Blog Article Collection

Effective Experimentation in a Collaboration

Added on: 25-Jan-18 12:00am

Author: Vivien Twyford

Here’s a story about a recent collaboration I was involved in:

A group of stakeholders agreed to work together over a period of time to tackle a tricky, thorny issue that affected them all; in this case a water quality issue in a much-loved catchment, but it could have been anything.  The group committed to work together, and had a number of challenging conversations about their diverse views of the dilemma they faced; in this case views of local government, water engineers, chemists, neighbours, walkers, swimmers, park managers … you get the picture. Having co-defined the purpose of the collaboration, their next dilemma was: “how can we do our best work together .. what will our ‘working together’ look like and feel like .. how can it work in practice and produce the outcomes we seek?”

They wisely decided not to set anything in concrete, despite calls for regular meetings, web-based collaboration tools, small groups working in parallel and other specific techniques.  Instead they decided to try a range of methods – to experiment with what worked for them and what didn’t.  They let their process emerge from these experiments and kept checking on what was working most effectively for members of the group.  The outcome was a process that most people could commit to most of the time; the 80/20 rule.  The experimentation also engendered trust and respect and allowed people to get to know each other better.  Positive relationships developed, even to the point of individuals baking cakes and establishing car pools for site visits, group walks and other meetings around the catchment.

This taught me, and the group, to accept that there is no “best practice” outcome in situations of uncertainty where what to do next is not only unknown to the group, but also unknowable without more data.  Experimentation explores the possible and produces useful data for decision-making. Whether the experiment produces the expected outcome or not, it produces new data.  This liberates the group from having to have one “right” answer to and avoids the blame associated with choosing the ‘wrong’ option.  Even when the experiment didn’t produce the expected outcome it created learning and moved the group forward in another direction.

The focus of experimentation is learning and iterating as opposed to planning actions and predicting a specific outcome, which is often the focus of project management. Experimentation involves drawing on the ideas of everyone in the group or the team, and the more diverse the group the more likely the experiment is to result in innovative outcomes.  The learning comes from both successes and failures.  All experiments give the group data for decision making and confidence about what to do next, both really helpful in any collaboration.

Next time when collaborating and you’re not sure what to do, try experimenting!

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