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Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for her work in understanding the things people did to protect their common pooled resources: their forests, pastures, fisheries, and irrigation systems. For hundreds if not thousands of years, some groups have succeeded and prospered in doing so; some have failed. They did not succeed because they filed a successful development grant with the World Bank – they succeeded because worked together to balance group interests while managing the human tendency toward selfishness.

When you recognize that Ostrom’s design principles are managing processes of variation and selection at the group and the individual levels, there is nothing that prevents applying these principles to a much wider array of human situations. In the PROSOCIAL project we had to learn how to do so effectively. 

The first design principle calls for clearly defined boundaries and purposes, but how does that apply to purposes that are far more abstract than the best use of a common-pool resource? Suppose you are working together to create a less sexist society – do the same principles apply? If you can get over that hurdle and you conclude that they do, how do you best encourage the clarification of group purposes and boundaries, or establish the individual buy in needed to form groups that work?

These same issues exist for the other design principles. The second design principle calls for proportional equivalence between benefits and costs. But both benefits and costs are quite a bit harder to identify in a Facebook group or a school newspaper or a meditation group. In a common-pool resource the benefit is fairly concrete, as is the effort needed to produce that benefit. In many groups what is beneficial for one person may not be beneficial for another. For one person, being in a leadership role and expected to lead a meeting is a prize; for another it is a frightening nightmare. 

Principle four calls for monitoring, which requires knowing how members advance or undermine the group, but some of these actions can be very hard to assess. If a member is usually quiet in group meetings, that could be their way of focusing on the material being discussed; another person could be spacing out, or contemplating leaving. 

Principle five asks group members to establish and maintain graduated responses to violations, but that may be difficult if group members do not understand each other or know how to take each others perspective.

Ostrom’s design principles are clear in the abstract, but they did not emerge out of social intervention programs – turning them from descriptions of successful common-pool resource groups to general principles of group development requires additional work.

The PROSOCIAL project is an active alliance of evolutionists and applied behavioral scientists. The development team decided to bring psychological flexibility principles drawn from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy into the mix because they fit the challenges of issues such as those above and they share the same functional, contextual, and evolutionist orientation as do the core design principles themselves. ACT seeks to manage psychological and behavioral variation, selection, and retention, in context, at the right level, and focused on the right dimension. Variation, selection and retention is managed by underlining the repertoire narrowing processes of avoidance and excessive rule government thus promoting healthy variation, selection behavior based on linkage to chosen values, and retaining behavior by deliberate practice and by commitment strategies. Context sensitivity, at the right level and dimension, is promoted by mindfulness awareness, flexible attention, and by a focus on the success of the whole person rather than the domination only of particular levels or domains (e.g., only “feeling good.”)   The flexibility model underlying ACT was tried and true as an empirical guide to behavioral and socialintervention – with a vast amount of data in support of the model and methods. It seems like a good fit to help strengthen the implementation of the design principles.

As the PROSOCIAL team has explored the integration of psychological flexibility principles drawn from ACT with Ostrom’s design principles we have repeatedly seen that they work well together. Evolution science is a powerful force for consilience between sciences, domains, models, and theories. PROSOCIAL is yet another proof of concept of that robust idea.

The ACT method we use in PROSOCIAL is called “The Matrix” (Polk & Schoendorff, 2014). The Matrix draws two simple distinctions: the distinction between moving toward something versus moving away from something, and the distinction between actions anyone following you could see, and emotions, sensations, or thoughts that are sensed privately. The combination of these dimensions yields four quadrants: inner positive motivation; inner barriers (fear, feelings of inadequacy); actual overt behavior that moves away from positive motivation; and overt behavior that moves toward positive motivation. In PROSOCIAL, members do a “double spin” around the Matrix – with the focus on each group member as an individual and then on the whole group. 

During the individual spin members of a group are first asked one at a time to think of a hero or a guide – someone they respect in areas that seem somehow relevant to the group as a whole – and then to share with the group some of what this person does or stands for that seems important or honorable. This is a safe way to touch the “inside – toward” quadrant. The people we admire reveal qualities we value and by the group knowing something about what group members care about it is easier to consider what draws the group together and how to be fair with each other. 

Group members then share a few safe examples of internal obstacles (e.g., worries; fears) that can get in the way of doing what is cared about (the “inside-away” quadrant) and what that can look like on the outside (the “action-away” quadrant). This can be important in helping group member understand what it may look like when group members are withdrawing, fostering conflict, or otherwise not supporting the group.

Finally group members share what it looks like in actual behavior when members are moving toward your values (the “action-toward” quadrant). This is a very important step because it gives the group a set of overt things we to look for to see if the group members are functioning well. 

During the group spin of the Matrix, the same process is repeated with extensive group discussion for the objectives of the group as a whole. In a detailed, step by step process, the group discusses the positive goals for their group and what they are trying to accomplish by working together. They identify some of the mental experiences that may get in the way of realizing those goals and values as a group (e.g., thoughts about what others might think) and the actual actions that might interfere with progress (e.g., not sharing, keeping information to oneself, bullying, keeping quiet).  Finally they specify the actions that members could take that might move the group toward its valued goals.

Group members are formally introduced to the Core Design Principles after their two spins through the Matrix, but the Matrix already begins to improve group functioning through an enhanced group identity and understanding of purpose (DP1). The discussions help to create a sense of shared values and vulnerabilities that make group members feel more connected. They begin to trust each other more, they feel safe and they understand why they are working together.

For groups to succeed, the individual has to be uplifted by the group. So many frameworks pit group interest against individual interest. By sharing positive and negative motivations and how they are expressed, a psychologically connected group is created that can work together even when the purposes of the group are relatively abstract. Selfishness is easier to identify and to confront in a graded fashion.

Some of the core design principles are directly impacted by thinking of them from the vantage point of psychological flexibility; some are impacted only indirectly in the willingness of the group to consider these design issues with care. We are excited to see, however, that this combination of behavioral science and evolution science feels integrated – each part supports the other

Our early experience with PROSOCIAL  suggests that the combination of evolutionary and contextual behavioral principles produces something more than the sum of the parts, something that may facilitate the conscious evolution of cooperation and prosociality.  That is our hope.

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PA: Thanks very much Robert for agreeing to do this interview. I'm interested in both the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Department of Finance work that you did. I understand that you did a similar thing in both cases so maybe you can refer to both these cases in response to the questions that I am going to ask you?

PA: So, let's get started. First up can you tell me a little bit about the needs that the two organisations had and why you thought prosocial would be a good solution?

RS: Well, in both cases the needs were two-fold – a combination of strategic and operational.

First, the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD). Ms Daryl Karp, the CEO, explained to me when we first met in 2014 that she wanted to work with her executive to increase the relevance of the institution. She was asking, “What could our mission be? Where should we focus our effort in order to provide a meaningful experience for our visitors? How could we catalyse a transformative and reflective conversation about the meaning of democracy in today's world?” Big questions in my view. As we explored these questions it became apparent that innovation was required on the part of those working in the museum. At the time most of their practices were quite traditional and a live question related to the relevance of their historical practices going forward. What needs to be preserved as change is charted and pursued? As you can imagine, questioning the enduring relevance of what for some equated to their professional expertise and life’s work was the source of some conflict between individuals and groups within the organisation. Daryl, previously a documentary maker working for ABC Television, had been CEO for twelve months and was challenged by how to lead innovation and change while keeping the peace.

Finance wasn’t that dissimilar to MoAD actually. Late in 2016 I met Ms Stacie Hall, who had assumed the role of First Assistant Secretary in charge to the Property and Construction Division (PCD) twelve months before. Broadly, the Division was responsible for looking after all Australian Government real estate, actual and virtual, within Australia and throughout the world. She explained at our first meeting that the Secretary had given her “clear riding orders!” when she assumed her role as leader. The Division was not functioning well for various reasons and she was being relied upon to sort things out. Apparently, two separate divisions had merged twelve months before Stacie took over as leader. These two divisions performed very different roles. One group were technical experts, those who understood how to look after buildings and property. They understood bricks and mortar as well as networks and firewalls. The other group were policy experts. The government of the day had charged them with responsibility to divest as much government real estate as possible in order to save the government money. According to Stacie, the day these two divisions merged the “Hunger Games began!” During our first meeting Stacie explained to me that the situation had proved so intractable that she, after 12 months of trying, didn’t know what to do to improve things.

In both instances, MoAD and PCD, I introduced the ideas embodied in prosocial as a possible way forward and they agreed to give it a go.

PA: So how did you implement prosocial?

RS: The approaches I adopted in both institutions were a little different. Though many aspects were the same. The difference related to the way I worked, the design principles stayed the same, of course.

The initial work with MoAD happened over 2014 and 2015 and involved a series of facilitated workshops at which the practice of psychological flexibility or one or several of the design principles were introduced to the mid-level managers and executive. These leaders engaged in discussion about the meaning and relevance of the practices and principles and how well things were working in that regard. Between the workshops, group and one-on-one coaching sessions were provided to a number of the individual teams and leaders with the aim of supporting them as they endeavoured to translate what they had explored in the workshops into action. Following the cycle of workshops involving the managers and executive some additional workshops were held for specific teams responsible for the coordination of education tours through the museum and the design and hosting of the various exhibitions themselves. Each of these teams had quite a diverse set of responsibilities. For things to work, different individuals or sub-teams had to interact with a significant number of stakeholders to coordinate their effort and input.

The work with PCD occurred several years later in 2017. By this time, I had observed that translating the prosocial principles into the living and breathing normative environment of a community or organisation happened a lot more effectively if I got myself out of the way. You’re probably wondering what that means? Essentially it means I get them to do more of the work. In MoAD I did most of the workshop facilitation, coaching and mentoring. In PCD I worked only with the most senior leaders in the division and supported them from behind the scenes as they did the facilitation and coaching/mentoring work with their Branch team-leaders and staff. I ran half-day workshops with Stacie and the five Branch heads, the executive, once a month to introduce an aspect of the work the Division had to do. They would then run a particularised version of the same workshop with their Branch, I would oftentimes observe from the back of the room and shadow coach. After the round of Branch workshops, Stacie with her executive and I would debrief. Key learnings and insights taken were then used to draft the agenda for a Division wide forum at which select team-leaders and staffers presented to the whole Division the outputs from their Branch workshop discussions. The cycle would then repeat itself – five times in all. I provided one-on-one coaching to the executive throughout. It worked very well!

PA: One of the core ideas in prosocial is surfacing individual interests and integrating those into the collective interests of the group. Can you tell me how you used prosocial to do this in these cases?

RS: Certainly. You know I think this is one of the most important aspects of this work. To help people find a home for what they value within the collective purpose. In each case there were two interrelated processes. One was designed to help these organisations and respective teams define or redefine their purpose which is all about CDP1. The other was helping individuals to more effectively give expression to their unique brand of magic which is about psychological flexibility.

In MoAD the work on psychological flexibility happened toward the beginning of the intervention whereas in PCD it was the last phase. In PCD we started with collective purpose, CDP1. The reason the order of events varied were multiple: the size and structure of the organisations, the pressing needs at the time, levels and nature of conflict in the system, and the like.

In MoAD the broader context was more of a blank slate in terms of redefined purpose. They were just continuing with business as usual. They were running a museum as they traditionally had for many years within one of Canberra’s heritage buildings, Old Parliament House. Essentially there were five groups within the organisation: the executive who were responsible for the overall leadership of the museum and reporting to the Senate, or more recently to their Board; the learning team who were responsible for school programs and guided tours; the exhibition and events team who were responsible for organising and hosting various exhibitions and events within and outside Old Parliament House; the maintenance team who maintained the heritage building; and, the human resources team. To varying degrees these teams interacted with other cultural institutions and local universities co-hosting events and doing different forms of research on the history of democracy in Australia as well as current opinion captured through the hosted events. Functions and dining rooms provided another dimension of activity within the museum. You can imagine the tapestry of interests! The presenting challenge for Daryl, as I mentioned, was twofold – strategic and operational. While she had ambitions for the museum she had not really begun exploring this with others in a formal way. The pressing problem was operational. Teams were competing with each other wanting their particular interests to be the focus of what the museum was doing at any particular time. Some strong personalities were asserting themselves in ways that was generating conflict both laterally between groups and vertically between the executive and team members at the frontline.

Because of the prevailing climate within MoAD I decided to begin with exercises on cultivating psychological flexibility. The aim was to create a safe space for people to talk about what was important to them personally, to explore the nature of the habitual and oftentimes unproductive responses being taken to the challenging situations they were finding themselves in and to defuse things enough so they could begin seeing themselves more for their ‘magic’ within. In other words, to help them cooperate with the natural movement of life and what was important in the moment rather than what their minds were habitually labelling as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

These reflections and conversations had the team members sharing amongst themselves what they were striving for socially, or wanted to strive for, that was personally important not only for them but also others now and in the long-run. This also, by design, touched on the unproductive, defensive and habitual behaviours that were taking them away from what was important. They were incredibly honest. I remember one of the executives saying that she wanted to get better at speaking openly and honestly about what she didn’t know when she was in situations where she was expected to speak from a position of authority. She explained how quite habitually she would try and fake it fear of being seen by others as not knowing what she was talking about and perhaps even being stupid. A kind of pretending to be someone she wasn’t. She said that following such exchanges she felt quite exhausted and inauthentic. It was her preparedness to be open and vulnerable that really got the broader conversation going. My main objective was to have their hearts and minds meet. There were comments that, “we’re all really just the same aren’t we!” as though their common ground of being human was being realised. By contrast there were other comments like, “wow, I didn’t really appreciate how much you folk (the maintenance team members) care about this building”, a comment by one of the exhibitions and events people.

This opening of hearts and minds set the scene for the more strategic conversation about what their shared purpose could be. The topic of subsequent workshops. To do this I had the various teams reflect on questions about what a preferred and probable future could look like. Not only from their point of view and expertise but from the perspective of all the others in the system who would be a part of that future, be they within MoAD or outside. I like this process because it accesses the wisdom in the room. The output of the discussion was a compelling vision statement about what the meaning and practice of democratic processes could look like for the Australian citizens in 20 years’ time and the particular trends that would need to be impacted in order for this future to be realised. The discussion not only embraced the interests and perspectives of each of the teams within MoAD but also the interests and perspectives of all their stakeholders – teachers, students, families, researchers, policy makers, political leaders, government, tourists, and others.

The work of surfacing individual interests and integrating those into the collective interest within PCD was quite a different exercise! Because of the conflicting interests between the technicians who primarily cared about looking after government real estate and the policy people busy selling off that real estate I decided to start the whole intervention in a different way. It was designed to get the groups, rather than individuals, talking about what was important to them as well as what they were challenged by. Really, this was a different way of catalysing the same type of reflection that doing the group matrix does. I took this approach for two reasons, because of the size of the institution but mainly because of the lack of listening. I observed that much of the conflict was a consequence of these groups not being heard. I recall at the first Division wide forum individuals from the opposing factions standing up and asserting, in rather forthright terms, their point of view across the room defending the legitimacy of their people’s interest. Having observed this, I decided to facilitate a process designed to change the listening in the organisation. I had my fingers crossed I tell you. I suggested to Stacie and the executive that each of the five Branches – Property Capital Works Branch, Property Divestment Taskforce, Property Efficiency Branch, Property Legislation & Advice Branch and Property Services Branch – each discuss amongst themselves a set of who, what, how questions and have representatives from each Branch report the outputs of their discussions to the rest of the division at a forum. The questions were carefully worded in four categories.

