|Foresight Update 37 - Table of Contents|
One of the most interesting insights humans have prized out of their study of the universe around them in recent decades has been the idea that, from apparent chaos, complex systems will self-organize, developing higher and higher levels of structure and stored information.
Take a couple of hundred people of high intelligence of diverse backgrounds, bring them together in a space of limited physical dimensions but diversely subdivided into small conceptual patches, add copious quantities of high-quality fuels in the form of snacks, buffets, and drinks, and provide for high-bandwidth, multi-channel, simultaneous communications links via talking, shouting, laughter and other, significantly ruder noises, and hold the resultant mixture under sustained pressure for two and a half days, and well, amazing and surprising things will occur.
We asked Chris Peterson, Executive Director of the Foresight Institute, about the results of the experiment.
Q. The Group Genius Weekend was a real departure from past Senior Associate gatherings. What motivated Foresight to try this new format?
A. In the past, the Gatherings have been educational, entertaining, and social; they've been great meetings. This time we wanted to try to see whether the participants could make some actual progress together, right at the event on the big challenges that Foresight is trying to take on.
Gayle Pergamit and I had run across the DesignShop process when we recruited Matt and Gail Taylor as Senior Associates. Gayle and I found it so exciting that we actually took the time to write a book about the process Leaping the Abyss: Putting Group Genius to Work. So when Matt and Gail offered to donate a DesignShop-style event to Foresight, we jumped at the chance, knowing that this was a truly unique opportunity to make progress on our goals.
Q. Okay, so MGTaylor offered to run a DesignShop for Foresight. But The Foresight Group Genius Event was a significant departure from the "usual" DesignShop process, with new, experimental aspects. How was it that Foresight and MG Taylor chose to conduct this experiment during the '99 Associates gathering?
A. We didn't actually have a choice. Our group was about twice as big as the maximum size for a standard DesignShop. Also, we didn't have the budget necessary to supply the level of support staff that a full DesignShop requires. So, Matt redesigned the event to include as many aspects of the DesignShop process as possible, augmenting that with extra help from the participants themselves, and counting on them to help us figure out how to make it work in real time. Given who was there, we assumed they would make it work if they chose to do so, and sure enough they did. And had a great time doing it.
Trying the new format wasn't really a risky decision at all, given that if you take this group of people some of the most interesting people on the planet and put them in an extremely interesting environment, along with good food and lots of books, it is quite difficult to have it go badly. At the very worst, it would degenerate into a truly excellent party. Given that worst-case scenario, we felt comfortable taking a chance with a new process.
Q. What parts of the experiment worked? What parts didn't? What was your impression of the group dynamics going on over the course of the weekend?
A. Overall we are extremely pleased with how the event went, as were the vast majority of participants, shown by the quotes collected from them, now on the web http://www.foresight.org/SrAssoc/Comments. Lots of real work got done, and real new insights (including a few technical ones) were reached. Senior Associates can see these on the event website, which has now been moved to the Senior Associate website.
As for what didn't work: it wasn't as organized as it will be next time. There were periods, especially early on, when participants weren't clear on what was happening. People are used to Foresight events being very well-organized, so this was a bit of a shock, but after a few hours we got rolling very well indeed.
One other problem is that we maxed-out the facility we were in, so that not everyone who wanted to come could fit in the door, and we actually had to turn away participants. This was painful. Next time, we will see whether there is a way to solve this, possibly by transporting the DesignShop environment to a very large hotel conference room. But this wouldn't be nearly as pleasant as the lovely Palo Alto facility we were in this time, so it's a dilemma.
On the group dynamics, I'd say just from walking around that most of the groups worked well together. I did hear about one or two difficulties over the course of the weekend, but this is to be expected from a group with such strong personalities discussing such controversial, often emotional topics. We'll try to do more facilitation next time, to reduce the occurrences of this kind of thing.
Finally, the group did make clear that they want to try this process again, but are not willing to give up their traditional Gatherings, with the result that it looks as though we are going to have hold two Gatherings a year: one traditional, one using the new process as it evolves.
The next Senior Associate Gathering will be held September 17-19, 1999.
Q. Participants almost uniformly felt the event itself was its own justification. But what major insights and/or benefits for the Foresight organizations came out of the Group Genius event?
A. For Foresight as an organization, the biggest benefit was finding out that, given the opportunity, the Senior Associates as a group were able to work hard together on tough problems, and actually make significant progress, even the very first time they tried, in an experimental (at times, chaotic) process.
This gives us hope that the huge task we've taken on may be tractable, at least in part, if we can keep this cooperative work going. But we'll need to make it happen year-round on the web, to make enough progress to have a chance at success.
As Chris informs us in her Inside Foresight column this month, the success of the Group Genius Weekend has led to a whole new series of experiments the Foresight Perspective Series in bringing together groups of interested, intelligent people to help solve some of the most pressing challenges we face in the coming years. For more information about the Perspective events, a new web page is available at http://www.foresight.org/SrAssoc/Perspectives
For pictures of "geniuses" at work and play during the May 1999 "Group Genius Weekend," see page 3.
|Foresight Update 37 - Table of Contents|
Updated November 2004
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Instruct your broker to transfer stock to Foresight Institute through our broker, Comerica Securities. DTC Clearing #226. FBO: Foresight Institute; Account BG5-549614. If you need additional information please contact the Foresight Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org or 650-917-1122. Tax benefits are described at: http://www.quicken.com/cms/viewers/article/taxes/4383
From Foresight Update 37, originally published 30 July 1999.
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