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29 Sep 2013

Tina Clarke on the Joys of Discovering Effective Collaboration

Group photo

In this guest blog, Transition trainer Tina Clarke, also of Transition Amherst, Massachusetts, USA, gives a report on a recent training given by Nick Osborne which turned out to be way more successful than anyone could have imagined.  Over to Tina…

“Within two days after Nick Osborne gave his first Effective Collaboration Training on the North American Continent, my email box was full of enthusiastic messages from participants: 

“A huge boat load of thanks for…[bringing] Nick to our area.  In hindsight, I wish I had …recruit[ed] more participants as the training was excellent!”  — Dyan, Organizational Development Consultant, Trainer, and Cohousing Community Facilitator in Consensus and Sociocracy 

“I’m already integrating what I learned at the training into many aspects of my life.” – Shana, Teacher 

“Great time, great information, great people!” – Paul, retired professor, Transition Initiator, Way of Council Trainer 

“Awesome. Thanks..!” – Steve, Graduate School Professor, Transition Initiator, public speaker 

I agree.  Last weekend was one of the best trainings I’ve ever attended.  For over 30 years, I’ve been creating and delivering outreach, awareness and mobilization training to the public.  Nick Osborne’s Effective Collaboration training was top-notch.  I wish everyone could attend his workshop.  Participants in the Amherst, Massachusetts training agreed that Nick has done the equivalent of two PhDs worth of research and analysis.  

Nick teaching

Nick’s mission is to help us work together more effectively in groups.  We left inspired and better equipped to do so.  Workshop participants included professional trainers, consultants, educators, professors, businesspeople and activists.  Most were leaders or key instigators of Transition Initiatives.  We came with the usual complaints and needs:  People don’t communicate enough. Some people communicate too much.  It’s not clear who is responsible.  Some people take on too much responsibility. It’s not clear who is making decisions. 

Some people grab power and make too many decisions.  Or, everyone is trying to make all the decisions, and we’re not getting much done.  We’re not having enough fun in our group.  We’re having so much fun in our group that we don’t want to reach out, or include anyone new.  We have a lot of different personalities.  We’re too alike and don’t have enough different people.  The trials and tribulations of group life seem to be endless. 

How to make sense of it all?  Are group problems the result of the “wrong” personalities?  Or of communication problems?  Or of lack of information or skills?  

Nick has collected and synthesized insights, information and tools to help voluntary groups and organizations to work together with less stress, more productivity, and more fun.  We were amazed to discover that this modest, unassuming man has devoted decades to learning from business management, eco-villages, intentional communities, non-profit charities, and academics and practitioners.  He’s scoured the English-speaking world to find the best models, tools and analyses, and to share them with Transition Initiatives and social change groups.  [Here is a recent tele-seminar he gave with Transition US …]


Nick has organized the information into four stages, eight themes, and dozens of tools.  The Transition Network has created a series of web pages for his volumes of information.  Naresh Giangrande of the Transition Network is supporting Nick to write and produce a series of cartoons about the key issues facing groups.  The cartoons are designed to be shared in groups, to help members of a group realize the value of spending time developing better group collaboration skills. 

I confess that I had not made time to explore Nick’s treasure chest of resources on the Transition Network site.  What a gift he has given!  Nick has condensed over 50 books and uncountable schools of thought into neat and tidy, colorful, comprehensible and comprehensive summaries.  

Some of Nick’s helpful distinctions include:

  • Groups need “action” time and “reflection” time. 
  • Groups need “Ground Rules” and Agreements for how to work together. 
  • Conflict is normal, essential and beneficial.  When we expect differences and welcome them, we strengthen our work. 
  • Groups often get into trouble when they think they’re operating by consensus, but don’t understand it, or when some group members unconsciously operate as if they were in a hierarchy.  

Nick created lots of participatory exercises to help us deepen our skills in collaboration.  One exercise helped us identify which method of decision-making might work best for different types of decisions.  At one extreme was consensus decision-making, and at the other was authoritarian hierarchical decision-making, with five more options arrayed between. 

As someone trained in classic Quaker consensus process, which we used in the cohousing community where I lived for eight years, consensus can be a relationship-building tool for values clarification and creating superior decisions.  However, consensus is often over-used, and used poorly.  Throwing it out doesn’t work.  Nor does it work to throw out bits of hierarchical authority – where decisive action is sometimes needed or wanted.  By delegating decisions to people carrying responsibilities, we increase group efficiency.  

Instead of choosing consensus over hierarchy, or vice-versa, Nick suggested a third option – the “Agile” group that is a blend of the two.  Different types of structures yield different benefits.  Consensus can help build group functioning and trust when it is used for important questions of values, purpose, priorities and mutual understanding.  Sometimes small issues are the mask for a much deeper issue.  Consensus can help us recognize the deeper issues.  By choosing to avoid quick judgments, and instead listening deeply, we can more quickly recognize root problems and issues that may underlie a seemingly inconsequential topic.  

Hierarchy saves time and can move our work forward more efficiently.  I always think of weather disasters as often benefiting from decisions made using hierarchical, directive authority.  If you know where the sandbags are to pile up on the river bank, I’m following you to help get them. 

Once a mission or purpose is clear, identifying tasks and roles, and working to implement them, vary according to the task, the roles people create, and the personalities at hand.  Communication skills become paramount.  Nick helped us understand the big picture, the small pieces, and a flow of questions and topics to help us navigate the sometimes rough seas of creating vibrant communities, and sustainable culture.  

Nick, you’ve got a strong and growing fan club on this side of the Atlantic.  We can’t wait to hear more about Holocracy — your third PhD research and training project!  Melissa, the Brit who hosted you misses you already.  So come back soon!  We’ll make up for the greenhouse gas emissions once again by using trains, bikes, buses, and car-pooling, by achieving zero hotel-footprint by everyone staying with Transition hosts, and by eating all local food (except for those pleasures of coffee, chocolate, sugar, coconut, walnuts, tea and peanut butter!)  Thanks for all you give! 

You can read more about Transition Network’s Effective Groups training here.  






Effective groups