‘People’ questions: Who are you as a team, broadly what do you think and feel about your work and the organisation? Tell us a little about your team, including how long you’ve been here, what roles you have played in the past, including what you take pride in and what you find challenging?

‘What’ questions: What is your team’s current business, are you aimed in the right direction and pursuing your goals properly? What is the key issue in your team’s work currently, and how are you handling it? Are you headed in the right direction, and pursuing it in the right way? What is your organisations core strength? How do you know?

‘How’ questions: How does this place work, by what explicit rules, unspoken norms, tacit agreements, processes and procedures? What was your team’s most difficult decision in the past year? What were the issues and how did you wrestle with them? With what results, and how did you feel about it? How did others react? What networks(s) of people within and external to the organisation act to influence what gets done and how things get done? What do the people have in common? How does the organisational infrastructure work, including – policy, roles and responsibilities, and processes, such as decision making, coordination, and communication processes?

‘Leadership’ questions: What do we need to know to make the right fit between the organisation and existing leadership styles? What kind of leadership are you looking for from your leader/s? What will be the cues for leadership to tell if they are on or off track? What are the norms for giving feedback upward here?

As it turned out this was a very fruitful exercise. It did change the listening. Many said they had never been asked questions like these. Not only did the exercise of having each group contemplate the answers help them take a broader perspective on their situation, because they knew that the other groups were contemplating the same questions they were very interested to hear what they had to say. The increased level of attentiveness was palpable at the forum when each group shared their reflections and answers. Each group took great care documenting their views and from this the executive we able to derive key themes related to ‘expertise and capability’, ‘communication’ and ‘leadership’ that reflected significant aspects of the normative environment. Stacie, at a subsequent forum fed-back a summary of these themes to the Division. My sense is they felt heard.

At this point the climate was such that Stacie and her executive were able to invite their now receptive team-leaders and staff to consider what Finance’s role could be in the longer term and how they could possibly work together to shape direction at the Division level. This was the segue into an active consideration of the prosocial principles as they applied to PCD. The first phase involved getting clear about, ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘How do we get there?’ which was about CDP1, redefining purpose. This was followed by the phase, ‘How do we work together on the journey?’ which was about the rest of the CDPs. Toward the end of the intervention the focus was, ‘How can we leverage each other’s expertise and capability?’ which was about cultivating psychological flexibility. The Division engaged enthusiastically from this point. In fact, one of the staffers said, “We should call it ‘Operation Voltron’!” and it stuck. The sub-title being, “We each have a role to play, a perspective to bring and a stake in the outcome” under which was a full colour picture of a Transformer. It was great. Surfacing individual interests and integrating those into the collective interest had begun.

PA: How did you implement the ACT matrix and did you find it useful?

RS: Yes, implementing the matrix was very useful. All the work associated with developing psychological flexibility that I’ve mentioned was facilitated using the matrix. The way I use it is a little different to the way Kevin Polk originally designed it.

As well as foregrounding the difference between inner experience and actual behaviour, the above and below the horizontal line distinction, and the tension between toward and away moves, I like to use it to help people evaluate the coherence of their worldview. One of the behavioural principles I leverage when doing this work is related to the function of the self-rules we have in use. To do this, when considering the relationship between both the toward move in concert with the values intrinsic to that behaviour and the away move with the inner aversive experience being avoided, I ask the question, “What assumptions are you making that might be worth testing?” For example, the woman I mentioned earlier who wanted to get better at speaking openly and honestly about what she didn’t know rather than pretending, her toward and away moves; when she stopped to think about the assumptions she was making they fell into two classes. Those related to her toward move of speaking openly and honestly were all quite coherent. She assumed that if she did speak up it would improve relationships and she would feel much better within herself. On the other hand, the assumptions she was making about her away move, pretending she knew, were, upon analysis, a bit of a myth. She had somehow subscribed to the notion that others would automatically think less of her if they knew she wasn’t sure about something and that she was perhaps even stupid. You should have seen the look on her face when she said this out loud to herself. From a CBS perspective this is known as an ineffective self-rule. It functioned to take her in an unhealthy direction personally and socially. In fact, she knew it, she said she often felt quite exhausted and inauthentic when she behaved that way.

When these conversations were facilitated in both MoAD and PCD they made explicit what was intrinsically important to everyone, particularly at the team level be it the executive, the group of mid-level team-leaders or an intact team at the operational level. The power of this conversation truly emerged as the intrinsic interests of the individuals found a home for expression through the shared purpose. For example, in PCD one of the team-leaders volunteered to coordinate a series of brainstorming meetings involving anyone from the Division who was interested in exploring possibility at a strategic level. The openness and frankness of ideas generated led to some important innovations.

A little bit more about the context first so you get a sense of the impact of cultivating psychological flexibility. As I mentioned earlier, two different divisions had merged to form PCD, technical and policy people, and they were at odds with each other operationally because they didn’t share a purpose. Some of the assumptions that were challenged within these groups served to overturn this situation and orient them more toward collaborative effort. They chose to work with each other as a consequence of reinforcing what was intrinsically important.

The technical people valued looking after real and virtual real estate in the unique ways that only they could. When they considered how they might express these values in the longer-term as a group, they reconceived of themselves as a hub at the centre of an extended network around the world. A network of experts whose services would need to be procured to do the work locally. In this worldview, as a hub, they were setting the high standards for safe, secure, green, efficient and user-friendly buildings and virtual environments. As they contemplated this future world and the myriad of regulatory and policy requirements required for it all to work they realised, “We need you policy folk!”

The policy people too, at the outset it was apparent that they valued serving the government of the day and playing their part in realising civic good. As a group they had also embodied the norm of being apolitical, a requirement of all public servants in Australia. Their job was to just serve the government of the day without being personally biased by their own political orientation. That if the government changed its view, or if there was a change of government, they would just follow without question. When they questioned the workability of this norm as they had embodied it they realised that in part it wasn’t really working. When they looked 10-20 years into the future and rendered their preferred vision of the world many of the values they embraced were aligned with the technical group. They too foresaw a clearer, greener, safer and more efficient workspace for Australian public servants and any citizen or stakeholder within those spaces. They realised that their passive embodiment of being apolitical had rendered them somewhat speechless within the system. They uttered statements’ like, “We’re here to do the government’s bidding, not to question what we are asked to do”. This changed to, “Heck, if we are going to provide the government of the day a real service we have to take a longer-term view of what is important for Australia and learn to offer courageous advice instead of being scared our head is going to be shot off if we stick it up over the pulpit!” When this shift occurred they said, “If we are going to offer courageous advice we need to know what we are talking about. We need you technical folk!”

So, the matrix as a tool for cultivating psychological flexibility worked well.

PA: Were there particular core design principles that were problematic for the 2 groups? Could you tell us a little bit about what that looked like?

RS: Problematic is probably not the right word. It was a matter of helping them translate and particularise the principles into their working and normative context which in each case was a process. A process that didn’t stop actually. I have caught up with both Daryl and Stacie since we worked together and have learned how these processes have evolved in quite unexpected ways.

Let’s take CDP3 as an example, which is about collaborative decision making. When I caught up with Daryl earlier this year she told me about how post our initial work with MoAD they embarked on the process of becoming a statutory authority or an Australian Public Service Agency with its own independent Board, which has afforded them increased authority to self-regulate (CDP7). This meant they were able to transact and act in the world in a very different way. An increased variety of collaborations were possible (CDP8). Prior to that, MoAD was constituted as an ordinary government department within the portfolio of the Minister for the Arts I think, and answerable to the Senate. This shift to becoming an Agency reflected an evolution of decision-making capacity for the organisation (CDP3) along with the other CDPs. Here decision making is conceived at multiple levels. Constitutional choice which in turn shaped approaches MoAD had at its disposal for public choice and operational choice. While constituted as an ordinary government depart the scope of choice at the other levels was restricted. They didn’t have full control over their budget for example. Each year as a government department they were given a budget along with a set of priorities from the government of the day. At the end of each financial year, if there was any money left over they had to return it to the Reserve Bank. Once they became an Agency they had full control over their budget. This led them to develop and implement an internal set of policies and procedures that further enabled them to plan and chose what they wanted to do (CDP2).

Mechanisms like having an independent Board that helped provide direction and build engagement reflected other ways in which the CDPs had been particularised. The senior leaders of MoAD with the help of the Board had to monitor (CDP4) the Agency’s relationship with the government of the day and the growing number of external stakeholders as well as the internal relationships between the various divisions of the institution (CDP8). To effectively do this, they first cultivated an appetite for risk then gradually refined the structure of the organisation and overarching regulatory environment to manage the risk (CDP5). This involved the Board and CEO clarifying the type, tolerance and scope of risk that was acceptable for the organisation. For example, basic human rights and the reputation of the organisation could not be exposed to risk. On the other hand, an increased appetite for risk meant an increased appetite for experimentation. Different groups not only knew the boundaries within which they could prototype new ways of preserving and building civic engagement through the activities of the museum (CDP1), they also had the freedom to experiment in safe-to-fail ways (CDP7), which consequently facilitated learning and innovation. Monitoring in this space was primarily about tracking the success of various initiatives and reporting against these to the Board and Senate. Some of the work the Agency did in this space led to them being identified internationally as one of the most innovative small museums in the world at the end of 2015.

At the mid-level of both MoAD and PCD the team-leaders were engaged in a different type of conversation. This began during the intervention when they were actively encouraged to put ideas forward and debate the merits of different considerations (CDP2&3). Both Daryl and Stacie explained that it took a while before these leaders found their voice because they were used to just doing what they were told. As well as engaging them in high-level decision-making processes, a particularly important step that undergirded their maturation as leaders was the delegation of authority to self-regulate (CDP7). In MoAD this included the formation of a new group with members from across the Agency who took responsibility for innovation. This group reported directly to the CEO. Similarly, in PCD the self-organised task force that explored the idea of the Division becoming a hub represented their ideas to the executive to subsequently have many implemented. These mid-level leaders had reconceived and reinvented themselves. They experienced growing legitimacy and increased support over time.

As you can see, the nature of these prosocial interventions built the capacity for autonomous and self-determined leadership that was increasingly driven from the middle of the organisations by the EL2s and EL1s (Executive Level 2 officers are team leaders/managers and Executive Level 1 officers are their assistant managers). When I interviewed both the executive and team leaders many explained how much more vital work was as a consequence of being empowered in this way. I have to acknowledge the way that both Daryl and Stacie actively drove this. They invited the lower level managers and leaders into the senior leadership mix and continued to encourage and support their active participation. They did things like: take smaller groups of them out to lunch where they posed strategically important questions and engaged them in discussion and debate in a relaxed and informal setting; they personally mentored others who were assuming higher level leadership roles; their modelling subsequently influenced others. Over the months these mid-level leaders grew to feel they actually had a voice in the system that was being heard and mattered. Stacie said to me the last time we spoke that, “My executive is humming like they have never done before!” I observed this flowing downstream to their team-leaders. They were treating their EL’s the way Stacy was treating them.

Other activities that reflected an increased embodiment of the CDPs included the way the executive proactively responded to the needs of the divisions and branches across the organisation as they pursued strategic initiatives. For example, the executive in both institutions provided education and technical assistance for related teams in pursuit of efficiencies or cost reduction, encouraged local teams to develop and enforce their own rules, systematised the open exchange of information, and actively informed the groups across the system of what other groups had accomplished. 

PA: How did you work with each of the core design principles for these 2 groups, or did you treat them more holistically?

RS: As you have probably gleaned the process was quite organic, always a principled and collaborative response to the prevailing context – the emergent future in the present. Quite evolutionary really. Daryl explained that most of the successes that MoAD continues to enjoy weren’t conceived of in that first year we worked together, that a lot has emerged over several years as a consequence of the work we did together. You know, I have been invited back a few times to support different groups in MoAD continue refining their approach. Earlier this year I coached a group of team-leaders as they developed a proposal that they called, “Big Bold Opportunities” that would “increase the significance of MoAD’s work and influence on the brand ‘democracy’ and move us closer toward the realisation of the Masterplan”. Based on prosocial principles, they conceived three big bold ideas: to build a Learning Centre – physical and virtual; to host a Youth Engagement Program; and, provide an Enriched Teacher Professional Development Program. The group of team-leaders involved worked with their team members, drew up the proposal and presented it to the executive. Subsequently the proposal was approved by the Board and they have embarked on a refreshed 10-year journey (CDP1). Once they had been given the authority to take this forward they then got stuck into working out how to work together to realise their goals (CDPs2-8). All along they continued to reinforce the relevance of what was personally valued by each individual and to give those values a home within the shared purpose.

PA: This is fascinating work. Have you been able to measure the impact of it at all?

RS: Yes, the impact of the work in both MoAD and PCD was measured. In both cases, Australian Public Service Employee Census data (Commission 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018) captured pre and post these interventions over several years showed a significant, positive sustained improvement along several dimensions, including: Employee Engagement; Leadership; Organisational Change; Workplace Culture; Workplace Conditions; Performance Management; Career Management; Inclusion & Diversity; and, Agency Specific Performance. In both instances, these measures showed significant improvements when compared with those baseline measures taken over previous years, with some measures improving by up to 25% and 28% (See Figures 1 to 6 below). In fact, some measures continue to climb over subsequent years as though the cultural-normative environment continue to evolve as the principles were further embodied. These statistical results were also substantiated via some qualitative evaluations involving the MoAD and PCD senior executives and staff. Their testimony is reflected in this interview (Also see MoAD Interviews below). MoAD’s outcomes were also corroborated through their 2015 Annual Report prepared for the Australian Senate. Both MoAD and PCD senior executives continue to acknowledge the impact of these interventions. Reportedly this approach has helped them regularly exceed set targets as measured by their pre-determined strategic objectives and key performance indicators. 

PA: This conversation has been very useful. Given the innovative nature and success of this work, have you been approached by other agencies or organisations? It is quite apparent that this approach is applicable in any context where long-term change is sort after. 

RS: Yes, the innovative nature of this work has been recognized. In addition to MoAD and PCD, over the last couple of years I have been working with key leadership individuals from a variety of public sector organisations in African and South & West Asian countries. These people were participants in suite of programs designed to impact food, water or energy security as well as gender equity and social inclusion across the region. They were hosted by the Australian National University (ANU) and funded by the Australian Government between 2017-18. The participants first came to the ANU for a five to seven week intensive course that engaged them in formal learning related to the objectives of the overall program. During the concluding week they would work with me to design a personal project aimed at delivering sustainable impact on return to their home country. In each instance they were introduced to the prosocial approach we have been discussing. Each person was then supported remotely for six months as they implemented their plan. In some cases, I would travel to Africa or SW Asia to facilitate a follow-up workshop to help them further embed positive change.

Understandably, not all individuals were overtly successful in creating enduring change but a good proportion (around 40%) were. Where there was success, a key component was directly attributable to the structured prosocial methodology that they learned at ANU and subsequently employed. The context and challenges were diverse! To me this shows the inherent universal appeal of this methodology. I guess this is also evident in the work of Elinor Ostrom. She derived the eight CDPs having studied what reinforced the sustainable governance and equitable management of scarce resources practised by indigenous as well as contemporary communities around the world. So, it’s no wonder that the people from the developing countries I have had the privilege of working with readily identified with and successfully employed the CDPs.

