It's not easy. We need to encourage ourselves and each other.

Today seems to have had the theme of collaboration – or should I say the lack of it. I have heard of yet more ventures (I will not be identifying any of them in any way here, but I'm thinking of innovation in both information and social technologies) that have really good values, excellent intentions, good plans even – but they somehow lack something that I see as essential for us to build a better world together.

The general pattern seems to go, very roughly, like this. Some intelligent people correctly see a problem with the way things are done at present. They rightly judge that addressing the related challenges is difficult, hard, and has a lot of complexity. They put their mind to it, and in particular they talk to the people that they know and respect about it. Between them, they come up with a good idea. (And so many of the ideas in this area that I have seen are really good, as far as I can make out.) Some of them, particularly IT people who have had a good relationship with venture capital in the past, then prepare a case to give to the VC investors. Others think a step further and, believing that venture capital is too tied in with the existing economic system to allow for genuine change, they plan some other approach to fund-raising; or if they are into social technology, maybe they don't need startup funding. They then search for their uniqueness. All successful ventures have a USP, after all. They address existing needs, because solving clients' or users' needs is also essential to a successful enterprise. They probably make plans for a ‘minimum viable product’, an MVP. That's what people do, so that they can bring something ‘to market’ quickly, and start either earning money or at least building up a client or user base while the offering is extended beyond that first minimum. It makes sense, at least according to the best current opinion about new ventures.

What is the inevitable result, then?

There are a whole crowd of ventures that are all trying to do similar things. Some of them start to recognise this, and form some kind of co-operative, network, or alliance. But most likely, when they have got to this stage, they have already invested time and energy in their own solution. Two effects tend to follow, at least in many followers, if not all: the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ and the ‘not invented here syndrome’. These are well-documented features of human psychology, so it would be surprising if they were avoided in these cases.

So, what is needed to avoid those? From my perspective, two things would help greatly: one about information, and another about strategy or attitude. In terms of information, it would greatly help if anyone who started this kind of venture would publicise it in a way that knowledge is easily available to anyone else starting to think about doing something similar. This then needs to be complemented by the other thing: the people involved need to be orientated towards finding out who is doing something similar, before starting their own new venture. You could see this either as a collective attitude, or as a well thought-through strategy.

There are quite clear and obvious advantages in doing things this way. Anyone tackling similar challenges will likely have similar issues to deal with. Instead of having to find out the hard way, people can learn from someone who has done it already. Following on from that, the effort that would have been devoted to duplicating what someone else has done can be redirected towards developments that would benefit everyone engaged in similar development. And, perhaps most of all, energy that could have been put into a competing venture could be redirected to joining up and making more progress than could have been done separately. Maybe a lot more progress, which might make all the difference.

A vital assumption here is that the parties concerned are operating within something like Cooperative principles. The ICA Cooperative principle 6 is “Cooperation among Cooperatives”. But cooperatives don't feature in the current dominant narrative of big successful ventures; and even amongst the co-ops I know, Principle 6 is followed more in principle than in practice. How strong is the habituation effect of capitalist competition? Then there is start-up finance: you are unlikely to get venture capital funding unless you have competitive advantage, often by enclosing any IP you have; and that isn't a cooperative mindset.

On the personal side, I observe that many leading people in the tech and systems worlds are not natural cooperators. In a hierarchical organisation, internal collaboration can be ensured by control from the top, but this can't happen in flat organisations. The kind of people that are needed in flat organisations – with good cooperative and collaborative attitudes, at least learned, if not instinctive – are needed also here, leading and influencing, right at the beginning of this kind of initiative.

As well as cooperative principles, Commons thinking can help prime people to have that distinctive collaborative attitude. And one aspect of commons thinking – the aspect of knowledge commons – can play a key role in the requirement I mentioned first, that people thinking of starting new ventures of this type need to find out about and explore similar existing or planned ventures.

Put together, these two aspects – of good information, and a cooperative or commons attitude – could help lead people into constructive collaboration, and towards what we like to call co-creation. This has personal implications for all of us. If we want people to collaborate constructively, to do our best, we need to cultivate that competence in ourselves, and in all the human relationships that it can fit into.

And how do we do that? Well, we can start by helping and encouraging each other.

Topics: Commons and collaboration

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