to be mild – the color scheme of a storm

Dan N: “light rain….moderate…. etc:

Robert: the color scheme is resonant of what the Dept of Homeland Security used… we were always on green or blue?

Kenny: rules of cartography were not considered when these codes were put together – they spend a lot of time learning about design: hues, color, intensity, perceived meanings… “a mismatch between the product and what’s intended”

Dan N: “be careful quoting me on representing a weather forecast” because that’s not the point here, which is to get us into an exercise

  • 1 km by 1 km grid boxes,
  • this product will give me a percentage, e.g., 17% of being hit by a tornado,
  • two primary issues –
    • 1.  much longer lead time of 2-3 hours, but then we have
    • 2.  increased the probabilistic warning information

Bob: I’ll start looking for secondary info, the longer lead time will reduce the urgency of threat . . . weaken the intent of warning

TASK PROMPT: Do we Warn on Forecast?

ZillianalienThe group is immersed in imagining variables, conditions, assumptions, the breadth of brainstorming is phenomenal. Some members of the group begin to question why, if, when, how, and who should be warned – or not.

  1. What problems were defined?
  2. Does this concept appear to solve the defined problems?

Susanna: This is focused on problem at the local level; but what are the factors at the higher level? Do we have to stay in this paradigm, what do to make it better? How introduce new factors at the higher level – because this isn’t even the paradigm we want to be working within?

  • Who needs more lead time? Football stadium… it takes a long time to evacuate…
  • Gaby: clarification ~ issues addressed in the powerpoint or the exercise?
  • Rebecca: both
  • Bev: we’re assuming lead time will make a difference? Will lead time move into actions that people can take to protect themselves?
  • Gaby: who is this for? May benefit some individuals more than others ~ meteorologists, or comm between emergency managers, but not the public
  • Dan N: generic answer is for everyone – currently tornado warnings are for everyone.
  • Rebecca: audience matters
  • Gaby: if we’re thinking public there are things to consider, if emergency mgmt. personnel there are others to consider
  • Chad: a convective outlook (meteorological) – the meat of the argument…. But jargon-laced to the public. More detail oriented for those people and more general for the public, some nerds who will love looking at the convective outlooks ~ maybe that’s an analogy?
  • Dix: a lot of those products were not made for the public, but they are out there…. We still need them, do you use them/convert them for use by emergency managers….
  • Chad: Interpret and spin into message for their audiences?
  • Dan N: from a physical science perspective, this all makes great sense
  • Greg: will the idea of uncertainty and probability be understood? In the location? In the timing? Where is the uncertainty? Will it appear?
  • Susanna: would it be helpful to communicate the numerical probability?
  • Rebecca: meteorologists assume this will happen, if communicate the numbers it will work
  • Susanna: doesn’t work
  • Greg: that’s the assumption
  • Jay: “whenever we do something like this in real time, we disregard the bigger threat on the north side of that storm which is the hail…. Telling people to get indoors but we should tell ‘em to get their cars indoors to protect from the baseball sized hail”
  • Talia posed something
  • Dan N: why issue tornado warnings in the first place
  • Jamie: give people the info and let people make the decision
  • Rebecca: empower decision-making as the goal or “I know what the right thing is, you do it?”
  • SJK: should be recording this conversation
  • Susanna: bureaucracy
  • Brittany: “will see what I can do”
  • Ben: who decides? Authorities or whose responsible for their family – we’re experts, analogy with a doctor, you need this surgery or here’s the options with their probabilities, people want advice that’s what a tornado warning does…
  • Dan N:
  • Susanna: where we’re miscommunicating is audience ~ doctor, patient, FEMA, hospital administrator, we keep forgetting which public when giving examples, the assumption keeps assuming there is one audience, how do we adapt products to multiple audiences rather than just one
  • Dan N: if we go this route, what Eve was talking about… if we go this route, how (and what effects)
  • Susanna: You’ve shot yourself in the foot, “this is for everyone in the US”
  • Dan N: defends
  • Susanna: must have different entry points in web design, cannot start
  • Greg: people have scales too, just like weather does
  • Justin: what is a problem, what do we do with: bimodal you get hit or not by a tornado same with rain… must have confidence levels – problems with the current model; nothing else in weather is done bimodally
  • Robert: Check out the Warn on Forecast webpage
  • Dan N: let’s not get stuck there
  • Rebecca: intriguing to analyze their assumptions
  • Brittany: assuming that the public knows what their context is – people know if they’re in a football stadium
  • Dan N: you’re bringing it to another level, how could it be done better (isn’t this what we’re supposed to be doing?)
  • Bob: are they just doing this for themselves to show people how smart they are? They’re missing it now, more of the same will help? Not.
  • Jamie: both, ½ the org has one motivation and ½ another (to help the public or show off)
  • Alan: if people aren’t doing something at 100% why are we thinking they’ll do something at 17%?
  • Bev: belief that more/better will be sufficient. What do we know that will empower people? A personal relationship? Something else?
  • Dan N: “We can definitely kick around a lot of problems, but does it solve it?”
  • NO.
  • Kenny: “bring out some of the inherent tensions: In science, if someone asks me to define a problem, what are some…. E.g., “Do people have enough lead time?” there are assumptions in there…. Are these even valid questions to be asking?”  What the weather service would like, and what problem needs to be solved?  “Is this even a problem?” We need a statistical technique to show this before we go to the second stage…. Academics are asking, ‘what the hell are we doing?’ Need to apply a null hypothesis test to, before we even proceed.
  • Rebecca: often we have the data that shows how people do/don’t respond… we have contra-evidence
  • Kenny: assumption that the public needs tornado warnings – I’m not sure this has even been demonstrated. Juicy meta-problems… as we’re attempting to uncover the comments
  • Rebecca back to Jay: what are the threats we’re supposed to be addressing?
  • Dan N: the physical scientists bring up the natural phenomena (hail, etc), social scientists – do people even understand these things?
  • Dan N: “Well, it’s 10:00.”
  • Rebecca: validity – some scientific accuracy or truth, the probabilities are not well-calculated…. Not scientifically-sensible.  “You can’t assume the science is perfect, you make a lot of assumptions with science.”
  • Dan N: current RQ ~“How to draw this box?”
  • Matt: “I’m sitting here as a broadcaster feeling job security. You cannot make a policy that is going to fit every situation. There is always going to be humans involved, no matter how good computers and modeling gets – you can’t cover every situation that comes up…”
  • Rebecca: what is the larger problem definition?
  • Dan N: “This is a real one. This is real life.”
  • Jamie: “When it comes to high profile warnings, that really is the identity of the agency. A lot of people are going to come to the table with tremendous emotional attachment or baggage, to them, this is who they are. The tornado or hurricane warning is how they define themselves.”
  • Dan N; “Meteorologists are almost born thinking, ‘It would be great if we can give 5 hours lead time…’”
  • Greg: how organic systems interact: atmosphere, oceans, cryosphere, land – a classic graphic. The human aspect needs to be put into that five-part connection; the problem is that we’re dealing in two different systems that are always evolving, we always have to make assumptions to simplify…
  • Jelmer: “everybody needs coffee, I know” “ We’re discussing the things, but they are obviously not isolated to this room, there are people doing research about it, already, I hope… a list of references? Otherwise we are talking about it now and maybe forget it.”
  • Bob: question, insane, bear with me: “Does  a reduction in lead time increase probability increase risk…. Short-term decision-making… expose people to greater risk…. Short-term lose more lives & property but over time…. “ a recency effect….
  • Steph H: larger venue decision-making for large institutions: schools etc ~ some sort of probabilities info could help, they may make better decisions than the usual public
  • Susanna disagrees: school principals? Probably not
  • Steph H: longer lead time, seems less life-threatening, not beneficial, more adverse effects (their speculations)
  • Bev: school officials may have more anxiety
  • Susanna: making a joke, can’t assume people with more education automatically understand probability, but some audiences do need more lead time. Bob – for some people it won’t make a difference but for some it will, the hospital administrator needs it
  • Brittany: for emergency mgmt a very useful tool, not the general public
  • Chris: I can see giving the info to an elite group, then feeds rumors – we’re preparing for such and so, but nobody knows, “It’s gonna get out whether we put it out or not”
  • Amy: ethical, legal
  • Chris:


road sky thunderstorm

Several talking same time: Justin-Chris, Amy-Robert, Steph H (at least)
Rebecca H – the importance of the proactive step
(Mark-Dix, Chris, Dan N, Kenny…Rebecca….)

SLOWAn ethical dilemma – withhold info?

Tell who? (and who not?)

Ownership of taxpayer to the info, responsibility to provide ~ Chris on the shock of imagining the possibility of not telling – proving Jamie’s point about identity.

the secret WAS*IS*WILLBE handshake

WAS*IS is not only about the weather: its revolutionary model is an exemplar for harnessing collective intelligence in the face of our generation’s severe and complicated societal-level challenges.

Ben surveys a mile of huge stones carried by a flood
Ben surveys a mile of huge stones carried by a flood

Boulder, CO

Connecting the Dots

Will WAS*IS live?

Touched by the Weather

The continental United States experiences more sudden, severe weather than anyplace else on the globe. This astonishing fact occurs because of geography and patterns of wind. Less surprising but still fascinating is that most of the participants attending WAS*IS (including the social scientists) experienced a major weather event when they were young. Whether or not you believe humans have anything to do with global warming – or even in global warming itself, chances are increasing that you’ve been exposed to or affected by a recent severe weather event. At least, this is an assumption that social scientists can help assess.

  • What are the costs of bad weather?
  • Do we measure this in purely economic terms, or do we need to also understand the sociocultural implications as people adapt, grow, or fail to learn lessons from surviving a natural hazard?

The water is rising

Kevin and Bob: Doing Something Technical
Kevin and Bob: Doing Something Technical

The point of the Societal Impacts Program is to bring the social into team science:

SIP serves as a focal point for developing and supporting a closer relationship between weather researchers, operational forecasters, relevant end users,
and social scientists.

According to the veterans, some amazing things have happened during this 10th “summer workshop” exploring “what WAS to what IS the future” of integrated social and physical science. The representation of stakeholders at the 2011 WAS*IS is impressive: roughly half of the participants are professors, students and/or professional researchers from social science disciplines, with the other half including four television weathermen, two employees of for-profit business companies, and several National Weather Service employees, ranging from extensively-trained meteorologists and technicians in Weather Forecast Offices to national policy advisors and top-level agency directors.

We are, however, missing representation from the largest set of end-users, the diversity of publics who care about weather news. Social science is needed to identify

Caitlin and Jay, listening carefully.
Caitlin and Jay, listening carefully.
  • the very different reasons and diversity of needs of interested consumers of weather news;
  • failures of education and training in making weather knowledge common – widely shared and collectively understood;
  • social interactions of time and the timing of warnings with both short-fuse and long-fuse weather hazards (such as flash floods or hurricanes, respectively).