You know, this work continues to bring both a tear and a smile to my face. My heartstrings are tugged each time I contemplate our future as a species and the way we are failing to look after each other and spaceship earth. These social, environmental, political and economic problems we are confronted with are seemingly intractable. But are they? I suggest not! It is clear to me that the work of prosocial changes the way people live and work together such that it is making the difference.

I have been privileged to know some extraordinarily good people, including you, who are pioneering an aspect of change that is surely needed and I see prosocial as an important and enabling part of this effort. It’s not easy to reframe and own our part in the system while maintaining our shared dignity as human beings. I often find myself working with individuals and teams who struggle with the inherent moral and ethical dilemmas’ that rift the space between being pro-self and pro-social and the resulting psychological and emotional impact. Prosocial, the combination of cultivating psychological flexibility and implementing the CDPs, shows that we can choose to be simultaneously pro-self and pro-other, while fully experiencing all that such a choice offers up, no matter how exhilarating of uncomfortable. I think our personal and collective wellbeing requires that we appreciate it is not about the hedonistic inclination toward just feeling 'good' – it is not about 'goodbeing'! It’s about 'Wellbeing!’ Being able to feel it all really well for what it is and courageously continue moving together in a direction that is important in the long-run.




Figure 1. Measures identified in MoAD’s APSC 2015 Employee Census Report (Commission 2015) as having significantly improved compared to the Agency’s measures from the previous year.




Figure 2. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2015) in MoAD’s 2014 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2015 performance measures (blue bars).



Figure 3. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2015, 2017) in MoAD’s 2014 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2015 performance measures (blue bars) and 2017 performance measures (green bars) showing sustained change.





Figure 4. Measures identified in the PCD’s 2017 Employee Census Report (Commission 2017) as having significantly improved compared to the Division’s measures from the previous year.




Figure 5. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2017) in PCD’s 2016 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2017 performance measures (blue bars).



Figure 6. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2017, 2018) in PCD’s 2016 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2017 performance measures (blue bars) and 2018 performance measures (green bars) showing sustained change.

MoAD Interviews

As mentioned above, at the conclusion of the MoAD intervention a series of interviews were conducted with a number of agency staff from the executive and mid-level management to gain a subjective assessment of the change. Four questions were discussed.

How has the work we have done impacted on:

  1. The agency’s approach to developing strategy?
  2. Team culture and effectiveness?
  3. Staff engagement and motivation?
  4. You personally?

Below is a summary of the interviewee responses in their words. When the interviewees themselves read these summative statements, they said it was an accurate representation of their experience. The comments include suggestions about how the work we did with them might be enhanced.

Approach to Developing Strategy

The work we have done together is as good an outcome as could be expected—it has impacted profoundly on culture. The whole process was empowering and engendered inclusivity which heightened the impact of strategy. It got people thinking correctly about strategy and involved in good decision making. The way the work was done with the CEO and executive was essential, it meant there was a united message and effort. This was a critical part of the process. The measures from the state of the service report—collegiality, shared vision, etc.—show significant shifts which is directly attributable to the work we have done together.

The foresight-roadmapping worked well for middle management. People generally don’t get strategy. Our work together provided leadership and management with the tools for that. This approach reduced what is normally unnecessarily complex to something simple and accessible. It translated aspiration into concrete actions. The process was very consultative and energised everyone in the process. Middle management now thinks more strategically versus just having ideas. We are asking “How does this fit?” Leadership is being driven from the middle.

Team Culture and Effectiveness

Firstly, leadership has to have an appetite for risk and a willingness to learn. Team design work has reinforced this and impacted as a result. We have folded the EL1s (Level 1 Executive Officers that report to the EL2 Officers) into the leadership mix. The group design work has shaped attitudes and developed trust. This approach was powerful. Revisiting this (using the group evaluation tool you provided) showed trust had developed – understanding your team, your tribe, clarifying how you share a common purpose. Our work together allowed us to find vehicles for whole of organization conversations. Another key element was the restructuring of the organization so the innovation team reported directly to leadership. This was key to the success of innovative strategy.

Following your work with us the senior managers are more cohesive. Due in part to a change in leadership and structure, and having some difficult personalities leave, but also as a result of your sessions, dialogue has improved between managers; they are reflecting together which is building relationships. The biggest observed improvement is at the EL2 level—they are more supportive; they are thinking together. Some are representing team members more effectively. Though, there are teams that are not aligned as well. They are asking “What do my staff value?” “How can we look after them?” We need to do this better. We often realise too late when they are about to leave. There is a need for more acknowledgement.

Results from the State of the Service Report reflect the impact of your work—clear improvements in relation to management and strategy. While the tools (you introduced us to) as such were not always used, the principles have generalized. As far as I can tell, strategy is seen to always be responding to change, staff cuts, relocate staff etc. An improvement was noticed as a result of your work but may be impacted with coming changes.

Delegations have been pushed down more to the managers, the EL2s and 1s. It is less hierarchical which has meant people have had to be more responsible. We could do more on how to have “tough conversations”.

The values work and work on norms (group design) was very useful for framing and setting up project teams. Cheat sheets would be useful, so the basic ideas and principles can be at hand. I usually have these in my diary. Tools for practice.

The group design work with intact teams was very powerful. We plan to do it periodically as a group to check how we are tracking. The related work on values, communicating to learn and lead, and action learning was very powerful—the team is still talking about it.

A combination of change, personalities and pressure to perform had undermined trust across the organization. The work you did with us has rebuilt the trust. We have learned to say to each other, “You can be open and work with us. We value you!” We have learned to adjust to different styles of leadership. The organization has developed a healthy appetite for risk. This creates more opportunities for ideas. The team design work is what made the difference.

Staff Engagement, Motivation, and You Personally

The conversations we had about values is making a big difference. We’ve learned values are something we “do,” not just talk about. This work opened a conversation that has impacted the culture of the organization.

Perspective-taking skills gained through the work we have done means we have gained an appreciation of how people think differently and value different things. It has helped people manage change and has impacted the culture of the organization. People were helped to think differently about how we work together and support each other. It became safer to try new things. There is now a creative tension between conversation and change. People are more settled. While there are challenges the organization is functioning well. There is more acceptance of change without loss of quality. More is understood about each individual’s motivation and how people work.

Developing personal responsiveness (psychological flexibility) has been very valuable. It is the key to the whole process.


Commission, APS 2014, '2014 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Commission, APS 2015, '2015 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Commission, APS 2017, '2017 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Commission, APS 2018, '2018 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

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Research has shown that people have better relationships when they have three key capabilities: perspective taking, empathy and psychological flexibility (e.g. Levin et al., 2016). Perspective taking allows us to step into the shoes of others – to understand how another person is making sense of the world and what they care about. Empathy is about shared feeling, and it allows us to care about the other. Finally, psychological flexibility allows us to maintain relationships we care about, even in the face of difficult feelings. There is now good evidence that each of these capabilities is needed to have relationships that can endure the difficult times, not just enjoy the good times.

PROSOCIAL is a practical approach to using the power of variation and selection to improve human relationships. But if we try to implement PROSOCIAL without paying attention to building relationship skills, it is like giving a car-repair manual to a person who lacks the skills of car repair. Implementation might happen, but it is just as likely to cause harm as it is to do good.

In this article, I want to explore how the skills of perspective taking, empathy and psychological flexibility support and enhance the core design principles of PROSOCIAL. Most readers will already know what it means to take the perspective of another or empathise with them. But the term ‘psychological flexibility’ may well be new to many readers. I will begin by defining psychological flexibility, and then talk about how these three capabilities affect each of the core design principles. 

When a person is psychologically flexible, they can do what they care about irrespective of whether thoughts, feelings and sensations get in the way.  Groups of people attempting to accomplish shared goals need to be psychologically flexible, no less than single individuals. For example, group members may not speak up about issues with which they disagree because they fear angry arguments.  Alternatively, members might take on too much work because they are afraid of the social disapproval of others if they say no to new tasks.  Or they might refuse to take on challenging tasks because they are afraid of failing and being criticised, or they doubt their abilities.  Or they might give up in disappointment after their repeated attempts to make contributions have been ignored. In all these cases, the most effective action, both for the individual and the group, is thwarted by unpleasant thoughts, feelings or sensations.  And in all these cases, people genuinely want to act in their own and others’ long-term interests, but instead they act to alleviate short-term pain and discomfort even at the expense of their long-term interests.

So, what if it were possible to develop the capacity to act in the direction of your values, even when it felt difficult or unpleasant? PROSOCIAL includes training in just this skill, and we call it psychological flexibility – the capacity to do what is important even if psychological barriers such as fear, lack of confidence, anger, disappointment and guilt are present.  It involves ‘flexibility’ because we aim to help people develop multiple ways to respond to a given situation, not just avoidance.  When a person is psychologically flexible, they can choose whether avoiding or approaching the pain is likely to lead to better long-term outcomes.

So what does all this have to do with PROSOCIAL? Steve Hayes has already written HERE about how the first part of PROSOCIAL is a process called the Matrix which is designed to clarify individual and group purposes, but also expose difficult psychological experiences at the individual and group levels that might get in the way of cooperation. This process builds individual and collective psychological flexibility that then helps the core design principles to work more effectively. Let’s look at how psychological flexibility is important to each of the principles.

The first principle is “Shared Identity and Common Purpose”.   As the group uses the Matrix process to develop both their own and a shared group map of what they care about and what gets in the way, they are operating at two levels. On the surface, this is about sharing information – finding out what we each care about and how those interests and values overlap as a group, and finding out what trips us up separately and when we are together. But on a deeper level, if done well, this process of sharing our hopes and fears builds perspective-taking, empathy, safety and trust in the group.

During this process, group members become more vulnerable and human. Moreover, this encourages others to take risks where they may otherwise have let fear stop them from speaking up.  Group members see how others have the same difficulties, and they learn that most of the labels we use to describe ourselves and others (I am smart, he is stupid, I am introverted, she is extroverted, …) create illusory separation and unnecessary suffering. Instead of judging, criticising and defending; group members learn to notice what is happening and explore actions that might help them move towards individual and collective goals, thereby enhancing shared identity and common purpose.

Principle two is about “equitable distribution of costs and benefits”. Costs and benefits are not the same for everyone. One person might see group leadership as a benefit while another might see it as a cost, others might value or deplore spending time on other tasks.  Once we better understand the perspective of others, we can also better understand what they see as a cost or a benefit, and if empathy helps us care about the other, we can work more efficiently to maximise benefits and minimise costs on an individual basis.  The PROSOCIAL process transforms the meaning of relationships to be less about transactions and more about shared effort and co-creation.

How often have you felt that you are contributing more to a group than others?  You are not alone. Generally speaking, we are wired to overestimate our own positive contributions and underestimate the contributions of others.  Psychological flexibility can help us accept the pain of momentary or perceived inequity, and still act in the direction of what matters for the long-term aims of the group.

Principle three, “inclusive decision making” is important in PROSOCIAL because it helps build motivation for collective action, at the same time as protecting against individual interests dominating over shared interests.  Inclusive decision-making can take many forms; some groups might hold discussions until a consensus is reached, others might vote on options, and others might create a social contract where the group simply provides information to a designated leader or representative who is then entrusted to make decisions on behalf of the group. It just depends on what will work best for the group. For example, consensus builds involvement but it takes a lot of time and sometimes not everyone has access to good information to make a decision. 

Whatever approach is used, enhanced perspective taking and empathy help group members navigate the turbulent and sometimes emotionally challenging waters of sharing and advocating for different ideas and options.  If the group has done the groundwork to build safety and trust, then risking giving others the power to make decisions can be a lot less threatening. Moreover, psychological flexibility can help us to sit more comfortably with the discomfort of disagreements and take control of our jobs (Bond & Bunce, 2003).  Psychological flexibility also reduces impulsive decision making – when people are more psychologically flexible they are less likely to gamble or to discount the benefits of long-term goals. Psychological flexibility shifts people from being under the control of short-term interests to long-term, and more deeply held interests. 

If the group has a leader, psychological flexibility can help them handle the stress of making decisions often in the face of complexity and uncertainty. Another common dynamic is that leaders make decisions to help them look good, rather than in the interests of the group. As leaders learn that they no longer need to defend their egos, they can free up their attention to listen to others and base their decisions on better information.  It is well known that more transformational leaders tend to be those who are better able to act in the face of difficult emotions such as uncertainty and doubt.

Thus far, the design principles have been primarily about creating optimal conditions for cooperation. The next two principles, monitoring agreed-upon behaviours and graduated sanctions for misbehaviours, are key to managing individual behaviours.  The matrix work early in PROSOCIAL generates information about what needs to be monitored – valued individual and group behaviours and defensive individual and group behaviours that are likely to interfere with effective cooperation.  For example, if members of a group know that, when the leader feels insecure, he/she gets more dictatorial or avoidant or even excessively friendly, then they can act to help the leader and the group to act more effectively when these behaviours are noticed. Similarly, if members of a group know that that when they get stressed, they are more likely to argue, then they can put in place processes for noticing when that is happening and ameliorate the effects.  Monitoring is not just about selfish or unhelpful behaviour, it can also help align well-meaning, cooperative efforts that are pulling in different directions.

Principle five, graduated sanctions, is massively enhanced by psychological flexibility. It is helpful to imagine a parent dealing with a screaming child as a metaphor. One can imagine a parent over-reacting and coming down hard on the child to immediately terminate the uncertainty and discomfort of being in the presence of the screaming. However, one can easily imagine another parent who under-reacts by avoiding assertively responding to the child out of fear of conflict escalating.

In the same way, group members who are controlled by their emotions in the presence of conflict are more likely to either overreact or under-react to misbehaviours. Learning to respond at the right level of strength for the situation takes the capacity both to notice what is going on and also the capacity to not be excessively driven by one’s immediate emotions.  It can help group members and leaders find a wise middle way between sending in the bombers and ignoring the situation in the hope that it will go away.

At the same time, a capacity to step into the shoes of another and empathise can transform the ‘feel’ of being sanctioned. For example, being dismissed from an organisation (i.e. exiled by the group) can be done in a way that is harsh and punitive, or it can be done in a way that maximises the opportunities for the person leaving the group to learn and grow from the experience.  Psychological flexibility helps people use their power kindly. 

Principle six is about fast and fair conflict resolution.  Conflict is to genuine cooperation as movement is to transport – conflict is an inevitable part of the process of cooperation. Whenever people are empowered to bring their whole selves to a cooperative venture, their interests will inevitably diverge. But most people, and sometimes even whole cultures, have learned to fear and avoid conflict. Learning to take the perspective of others, empathise with them and tolerate the pain of conflict, helps transform the meaning of conflict from something to be avoided into something to be used for learning and growth.

The last two principles of PROSOCIAL are about how the group engages with other groups: authority to self-govern, and appropriate relations with other groups. These principles highlight the need not only for individual flexibility but psychologically flexible environments. The system within which cooperation occurs has to afford the possibility of choosing wisely rather than reacting defensively in the presence of difficulties. Just as the first six principles afford the possibility of healthy, supportive relationships between individuals, the last two principles highlight the need for the same sorts of relations between groups. Psychological flexibility, along with perspective taking and empathy, allows us to move collectively in the direction of what we care about even in the presence of difficult experiences stemming both from inside and outside our groups.


