Radical Collaboration

Our team just finished up our summer retreat at a cabin in Vermont. As a virtual company, getting together face-to-face is treasured and critical. It gives us the time and space to cook together, go for runs and hikes, build on the relationships that we nurture throughout the year while we’re not in an office next to each other, and of course, tackle some of the big ponderings, future plans, and projects that are on our plates. We started this retreat with an hour focused on radical collaboration because, like all of the schools, districts, and partners we work with, collaboration is foundational to our ability to do the work of transformation and help others who are on that path. Here are the exercises we used to practice flexing our radical collaboration muscles.

Exercise One: Centering through Meditation

We always make time for movement. Here are some of us stretching in a mini-yoga session.

We always make time for movement. Here are some of us stretching in a mini-yoga session.

Radical collaboration requires presence and also awareness of ones’ self. And in a world where there are endless opportunities for distraction, centering and breathing together was an important way to begin. Ali led us on a three-minute guided meditation, helping us let go of narratives we might have in our minds, focus on our breath, listen to the sounds of the birds and bugs buzzing around the backyard of the cabin, and just settle into our own presence and those of our teammates. Some of our team practices yoga regularly, so this type of intentional slowing down is familiar and comfortable, but even if it’s not, it’s a good exercise to try — just sitting quietly and letting your mind settle in. We closed our meditation session with Ami’s animal cards, each person pulling a card. For example, I pulled Humpback Whale, which is symbolic of the history and lineage of our stories. We used the animal and what it represented as a way to think about our participation throughout the day. How could we embody or open ourselves up to that idea or what does that idea have to do with how we’ve been collaborating or working lately?

Exercise Two: Extreme Listening

Part of the inspiration behind this hour’s session came from Eugene Eric Kim, who studies collaboration and building community, and how teams can do it better. He has a terrific website, with lots of great tools. We were particularly excited to try one of his workouts on listening. We built off the protocol, breaking up into pairs and practicing extreme listening. The prompt was: What’s going well with work and what’s been a struggle lately? Each person in the pair spoke for two and a half minutes to their partner. The partner listened — he or she did not interpret, or interrupt, try to problem solve, or build on what the person was saying. Just sat quietly, affirmed, and listened. After the partner finished, the listener repeated back exactly what he or she heard: trying to get as close as possible to the content of what was shared and the feeling behind it. After the listener finished, the person who shared ranked how accurate that was from zero to five. Then we swapped. The purpose of doing an exercise like this is because so often when we think we’re listening, we’re not exactly. We’re getting ready to speak, or we’re waiting to hear for one specific thing the person is saying, or we’re distracted, or tied up in our own ideas or assumptions. It’s impossible to collaborate optimally, in a way that’s fruitful and generative for the work and the people involved, without listening and being vulnerable. After we tried the workout, we unpacked it as a team, reflecting on how it felt. Consensus: very good and something we are going to continue to carry with us and work on.

Exercise Three: Human Machine

We ended the radical collaboration hour with improv. We use improv regularly during our design sessions. Not only because improv is a lot of fun, but because it helps us practice with partners skills like paying close attention to our environment, listening, responding, being nimble, fluid, and flexible, working and building off each other, and being comfortable acting in ways that might feel strange or unnatural. Implementing new approaches to learning is a great deal of improvisation, so intentionally practicing improv is a way to build those skills. When it comes to improv exercises there are as many as your imagination is big. Human machine happens to be one of our favorites, and we plan to use it next week when we kick off a large engagement with more than 300 teachers in Loudoun County School District in Virginia. (More on that soon!) For our own human machine, Jim started it off, making a movement — arms swinging up and down, like he was running — then I responded with a movement that built off Jim’s. Then from there, each person on our team joined in. As Darry reflected after the improv ended, our movements complimented each other, but we didn't need to match. We each played a part in the whole and responded to each other while also working together. Even though many of us have done this exercise before, each time we do it we’re reminded of how together we make up a machine, and each element of it is crucial, and an important part of being a team is to flow together and be responsive and pay attention. And, to jump in! It’s a simple, yet powerful metaphor.

From One, To Two, To Many

The radical collaboration exercises moved from the individual, to a pair, to the whole. An insight Jim noticed after the session, and another beautiful metaphor for how collaborating really looks: different configurations, sometimes alone, sometimes together, but always working towards the same goal.