Did you know that the National Weather Service warning for Hurricane Katrina was the most precise and accurate warning in history? Not only did the official warning provide a very long lead time, it also predicted in acute detail the devastation about to occur.

A new line in the sand

Brittany's Emergency Management Support Statement
Brittany's Emergency Management Support Statement

Including so many social scientists in the WAS*IS 2011 Summer Workshop raises the bar for organizers and participants too. The diversity of disciplinary backgrounds means the training model has to embrace new interaction capacities and grow. Just like people in other components of the weather enterprise, we are all responsible for keeping the relationships discovered here alive, active, and productive. Collectively, some stances need to be forged on a wider scale to support the emergence of this movement from its exclusive and cozy origins to an institutional force with considerable lateral reach. WAS*IS  is not only about the weather: its revolutionary model is an exemplar for harnessing collective intelligence in the face of our generation’s severe and complicated societal-level challenges.

Just as some of us will experience various emotions as this experience comes to a close, grief is part and parcel of the process of organizational maturity. It is like a phase shift from youth to early adulthood. The success of creating and delivering these great summer workshops leads to responsibility for nurturing the network’s potential to reach beyond scattered pairings and isolated studies. It is time for WAS*IS to become more than random motion in a chaotic system and self-organize into a system with power to lead institutional level change.

We have the technology!

(inspired by  Matt the Bionic Weatherman)

Spinney: Showing Us The Way
Spinney: Showing Us The Way

Passion brought us here

Weather and the challenges of forecasting are perfect metaphors for the development of the WAS*IS movement, especially if you take into account all of its participants and nested timescales.

Bill Hooke flips the frame from defeat to opportunity
Bill Hooke flips the frame from defeat to opportunity

Boulder, CO

“I’ll have some unleaded”

Alexis Networks argued that everyone should work a service job at some time in their life . . . she was trying to tolerate our waiter the human whirlwind – after all, we just wanted barbecue!  Her strategy was to jump scale: finding the direct interpersonal interaction challenging, she shifted her perspective to larger socioeconomic dynamics. This defused the possibility of unwelcome tension spoiling our meal.

Decisions: Economics and Value (I wonder: What is the price of ethics?)
Decisions: Economics and Value (I wonder: What is the price of ethics?)

We were recovering from a day of touring three flash flood scenes. The overall mood of the 2011 WAS*IS seems good – there is much laughter and comraderie despite the emotional undercurrents raised by facing the evidence of unnecessary human death. I am not sure how many of us were deeply contemplating the various roles we play in ‘the weather enterprise,’ but I think it had to be present. Queen Eve kept asking, How do we get people out of their cars and climbing to safety?

My (social science) answer is that we need to cultivate people’s ability to recognize what situation they’re in; more specifically, which timescale is most salient?

Caught in a storm

On Saturday, in turn with all the other social scientists here at WAS*IS, I gave a brief presentation on the methodologies from the discipline of Communication that I use in my work, ending with Bruce Tuckman’s model of the stages of group development:

If prevention is impossible, how do we recalibrate for continual recovery?
If prevention is impossible, how do we recalibrate for continual recovery?
  • forming
  • storming
  • norming
  • performing

Ben The Curious asked what I’d observed of our group so far. My answer in the moment was positive and optimistic – I still believe! – but the critical discourse analyst in me started wondering: is this group going to engage ‘the storm‘ or skirt right through it? Will we ‘norm’ in ways that avoid the tensions among us or will we recognize the various timescales present and make decisions accordingly – and will we implement these decisions collectively or individually?

Weather and the challenges of forecasting are perfect metaphors for the development of the WAS*IS movement, especially if you take into account all of its participants and nested timescales.

Better Wet Than Dead

A locus for action?
A locus for action?

Just like a severe weather event, group dynamics play out on multiple timescales. It is the convergence of trends and factors that generate a storm.  The group development stage of storming plays out, simultaneously, in the course of:

  • a single day in the WAS*IS schedule
  • the course of the 8-day workshop
  • the life cycle of the WAS*IS movement

It seems to me that all of us ‘innocents’ in this year’s WAS*IS are witness and participant to a storm occurring at the higher level of the movement’s life cycle.  Whether we’re willing to get wet (or prefer to stay in our cars) is a collective decision that will have bearing on the future of these summer workshops.

Stormchasing (Hanging with Kindred Spirits)

How is the public to be engaged in the co-communicative process of understanding the significance of weather measurements? Comprehension is mutually created – whether this is between individuals, among people with different demographic characteristics, or within hierarchical structures of policy construction, implementation, and enforcement.

Boulder, CO

Oh yea. I’m home. Not just back in Colorado, but in the company of ‘my people.’

Dan and Todd at the Weather Forecast Office, David Skaggs Research Center (NOAA), Boulder CO
Dan and Todd at the Weather Forecast Office, David Skaggs Research Center (NOAA), Boulder CO

At least at first glance, most of us appear to share an ethos that gathering in groups to work together for social change can lead to large-scale effects.

Work, by the way, is used here in the physics sense – “the amount of energy transferred by a force acting through a distance in the direction of the force.”  From my disciplinary perspective, the force at our disposal is language; the energy comes from each (and all) of our separate, specialized knowledges. Energy, in the physics sense, is an indirectly observed physical quantity.  In other words, even though energy does not have a form directly observable to human perception or technological detection, parameters can be established that allow the effect of energy to be measured.

