Collaboration for dummies

Photo by Pepe Reyes on Unsplash

In a W.E.I.R.D. social world where anything that requires an attention span beyond 5 minutes is ignored in favour of short memes, silver bullets, and artificially “intelligent” systems, this article intends to provide an emergency brake to slow us down to a speed that allows critical self reflection.

Replace the toxic language of bu$yness

Instead of telling people what you think they would love to hear, tell people what they need to know. Step outside the box of the established social and economic paradigm by adopting a life affirming working definition of collective intelligence that is not confined to the distorted characterisation of human potential that dominates in W.E.I.R.D. cultures.

The journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics. Additionally the insights encapsulated in the 10 Design Justice Principles can assist in learning how to unW.E.I.R.D. our societies.

Note: This recommendation must be applied literally. Continuing to use the old language when interacting with established institutions and the dominant culture renders the effort useless.

Think long-term

Instead of aiming for “low hanging fruit”, build trusted relationships around long-term goals.

It can be helpful to learn from outsiders and members of minorities. Onondaga Chief and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons describes a collaboration between indigenous nations that has a history that predates European “discovery” by over thousand years, and that has survived until today. The culture he describes is one example of a number of indigenous societies that have traditionally operated with a 150 year or longer look-ahead time horizon. 

Recently I was delighted to read about a company here in Aotearoa that operates on a 500 year time horizon. S23M, our employee owned NeurodiVenture is 19 years old. Our measure of success is tied to a 200+ year time horizon.

Note: Time horizons shorter than 150 years encourage tribalism and counter-productive competition between groups.

Enjoy interdependence

Instead of generating “profit”, nurture relationships at human scale – with humans and with other forms of life.

The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”. Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative groups, with strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between groups.

In our pre-civilised past all human groups were small, and interdependence and the need for mutual assistance was obvious to all members of a group.

The tools of civilisation, including money, have undermined our appreciation of interdependence, and within the Western world have culminated in a toxic cult of competitive individualism, which ironically leads to extreme levels of groupthink.

Evolutionary biologists consider small groups to be the organisms of human societies. This has massive implications for the gene-culture co-evolution that characterises our species.

Humans are not the first hyper-social species on this planet. Insects such as ants offer great examples of successful collaboration at immense scale over millions of years. Charles Darwin and other early proponents of evolutionary theory appreciated the role of collaboration within species and between species, but many of these early insights including related empirical observations have been suppressed within the hyper-competitive narrative that has come to dominate industrialised civilisation.

Note: Robin Dunbar’s observations on human cognitive limits apply. In a transactional world, collective intelligence goes down the drain. Hierarchical organisations with several thousand staff tend to act less intelligently than a single individual, and as group size grows further, intelligence tends towards zero.

Clamp down on meritocracy

Instead of establishing a “meritocracy“, catalyse the emergence of an egalitarian culture.

All forms of meritocracy result in toxic in-group competition and prevent knowledge from flowing to places where it can be put to good use.

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” – David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson (2007)

Remove all incentives for in-group competition. Share risks and rewards equally, and encourage people to share their individual competency networks, without aggregating the data to determine rankings that interfere with the emergence of collective intelligence.

“Pay for merit, pay for what you get, reward performance. Sounds great, can’t be done. Unfortunately it can not be done, on short range. After 10 years perhaps, 20 years, yes. The effect is devastating. People must have something to show, something to count. In other words, the merit system nourishes short-term performance. It annihilates long-term planning. It annihilates teamwork. People can not work together. To get promotion you’ve got to get ahead. By working with a team, you help other people. You may help yourself equally, but you don’t get ahead by being equal, you get ahead by being ahead. Produce something more, have more to show, more to count. Teamwork means work together, hear everybody’s ideas, fill in for other people’s weaknesses, acknowledge their strengths. Work together. This is impossible under the merit rating / review of performance system. People are afraid. They are in fear. They work in fear. They can not contribute to the company as they would wish to contribute. This holds at all levels. But there is something worse than all of that. When the annual ratings are given out, people are bitter. They can not understand why they are not rated high. And there is a good reason not to understand. Because I could show you with a bit of time that it is purely a lottery. – W Edwards Deming (1984)

The notions of management and leadership are entangled with the anthropocentric conception of civilisation. In a hierarchical structure most people abandon their sense of agency and the need to think critically on a daily basis.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― Buckminster Fuller (1975)

The path to escape the box of a sick society involves rediscovering timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating creative collaboration in the absence of capital and hierarchical structures:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock valuable tacit knowledge within a group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

Note: As long as an organisation describes itself with a pyramidal organisational chart it projects a not-very-subtle-at-all signal that management by fear is to be tolerated by and is expected of anyone who joins.

Avoid distractions

Instead of “competing in the market”, build trusted relationships with other human scale groups.

Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus (homo) is the genus that includes all cultural species.

The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.

Collaborative niche construction allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and results in resilient social ecosystems. A few statistics from the Wikipedia list of oldest companies should provide food for thought:

  • According to a report published by the Bank of Korea in 2008 that looked at 41 countries, there were 5,586 companies older than 200 years. Of these, 3,146 (56%) are in Japan.
  • Of the companies with more than 100 years of history, most of them (89%) employ fewer than 300 people.
  • A nationwide Japanese survey counted more than 21,000 companies older than 100 years as of September 30, 2009.

Note: The fragile economic mono-cultures that emerge from competition are prone to boom and bust cycles – the net effect is a waste of precious time and scarce resources.

Share knowledge

Instead of hoarding and “monetising information”, distil patterns from your human scale environment and use an advice process to filter out the noise – only share trustworthy knowledge.