Bond, F. W., & Bunce, D. (2003). The Role of Acceptance and Job Control in Mental Health, Job Satisfaction, and Work Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(6), 1057-1067.

Levin, M. E., Luoma, J. B., Vilardaga, R., Lillis, J., Nobles, R., & Hayes, S. C. (2016). Examining the role of psychological inflexibility, perspective taking, and empathic concern in generalized prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46(3), 180-191. doi:10.1111/jasp.12355

Read more…


PROSOCIAL combines two bodies of knowledge to improve the efficacy of groups. The first is the Core Design Principles (CDP) approach pioneered by Elinor Ostrom. The second is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) pioneered by Steven C. Hayes. Both of these bodies of knowledge have roots in various academic disciplines and have recently been given a more general formulation based on evolutionary theory.

The design principles provide a functional blueprint for building an efficacious group, but their implementation requires a capacity for change, which is not always easy. ACT increases psychological flexibility and therefore the capacity for change. That’s why PROSOCIAL requires both bodies of knowledge.

The number of groups that can benefit from PROSOCIAL is potentially unlimited. For this reason, the PROSOCIAL development team has created an Internet platform that provides a home page and training course to any group, along with a network of trained facilitators for guiding groups through the course. The Internet platform also allows groups to communicate with each other. We hope to reach thousands and even hundreds of thousands of groups with this method of delivery (go here for an early example).

However, this is not the only way to deliver PROSOCIAL. Merely learning about ACT and the Core Design Principles without using the Internet platform or a facilitator can be useful, which could be called a low-end application. At the other extreme, professionals who consult with groups for a living might be in a position to deliver PROSOCIAL even more thoroughly than the Internet platform, which could be called a high-end application.

Dr Robert Styles, a social scientist, business consultant and accredited leadership coach based in Australia, recently described two high-end applications in an interview with Paul Atkins published in the PROSOCIAL magazine titled “Solid Evidence for PROSOCIAL within Government Agency Settings.” Styles had both the professional experience and the authorization to implement PROSOCIAL in several Australia’s government agencies far more comprehensively than the Internet platform’s training course. In addition, the implementations took place between national surveys of government agency employees by the Australian Public Service Commission, which provided a before-and-after third party assessment of the implementation. The improvement in the agencies that Styles worked with provides exceptionally strong evidence for the ability of PROSOCIAL to improve the efficacy of groups.

Styles learned about PROSOCIAL with Paul Atkins, an organizational psychologist at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. Paul is a member of the PROSOCIAL Development Team who helped to design the Internet platform’s online training course. My conversation with Robert explores what he did with his high-end applications that was so successful, compared to the application that we are attempting to provide to an unlimited number of groups worldwide through the online training course.

DSW: Greetings, Robert! Welcome back to PROSOCIAL Magazine.

RS: Thank you David. It’s a great pleasure to be a part of the PROSOCIAL effort and not only be enabled to do impactful work but to learn about the evolutionary nature of human behaviour. Thanks for the opportunity to share some of what l am learning.

DSW: You and Paul are both highly trained organizational psychologists with years of practical experience working with groups. What do the two elements of PROSOCIAL, CDP and ACT, add to the toolkit of the organizational psychologist?

RS: For me the two elements of PROSOCIAL provide a coherent and accessible framework for behaviour change that impacts at multiple levels: at a personal level it helps people orient their lives around what is intrinsically important to them and deal with unhelpful habitual and reactive behaviour; at the group level it helps groups manage their priorities and committed efforts in healthy cooperative ways; and, for boards, executives and regulatory authorities it provides a framework for them to regulate and coordinate the effort of various players across a system.

As a social scientist, PROSOCIAL provides an empirically validated framework to conduct applied research. My academic interest is in how our words and speech influences what we do, both covertly and overtly. This is a study of how what we say influences what we do. Paul and I have been able to show in our research how various types of utterances regarding who we are and how we intend to act on what is important in the long run predicts wellbeing. We have found that if people are able to take perspective on what they value and discern opportunities to enact them it predicts wellbeing up to 12 months later. This is essentially psychological flexibility. Together with the design principles, PROSOCIAL provides a framework for groups, and groups of groups, to do this. Groups learn to take perspective on what is important to them in the long run and coordinate their effort to bring about those valued ends both as a process and a set of outcomes.

DSW: I really like how you put all of this. It is precisely how I think of PROSOCIAL but it is exceptionally eloquent coming from you. The starting point for a group that uses the Internet platform is a voluntary decision to take the training course, which we have made as short and engaging as we can. The starting point for your high-end application was a top-down decision to implement PROSOCIAL. This meant that you had more time to work with the employees but also that their participation was not voluntary. Please comment on the advantages and disadvantages of these two arrangements.

RS: This is an important question and goes to nub of an issue that impacts on the wellbeing of people at work. Before I speak about actual examples of introducing and embedding the principles and practices of PROSOCIAL in an organization, I would like to speak about how I approach this in principle. I believe that the value proposition of an organization is no more than the sum total of each individual’s value proposition being made available to the organization. For this to happen, individuals need to know what is intrinsically important to them and how this matters in their work. Further, the normative environment of the workplace needs to encourage rather than frustrate an individual’s capacity to express what is important to them through their work. This is a matter of engagement, alignment and ownership. Individuals at all levels of an organization need to be engaged intrinsically in the higher-order value proposition, the mission or purpose of the organization; also, what is uniquely important to them has to align with what is important to the others they are working with. They have to see themselves as an important part of the system. When this happens, people in teams own their work in a healthier and more productive way. Practically, this manifests as particularized forms of autonomy support. Team leaders support their team members and overarching authorities provide support for the groups and teams across the system. PROSOCIAL provides the framework for institutionalizing this as a way of organizing behavior. Core Design Principle #8 really captures this idea.

DSW: Indeed! CDP8 is really important. It can be initially overlooked when a group is trying to get its own affairs in order (CDP1-6), but you started out working with a multi-group organization.

RS: My approach to infusing an organization with this way of working involves taking constellations of teams that share a common purpose, including the executive, together with their teams through a series of highly interactive structured workshops and coaching sessions. Transfer-of-learned processes into the workplace is the objective. Over several years I have refined my approach and have got to the point where these sessions deal with the real work of the institution, the living responses of people in teams to the demands of daily life at work. I jump in the deep end with them and employ an action learning approach to trying new behaviors in a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment. Together we learn from their resulting successes and relapses as leaders and teams strive to implement change or preserve what is already valued and important to them. I am there as a coach working with individuals from the CEO and team leaders down to team members depending on what circumstances require. I do a lot of work with groups of team leaders whose teams share a common purpose. In these sessions we explore which PROSOCIAL principles underpin the particular phase of the program we are engaged in and debrief their experience of trying new things with their teams. We also jointly set the agenda for upcoming workshops involving all their team members.

The program phases take about 4-6 months to complete. We usually start with developing the psychological flexibility of those involved which flows into setting or clarifying the broader agenda of the organization or division. This involves scenario mapping which is a big picture perspective-taking exercise where we consider the broad trends and drivers that are shaping the behavior of the organization. From this, preferred and probable futures are rendered. This enables the divisions and teams involved to set their individual purpose and goals in concert with each other. The overarching mission is fragmented in a functional way. Each team authors and owns its purpose and clearly understands how their purpose integrates with the purpose of the other teams.

Here I have taken insights from a fellow academic, Dr Matt Doolan, a Systems Engineer from the School of Engineering at ANU. He, with folks at Cambridge University, have developed what is called Strategic Roadmapping. It is a highly structured system-wide conversation designed to facilitate technological innovation. One of their first major projects was to plan 30 years food supply for England. This involved policy makers, food growers, environmentalists, transport people to name a few. As Matt and I have been working together we have observed it is not so much the plan that matters – no one sticks to a plan for 30 years – it’s more to do with the players in the system sharing a common purpose and successfully coordinating their effort to achieve that purpose. We have talked a lot about the difference between a successful and unsuccessful roadmap implementation. It has become quite apparent that those that have not been so successful have failed at implementing one or a number of the core design principles. The important thing is the structure of the roadmapping conversation. It lends itself perfectly to the work of defining the shared purpose of constellations of groups and individuals. It foregrounds Ostrom’s insights into the need for polycentric governance, which is an aspect of PROSOCIAL that, in my observation, appears to confuse practitioners aiming to do this work.

Once the phases of developing psychological flexibility, the organizational mission and shared team purposes are completed, we then work explicitly on the design principles. Teams figure out how they are going to apportion effort between teams and within teams, make decisions, and monitor how they are tracking. All this is undertaken using action learning – a cyclical process of trying something then actively taking a step back and reflecting on what and how it is working then practicing again. PROSOCIAL provides the lens for this ongoing cycle of reflection and action.

DSW: I’m glad that we’re having this conversation, because this description of your game plan adds a lot of information about your approach. Let me play it back to you in segments, with special attention to how other PROSOCIAL groups might learn from you. First and foremost, your approach seems highly iterative. Groups don’t learn ACT and the CDPs once and return to work – they rehearse them again and again in the context of the business of the group. Is this correct?

RS: Yes, the whole process is highly interactive and iterative. Not only do individuals and groups repeatedly interact with each other in response to specific questions in the structured workshops, they also reflect together on their ongoing efforts as they try new things – this is action learning/research.

Over the years providing training and consulting into organisations I have been concerned with transfer-of-learning. Oftentimes learning opportunities for leaders and employees take place outside of the work place. We are all familiar with this. They range from formal qualifications, immersion experiences to bespoke and executive short courses. They are all valuable, particularly for the individual doing the learning. But typically, those who undertake the training struggle to have a significant or lasting impact back in the workplace. The prevailing normative environment, work climate or their boss’s attitudes frustrates their effort. I’m sure this is a familiar experience for most.

DSW: It’s also a serious problem in education, where what is taught in one course fails to transfer to other courses.

RS: Indeed! In response to the transfer-of-learning issue I have tried to embed the learning process fully in the workplace and make it part of business as usual in an unusual way, if that makes sense. And what’s more, it’s actually working. I’m observing two distinct types of behaviour change as a result of employing an action learning approach to enculturating PROSOCIAL. The first relates to changing repertoires of learned behaviours, some of which appear very old and well-rehearsed. The other is a broadening repertoire of chosen responses to prevailing situations – current and anticipated. For me, these two aspects of behaviour change further highlight why ACT and the CDPs are such a powerful complement.

I encourage those I work with to reframe the notion of failure and think in terms of handling relapse. It has been shown empirically that whole cloth transformative change typically doesn’t happen. Successful behaviour change emerges step-by-step and involves the cyclical process of preparing to try – trying something new – and handling relapse between 3-5 times before a sustained change in behaviour begins to manifest.

And right here, David, I defer to your expertise and insight as an evolutionary scientist. I understand this as a form of variation-and-selection. Am I understanding this correctly?

DSW: Absolutely! B.F. Skinner described operant conditioning as a variation-and-selection process that results in behavioral change during the lifetime of the organism, similar to genetic change over evolutionary time. He called this “Selection by Consequences” and it is a fundamental insight, even if other aspects of the Skinnerian tradition were problematic. Our colleagues such as Steve Hayes and Tony Biglan have updated the tradition from a modern evolutionary perspective.  

RS: Yes, and when individuals and groups appreciate that relapse is utterly natural they are emboldened. It becomes a question of workability rather than failure in a crushing sense. They don’t lose touch with the value they are striving for in the wake of an effort that didn’t work. They say, “Oh well, that didn’t go so well? What else can we try?” This process of reflection and action has been particularly important for the team leaders. As I mentioned, I work a lot with teams of leaders who together are a team in their own right. I facilitate group coaching sessions with them in between the workshops involving all their team members. In these sessions we engage in meta reflection and evaluation. We explore how things have been working and what next, all through the lens of the CDPs.

DSW: Your work applying PROSOCIAL to multi-group organizations is pathbreaking. Importantly, organizations that use our Internet platform can emulate what you have done by creating a PROSOCIAL group composed of representatives of other PROSOCIAL groups. Your method also enables me to make an important point about the CDPs that was stressed by Lin Ostrom. They are functional principles and each of them can be implemented in many different ways. For example, monitoring is important for all groups but how to effectively monitor can be highly contextual and group-specific. Every group must therefore tinker with its own arrangements. That appears to be baked into your high-end implementation, right?

RS: Definitely! As I mentioned in my interview with Paul, in one of the government agencies we discussed, one of Canberra’s main cultural institutions, the monitoring that the Board, CEO and Executive engaged in was entirely different to that of the various divisions of the Agency, as you can imagine. These senior leaders assumed responsibility for taking a broader perspective on the work of the institution, which had them monitoring the relationships they were required to maintain with various strata of government and civil society, including the general public, schools and universities, and the other cultural institutions that shared the responsibility for maintaining and preserving Australia’s cultural heritage. On the other hand, within the various groups of the organisation, as they had been delegated more authority to self-regulate, there was an increased appetite to experiment with different ways of preserving and cultivating civic engagement through the activities of the museum. Monitoring in this space was primarily about tracking the success of various initiatives. So yes, the CDPs are baked into the work I do within organisations, the constellation of principles are implemented in utterly unique ways depending on the function of the group and the prevailing context.

DSW: As you know, PROSOCIAL uses the Matrix as a fast form of ACT training. Do you use the Matrix or some other method? Is Strategic Roadmapping different from ACT training or a form of ACT training? Is there a source where PROSOCIAL groups and facilitators can learn more about it?

RS: Yes, I do use a form of the Matrix to develop the psychological flexibility of individuals and groups; and, this is very different from Roadmapping.

I have taken the good work of Kevin Polk, who developed the Matrix, and extended it to help individuals and groups deal more effectively with competing commitments and identify choice points where they can test their understanding of challenging situations and try new behaviors. The process I employ invites participants to explore how four behaviours are working for them: 1) how they are observing and discriminating inner experience and important aspects of presenting situations; 2) describing what they see; 3) tracking their actions in relation to what they observe and describe; and, 4) valuing as a quality intrinsic to the first three behaviours – observing, describing and tracking. I see these behaviours as fundamental to the whole process of developing psychological flexibility and prosociality.

For an individual, group or entire organisation it is important they are able to observe and discriminate what is of value and track how they are performing in relation to that value. I strive to have those I am working with foreground the value that is embodied within each individual as well as infused within the preferred and probable futures they render for themselves as part of society as a whole. I use my version of the matrix to begin developing the necessary perspective-taking skills and verbal repertoire to describe value adequately at the various levels. The extent to which they can observe and describe what is of value is a necessary prelude to them being able to enact and bring it about.  

Roadmapping exercises broadly take the community through the process of answering three questions, “Based on what we value, where are we now? Where do we want to be? How do we get there?” As I mentioned, the roadmapping process we use in our PROSOCIAL work is based on Technology Roadmapping developed by Matt Doolan with Cambridge University. You will find an example of a technology roadmap we did with the Australian rail industry here ‘On Track to 2040’. Matt and I have distilled this process into a series of key questions that are unpacked in a series of highly interactive workshops involving constellations of teams who share a common purpose. This process re-renders intractable social dilemmas and complex adaptive challenges as a set of interrelated, particularised and manageable local-level challenges. As far as I know we are the only university in the world to have integrated organizational and cultural sociology with systems engineering in this way. We are still refining this part of our work and look forward to making it available to others as we do.