Meteorologists are constantly grappling with the indeterminate appearance of energy in weather systems. Based on two and a half days of participant observation, the language of weather forecasting seems to mirror the chaos and uncertainties of severe storm emergence.

Mark Trail and The Weather Enterprise

What's missing?
What's missing?

Kinetic Kenny explained the marketing strategy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to use the Mark Trail cartoon character (invented, 1946) to promote the use of weather alert radios (1997).  The ‘work’ that Kinetic Kenny and Julie the Jewel did in the opening WAS*IS presentation was to bring the social scientists in the room up to speed with the meteorologists regarding the mission of the National Weather Service. In other words, their energy was intended to transmit their intelligence through space in order to draw us all in to the weather enterprise.

Merger: physical science and social science
Merger: physical science and social science

Problematics of definition and control quickly became apparent in the formative stages of the 2011 WAS*IS group’s discourse. Weather Forecasters and Broadcast Meteorologists want people to understand risks to their safety and take proper precautions. These professionals hold themselves to high standards and agonize over fatalities – especially those that are preventable. Why don’t people heed weather warnings?

“This is water and you will drown!”
(attribution credit requested)

Decision Support is a Communication Activity

Bill Hooke should give a TED Talk
Bill Hooke should give a TED Talk

When, how, and why people choose risk over safety is social behavior that has more to do with time than space. This is my hypothesis, anyway, and I’ll be grateful to anyone and everyone who shares research and resources on this matter!  Control is a discrete, technological phenomena usually achieved under (please correct me if I’m wrong!) strict constraints of immediacy: as soon as temporality extends beyond the limits of the Here-and-Now, prediction typically begins to weaken – especially if human beings are involved.

Even in the most tightly-circumscribed human process there are “too many factors,” as attested by Gaby Who Reads Minds. These factors are psychological and social: they multiply downstream during the inevitable unfolding of severe weather events. One must begin, therefore, with generalities – the patterns evident from aggregating the entire range of actual behaviors and correlating these directly observable phenomena with indirectly observable sources of influence.

Here’s what I see:

The primary pattern of meteorological communication with the public is confusion.

Lack of intradisciplinary agreement on meaning

The human element: Talk about uncertainty!
The human element: Talk about uncertainty!

Which is worse: a watch, a warning, or an advisory?  The definitions combine spatial and temporal criteria in ways that make your head spin. As social media and other technologies allow the evolution of codes, the infighting over ownership of words and terms is intense (so I’m told). How is the public to be engaged in the co-communicative process of understanding the significance of weather measurements? Comprehension is mutually created – whether this is between individuals, among people with different demographic characteristics, or within hierarchical structures of policy construction, implementation, and enforcement.

Opening Reception: Rainbow over Boulder
Opening Reception: Rainbow over Boulder

Culture Change Underway!

The critique I’m offering of weather service related jargon is not actually a criticism. It is possible only because of the clarity with which the WAS*IS community is engaging the known dilemmas of protecting the public with the scientific tools of weather prediction. More than any other physical science, meteorologists are embracing the work of social scientists in a way that foreshadows the best potentials of team science. The newly-coined science of team science has been established on the precedents of medical/public health and safety research but has been slower to embrace social science because of a fascination with the information-processing capabilities of social networking. It seems to me both are needed in order to address wicked problems.

WAS*IS*WILLBE heralds new intellectual terrain. Let’s keep exciting each other!

Arrival at the National Center on Atmospheric Research
Arrival at the National Center on Atmospheric Research

All About Risk: Thinking Dangerously about Climate Change, Hazards, and Finance

a triangulation of thoughts from two recent conferences

and one book:
Thinking Dangerously about Communication, Disaster and Risk
Integrating Research on Climate Change & Hazards
My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance

Risk Management and Risk Perception

It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem: which comes first? The perception of risk, or attempts to manage it?  Don’t attempts to manage risk teach us how to perceive it? How can those who are tasked with managing risk (in whatever flavor) incorporate the range of human variability in perception to inform quality decision-making and effective system design? The dynamic of perception and management plays out in nested fashion from individual emotion & cognition to social interaction to the institutional mechanisms intended to regulate social relations which, in turn, shapes the boundaries of how a person is or isn’t supposed to behave in terms of expressing their emotions. If you’re a researcher, detachment is de rigueur.  I’m wondering how much of this subjectification comes from professionalizing the scientific method, and how much comes psychologically – as a protective buffer against the ramifications of what we know?

Emanual Derman published his autobiography in 2004, well before the mortgage-banking crash, and long before the BP-Gulf disaster. Derman’s work in financial engineering for Goldman-Sachs put him in league with the top echelon of traders and financial managers for nearly twenty years. When he writes, “The development of new options structures resembled an arms race” (p. 223), one understands that he is reflecting the violent realities at the core of economic risk. Indeed, he opens the book with a comparison and contrast between the culture of quantitative engineers (trained in theoretical physics & focused on current value) and financial risk managers & traders (thinking about the future). “The guts to lose a lot of money,” Derman asserts, “carries its own aura,” and “the capacity to wreak havoc with your models provides the ultimate respectability” (p. 12-13)

Respecting Collaboration regarding Slow Onset Hazards

The pressure to live fast-forward has contributed to deep, infrastructural level risks that require a new style of collaboration. I think incisive insiders like Derman, geographers exploring how (and why) to

  1. facilitate adaptation to slow-onset hazards,
  2. build local resilience,
  3. map local knowledge into policy and practice, and
  4. understand the relationship between land use, climate change, and hazards.

along with crisis communication researchers who are asking, “How do we develop communities who can talk with each other about:

  • local and federal tensions in crisis planning, emergency management, and disaster recovery?
  • normative questions concerning the role of experts, particularly in relation with regular people?
  • distributive justice questions of who shoulders what kinds and amounts of societal-level risk?”