In a good company coordination and organisational learning happens without any need for social power structures. Before making a major decision that affects others:

  1. A person has to seek advice from at least one trusted colleague with potentially relevant or complementary knowledge or expertise.
  2. Giving advice is optional. It is okay to admit lack of expertise. This enables the requestor to proceed on the basis of the available evidence.
  3. Following advice is optional. The requestor may ignore advice if she/he believes that all things considered there is a better approach or solution. Not receiving advice in a timely manner is deemed equivalent to no relevant advice being available within the organisation. This allows everyone to balance available wisdom with first hand learning and risk taking.

Note: When all your trusted collaborators engage in this practice, the result is a growing network of individual competency networks.


The real opportunity for human society and human organisations lies not in the invention of ever “smarter” forms of in-group competition, but in the recognition of human cognitive limits, and in the recognition of the priceless value that resides in competency networks.

For the first time, the age of digital networks enables us to construct cognitive assistants that help us to nurture and maintain globally distributed human scale competency networks – networks of mutual trust. It is time to tap into this potential and to combine it with the potential of zero-marginal cost global communication and collaboration.

A simple advice process establishes the vital feedback loops that enable organisations to learn and adapt in a timely manner, even in a highly dynamic context.

If you replace the toxic language of bu$yness, think long-term, enjoy interdependence, clamp down on meritocracy, avoid distractions, and share knowledge, you can relax. No one is in control. Mistakes happen on this planet all the time.

Like bees and ants, humans are eusocial animals. Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, small groups of 20 to 100 people are the primary organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound, a topic that I explore in detail in my new book The beauty of collaboration at human scale – Timeless patterns of human limitations, which is now in the peer review stage.

2 thoughts on “Collaboration for dummies

  1. For our debate about our future it is important to understand, that we are talking about unbelievably forceful polarization, a civilizational divide.
    We are very close to triggering a scarcity-conflict death spiral, probably caused by low-cost oil depletion and/or climate change, where scarcity causes war and other antisocial behavior that in turn worsens scarcity.

    Population and capital growth are actually increasing income inequality and in order to retain our humanity in the face of limits, we would have to confront inequality head on. the challenges with #ClimateEmergency and collapse can only be met with an adaptive approach – an efficient method for uncovering hidden assumptions, fears that hold us in one mindset, with which we must make peace before we can make good on our intention for change and adaptation.
    These challenges can only be met by transforming our mindset and changing our behavior.
    It was never going to be the climate scientists with increasingly shrill messages on our dire predicament. When people are stressed, their perceptions and decision are influenced by a wide range of factors, but technical facts or technical expertise are about the least important, worth around 10% of impact, compared to empathy and listening, which account for about 50%,.so who would provide the solutions to changing our behavior since you can’t address an adaptive challenge with a technical solution and Information is a technical solution. ?
    For a problem as big and overwhelming as climate change, negative messaging tends to leave people feeling hopeless or defensive, effectiveness arises from diminishing outrage, not explaining the data.
    Instead, consider –
    “Our study shows that when people are motivated to change, they can successfully do so,” he said. “What we were surprised to find was that an upward trajectory for something like perspective-taking aligned with the person’s shift towards the more liberal foundations.”
    Hannikainen IR, Hudson NW, Chopik WJ, Briley DA, Derringer J. Moral migration: Desires to become more empathic predict changes in moral foundations. Journal of Research in Personality. 2020;88:104011. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2020.104011

    See also –
    Immunity to Change: An Exploration in Self-Awareness” By Scott J. Allen, Ph.D. Assistant Visiting Professor, John Carroll University
    “Kegan’s Constructive Development Theory” -Professor John E Barbuto
    “Immunity to Change: A Report From the Field” By Jonathan Reams

    Even for managing Deep Adaptation now, we should embrace complex adaptive system theories and network perspectives in order to gain functional strategies against a broad range of amplifying feedbacks in our environment, social and political systems. The links between the variables oblige us to attend to a great many features simultaneously, and that, concomitantly, makes it impossible for us to undertake only one action in a complex system.

    Perhaps one hidden assumption worth uncovering is the myth of autonomy.
    “We are fooling ourselves if we think that individual independence is the mark of personal and evolutionary success”
    “It’s time to debunk this mythology of autonomy and consider the nature of our true relationships with the world and each other.”

    but perhaps we can manage to turn towards each other.
    Consider also the notion of being vs doing –
    It is important to remember that ‘being’ is another option to accompany ‘doing.’ Many wisdom traditions hold that the healing and wholeness we seek – divinity itself – is already at hand, and we need only remember how to tap into it. ”
    I enjoyed the ventral vagal approach Jorn is adopting with his comment “Relax, nothing is under control” it is allowing being in the moment.

  2. The consequences of an undue pessimism about human nature are momentous.
    Misanthropy grants a free pass to the grasping, power-mad minority who tend to dominate our political systems. we need to move beyond capitalism They—oligarchs who hoard society’s wealth and maximize corporate profits at our expense—are few.
    There are abundant signs that people are disgusted with the status quo. Everyone sees that big corporations call the shots. Except for a very few people at the top, no one likes that arrangement. Change is in the air.

    As Jung puts it, “The sole possibility of stopping this [totalitarianism] is the development of consciousness in the single individual, who thereby is rendered immune to the lure of collective organizations. This alone keeps his soul alive, for its life depends on the human relationship. The accent must fall on conscious personalization and not on State organization. The latter inevitably leads to the blight of totalitarianism.” (extract from a letter from Jung to H. Westmann, 7-12-1947)

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