DSW: PROSOCIAL emphasizes the importance of forming short-term actionable goals in addition to the more general mission and values of the group (CDP1). Short-term actionable goals can reinforce some of the CDPs, such as fair distribution of costs and benefits (CDP2, for example by assigning primary responsibility for each short-term goal to different group members), monitoring (CDP4, for example by developing clear metrics for accomplishing the goal) and so on. This is also a strong emphasis in your high-end application, right?

RS: Most definitely. In my opinion it is the ongoing process of goal setting in response to prevailing contexts that is important. Maybe we need to coin a new word here, we need to become experts at ‘reaiming’ as circumstances require. There are two contexts that need to be attended and responded too on an ongoing basis. Firstly, there is the symbolically rendered preferred and probable future; and, there is the ever changing current situation in relation to that future. ACT teaches us to hold onto these tapestries of thoughts, feelings and emotions lightly and to respond to them flexibly and in a value-directed way. The CDPs enable us to ‘reaim’ effectively as these contexts change. Simply, ACT and the CDPs provide a very practical and coherent framework for making sense of ourselves in situ and ‘reaiming’ toward what is important in the long run.

DSW: I was once criticized by a business executive for using a “Ready…Aim…Fire!” approach.  I’d like to think that I was using a reaiming approach, as you so nicely put it!  Returning to polycentric governance, how do you carve a large organization into groups? Do you rely on the existing group structure or do you have a way to reconfigure the group structure?

RS: In my work, shared purpose is the criterion that defines a group or group of groups. In some instances, the group/s already exist, in others the groups are formed to assume an emergent purpose. Without a shared purpose, any work in relation to the other CDPs remains in the abstract, which frustrates transfer-of-learning. I am not fully acquainted with the online system but I would assume that if the new PROSOCIAL group formed purely to learn and then translate the CDPs into an existing social system it may not be as effective as inviting a community of groups who already share a common, higher-order purpose into the PROSOCIAL process. Such an invitation would lead the community to author and enact responses specific to their shared purpose and employ the PROSOCIAL framework to design the things they have to do – apportion effort, make decisions, monitor performance, handle conflict, work with other groups, etc. This way PROSOCIAL is not the main game. The main game is defined by what is intrinsically important to the community and PROSOCIAL serves as the enabling process. By taking this approach I have observed the principles and practices of PROSOCIAL naturally embed themselves and become, “the way things are done around here”. Taking this forward, my next stage of interaction with the Australian Public Service may involve engagement with emergent groups that share a common, higher-order purpose. For example, the creation of prosocial groups involving external stakeholders who are not formally part of the existing system. These groups will, in effect, become polycentric higher-level groupings informing the activity of the key stakeholders within the APS.

DSW: Excellent advice. For me and most members of the PROSOCIAL Development Team, ACT and CDP have become second nature. We spontaneously view the world that way, which makes explicit instruction unnecessary. Have you observed something similar in the agencies that you worked with? In other words, can you imagine ACT and CDP becoming so much part of the culture and norms of an organization that it transmits itself?

RS: When I walk around the Agencies I have work with, the A2 size posters we prepared for the interactive workshops are stuck on the managers walls with fresh post-it notes all over them. In other instances, checklists have been turned into ready reckoners inside of the team leaders’ diaries. They refer to these reckoners during important discussions and planning sessions. I have had team leaders tell me how the principles they have learned have been absorbed into the way they think and do things. So yes, ACT and the CDPs have become part of the culture and norms of the organisation and I am observing them being further particularized and propagated in quite unique ways.

DSW: This conversion has been exceptionally useful for me and I’m sure it will be also for our readers. Given your success and that awesome comparison or before and after measure, have you been approached by other agencies or the Australian government as a whole? They’d be crazy not to see that you are in a position to improve the performance of the whole nation. There’s a heady thought for you!

RS: Yes, the innovative nature of this work is being recognized. Currently I am in discussion with several government departments and in each instance they are seeing this as a fresh approach to organizational development that not only includes the best of what they are already doing but transcends it. Also, the Australian Psychological Society has identified this work as exemplary best practice in the application organizational psychology in 2016 and again in 2018.

Your comment, “there’s a heady thought” drew an emotional response. The belief that this work could improve the performance of the whole nation is not a new one. My heartstrings are tugged each time I contemplate our future as a species and the way we are failing to look after each other and spaceship earth. The social, environmental, political and economic problems we are confronted with are seemingly intractable. We are confronted by apparently intractable dilemmas—environmental, social, economic and political. I have found that PROSOCIAL reframes these dilemmas such that those I have worked with have successfully perceive possible and necessary responses seated securely within their collective moral fiber. We are neither trapped in exorable dilemmas nor free of moral responsibility for creating and sustaining approaches that maintain our collective achievement of mutually beneficial outcomes. I believe it is our responsibility to build relationships based on trust and reciprocity, and to build these core values in and of themselves. PROSOCIAL provides us with the tools to do this. We can challenge the assumption that there is only one type of institution for dealing with the social dilemmas that confront us—those institutions in which individuals are reinforced for pursuing their own short term interests—and build communities where members learn to work together constructively with a set of governing principles (PROSOCIAL compacts) that align our personal and collective values and include sanctions for inappropriate behaviors and motivators for desired behaviors that will yield positive impact in the long-run.

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A workshop in Binghamton, New York provides a proof of concept

For the last three years, PROSOCIAL’s development team has been holding workshops at the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) annual World Conference.  The workshop held last June in Seattle was the best yet, which shouldn’t be surprising, given that PROSOCIAL is well and truly launched and we could share some of the success stories that are featured on PROSOCIAL Magazine.

There is one problem with workshops held at annual conferences, however. No matter how well they succeed, the workshop participants go back to their respective homes, where it is difficult to keep up the momentum.

What would it be like to hold a PROSOCIAL workshop at a location where the participants don’t disperse? The organizers of the workshop could continue working with the participants. The first PROSOCIAL groups would be in the same area and could form the nucleus of a community of groups. Local elected officials, heads of agencies, and local philanthropic foundations could be present to learn about PROSOCIAL and provide top-down assistance to the groups that form in a bottom-up fashion.

That’s what I found myself thinking after returning from the ACBS conference in June.  With the help of a talented group of colleagues, I got right to work and organized a PROSOCIAL workshop in my hometown of Binghamton, New York, which took place a week ago as of this writing (August 17, 2016). It was a great success and serves as a proof of concept for what can be done at other locations. Here is a description of what we did, followed by suggestions for readers who want to organize workshops in their hometowns.

Laying the groundwork. As a professor at Binghamton University who is actively engaged in community affairs (go here for more), I was in a good position to organize a workshop at little expense. I could reserve a space at the University’s Downtown Center without charge and I had great staff support. If you aren’t starting out with these capacities, don’t lose heart! There are ways to acquire them, as I will describe in more detail below.

My local PROSOCIAL team. There is no point in holding a local workshop without a local team that has enough experience with PROSOCIAL to work with groups during the workshop and beyond. My team consisted primarily of my graduate students and recently minted PhD’s who are still in the area. They are highly trained in evolutionary science and the Core Design Principles part of PROSOCIAL but, like me, are self-taught for the contextual behavioral science and ACT part of PROSOCIAL. Also, most of us have relatively little experience working as facilitators of group processes. In short, you could call my local PROSOCIAL team a bit “green” (myself included!) but we still felt up for the job.

Bringing in a headliner. Although we felt capable of introducing the workshop participants to the Matrix, we decided that it would be even better to bring in a true expert and Benjamin “Benji” Schoendorff, who has written two books on the Matrix with Kevin Polk (1,2), graciously accepted our invitation at short notice. I had met Benji at the ACBS WorldCon in June and one of my graduate students, Ian MacDonald, had attended an ACT Boot Camp that included Benji as one of the instructors.  Now we could be sure that our workshop participants would learn about the ACT part of PROSOCIAL from the best! 

Getting the word out. Four weeks before the workshop, we put out a press release through Binghamton University with the title New workshop to teach ‘the science of working better together’ to Binghamton groups. We also sent out a blast of emails through our own social networks. The workshop was advertised as free of charge but with registration required. We also provided a sign-up for people who were interested but were unable to attend on that date.

So you want to throw a party. Does anyone want to come? I’m a bit on the shy side and whenever I organize an event I’m afraid that nobody will come and I’ll be blowing out the candles of my birthday cake all by myself. It was therefore thrilling when the registrations started to come in and we reached our capacity of 70 participants. Optimally, a PROSOCIAL workshop should attract three types of participants: 1) Members of groups that contemplate using PROSOCIAL; 2) Individuals who contemplate becoming facilitators of PROSOCIAL groups; and 3) Representatives of organizations in a position to support PROSOCIAL facilitators and groups. Our participants included all three types.  A diversity of groups was represented, including several campus groups, our local radio station, the Broome County Council of Churches, and neighborhood groups. Some of the prospective facilitators already had extensive experience working with groups. Representatives of organizations included the United Way of Broome County and a member of the office of our New York State Assembly woman.

Feedback, feedback, feedback. It is always good to gather feedback from workshop participants to learn about their backgrounds and expectations, which can also be used to set tone for the workshop. Here is a sample of comments that we received from an online survey given before the start of the workshop, in reply to the questions “What is your reason for attending?”  and “What matters to you?” 

“I work in three different groups, with leadership responsibilities in all of them. I want to learn ways to help these groups work better together and be able to accomplish some new goals without upsetting people. Two of the groups do not have a lot of involvement from members and I would like to change this.”

“I would love to learn how to be better at this and why some approaches work and some don’t.”

“I will be chairing a committee and will be a member of several others. I will also be teaching workshops that are extensively group work and discussion based, requiring strong facilitation skills. I would like to develop my ability to work on both a team of peers and lead a team of students.”

“[I am] Interested in learning new techniques to continue to strengthen working relationships within my organization.”

“To learn the science around working in a group, networking, and to better work with my colleagues.”

“While individual choice and action plays an important role in one’s ability to contribute to community, I believe policy and context-framing decisions and actions shaping the ecological contexts within which people develop, are more fundamental to community health and how well individuals care for, support each other and build community.”

“I am interested in learning about group interactions in order to improve our interactions as we work toward accreditation status. I am also hoping to gain a better understanding of our group’s fit in Binghamton and how to better work as a smaller group within larger entities.”

“I’m looking for ways to sharpen my abilities to collaborate with partner offices and agencies.”

“I’d like to learn from people who have thought a lot about teamwork if there are predictable tendencies and how to manage or diffuse situations that could become roadblocks. I also have the question of how to motivate and work with people not usually drawn to teams, and how to foster distributed responsibility so there aren’t laggards and hangers on.”

“To learn how to work better in a group, and to bring groups together when working on projects.”

“I would like to know how to best bring individuals together who are used to being ‘in their own heads’. I am also interested in learning how to maintain a team as they are faced with repeated change.”

“I often describe our team as a group of highly productive, skilled, and talented individuals who could work together far better than we do. We figure out how to work around one another because of the challenges we have work with one another.”

“I’m hoping to…learn more about group psychology and behavior. (I’m secretly obsessed with behavioral economics and social cognition.)”

“To learn how to work more effectively with my team to reach our goals.”

“Our organization is broken up into several units, each with its own agenda. There seems to be an “us versus them” mentality that presents itself in nearly all settings. It would be nice to learn how we can work collectively as a group to benefit our overall organization, as well as the clients, constituents, and stakeholders we serve.”

“Looking for some break through ideas and guidelines to help make students more excited about working in groups and overcome resistance to group work; also looking for ideas on how to counter social loafing in groups, encourage more equitable participation and contributions within a group.”

“I am interested in creating an environment that will encourage participation, teamwork, and satisfaction for our staff.” 

“I want to be able to make a difference and have my voice be heard. I want to be able to bring people together and learn how to overcome obstacles.”

“We would like more involvement, but are not sure how to get it. I want to be able to bring our group together to accomplish the goals we all decide on.”

“Listening, finding a common ground and allowing others to advocate for themselves." 

“I like to be helping others, I need to feel valued, I want to contribute to something larger than myself.”

“Unity and integrity when working within a group. My goal for this workshop is create greater unity and trust within our group. This will assist in moving projects along and allow for creativity on an organizational level.”

These comments were displayed in a rotating Powerpoint presentation on the screen as the workshop participants entered the room. Not only did this set the tone for the workshop, but it also signaled that the workshop organizers were good listeners and not just talkers. 

The physical layout. The workshop was held in a large room that divided the participants into seven groups, with each group sitting around a table (actually, several tables on wheels that had been pushed together to provide plenty of room for each group). Participants were assigned to their tables based on information that we had received from our pre-workshop survey, which allowed us to group them by common interest as much as possible. The tables and chairs were positioned in a way that everyone could face the front of the room for portions of the workshop that involved a speaker addressing everyone, in addition to the portions of the workshop that involved working as a smaller group.  A table with nametags and a folder of material was positioned near the entrance of the room and a book table was positioned along the side. Light refreshments were served in an atrium outside the room. The local PROSOCIAL team greeted the participants as they entered and guided them to their tables.

Organization of the workshop. The three-hour workshop was organized in much the same way as the one held at the ACBS WorldCon in June. I began with a broad introduction that concluded with a description of some successful applications, using material available on PROSOCIAL magazine (right-click here and save-as to get the Powerpoint slides). Then Benji introduced the Matrix and took the whole room through an “individual spin”. After a ten-minute break, each of the seven groups was guided by a member of the PROSOCIAL team through a “group spin” of the Matrix with Benji circulating around the room, stressing the metaphor of groups as single organisms.

Then I led the whole room through a discussion of the design principles and the formation of short-term actionable goals. The workshop concluded in time for the participants to complete a short exit survey. Afterward, the participants were invited to join Benji and the PROSOCIAL team at a brew pub a few blocks away to socialize and unwind. This social opportunity was also announced beforehand so participants could include it in their schedule planning. 

How did they like it?  Feedback collected after the workshop included the short exit survey and a longer online survey. Here is a breakdown of responses to the question “Did the workshop meet your expectations?”




And here are verbal responses to the question “What were your take-aways from this event?”

The design principles remind me of permaculture design principles and how by following simple guidelines for living we can thrive happily, effectively and with more time for the important things. “Rules” can be positively framed.

Importance of recognizing “away” behaviors and planning for “toward” behaviors in service of stated goals.

Focus on group cohesion in setting goals and identifying actions that move us towards or away.

Importance of openly discussing core purpose as a group.

Moving towards/away from goals. Recognizing the movement when that shift happens.

How I might adjust my thinking and behavior to be a more effective group member.

I like the matrix and plan to use it. It was interesting to hear what organizations use this process.

There are better and more effective ways to approach working with groups of people; find common ground in order to advance mission and purpose.

Valuable to discuss group structure and goals

List of design principles is a good tool to use with our group as a start

We as a group are doing well but could have cohesiveness to make our purpose be more effective and feel like all have a significant role in achieving the success. It’s not just a job mentality- re-evaluate to help it feel more meaningful for all employees.

I enjoyed reflecting on my actions (pos & neg) that add or remove/detract from group.

Importance of group dynamics and common goals

The need to come up with a purpose first and work from there.

