Collaborating beyond our comfort zones

Cooperation and collaboration are how societies have been built. Our history books—like Hollywood films—mythologize the heroic leader, but it is the humble collective upon which civilizations have laid their foundations.

The villagers of Palanpur “have remained poor, even by Indian standards,” Samuel Bowles wrote in his 2003 book on microeconomics. “I approached a sharecropper and his three daughters weeding a small plot. The conversation eventually turned to the fact that Palanpur farmers sow their winter crops several weeks after the date at which yields would be maximized. The farmers do not doubt that earlier planting would give them larger harvests, but no one, the farmer explained, is willing to be the first to plant, as the seeds on any lone plot would be quickly eaten by birds. I asked if a large group of farmers, perhaps relatives, had ever agreed to sow earlier, all planting on the same day to minimize losses. “If we knew how to do that,” he said, looking up from his hoe at me, “we would not be poor.””

According to Helga Nowotny, “No human group can survive, let alone effectively cooperate, without being able to develop a shared outlook on the world which is the precondition for acting together.”

The shared outlook of the group is what gives it the capacity to act collectively. This is what we might call group culture. However, in our world of ever-increasing complexity and interdependency, this group culture can hold us back.

“What make complex systems so complex are their multiple feedback loops and indirect cause?effect relations which, moreover, play out at different speeds and on different time scales,” Nowotny states. “Reaching out across different domains and adopting different perspectives to achieve some kind of synthesis, synergy, perhaps even some kind of synchronicity in the ways we perceive, analyse and interpret the world, we begin to realise that we are part of dynamic complex systems. Any such system is open and evolving.”

We are indeed part of dynamic complex systems that are open, evolving, unpredictable and often random. To succeed within such systems requires a flexible adaptive mindset that embraces multiple viewpoints and disciplines. The traditional, cohesive group with its deep shared outlook and common language can find such open systems extremely challenging. The group’s common language becomes jargon to those on the outside, and its deep culture is often unwelcoming. You are not one of us, the group makes clear in subtle and not so subtle ways.

And yet our future as a species depends on us evolving a new type of group. One that is internally cohesive yet welcomes outsiders. One that is multidisciplinary, multicultural, multi-viewpoint. One that encourages and embraces challenge, is open to heresy, and ready to act and change with other groups. We need groups that are comfortable working within multi-groups.

Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it can seem slow and tiring. We long for the strong group and the strong leader who will find us a simple path through our complex world. That’s a mirage, an increasingly dangerous myth.

“The embarrassment of complexity begins when we realise that old management structures are no longer adequate and the new ones are not yet in place,” Nowotny states. “Currently we are in a transition phase. The old never yields to the new at one precise moment in time and this is what makes transition phases exciting, risky – and sometimes embarrassing.”


Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution, Samuel Bowles

A view from the top: the complexity of managing complexity, Helga Nowotny