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Cultivating Collaborative Intelligence

An underlying assumption behind the phrase “kitchen table democracy” is that our regular democracy is not working; that we have lost our ability, at least in our political system, to sit down together and work things out for the common good. Instead, we double down in heated rhetoric, smear campaigns, and high-paid lobbyists to “win” at any cost, even if that cost may be the country’s future.

In response, almost in desperation, there have sprung up around the country scores of attempts – experiments, if you will – to develop new formats, structures, and ad-hoc systems for bringing people together to address public problems or issues.  These attempts constitute the national movement toward “collaborative governance”, which tries to do one (or both) of two things: 

  • Provide environments conducive to having people work through policy differences in a civil and collaborative, manner. 
  • Link governments at all levels with the private and civic sector, to align actions and resources for the public good. 

A program I am privileged to lead, Oregon Solutions, is one of those experiments.  Part of the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University, Oregon Solutions has led more than 100 multi-sector partnerships over the past 15 years to solve public problems. 

New structures like Oregon Solutions or our sister programs Oregon Consensus and Oregon's Kitchen Table can be critically important in improving dialogue and mobilizing collective action to address public needs.  But in my experience, there is often something additional - the fundamental understanding and skills to act collectively - required to make these collaborative efforts successful. 

A number of authors, notably the evolutionary biologist Martin Novak, cite considerable evidence that collaborative intelligence is embedded in our genes; that in addition to competition, the instinct for cooperation has been a significant factor in our evolution.  Novak goes so far as to say that humans are the “super-cooperators” among all species. 

Why, then, do we not exhibit this trait more readily in our current politics?  What went wrong? 

At least part of the answer, in this era of rapid change, may lie in our increasingly short time horizons.  Decades of research utilizing the Prisoner’s Dilemma game show that, while the best long term outcomes for oneself is through cooperation with others, the best short term strategy is always to “defect” or act in one’s selfish interest.  And when one side consistently defects, the only appropriate response from the other side is to do likewise. 

In politics, which is supposed to be the basis for addressing our collective problems and resolving issues, the result has been a focus on the next election cycle. (In a recent Atlantic article, a member of the U.S. Congress actually mocked the very notion of “governance”, collaborative or otherwise.)  Constant media exposure to negative political ads, incendiary talk shows, and the behavior of our elected leaders has taught us to compete rather than cooperate.  The result is that parties in many “collaborative” processes designed to resolve policy disputes, are often looking less for agreement with the other side, than for surrender.

Short term thinking isn’t the only explanation, of course.  M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle, in her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation”, argues that technology has changed the way people interact with one another, and that the connection to each other through authentic face-to-face conversation (e.g. that which used to go on around actual kitchen tables) has been lost. 

For some, there seems to be an assumption that just being at the table together constitutes “collaboration”.  Because two fighters are in the same ring, however, does not mean that they are collaborating.  Indeed, many supposedly collaborative groups result in long, drawn out processes that go nowhere.  And only serve to give collaboration a bad name.

The good news is that many are working toward improving our collaborative skill sets.  Kirk Emerson and Steven Smutko have outlined ten collaborative competencies for the University Network for Collaborative Governance, including three that provide “Process Competency”:  a) communicating effectively, b) working in teams and facilitating groups, and c) negotiating agreement and managing conflict. 

Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur are co-authors of a new book, “Collaborative Intelligence” which creates a broader paradigm for problem solving (primarily organizational, but still relevant to societal processes).  One of the key aspects of that intelligence is what they call “mindshare”, or the cognitive shifts required to reach alignment within a team. 

The Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University now has an on-line Graduate Certificate Program in Collaborative Governance designed to serve existing public administrators, joining the University of Arizona and other universities in teaching these critical skills and analytical frameworks. As part of our program, a course I am teaching, “Foundations of Collaborative Governance”, is a direct attempt to raise students’ collaborative intelligence.  We emphasize skills such as active listening, and concepts such as interdependence and reciprocity.  Most importantly, we help students understand how collaboration can often (though not always) get you a better outcome than competing or acting selfishly. 

It was de Toqueville who nearly two centuries ago marveled at this country’s penchant for cooperation, neighbor often helping neighbor (reciprocity) and community meetings with high participation where common problems were addressed (interdependence).  Back then, the kitchen table literally served as a forum where people listened to one another.  By helping people improve their collaborative intelligence, perhaps we can make “kitchen table democracy” work again.