This is easier to theorize than implement.

Core design principles are valuable and used widely. ProSocial has good potential.

How to use the principles

Focus on common goals Learn to recognize “away moves” Execute w/ timeline, accountability and measurement

ACT and CDP – implementable and effective.

How core design principles play a huge role in the efficacy of a group and with a few failing principles how the group can falter.

That we have a lot of work to do but there is a process

1) Mission statement importance 2) I’d like to learn more about the former Regents Academy [an earlier local projects that made use of the Core Design Principles] 3) Maxtrix can give group direction

 I enjoyed learning how to begin the communication process, how to break the purpose down, and how to identify those behaviors that take away from the group purpose.

Groups are complicated because they consist of individuals with different needs – getting to a point of agreement is crucial.

The importance of understanding group dynamics. – the value that comes from organizing group’s ideas. – always work with flexibility in mind.

Knowledge for group and community work and dynamics.

Important concepts for me: Actions/thoughts can move toward and away from our goals/desired outcome. 

Bringing those to consciousness is first step. In-group behaviours vs outside evidence of symptoms of dynamic of our group

What others perceive your group to be.

This will benefit our school of nursing and group process/theory!

Finding out what’s wrong is easy. It’s fixing individuals (self-included) that is difficult. 

Improving group dynamics is possible with effort and buy-in from group members 

Consider things that take us away from moving forward 

Working as a group, to establish expectations, goals, etc.

I can see how I can employ the matrix in my classes – especially as a part of the case studies’ analysis by student teams. 2) It was very interesting and stimulating to learn about Prosociality and the corresponding research. 3) I met new people – some I knew from before and some were new, 4) Our facilitator – Rick – was great. 5) I got some possible venues to think about refining my own research.

The matrix and the design principles.

Kind of like leading a horse to water… but can you make it drink?

How to come to clear action steps from any common goal 

It is interesting—and gratifying—that the participants found value in both of the major components of PROSOCIAL–the part that teaches psychological flexibility and the part that teaches the Core Design Principles—along with the end result of deriving short term actionable goals. 

What happens next? In my opinion, with the help of one “headliner” from out of town, my local PROSOCIAL team was able to stage a workshop that was as successful as the one staged at ACBS WorldCon in June.  The real proof of concept for holding local workshops, however, will involve what takes place after the workshop. Here is what we plan to do.

Immediately start working with groups. Several participants contacted us right after the workshop to say that they wanted to go through the full process with their groups. We will begin working with these groups and follow up with the other participants. I have funds to offer facilitation services free of charge for a limited number of groups and will discuss funding issues in more detail below.Start training more facilitators. It is highly gratifying to me that people who are already expert at working with groups find added value in PROSOCIAL—such as Robert Styles, whose outstanding work with an Australian government agency is featured in PROSOCIAL Magazine (1,2). This was also the case for experienced group consultants who attended the Binghamton workshop and reported being eager to incorporate PROSOCIAL into their practices.  Widespread implementation of PROSOCIAL in the Binghamton area will require growing the number of facilitators in addition to growing the number of groups.Add a “top down” facilitation process to the “bottom up” group formation process. Elected officials such as our New York State Assemblywoman and organizations such as the United Way of Broome County are in a position to assist in the creation and support of PROSOCIAL groups in numerous ways. Once they appreciate that PROSOCIAL can increase the efficacy of nearly any group and can also lead to more effective governance at a larger scale (e.g., interactions among groups), then it is very much in line with their missions to offer support.Spread the word with additional workshops and presentations to single organizations. Additional presentations will be easy and nearly cost-free, since there are no travel costs—yet another advantage of adopting a place-based approach to implementing PROSOCIAL.

Assuming that groups have a positive experience, then we expect PROSOCIAL to “sell itself” to other groups. Optimistically, our main challenge will be to keep up with demand. In my dreams I imagine PROSOCIAL groups multiplying in the Binghamton area like bacteria in a petri dish: 1,2,4,8,16,32,64… 

Can It Be Done Elsewhere? My team had some special advantages that made it possible to stage a workshop quickly and at low cost, but there was nothing unique about our situation and some other localities are likely to have much greater advantages than Binghamton.  It might cost more to stage the event, but a registration fee can be charged or perhaps sponsoring organizations can cover the costs. A national philanthropic organization with local branches, such as the United Way, or private foundations that are dedicated to making a difference in a given locality (every city has them) are naturals for helping to stage a place-based PROSOCIAL workshop and the subsequent development of PROSOCIAL groups.

Work might be required to develop a local team of PROSOCIAL facilitators, but this is quite easy to accomplish, especially when starting with people who are already experienced at working with groups. The global PROSOCIAL development team is in the process of creating training materials for facilitators. People who already have training in ACT or other forms of Contextual Behavioral Science will find it especially easy to become PROSOCIAL facilitators. Any city with a local branch of ACBS is a natural for staging a PROSOCIAL workshop.

In fact, what’s really needed for PROSOCIAL is something that has already been developed for ACT—a worldwide society of practitioners with training events that have been highly refined with practice and can be staged at any location. If this global infrastructure were in place for PROSOCIAL, then any group that wanted to introduce PROSOCIAL to their area would merely need to schedule a training event and their main remaining task would be to help invite people to the party. 

Where next? I have already started to organize a PROSOCIAL workshop in Oslo, Norway, where the Evolution Institute has developed a rich social network over the past three years. I will be interested to see how PROSOCIAL is received and how fast it spreads in a country with a strong and nurturing government, compared to the United States, where the very word “government” has become a pejorative. Bainbridge Island, located a short ferry ride from Seattle, might become the third location, just because some members of the global PROSOCIAL development team reside there and want to introduce their friends and neighbors to what they are working hard to develop worldwide, as I did for my hometown. The global development team stands ready to assist groups at any locality that wants to stage a PROSOCIAL workshop, with the understanding that we might need to build our own capacity to keep up with demand. A place-based workshop might not be the only way to grow PROSOCIAL, but it might be one of the very best ways.

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PROSOCIAL is founded in large part on the work of Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist by training who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. I met Lin (as she insisted everyone should call her) at a workshop in 2009, just a few months before she received the prize, and we worked together until her death in 2012. A partner in our collaboration was Michael Cox, who received his PhD with Lin and worked with her as a postdoctoral associate before accepting a faculty position in the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

Michael is prominent among those extending Lin’s legacy and was the inaugural recipient of the Elinor Ostrom Award on Collective Governance of the Commons in 2016. He is the perfect person to discuss how PROSOCIAL’s “Core Design Principles (CDP) Approach” is being applied elsewhere.

DSW: Greetings, Michael, and welcome to PROSOCIAL Magazine. It’s a pleasure to interact with you again.

MC: Thank you David for setting this up. I am excited to talk about the “Core Design Principles” as you call them.

DSW: Always self-effacing, Lin insisted that they should NOT be called “The Ostrom Principles”. The announcement of your award on Dartmouth’s website says a little about how you became involved with Lin and what you are up to at Dartmouth. Let’s get right to a discussion of the Core Design Principles. Tell our readers how Lin derived them and how you and others had expanded upon her work at the time that I began working with you. 

MC: It’s difficult to authoritatively describe how Lin derived the design principles, but I have impressions. More than anything I remember Lin talking about trying to “make sense” of the patterns she was seeing in a set of cases of community-based natural resource management. She was looking at cases of success and failure, although the design principles are most commonly seen as conditions for success, and that is how she introduced them. I do remember Lin telling me about going for walks as she struggled to find a pattern among the successful and unsuccessful cases. I suppose someone could criticize this effort for not being very reproducible, which is something we want in science. But maybe it is the case that many novel and importantly innovative efforts are not reproducible, and what is needed is an unpredictable stroke of intuition or intellectual creativity to make progress.

DSW: Did she eventually do a statistical analysis, based on numerical codings of the case studies, or was her analysis entirely descriptive?

MC: To my knowledge Lin did not do a statistical analysis in producing or testing the design principles. In Governing the Commons, the book in which she introduced them, there are 14 cases that she examines. So this would not be enough for any conventional type of statistical analysis. The commons project that she headed, and to some extent led to her writing that book, did involve several statistical analyses, I believe mostly led by her students at the time. So I would say that her analysis was not statistical, but I would also not call it entirely descriptive, as she was making non-correlational comparisons between the success and failures and making causal inferences based on the patterns she found.

DSW: I’m not disparaging this style of analysis at all. On the contrary, it is close to the way that evolutionary research takes place in the biological sciences, starting with a foundation of natural history information that is largely descriptive, which then gets refined by more quantitative methods. Now let’s focus on how others have built on her work.

MC: Moving forward from what Lin has done has required that we continue to conduct fieldwork-based, empirical social science to better understand the conditions that facilitate or frustrate effective commons management. I have worked on community-based irrigation systems for several years, and recently have begun to look at such systems in the Dominican Republic, along with some community-based fisheries here. I think this experience and approach to commons science is important. It humbles you as an institutional “expert”, someone that other people look to for answers to management and governance problems. But the challenge is that real-world systems are very complex and patterns can be difficult to detect, and that, even if we know that we want to get from A to B (where B is say the presence of the core design principles), getting there can be very difficult. Lin often talked about the importance of understanding institutional change, and to me it means understanding just this type of process. 

To complement this fieldwork-focused research we need theoretical development, which several of us have been working on in a project known as the Social-ecological systems meta-analysis database (SESMAD) project (, where we have formalized theories of commons governance in a shared database. This is, as far as I know, the first attempt at creating a repository of theoretical knowledge of commons governance. 

DSW: Your point about getting from A to B is taken very seriously by PROSOCIAL, which works on increasing psychological and organizational flexibility in addition to implementing the Core Design Principles. Next, tell us about Lin’s outsider status. As I understand it, not only was she largely unknown among economists when she received the prize, but she represented a minority school of thought within political science and wasn’t even well recognized by her university. Is that correct? 

MC: Well, I would say that Lin was well known in the discipline of political science by then, having served as the president of the American Political Science Association at one point. It is certainly true that she was not well known in the discipline of economics before she won the prize. I think her work is probably unfamiliar to most economists, as it is mostly qualitative. Lin collaborative with people who did quantitative work, but it wasn’t as if she was booting up Stata every morning and running lots of regressions like a good econometrician. The field she helped create, which I generally just refer to as the study of the commons, faces several challenges that are likewise probably unfamiliar to many economists who do not devote substantial parts of their research time to going into the field to collect primary, very often observational (non-experimental) data. These challenges include the high cost of collecting such data and the comparatively low statistical power available to those of us who try to collect quantitative data in the field. So in this way it is more like anthropology, but it is also deeply informed by economic theory, which Lin’s work was as well of course.

DSW: The CDPs are a big part of Lin’s legacy but there is also more, including the concept of polycentric governance that she developed with her husband Vincent and others. How would you describe her full legacy? 

MC: Probably foremost here is the idea that top-down management is not always required and can sometimes cause more problems than it resolves. This is of course related to the idea of polycentric governance, which is often contrasted to a system with only one center of decision-making authority. Additionally, Lin was a strong advocate of the idea that there is not one solution to all our social or environmental problems. I actually think this is a profound idea, in part because we see all around us the temptation to proclaim otherwise. In the commons field, this often comes in the form of arguments in favor of a particular type of governance arrangement (such as market-based systems like cap-and-trade for climate change or individual transferable quota systems in fisheries). But in research in general, I think there is a tendency to find the “key” to explaining an important outcome, such as personal success or individual-level health outcomes. 

Indeed, the main criticism that has been leveled at Lin’s principles has been that they seem to some people to represent a “blueprint” approach to organization: just apply these principles and you will be successful. I think the response to that, as you have articulated, is to understand that each of the principles allows for a large diversity of implementations, so they are not as precisely prescriptive as they may seem.

Then to continue to respond to your original question, I think a big part of Lin’s legacy is the idea that science is a social enterprise, and that it is not just about being precise and following protocols, but is more like a craft, involving a mix of explicit and more implicit processes and activities. Both of these ideas are embodied in the use of the term “Workshop” in name of the center that Vincent and Lin created at Indiana. For me these are actually the parts of Lin’s legacy that I still experience most directly. My professional social network is hugely important to me, as I think much of what makes work enjoyable is who you do it with, and much of this network was produced during my time at the Workshop. I often contrasted in my mind the social atmosphere at the Workshop with the advice a dean once gave me when I was a first-year graduate student, in which she described getting a PhD as a “monastic” activity (which sounded awful to me).

DSW: As you know, our academic article generalizes the CDPs in two ways. First, they follow from the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all species and our evolutionary history as a highly cooperative species. Thus, the theoretical framework can be generalized beyond theories that are restricted to political science and economics. Second, for this reason, the CDPs apply to nearly any group whose members must work together to achieve common goals. In a sense, cooperation is itself a common pool resource. Have others arrived at this insight, apart from our own effort, and to what extent has the CDP framework been expanded beyond common-pool resource groups?

MC: It certainly has been applied to the analysis of groups that are not using an environmental commons. A little while ago the study of the commons was extended to include non-environmental commons, and some of the new work has explicitly examined the design principles. I would still say that they are primarily applied in an environmental context though. In any case, I do like your comment that “cooperation is itself a common pool resource.” Lin and others used to distinguish between a first-order collective-action problem, which is based on a divergence in interests of group members caused by their shared use of a common-pool resource, and a second-order collective-action problem, which is the problem of deciding who will incur the costs involved in producing the cooperation needed to resolve the first-order collective-action problem. The development and enforcement of the institutions needed to resolve first-order collective-action problems have the quality of a public good, and individuals thus have an incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others to provide these services to the group. Why should I go out and monitor when someone else will?

DSW: Thanks! Even though the CDPs are extremely general, as originally formulated by Lin they bear the earmarks of the particular kind of groups that she studied. Has this been commented upon and has anyone proposed amendments to the core set, either for common-pool resource groups or other kinds of groups?

MC: Well, within the study of environmental commons, the design principles are generally seen as a subset of a larger set of factors that are known to affect the likelihood of successful governance. Other factors include the size of the group involved, how heterogeneous this group is along different dimensions, and whether or not there are effective and accountable leaders to motivate the efforts of regular group members. So while there hasn’t been a lot of effort to better articulate the design principles per se, there definitely has been a lot of work done to expand the list of factors known to determine success. 

DSW: There’s a lot to be said here. PROSOCIAL makes a distinction between the Core Design Principles, which are needed by most groups, and “Auxiliary” principles, which are needed by some groups to accomplish their specific objectives. For example, in a school for at-risk students that I and my colleagues helped to design, we added two auxiliary principles (creating a safe and secure social environment and making long-term learning outcomes rewarding over the short term) to the eight CDPs.  I think that the concept of a core set is important and I wouldn’t want to see it diluted by the addition of many additional factors. Take group size as an example.  It is assuredly an important factor, but does it count as a ninth principle or is it important because it influences how the eight principles can be implemented? A lot of research will be required to clarify these issues. On that point, when we first started working together, you had already assessed Lin’s findings with an additional sample of common-pool resource groups. Have there been other assessments and how strong is the empirical support for the CDP approach today?

MC: Actually I am not aware of any similar efforts to do this.

DSW: As you know, PROSOCIAL uses the CDPs in a very practical way to improve the efficacy of groups of all sorts. Has this been attempted by any other individual or group?