Shared references more effective than “a common language”

My primary career of the last fifteen years has been as a sign language interpreter.  I’ve witnessed (one could even say “participated”) in interactions where people misunderstand each other using the same words  (to mean different things), as well as using different words (to mean the same thing). No doubt there are many instances in which the same words do mean the same things (or similar enough), as well as those moments when people become aware that they are using different words to mean different things (usually called a communication breakdown).  Granted, there is tremendous comfort in being able to take words at face value and move ahead on the assumption that you are being understood as you desire and understanding others as they intend. In fact, this is part of the emotional experience of belonging, of feeling home, of being with one’s own kind.

The thing is, we’re rarely lucky enough to be only with our own kind, and there are paltry few problems facing us today that can be solved by sticking exclusively to our own kind. What we need is the perception to recognize when we’re missing each other and the perseverance to figure out the meaningfulness of these gaps. We need a few targets: conceptual reference points that we hash out and define together to use as guideposts and landmarks for collaboration that not only presumes difference, but actually values and wants to preserve it.

Implementing an Organizational Vision through Thinking In Time

Science of Team Science
1st annual conference

A vision is a product of imagination

By definition,  a vision is not the physical sense of sight by which we perceive shapes, colors, distance, and relative positions of objects in our immediate environment. We use the sensory perception of vision as a metaphor for the amorphous sensation of possibility that arises with certain synergies of thought. Possibilities may or may not be creative: likewise every possibility has some ratio of probability. A feature of good management is the skill of ascertaining the probability of achieving any particular possibility and taking action accordingly within a specific zone of risk. Drawing upon Dr John Kounios’ definition of creativity, cited in this New York Times article Charting Creativity: Signposts of a Hazy Territory, creative possibilities are those that involve an insight about how to restructure a situation in a non-obvious way. Organizationally speaking, these are the kinds of visions that earn the label, visionary.

Twin problems: expressing and placing the vision

As amorphous products of imagination, it can be challenging to craft language for expressing a visionary vision. To use a sailing metaphor, one has to tack against the wind toward a destination that is essentially mythical: the island isn’t there until you arrive on its shores and set foot on the ground, confirming its existence. The goal is regularly obscured by weather (fog, storms) and the route affected by the environment (tides, pirates). In order to navigate effectively in murky circumstances, there must be a clear reference point: for enterprises of human organization, providing this clarity is the job of language.

Communicating with language is not a linear process. Misunderstandings, for instance, provide empirical evidence of the non-linearity of language.  In every situation, in any culture, language use is transactional. Although it may seem like picking at hairs, there is a subtle difference between an “interaction” and a “transaction.”[1] Both terms refer to some kind of relationship, but interactions occur between entities that remain fixed and unchanging, whereas in a transaction all entities are affected and changed (to lesser or greater degrees, but always in some way). The precise effects on individuals engaging in transactionally-based vision planning cannot be predicted. This uncertainty can undermine or motivate the group’s dynamic processes.

Thinking in time: operationalizing a vision as an encounter with history

“Most people find it harder to
think about institutions than to think about individuals.”

~ Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R May (1986, p. 239)
Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers

“Placing the organization,” suggest Neustadt & May, “partly because it is the least natural of the various steps we suggest, may yield a high return in terms of questions that might otherwise be left unasked or answers left unexamined” (p. 240). It may be counterintuitive to draw upon their “mini-methods” for political crisis resolution as a guide for organizational vision design and implementation, but bear with me for a moment. The practice of thinking in time is a strategy for design. Conceiving of time as a stream frames a dialogue for collaborative teams to “get forward, as soon as possible, the questions that ought to be asked before anyone says, ‘This is what we should do,’ or ‘Here’s how to do it'” (p. 240).

“…visualizing issues in timestreams. To link conventional wisdoms of the present with past counterparts and future possibilities; to link interpretations of the past with the experiences of their interpreters, and both with their prescriptions; to link proposals for the future with the inhibitions of the present and inheritances of the past – all these mean to think relatively and in terms of time, opening one’s mind to possibilities as far back as the story’s start and to potentialities as far ahead as relevant (judged, of course, from now, hence subject to revision later). That entails seeing time as a stream. It calls for thinking of the future as emergent from the past and of the present as a channel that perhaps conveys, perhaps deflects, but cannot stop the flow. (Conveys? Deflects? In what degree? A critical concern!) Perception of time-in-flow cannot help but be encouraged by purposeful study of stretches of history, regardless of whose it is or what the focus.” (p. 246)

There are intriguing parallels among Neustadt and May’s recommendations for working with time and those of Peter Block (Flawless Consulting)[2] and Marvin Weisbord & Sandra Janoff (Keeping Difficult Situations from Becoming Difficult Groups).[3]

Neustadt & May’s mini-methods:

  1. Get the story, build timelines (when & what), ask journalist questions (where, who, how, why)
  2. Identify options for action (defined by current conditions & capabilities), consider marketing (is it preferable to return to what was before or reach to a new, more satisfactory situation?) Principally, what can be done, now? In other words, make “…judgments of the future as a product of the past affected by presumptions about the present. This playing off of future, past, and present is important work” (emphasis added, p. 237).
  3. Test/pre-evaluate: “What expectations about causes and effects makes certain options preferable to others?” (p. 238) Play “bets and odds” in terms of your own money, what would you bet on (chances to win) and what avoid (risks of losing)? Explore what would change if new evidence comes to light.
  4. Placement (still before deciding on a choice of action!): “…probing presumptions about relevant people and organizations on whose active aid success depends” (p. 238).

