At the National eXtension Conference in 2004, Harold Jarche introduced me to the "triangles" exercise (sidebar: Here's a panel session I moderated at that conference with Harold, Dave Gray, Jane Hart and Beth Kanter).
Here's how it works. You take a room full of people (having more than 20 or so makes it more effective) and tell them to arrange themselves in equilateral triangles with a person at each point. Here's the catch. They need to do it without speaking. Each person silently picks out 2 other people to make a triangle with, but those people don't know they've been chosen. They are trying to make a triangle, likely with 2 other people they've selected. So as each person moves another person must adjust to that movement to keep an equal distance between them and a third person. Once they have formed their triangle, they stop.
It sounds complex, and it is. The main takeaway is that a group of people, with positive intent, can accomplish just as much or more through silent cooperation than by putting someone in charge. At a workshop in Nebraska, Harold, Karen Jeannette, Steve Judd and I, conducted the "triangles" exercise by putting one person in charge of arranging everyone into equilateral triangles, then having them do it again silently without anyone in charge. We did it at the end if day 1 of a 2-day workshop, and we didn't explain why we had them do the exercise until the next morning. People were confused and some were a little pissed, which made me nervous, but Harold thought the uncertainty was great.
Last week, Karen Jeannette and I did the "triangles" exercise with the participants in our pre-conference workshop, "Working out loud: opening doors to personal and community change." at the NACDEP/CDS Conference. As we prepared for the workshop, we talked about some of the other lessons of the "triangles" exercise.
- Alignment: To make the "triangles" exercise work, everyone has to understand the task. If someone doesn't hear all the instructions or doesn't understand them, the exercise will fail. This is a powerful lesson for those of us seeking to collaborate with others. We need to have a shared understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, what problem we are trying to solve. We also need to have agreed upon rules. I was recently collaborating with 3 other people on the script for an ignite talk. We agreed on the content, but we had a really hard time deciding the best process. Should we write the script and worry about the timing of the delivery later or should we try write 15-seconds of text for each slide or should we try do both at the same time? We were aligned on the problem we were trying to solve, but we had not aligned on the rules and process for solving it. In the end, we just appointed one person to write the script.
- Positive Intent: I've heard Harold Jarche point out during the "triangles" exercise that it works because everyone enters into it with positive intent. Any individual participant could blow the whole thing up by staying in constant, random motion, causing anyone who is trying to align with them to stay in motion, which in turn causes anyone trying to align with that person to keep moving and so on. Collaboration only works if everyone comes to the table with positive intent, and it helps if everyone can also assume positive intent from others.
- Standing Still: As mentioned above, if someone just keeps moving, it's difficult to align with them. In the "triangles" exercise, when you move slowly or stand still it allows others to adjust their positions and align with you. If we want people, especially those we don't already know, to connect with us, we need to stand still. If you're quickly moving from project to project, chasing the next item on your to-do list and putting out fires, how can people see where you are and connect with you ? We need to stand still to allow people to align with us. Standing still means declaring your intent and sharing who you are, what you're working on and what you care about. Standing still allows others to adjust their position to yours and look for opportunities for connection and collaboration.
Like almost everyone I've ever met, I have a to-do list that never seems to be completed, and crises to address and avert, but I'm working on finding more time and ways to stand still.I'm trying to stand still by writing this blog. I also include personal "mission statements" in my Twitter bio and LinkedIn summary. I hope you can see me and, if you want to, adjust your position, connect with me and explore making meaning together.