Posted by: Ken Homer | November 17, 2008

If I Were on the Obama Transition Team

Today my friend Jerry Michalski held his weekly tech community yi-tan call. Yi-tan means conversations about change in Mandarin. The invitation for today’s call was to imagine yourself as having been appointed the “minister in charge of all things ‘technologikal’, with a wide purview, (but mercifully little authority). What would you recommend?”

Were I to actually find myself in that position, one of my main questions would deal with how the incoming administration can support the kind of on the ground, nitty-gritty conversations that will allow for more effective citizen engagement and public participation. Conversations that will revitalize our democracy by encouraging us to include more people in our decision making processes while arriving at better decisions as a result of the expanded inclusion.

It’s not everyday that I get to indulge in such a wonderful imaginative exercise. I wrote back to Jerry with the following, and he did in fact ask me to frame this out as a lead in to kick off the call – which quickly went in several different directions once people began to share their own questions and perspectives:

Q. How can the Obama administration support the marriage of the F2F and Virtual worlds of democratic-community-enhancing conversations?

A. Provide the funding and convening power for coupling virtual support with creating a f2f infrastructure that will support innovative conversations that will reinvigorate democracy at the local level.

There now exist several proven methodologies for convening large groups of people in collaborative conversations.

Collaborative conversations are ones where people are able to: 

  • arrive at a clear idea of what is important to them regarding a specific issue
  • explore what is possible based on the constraints they are operating under 
  • determine and coordinate effective actions 
  • critically reflect and learn in order to hold even more effective conversations in the future

A collaborative conversation is also where the diversity of opinions and perspectives of hundreds or even thousands of participants is an asset that can be harvested in the service of more robust thinking and the generation of innovative ideas for working with complex social issues. 

Collaborative conversations occur in the context of processes such as the World Cafe, Future Search, the Conference Model, Whole-scale Change, Open Space, the Art of Hosting and others. These processes are well known to a few experts in the OD field. They have broad applicability for bringing together business, education, government and community leaders into the kinds of conversations we all need to engage if we are to create a livable future in a world of rapidly shifting priorities and resources. However, knowledge, skill and competence to design and host these processes successfully resides for the most part in the domain of a relative few and they are not widely used outside of the OD community. There is a huge opportunity here for engaging people at every level in the culture in becoming accountable as citizens and revitalizing democracy.

Community-centric conversations are to be convened with a representational cross section of the community in the room, where key questions are posed about issues of vital importance in the lives of those who live in the community. Numerous dialogic approaches support conversations that elicit personal and collective meaning in ways that bring out people’s best thinking through appreciative and strength-based inquiries into complex issues. In so doing they are able to include more voices and make better decisions as a result of the inclusion. That’s the F2F side in a nutshell.

Satellite linking technology allows for low cost ways to connect thousands of people in geographically dispersed areas.  Keypad technology allows for rapid processing of yes/no/ranking questions. Wikis allow for a collective memory to be easily accessible to all participants and stakeholders. Twitter and other applications allow for a density of perspectives to be recorded and made visible to the whole that was impossible just a short time ago. That’s the virtual side in a nutshell.

There is an emerging but not yet a coherent effort to bring together the variations these two nuts offer to seed a network capable of growing a forest ecosystem of enlivening conversations, but if it were to receive wider resourcing it could take off and produce dividends of astonishing proportions.

How can we speed the marriage of the process experts of F2F conversational modalities with the project experts of the virtual world? What will help them to frame and support sets of conversations and relationships that can harness the collective intelligence and wisdom of hundreds/thousands/millions of people in confronting and navigating our social, economic and ecological challenges in a ongoing manner that produces high value ideas and behaviors that can be quickly implemented and enacted throughout the system?

What kinds of policies and programs can be enacted that will make it easy for people with collaborative conversation leadership skills to work with those who have virtual conversation tracking and memory creation skills to join in creating national collaborative conversations around such topics as: water, energy, agriculture, defense, livable cities, poverty, wealth creation and distribution, etc?


As I said the conversation moved rapidly in many directions once the main thrust of the ideas above were introduced. As I listened to the voices on the conference line and read the comments on the IRC chat, it became readily apparent that the idea that is it possible to bring together large numbers of people who hold divergent or opposing views and who do not know each other into a room and have them enter into a conversation around hot topics that produces real value in the space of a day is quite beyond the ken of many people who have no experience with collaborative conversations. There were comments on the IRC chat to the effect that the idea of wisdom arising in the room is a fantasy of OD/HR people.

There was also the specter of mob mentality creeping in.

I am very grateful for the chance to hear and learn from the skeptics. I will not blithely dismiss mob mind, but I will say that in all the designed conversations I have ever been a part of it has never been a problem.

I also agree that expecting wisdom to arise simply because you have a good cross section of people in the room and a process to follow is sometimes unreasonable. In fact, in my experience it is hard work. You need to choose an appropriate process and you need to know something about group dynamics. You need to carefully select your design team and know what it is you want participants to talk about. You need skilled facilitation and you have to spend a good deal of time – hours to days depending on the issue/topic and the people involved – in order to identify the questions that will crack through the resistance and open up the possibilities that people long to connect with when given a chance. If all those are in place, then a sense of being connected to a larger intelligence, greater clarity about what is important, and yes, even wisdom almost always shows up.

So, what would you focus on if you were asked to help the Obama transition team?



  1. Yours is such a very thoughtful and provocative piece that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice by “replying from the hip” instead, I’ll download and print it, study and digest and then try to reply in an intelligent manner . I had almost given up on finding a place for intelligent, thoughtful dialog on the web and then (after I stopped looking) I found yours.
    Thank you and “a bientot”

  2. Thank you. I am grateful that my post had such an impact on you and I look forward to reading your thoughts.


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