Flawless Consulting

Peter Block distinguishes between the manager who has direct control, and the consultant who can achieve only influence. While Newstadt and May’s model assumes several people already working collaboratively on a major issue, Block focuses on the interpersonal, professional client-consultant relationship. “Sometimes,” he explains, “it is not until after some implementation occurs that a clear picture of the real problem emerges” (p. 8). Block is assuming transactionalism and time-in-flow even though he does not state this directly.

The presumption of timeflow is more apparent in Block’s assertion that competence in the preliminary phases of planning “create the foundation for successful outcomes in the implementation stage” (p. 10). Following a path represents movement in time. “Each act that expresses trust in ourselves and belief in the validity of our own experience is always the right path to follow. Each act that is manipulative or filled with pretense is always self-destructive” (p. 11). Block emphasizes the interplay of present and future: if one behaves like this in the present, one can expect that in the future; whereas if one behaves as if then events will likely work out in such and so a manner.

Focus on structural issues that you can control

“To the extent that we treat differences as a problem to be solved rather than a reality to be managed,” explains Weisbord & Janoff, “we set ourselves up for endless diagnosis and intervention at the expense of doing the work” (p. 2). They draw upon Solomon Asch’s (1952) discovery that for one person to maintain a perception of reality which differs from the rest of the group, that individual must have a known ally. Yvonne Agazarian’s (1997) research demonstrated that one can keep a group on task by finding that ally whenever a dynamic emerges that could take a group off-course.

In Weisbord & Janoff’s experience, “…when differences cause frustration, fear, or anger, people will keep working on the task to the extent that they view the situation as normal” (p. 3).  Weisbord & Janoff learned to normalize the emotion, not the difference. Recall the adage teachers use with students: if one person has the question, others have the question. In a task-oriented group, if one person feels the feeling, other people are feeling the feeling. Shared feelings generate natural allies and healthy subgroups. Normalizing the emotional life of a group enables the exploration of a full, wholistic range of questions and concerns – and answers! – available to a group, particularly a group that wants to act as a team.

The four conditions named by Weisbord & Janoff frame their philosophy of knowing “when to just stand there.” The crucial, transactional point of oscillation is between trusting the group to work through whatever dynamics are present toward task accomplishment, and intervening because of a risk to single member whose opinion or experience is dangling in solitary space.  In Weisbord & Janoff’s experience, diverse groups are most likely to accomplish their tasks when:

(1) people are well-matched to the task,
(2) enough time is allowed for each phase,
(3) everybody really knows the group’s goal, and
(4) potential conflict which might result in flight from the task is headed off by making differences and sub-grouping functional, i.e., as ‘‘contributing to growth’ (p 8).

The need to address and re-direct dysfunctional dynamics of fight or flight from the task is an acknowledgment of the streaming flow of time. What happens in the present affects the future, just as much as what is possible in the present has been significantly pre-figured by the past.

Notice group processes: when to slow down and give attention to small details

All of us are under a lot of pressure to move quickly.  The speed of today’s society is more than inertia, there is what appears to be an inexorable acceleration. The challenge is that the balance of time is held disproportionately between individuals and institutions. Institutionalized bureaucracies remain mired in slow time while individuals increase our frenzied activity as if to compensate for the plodding wheels of systemic change. Intriguingly, in the Charting Creativity article cited above, Dr Rex Jung of The Mind Research Network explains how creativity differs from intelligence. Creativity moves more slowly through the brain, wandering along “lots of little side roads with interesting detours, and meandering little byways.” This difference in pace is a remarkable finding that distinguishes “creative thinking” from the lightning-fast-firing of neurons venerated by popular culture. Slowing down, Dr Jung suggests, “might allow for the linkage of more disparate ideas, more novelty and more creativity.”

This is the kind of creativity needed for implementing visionary visions, whether for business or for science. We need to understand, better, how teams promote creativity among each other. Building teams who know how to notice and respond to the dynamics of language use is one powerful way to harness the essential transactionalism of communication so that, together, we can learn to recognize and make conscious choices between dead-end tangents that distract us from the organizational vision and growth-enhancing sidestreams that act back to concentrate intentionality in the flow of time toward achievement.

Constant Calibrating

All along the way, the image of the vision must be kept in mind like a target in timespace. Its necessary conditions, and the steps required to achieve those conditions, must also be envisioned. These are also products of imagination – the steps have not yet been accomplished, the conditions do not yet exist. What one holds in mind – and talks about with collaborators, team-members, friends, and advisors – is the degree of fit between the current situation (as a snapshot of time-in-flow) with any of the previously-conceived steps and conditions (as the destination of time’s flow). Probably the trickiest part is maintaining equilibrium between management and control.