MC: To my knowledge PROSOCIAL is unique in this way David. That is one of the main reasons I am really excited about what you all are doing with this effort.

DSW: PROSOCIAL has a second major component in addition to the CDPs—techniques for increasing psychological flexibility taken from the applied behavioral sciences. After all, adopting the CDPs requires individual and organizational change, which is not always easy. Do you know if any other change efforts based on the CDPs also pay attention to psychological flexibility?

MC: I do not; I think it may be a weakness of the study of the commons that we are not always aware of advances in psychological research, which are obviously relevant to our own efforts. 

DSW: I’d like to end by discussing the relationship between the CDP approach and other approaches to good governance at all scales. Because the CDPs (or more generally Multilevel Selection Theory) are so general, I tend to think that all other successful governance methods will reflect the same principles. It’s not as if another core set it out there! Here is how I sometimes put it: What Ostrom showed for common-pool resource groups is that some have adopted the CDPs without needing to be taught, while the same principles are sadly lacking in other groups. It was this variation that enabled Lin to derive the CDPs in the first place. The same variation can be expected for all other kinds of groups, including formalized methods of governance. Some work better than others and the difference can be attributed to the CDPs. That said, I also recognize the importance of auxiliary design principles required for groups with specific objectives, as we have already discussed.

This way of thinking about the generality of the CDPs works pretty well for me. For example, my most recent article for PROSOCIAL Magazine describes a book titled  “Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness”, by a management consultant named Frederic Laloux. It’s a fascinating book with wonderful case studies of businesses that work well, but this is because of the CDP’s, not other principles! As another seemingly very different example, some evangelical Christian churches have adopted a social organization called a cell group ministry, in which a large congregation is divided into small groups that meet in people’s homes. Why do these cells work so well? You guessed it!

In work that you alluded to earlier (, you describe an open access database that includes many theoretical perspectives, their predictions, and supporting data. I really admire this effort, which is audacious in scope, but at least upon my first reading there doesn’t seem to be an effort to derive a common set of principles shared by the theories. Lin’s CDP approach is just side by side with many others. Please help me relate the approach you are taking with this database with my own approach.

MC: Well, the database is designed to serve as a repository of theories that have stipulated relationships between independent factors and important outcomes of environmental commons governance. The context for these theories is not exclusively community-based natural resource management, which was Lin’s context when she developed the design principles. So there are many theories that are describing the outcomes that are predicted when, say, a centralized government tries to set up a large protected area, potentially by excluding natural resource users. There are many patterns of interactions between humans and their natural environment that are important to document, and so yes, in this context Lin’s design principles become one among many such patterns that have been discovered. And finally, as I mentioned before, even within the context of community-based natural resource management, there are factors that are known to matter other than the design principles, so we needed the database to reflect these as well.

DSW: This has been a great interview! Is there anything you would like to add that we have not already covered?

MC: Nope! I think that covers it!

DSW: Thanks for your time and I’m glad to introduce you to the PROSOCIAL community with this interview.

MC: Thank you very much David, I appreciated the chance to think about all of this again.

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In summer of 2015 I spent a week at a gathering on Cortes Island, in an archipelago known as the Discovery Islands off the British Columbia coast. You drive three hours up the east side of Vancouver Island (after first getting yourself to Victoria), then take an hour-long water taxi, weaving through channels and straits before landing on Cortes and being driven to Hollyhock, a collection of cabins and meeting halls nestled in tall evergreen forests on the island’s east side.

There were about a hundred people at the gathering, engaged in exchanging a multitude of ideas that were all aimed, from different perspectives, at bringing humans into greater harmony with each other and with the planet. Each morning there was a plenary gathering in the main hall, but the afternoons were given over to free-form breakout gatherings organized by anyone who had an idea or program they wanted to present. There were at least six different venues and two sessions after lunch, so as many as twelve different topics to choose from. 

One of the reasons I had come was to talk about PROSOCIAL, so I scheduled a breakout session for the last day of the gathering. A month earlier I’d begun working as PROSOCIAL project coordinator. We’d been developing the website, but it wasn’t quite yet ready for release. 

The session was held in a circular timber-framed meeting hall nestled in the woods. It wasn’t a giant crowd, about six or seven people. One, however, captured my attention early on, when she asked if PROSOCIAL could serve as a system of governance for a group. I said it could, and furthermore, that was an aspect of PROSOCIAL that I was particularly interested in myself. 

Her name was Marika Partridge, and she explained how her group was launching a community radio station in Takoma Park, Maryland. They were looking for an appropriate and effective method to govern their new organization, and keep their mission on track. 

Marika had begun her career in community radio in southeast Alaska, where she’d grown up. She later moved to Washington D.C. and became a producer and director at National Public Radio. She founded Takoma Radio WOWD in 2011. By summer of 2015 they were finally about to get their license from the FCC. They hoped to begin broadcasting by the middle of 2016.

When we left Hollyhock to return home, Marika and I made arrangements to talk in a couple of months, to figure out the best way for Takoma Radio to try out PROSOCIAL.

It was November before we got started with the course. The arrangements we made were that I would lead the sessions via Skype from my office on the west coast, while the four of them sat in Marika’s living room in Maryland. I listened and spoke through a laptop on the coffee table.

In addition to Marika, the members of the core team are:

  • Diana Kohn, a longtime resident of Takoma Park and a community activist. She is also president of Historic Takoma, the parent organization of Takoma Radio.
  • Tatyana Safronova, Station Manager. She’s previously worked as a teacher, journalist and community organizer. Currently she also teaches audio production at the DC Public Library.
  • Désirée Bayonet, who has been facilitating audio storytelling workshops for Takoma Radio since 2013. She became involved in community radio as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, West Africa. She believes that sound and music can bring people together and build community.

As a group, they made my job as a facilitator easy. Most importantly, they already had a well-developed sense of identity and purpose, so when we started to go around the matrix in the lower right quadrant, it required very little prompting to get them to flesh out the elements of their valued goals. 

They gave permission to reproduce the matrix they created that day. They added some touches later, like their microphone logo, a symbolic conduit to their community, at the center of the four quadrants – the location of psychological flexibility.




The group matrix is at the heart of the PROSOCIAL process; it represents a merger of contextual behavioral and evolutionary science, blending the methods of ACT with the insights ofmultilevel selection theory. In my very limited experience, the manner in which the members go around the matrix together is a good indicator of their ability to function as a cohesive and coordinated group.

The women of Takoma Radio began with an effective focus on their goals and values in the lower right. However, as the discussion moved over to the away side, the process became more free-form. While I found myself at first trying to keep them focused on an orderly clockwise progression and a reasonably strict division between “in the head” and “in the world”, I soon came to see that the process would sort itself out. When someone made a suggestion for a quality to include on the chart, the group could discuss which quadrant it belonged in, which provided an additional opportunity to contemplate the differences between them. This process seemed as important as the quadrants that they finally decided upon.

We met again about a week later, after they’d gone through the design principles online, and I’d generated their summary report. As I’ve found with other groups that were relatively new, or just being created, the design principles can be a more difficult exercise, and at first perhaps less rewarding than the matrix. The members may not yet have worked together long enough to accurately assess how effectively the principles are functioning within their group.

Moving toward the values and goals on the right side of the matrix is the more aspirational aspect of PROSOCIAL. The design principles are the more practical framework on which to express those aspirations over time, giving them a solid foundation. That’s what makes them useful as guidelines for long-term governance of a group.

After Takoma Radio finished the course by setting their short-term goals, we made vague plans to talk again in the future, to see how well PROSOCIAL was working out.

So I got back in touch with Marika in March of 2016, to see how they were doing with their immediate goal, of beginning to broadcast in June. She said they were, and it was exciting. Without too much prompting on my part, she attributed some measure of their success to PROSOCIAL. She explained that they kept their mounted matrix around as a visual touchstone, and it did indeed help to keep them on track. That was heartening. So we scheduled another group Skype in April.

During that conversation, Diana, Tatyana and Désirée reinforced how effective PROSOCIAL had been, and particularly in this early stage, the matrix. It put them on the same page, quite literally, since it was all there to see. They said that while they already knew much of the information they put up in the four quadrants, the process of doing it graphically served to integrate the information effectively in their consciousness as a group.

They thought that the process of writing things down in this structured format brought issues to light that might have remained hidden, and it provided the opportunity to air anxieties that they might not have otherwise expressed.

I asked them about the design principles next. Had the principles become more relevant to their efforts over the last several months, since they’d really gotten down to work? We went over the principles to see what sort of progress they’d made.




For Principle One, they benefited from the fact that the matrix helped give clarity and structure to their mission, making it easier to communicate their mission to the community— the area reached by their broadcast signal, within the yellow circle. Above the blue diagonal line is the state of Maryland; below it is Washington D.C. They plan to offer “hyperlocal”  – Wikipedia explains that hyperlocal “connotes information oriented around a well-defined community with its primary focus directed toward the concerns of the population in that community.”

In both municipalities land use is primarily residential, though it encompasses the downtown district of Silver Springs, Maryland. Some of the diversity is evident in the varying patterns of greenery. On the Maryland side the development is generally more suburban, with larger lots and more trees. On the D.C. side the neighborhoods are more urban in character, except for the greenbelt at the left that is Rock Creek Park.

The manner in which the principles are evolving into a system of governance for Takoma Radio—both within their small group, and for the larger community they’re creating—becomes ever more apparent as you go down the list.

At the most basic level of Principle Two, within their small group, they try to ensure that the two young workers—Tatyana and Désirée—receive ample compensation for the effort involved in launching a new radio station, despite the fact that they don’t have a lot of money at this point. This may be in the form of large measures of appreciative recognition, in addition to cash. At the next level up, they want to provide some pay for musicians and engineers, so that talented people won’t be exploited and financially squeezed. They also have volunteers who take on significant responsibilities, and benefit from making positive social connections as part of the greater (and growing) Takoma Radio group.



To meet the challenges of Principle Three, they are building a system of decision-making from the ground up. This begins with forming program committees among their community members who will ultimately decide which programs go on the air; they are constantly reaching out to different segments of their diverse community to ensure inclusivity in this regard. 

One way of staying in line with Principle Four is to always keep notes at meetings, so they can refer back and measure progress. Each new DJ, whether paid or volunteer, will have a trial period, during which their shows will be monitored by members of the appropriate program committee. They will keep track of how each new member is performing, in terms of showing up on time, and completing the required functions of their role. They credit PROSOCIAL with helping them think about these measures before they opened their doors. 

For Principle Five, they are instituting a two strikes policy. If there’s an infraction of rules on the part of the DJs, that’s one strike—a friendly reminder. Two strikes means you’re off the air, but not necessarily permanently. They also have a process for getting back into the station’s good graces. Disciplinary measures are handled by the programming committees, which guards against arbitrary exercise of authority. Having all of their rules clearly written down makes them easier to enforce—for instance, a ban on hate speech which is clearly out of character with their central mission. 

They haven’t had much in the way of conflict yet, so Principle Six hasn’t really come into play. They’ve had some minor disagreements with Historic Takoma, their parent organization, but they were able to resolve them. For future needs, they have engaged both a lawyer experienced with nonprofits, and a volunteer lawyer who works with the FCC.




Principle Seven is in the process of being worked out. Technically Historic Takoma — an autonomous nonprofit –– holds the FCC license, and some on their board thought they should have the authority to hire and fire. However, Takoma Radio members feel that such a top-down process is not in keeping with the bottom-up, grassroots nature of their mission. In any case, they’ve made the necessary agreements so that Takoma Radio has the authority to self-govern in the ways that count.

Finally, Principle Eight is essential for the larger mission that Takoma Radio is all about. In addition to working out the details of their long-term relationship with Historic Takoma, everything they do is aimed at creating positive relationships with other groups —government groups, NGOs, activists, musicians, and writers. They want to be a forum for all these different points of view, as well as an organizing force for the entire community.



While they won’t begin broadcasting until sometime in June, their studio is being built, their antenna is mounted and ready to go, and most importantly, they are taking extraordinarily effective steps to expand their PROSOCIAL mission in a highly inclusive way. The principles are serving not only as a governance system for their small central group, but as a means of governing the common resource they are creating for the community at large. 

Read more…

Walter Reuther Library, WSU


“We know what we want and what we need, and we will not stop until we get it” Artis Johnson 

It started with a story on National Public Radio about Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker who was brutally murdered by Ku Klux Klan members in Lowndes County, Alabama, hours after the historic March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The radio program included an interview with Viola’s daughter Sally, who mentioned that a playground named after her mother was in dire need of attention and repair. The Viola Liuzzo Playground, located in northwest Detroit, was dedicated in Viola’s honor in 1982. This is the story of the community effort to restore the park, and the role of PROSOCIAL in the creation and evolution of a growing group of individuals that has led the effort to complete the restoration.


After a few conversations about the possibility of restoring the park, and realizing that the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma would be celebrated the following year, the author and her friend, Colette Mezza, members of the Detroit Downtown Runners and Walkers (DTRW), decided to go door to door in the neighborhood to see if there was a shared interest in moving forward. In June of 2014, small meetings began to take place in the front yards of the homes across from the park. The residents taking part live on the north and east sides of the park and are longtime homeowners going back to the 1960s and 70s. The residents on the west side appeared to be mostly renters and to this date have participated minimally. Holding the meetings in the park and in residents’ yards has allowed us to interact with the community. Other neighbors and passersby can stop and review plans and share their ideas. 

Out of these informal biweekly meetings with homeowners—Ricky, Lorraine, Jenny, and Merrick, and others—introductions were made and the history of the neighborhood was shared. Over the years the connections among neighbors have been altered, with high levels of renters moving to and from the area. There has been an influx of crime in the area, resulting in residents taking steps to lock up and protect their homes. The recent recession in Detroit, often locally referred to as “the Depression,” had taken a toll on this once thriving neighborhood, with overgrown grass taking over the park, along with signs of rising home vacancies and growing blight. Despite these challenges, this strong core group of homeowners have kept this community together.

Our small group now also included Tracie, the youth director of nearby Gospel Tabernacle Church, which had adopted the park a few years back yet was having difficulty addressing the needed park maintenance. The church is one of several that have provided much needed services to area families during the recession. In the winter months, the park-restoration group meets in the church basement.

“The group has members from different sectors of life, be it human/civil rights activist, legal, education, service, etc., but can come together collectively on one accord. The group has show two years of dedication, which at times may have cut into personal life but has still resolved itself to complete the mission.” Ronier (“DJ”) 

We decided we wanted to be proactive in how we prepared our plans prior to approaching the city of Detroit, prospective funders, and other organizations. Looking back, this decision allowed us to build some connection and trust with one another. Thus, one of the early meetings in front of a neighbor’s home focused on identifying a vision for the park, which included asking what the park would look like if everyone woke up after a miracle to find the park they wanted. Sixteen-year-old Kaleb, who lives across from the park, exclaimed, “The park will be filled with families and children!”

In another meeting we used the Matrix 1 and clarified the values of the park (unity, respect, social justice, safety, openness, honesty), agreeing to review the values with the Liuzzo family to be sure they were congruent with Viola’s values and legacy. Also noted were the questions, concerns, and doubts that arose during this process. One of the concerns included the long history of numerous promises and attempts to restore the park and neighborhood by various groups and government organizations; all of those attempts had ended in disappointment. We discussed the need to keep ourselves aware of the concerns (“hold them gently”), while relying on our values to guide us as we moved forward  These park values transferred well to our committee, which was now growing in membership and diversity (“This might be a decent time to let our values help navigate us through this conversation”). 

