Picture this scene. There’s a wicked problem that needs addressing and you’ve been invited to a meeting to consider a set of responses. As everyone gets settled, the organizer requests, “If you’ve brought business cards with you today, could you please get one out.” You reach for yours, noticing the sturdy feel of the cardstock between your fingers. The organizer continues, as he reaches down to pick something up, “As I pass around this trash can, I would like you to throw your business card in it.”
The organizer goes on to explain that it does not really matter where you work, what your title is, or how many letters you have after your name. “All we need to know right now,” he continues, “is your name and what you are willing to share.”
When our friend and colleague Bob Brown told us this story, it was about a meeting in Flint, Michigan, one in which the wicked problem was youth homicides. Kids killing kids. Bob knew that those attending this meeting could include a wide range of people from neighborhood residents to university faculty. He didn’t want to see a tone or dynamic in which there was a perceived difference in expertise or influence. So, that university faculty member became, “Mary” and what she had to share was “access to research about what might have worked in other communities to reduce teen homicide” and the neighborhood resident was, “Jared” and what he could share was a “network of people like him, who had lost family members to violence, and were ready and willing to volunteer time, effort, and passion.” In an instant, Mary and Jared were on equal footing, equally valued for who they were and what they could contribute.
What Bob knew intuitively, and what research confirms, is that group made up of equals will do better work, than those dominated by an “expert” or “opinion leader.” The University of Pennsylvania’s Damon Centola recently completed some fascinating work that found in networks where everyone has equal influence, there is a strong social-learning effect, which improves the quality of everyone’s judgements. When people exchange ideas, everyone gets smarter. But, as Centola puts it, “this can all go haywire if there are opinion leaders in the group.”
As our groups, organizations, and communities deal with wicked problems and complex challenges, we need expertise, certainly. We also need to be mindful that everyone comes to the table with expertise. Everyone has lived experiences: taking in, analyzing, and interpreting mass amounts of data. Both “Bob from Flint” and “Damon from Happy Valley” help us understand that if we do what we can to assure that one particular kind of expertise is not perceived as having higher value than another and that no one is singled out as the “opinion leader” in the room, we can do better work. We can be smarter, together.
This is a dynamic we have instilled in our work at the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab helping people design and guide complex collaborations. It is embedded in the first rule of our agile strategy discipline, Strategic Doing – create and maintain a safe space for deep, focused conversation. Although we’ve never passed around a trash can, we often tell the story of when Bob did. It is a powerful story, so powerful that simply telling it often has the desired effect.