Management is your ability to direct the timestream of changing conditions and changeable steps along channels you anticipate will move you closer to the target. Control is the amount of force you exert against the nature of the conditions and the step tendencies of people in your system. The most effective and enjoyable teams are those in which all members contribute consciously to the transactional balancing act of management without control. A balanced team is alert to information and dynamics that effect the timeflow of implementation. Members of a balanced team share data, thoughts, and impressions openly; confirm differences that challenge previously accepted strategy; and maintain focus on a future timespace in which the organizational vision has been made real.

[1] See Mustafa Emirbayer, Manifesto for a Relational Sociology, American Journal of Sociology Vol 103, No 2, September 1997, pp. 281-317 for a detailed discussion of the differences between “substantialism” and “relationalism.”

[2] 2nd Edition, Flawless Consulting by Peter Block. 1981/2000.

[3] This article is adapted from “Principle 6: Master the Art of Subgrouping,” in Weisbord & Janoff, Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! Ten Principles for Leading Meetings that Matter. 2007.

“innovation happens at the intersections”

Entrepreneurship Initiative
University of Massachusetts Amherst

So says Valdis Krebs in Network Weaving 101 (redux). Maybe it’s fair to say that my ambition in life is to close triangles? Get people connected. Especially when we all can learn something worthwhile from each other. But “people” (to my mind) is groups more than it is individuals. Individuals are the ones who enact the relationships, but it i s the group-level implications that matter.

Predictive Marketing

Last Sunday I was at Schnipper’s – “a place of miracles” – waiting for a bus to depart the Port Authority in New York City. I had already missed two busses back to Amherst because I was absorbed in writing a summary blogpost after last week’s exciting, historic, first annual Science of Team Science conference hosted by Northwestern University’s Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute in Chicago.

Was it serendipity? Fate? Karma? Random happenstance? I don’t care what you call it. “It was a clean folder when I met you!” Michael was entertained by the notes I jotted down regarding “the gift and curse of entrepreneurship,” and “the new energy tycoons.” ‘Cisco (just don’t call him Frank) and Marcus (familiar with Auslan) and Mike and I talked connections. Funny how Mike is developing energy technology based on “algae that grows in the dark” and what he wants are suppliers who will “just give me the grease.” (I happen to know a couple of them!)

“I think you’re all awesome.”

I’m quoting Cliff (who was flirting with the entrepreneurs who composed the last panel of the UMass EI course) but I agree – not only with his assessment of the panelists but of everyone I met during this semester-long course. The four successful women who composed our closing panel revisited and emphasized with their own unique twists the most important lessons.

  • “Karma is a boomerang, you put it out there. It might not be immediate but it does come back to you.” (Lisa)
  • “To be a success, you have to take on the complexion of your community.” (Sarah)
  • “Bring in people with different skills [than your own]. You have to learn their interactive ways, but you learn more from non-similar people [than from people who are like yourself].” (Lisa)
  • “Use your business as a platform to advance your values. It’s a lot of fun; there’s a lot of power there.” (Nancy)
  • “Risk is something the other person sees.” (Marjorie)

Sitting in the Chair

“There is nothing more lonely,” Marjorie explained, than sitting in the chair when … someone gets hurt on the floor? “You sit in the chair.” When losses occur? “You sit in the chair.” When payroll is hard to make? “You sit in the chair.” “We don’t really nurture,” Nancy explained, “how to make all these crazy connections you have to make. You have to learn how to view the world in such a way as to bring all those discrete experiences together.” Lisa offered a corrective, “Go with positive language. It’s contagious!” but you’ve got to come to grips with there being people “who want to build the clock” and people “who want to know what time it is.” Lisa elaborated, “People think differently from you and you can learn from them.” Running a business can be tricky, because you have “to figure out how to do it that breaks the bounds…but you have to know how to play inside before you play outside. You can’t take on City Hall all the time. Sometimes you have to go around.” And you’ve got to know the rewards. “I want to see what I can do,” Sarah explained. “Creating jobs really sets it off for me.”

“Food brings people together.”

Sarah backed up her words with action. Michael and his pals at Schnipper’s probably agree. And Rose and Mau can attest to another way food brings people together – even if we normally don’t think about where food waste goes.  Right now?  Mostly into landfills. But options are afoot! Can you imagine your organic waste becoming an energy source of the future? I can. It isn’t hard to imagine, although building the infrastructure to support it smoothly might take a bit of time and go through a few rough spells while the kinks get worked out. Re-engineering our energy infrastructure on the scale we need is a human adventure akin to that taken by every major wave of immigration. Marjorie emphasized that we all learned everything we need to know in kindergarten:

Life ain’t fair.

Don’t say ain’t.

Hugs feel good.

Naps are important.

She didn’t mention this one, but I think it ranks among the most important lessons: share.

Human potential doesn’t need to be restricted to the extraordinary accomplishments of isolated individuals in specific fields. Group-level accomplishments, such as engineering feats (space travel!) or athletic prowess (any team victory against the odds), demonstrate humanness in ways that exceed what any single person can achieve. Sharing does not imply equality or sameness. The willingness and the ability to share demonstrates respect for others and a measure of recognition that few of us survive in autonomy.  We are all implicated in vast systems of food and energy production that are so far removed from our daily lives we would hardly know what to do in the event of an institutional-level breakdown. Somehow, someway, we’ve got to reform the infrastructure enough so that consistently-increasing percentages of the global population can bounce back fast against inevitable disasters and systemic crises.

“If you can do it, you do”

Michael was bemoaning some of the roles he plays for his start-up, but our roles – in any context – are rarely exclusively determined by the scope of personal desire. The first group role I ever had that other people recognized was as a cheerleader. No no no, I didn’t wave pom poms or wear a short skirt! But I was motivational to the members of my high school’s volleyball team at a time when all the players were feeling down. The road since is rife with of experience, but I remain essentially optimistic: I do think there is plenty of room for hope.  People are so smart! We can design the tools that will enable the discovery and invention of solutions to our worst problems.  We just have to decide that doing so matters enough and follow through.

Matters of Team Science

Science of Team Science
1st annual conference

Returning home after the Science of Team Science conference, I let concentration go subliminal. Cameron Norman’s brief history of developments in team science over the past few years, and his list of lessons learned/factors contributing to the success of this conference – sifted through my mind, along with conversations I had with two women who are on the ground in terms of dealing with the social in team science. A breadth and depth of wisdom and experience was present at the conference but untapped: not because of deliberate exclusion but due to the inertia of how both “science” and “academia” are typically done.

“The book is blank.”

This quote, from Junot Diaz’ The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007, p. 302), refers to the future. Nothing is fixed, even if the most likely paths are already delimited. The class/status and gender hierarchies evident in the conference’s structure and dynamics do not need to remain barriers to the evolution of team science as a collaborative strategy for collective action capable of addressing and solving wicked problems.

Lessons from group development

A query about Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development roughly midway through the conference was left hanging… other parts of that participant’s question enabled panelists’ response. I wondered, at the time, if any of the panelists were familiar with models of the stages of group development. William Schutz’s sharper view on issues of inclusion, control, and affection adds necessary depth to Tuckman’s introductory-level model, most particularly when combined with the group process dimensions identified by Wilfred Bion. Now, in retrospect, I imagine this instance in the Q&A as a moment when a question back to the audience member would have served the entire conference well.

The storming phase of a group’s development involves a range of existential matters, including:

  • authority/authorization in terms of the roles people perform for the team,
  • individual assessments of worth/value from investing in the team’s group process, the
  • staking-out of allegiances, as well as the
  • identification of threats, and the
  • (possible) emergence of irrational and unreasonable fears.

Most of these dynamics occur below the level of consciousness, either suppressed by politeness or repressed by deep training. Careful attention to patterns and disruptions to patterns in the group’s discourse and dynamics, however, can cue group members to the empirical presence of these unconscious dynamics, opening up opportunities for turning these potentially destructive social forces to operational advantage.

The apparent unanswerability of the question about group development suggests a problematic moment for the group, similar to those that arose later when very specific questions about application found panelists in (what seemed in the moment as) a kind of stunned temporary silence.

Problematics for the Science of Team Science

Science needs an object, and it became clear along the way that the proper target of study for team science remains undefined. In the ambiguity and uncertainty of trying to discover ‘the what’ of team science, ‘the how’ of establishing this object acquires marked significance. Michelle Bennett described this as the need for “teams being recognized as teams…we have experienced it – and are just not ‘talking’ about it.”

Deciding what to measure in & for team science will simultaneously determine which measurements to use. The usual dichotomies pit quantitative versus qualitative, macro against micro; the core question regards what is accepted as empirical evidence. Must one have a sample of thousands in order to produce something-called-knowledge, or can a case study generate and teach at a level of equivalent practical value? Can the discourse of this one conference inform us about the field as a whole? This idea is not far-fetched. When confronted by comparable non-linearity, math-minded scientists and engineers extrapolate, justifying generalizing assumptions in order to scale complex problems down to manageable size.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!

It might sound hokey, but the question came up so many times, Who can help us? And the answer played variations of the same: Hire a facilitator. Find an un-invested moderator. Refer to the research. What about: train ourselves! It would mean

  • adopting an ethic of co-learning,
  • either de-privileging the individual expert or broadening the scope of expertise that is recognized as valuable/necessary, and
  • making ourselves the object of analysis and reflection.

Teresa Woodruff’s statement bears repeating, “It is not that team science is in its infancy, it is that you are learning to work the way that women have always worked.”

Gender is not the whole story, I can name several men working as teammates even if the group’s membership and task is vague. But there may be something to noticing differences in the way men are typically trained in teamwork:  as tightly-knit athletic or military units with a clear and unambiguous objective toward which every member is supposed to equally strive. The boundaries and conditions within which men (in general) learn to identify themselves as part of a team are essentially linear, especially if compared with the constraints and styles by which women tend to identify with others who are moving only roughly in the same direction.

Constructing common ground or a new mental model?

I eavesdropped on a conversation between Stephen Fiore and Maria Scharf as they parsed the difference among the capacities of various team science tools, the diverse uses and interpretations of the uses of these tools, and the processes by which teams in team science might come to understand each other. They made an interesting distinction between “common ground” that is achieved through a process of building a shared vocabulary together over time and the “mental models” of parties to this common ground process – models that may or may not be shared, even though a basic understanding has been forged.

If I was to go out on a limb (or, further out on the one I’ve been crawling along already!), I would diagnose that practitioners and researchers of team science are in a process of constructing common ground. Further, I would prescribe that one way to promote the spread of commonality is to simultaneously generate and popularize a mental model that encourages acknowledgment of relationalism, i.e., of the co-constructed interrelations inherent in the social interaction processes of teaming.