“We don’t get hung up on formality or have control freaks demand adherence to strict Robert’s Rules of Order. We use consensus decision making. We also manage to have fun during our meetings. If we disagree with each other (and we do!) we can do so without being disagreeable. We like each other….” Cheryl

Out of these meetings came a plan to engage more of the neighborhood by having a Movie in the Park event. Everyone volunteered to bring food, chairs, and tables to the park. The group asked for assistance from a Detroiter a few miles south of the park who’d been featured in the local paper after he turned an abandoned lot into an outdoor movie theater for his two daughters and the neighborhood kids. Dan brought his projector and made a makeshift screen out of a tarp.  When a source of electricity was not working, other neighbors offered to help, and DJ, who grew up a few homes north of the park, brought his generator. An entrepreneur who would soon be winning awards for his Motor City Popcorn start-up, DJ eventually joined the meetings and became treasurer.  He shared how he grew up playing in the park and what an incredible influence this was on him as a child.

Over the summer, one of the comments that kept arising was the need to talk with Mr. Johnson. Artis Johnson, a retired auto electrician and supervisor, has lived on the northeast corner across from the park since the early 1970s. He has been the primary person watching over the park and neighborhood. If the park needed mowing, Mr. Johnson and another neighbor would keep the grass cut. On the night of the movie, this author quickly learned of the important role Mr. Johnson plays in the community. During the author’s ninety-minute conversation with him in his front yard, nearly every person who drove or walked by acknowledged Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson was born and raised in Alabama and as a young man took part in desegregating the lunch counters. He was very familiar with Viola’s story and is dedicated to educating young people about her legacy and civil rights history. This neighborhood has long benefited from his consistent displays of respect, integrity, responsibility, and dignity. One of the most important moments in this project was having Mr. Johnson agree to join this process. 

“Our group works well because we are committed to a specific goal (to renovate the Park and the community as a result).  The goal is clear and is agreed to by the majority.”  Dorothy

Soon after, Paul Muelle, chief of natural resources and landscape architect of the local Huron Metro Parks, quietly volunteered to join the effort by developing the park design. He met with the growing group of involved neighbors and listened intently, taking notes for more than two hours while allowing everyone an opportunity to share their experiences and ideas. The primary desire was for a walking path. Many residents shared that they had to drive three miles north of the city to safely walk. The park path would allow them to walk at home. Two weeks later, Paul returned with the design and made revisions based on group feedback. Though altered slightly over the last year and a half, it remains the core model for the park. 

“We all have a common goal, no matter our backgrounds, and we work hard to see it come to light.” Robert 


Having developed our park vision and core values, along with a park design, we were now in a position to begin publicly announcing our plans to restore the park. We had adopted the name Friends of Viola Liuzzo Park, and Ricky developed a Facebook page. We created a packet that detailed Viola’s history, a summary of our group, park plans and values, and the park design. We also created a list of organizations we wished to start reaching out to, starting with Detroit Parks and Recreation. The list also included those organizations relevant to Viola’s life. At the time of her death, Viola’s husband, Anthony, was a Teamster official, and Viola was a member of the NAACP and the Unitarian Universalist Church, as well as a student at Wayne State University (WSU). We set up meetings with the Teamsters, the Damon Keith Law School at WSU, and the NAACP. 

At this same time, our little group was evolving into a solid working unit, which was steadily attracting more community members. This included members of the local civil and human rights organizations, such as Dorothy Aldridge, a former SNCC leader who marched with Martin Luther King and is a board member of the Michigan Coalition on Human Rights (MCHR). MCHR would soon after publicly support this effort.  Dorothy brings to the group her long history and wisdom of civil rights practices and values. Cheryl Buswell and her grandson, Robert, also joined the cause. Cheryl lived in Alabama and was subjected to intimidation and threats for being a white woman married to a black man. She eventually moved to Detroit and has been very active in neighborhood development. Robert is the youngest active member. Libbie Lamott Rutherford and Mary Wallace, both from DTRW, also joined the group. Mary discovered that her deceased uncle, a local priest, had officiated at Viola’s funeral. Libbie had previously worked with Greening of Detroit, an effective nonprofit promoting the development of environmental improvements in the city. She has been influential in creating collaborations with both Greening and UAW Ford. Carolyn Doherty joined and has emphasized the relationship between Viola and her best friend, Sarah Evans, a black woman who would raise Viola’s children following her death. Former residents of the neighborhood also returned and have been playing supportive roles. 

“Various ideas coalesce in our presence; one idea precipitates another. The various points of view grow each other’s ideas.” Carolyn

During this time, we reviewed Elinor Ostrom’s eight principles of effective groups that share a common-pool resource (CPR) 2. Although Ostrom’s principles weren’t a formal operational part of our approach at the time, we noted that we were using many of them. For example, we were committed to consensus-based decision making and value-based conversations. When discussing whether or not to include a basketball court in the park plans, all participants were allowed to express their perspectives. We are well aware of the painful stigmatization of young black males in the community. However, residents also have experienced having guns pulled out at the park in years past when there was a half court. We decided to delay a vote while conducting an informal study to locate publicly accessible basketball courts. It was determined there was an abundance of nearby basketball courts available. Also, we clarified that this city-owned park is designated as a playground for young children and a place for elders. After many thoughtful and respectful discussions, we voted to not include a court at this time, and to revisit this in the future.

Our group identity was further solidified when the decision was made to file for nonprofit status and rename ourselves as the Viola Liuzzo Park Association (VLPA). Mr. Johnson was elected president of the board and Colette Mezza became the association’s secretary. 

“The willingness of the group to hear each other and understand one another is a huge strength. The energy and passion that the group brings to each meeting/event is incredible. Great things can’t not happen with a group of motivated individuals like that!” Libbie

Most importantly, our identity is also influenced by Viola’s legacy. Her courageous and bold decision to attend the march; her tragic, yet heroic sacrifice; and the horrific abuse of her family by J. Edgar Hoover and racist community members in the aftermath of her death are themes often brought up in meetings when facing tough decisions. A common refrain that has developed in the face of challenges that arise is, “What would Viola do?” We note the thoughts and feelings showing up around the table and move forward. 

Another area of awareness is our relationships with other individuals and groups, including the neighborhood, city departments, Viola’s family, and the media. We often discuss how we want to respond in a manner that reflects what we are all about. This has been evident in our work with Parks and Recreation. Since January 2015, we have been working very closely with this department. It has been a very rewarding, collaborative, and workable experience. The feedback we received included praise for our diverse group collective and how much project preparation we have accomplished. Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) is installing bioretention basins in the park which will help prevent the flooding of surrounding residential properties. VLPA and Greening, working with DWSD, will lead community plantings in the basins. The project has also benefited tremendously from the current vision of the city government to promote the redevelopment of area neighborhoods by restoring local parks. Recently, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan announced the city’s plan to restore Viola Liuzzo Park this year.

During discussions of Ostrom’s principles, we agreed we scaled strongly in most areas, including: monitoring, polycentric governing, right to self-governance, and proportional costs and benefits. The only Ostrom principle we were unsure about was graduated sanctions. We agreed to review our use of the eight principles in the future. Full disclosure: the author has been trained in PROSOCIAL practices and has been open about this in our group. I refer to this project as “PROSOCIAL-lite” as I am an active member. When asked what fellow group members believe the roles of the author are in the group, some feedback included: liaising with some city departments and organizations, keeping our often-passionate conversations on track, and reminding us of our access to values when needed.

“The effectiveness of the Viola Liuzzo Park Association is built on listening and trust: a willingness to listen to ciews outside of yourself and trusting that strangers, with completely different backgrounds and life experiences, have the same heart and passion as yourself. It’s belief in the same goal. It becomes a family affair…” Colette 

As the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March and the signing of the Voting Rights Act approached,  we discussed ways to introduce our park restoration plans in the service of celebrating these historic events and promoting Viola’s legacy. We collaborated with WSU, the Teamsters, UAW Ford, and others to bring the Liuzzo family to Detroit to accept, on behalf of Viola Liuzzo, the first-ever posthumous honorary degree bestowed by WSU. Events were held throughout the area recognizing the activist, including a party in the park celebrating what would have been her 90th birthday, attended by United States congressional representative John Conyers. Local media covered many of these events, and a front page story on Easter morning in the Detroit Free Press highlighted Viola’s legacy, the park restoration plans, and our organization. (Detroit Free Press Article)

One of the most moving experiences was the opportunity to meet Viola’s children: Penny, Mary, Anthony, and Sally (their brother, Tommy, could not attend). Both the suffering they endured following their mother’s murder and their perseverance in the face of unbelievable stigmatization by others over the last fifty years have been sources of inspiration for our group.

Viola’s story continues to influence our group process as it has drawn people wanting to become connected to the project. City of Detroit officials share how they are reading books on Viola and viewing Home of the Brave, the 2004 documentary about her story. State representative Leslie Love was so moved she convinced her colleagues in the local Congressional Black Caucus and the Michigan legislature to support the allocation of state funds for the park construction.

“We are willing to not only share our thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, but listen to others share their thoughts, beliefs, and opinions so the park and Viola’s memories are representative of the greatness of support within neighborhood communities. 

“The VLPA blends talents of many people who take time to learn about many topics from developing letterhead and fundraising to developing an entire park.  This association is learning and fostering creativity to better one community park, and along the way, positively including so many others.

“VLPA is awesome because of the diversity within the group to share, listen, agree, and even agree to disagree, and positively move forward, while including as many people as possible, within the community to build a playful park with a powerful representation of the courage and dedication to civil rights of Viola Liuzzo.”  Mary

“What makes VLPA a fantastic group is the natural loving spirit and respect we have for the community and each other that drives us to move forward.” Tracie

With the current emphasis in Detroit on community collaboration, VLPA has partnered with Greening of Detroit to create a one-mile walking and biking path connecting the Viola Liuzzo Park to nearby Gorham Park. In response to a recent rash of violent deaths of eight young children, three of whom lived within a mile of the park, we are exploring what we want our role to be in the community in both acknowledging these tragedies and promoting a reduction in violence and healthier engagement in life. 

We are currently working on plans for a major event to be held later this year to celebrate the new park, Viola’s patriotic stand, and the coming together of this community.

The Viola Liuzzo Park restoration is pure collaboration, commitment, dedication, service, community.

It’s Detroit. It’s Viola. It’s love.



The Detroit Free Press

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by Rebecca Koomen - Postdoc, Max Planck Institute

United States President Donald Trump sparked outrage last year when he announced that  the US would pull out of the Paris climate agreement. The decision  frustrated world leaders because it  undermined the process of global cooperation, setting a  bad precedent for future agreements to unify countries in the effort to avoid climate disaster.

This is an example of a very common social dilemma, called a common-pool resource (CPR) dilemma. When a natural resource is open access, such as fish in a lake, everyone has to limit the amount they take individually in order to sustain the resource over the long term.

But if some people don’t cooperate, for example by overfishing or pulling out of a global climate agreement, they risk collapsing the resource for everyone else, leading others to follow suit.

Our research, published today in Nature Human Behaviour, found that some six-year-old children are capable of cooperating to sustain a CPR dilemma using strategies resembling those of the most successful real-world solutions by adults.

From tragedy to hope

Back in the 1960s, economists believed this type of environmental dilemma to be unsolvable, famously labelling these competitive traps as the tragedy of the commons.

More recent  work by Nobel laureate  Elinor Ostrom tells us that we do actually have the social skills necessary to cooperate and avoid environmental tragedy, when we can  communicate and come to  fair agreements about how a resource should be divided.

If we fail to find cooperative solutions to these dilemmas, we risk facing disastrous environmental outcomes. Understanding our behaviour and the conditions that are most likely to lead to cooperation could better prepare us to create solutions in the future.

For this reason, myself and my colleague, Esther Herrmann, at the  Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, recently set out to explore the roots of human behaviour in CPR dilemmas.

We looked at how children deal with such a dilemma in the laboratory in order to find out if these basic social skills are already present in developing children. Because children are not yet exposed to as much environmental information as adults, we asked: are children are able to spontaneously use these skills in a novel context to avoid resource collapse?

A magic water game

To test the social behaviour of pairs of six-year-olds in a CPR dilemma, we created an apparatus that mimicked a renewing, but collapsible common-pool resource, “magic water”. The water was slowly pumped from a clear container at the top of the apparatus into a clear cylinder, where it became accessible to the kids for the taking.

Each child and their partner had a clear box in front of them with a set of buoyant eggs inside. They used the magic water to float eggs to the top of the boxes and could then trade their raised eggs for candies at the end of the game. To collect magic water, children could turn an individual water tap on and off whenever they pleased throughout the game, which looked like this:


This image shows a pair of kids playing the common-pool magic water game. Each child could use the magic water to collect eggs they could exchange for candies, but if either one or both took too much water at any given time, they risked collapsing the resource. In order to get the most magic water possible, kids had to work together to sustain it, much like a real-world environmental dilemma.

There was a trick to it though: If either one or both children took too much water at any given time, they risked collapsing the resource which meant no one could get any more. To produce resource collapse, we put a bright red cork into the cylinder where children harvested their magic water. When this cork fell with the water level to a red threshold near the bottom of the cylinder, a magnet mechanism engaged, pulling out a plug at the bottom of the cylinder, dumping all the magic water into a bucket below, out of reach of the children.

Although kids were much more successful at sustaining the magic water when they had their own independent source – instead of a shared (open access) source – about 40% of pairs did find a way to sustain the magic water together. This means partners collapsed the water in the majority of trials, earning fewer candies because they succumbed to the competition of the game. As we know from research with adults in CPR dilemmas, success is far from guaranteed, owing to the competitive nature of this type of dilemma. But, the number of children who did manage to sustain the water shows these skills develop early. Our challenge will be to find ways of fostering these successful behaviours.

For the pairs who managed to avoid resource collapse, some social patterns emerged, and interestingly, these patterns resemble the successful strategies used by adults in real-world CPR dilemmas.

Children’s strategies resemble those of successful adults

One pattern to emerge was a series of verbal rules many of the kids spontaneously came up with and enforced on each other.

The most successful pairs were the ones that made inclusive rules that applied equally to both partners – like “now we both wait until the water rises and then we’ll both take a tiny bit!” – rather than the unilateral rules made up to benefit a dominant child, enforced at the expense of his or her partner.

Systems of rules generated, monitored and enforced by local communities are also some of the most effective strategies for adults in real-world and laboratory CPR dilemmas. For example, many lobster fishing communities in Maine have developed local systems of mapping fishing territories throughout their accessible waters which determine who is allowed to fish where, and when.

Another pattern evident in the successful sustainers’ behaviour was a tendency for partners to have similar or equal numbers of eggs at the end of the game. In fact, partners who collected more unequal amounts of eggs tended to collapse the magic water more quickly. 

This is a pattern also seen in experiments with adults – we fare better when we can establish fair resource access and equitable risk management among stakeholders. 

Of course, determining what is fair in the global effort to curb the effects of climate change is more complex than a face-to-face game of common-pool magic water. But this work shows that the basic social building blocks needed to avert the tragedy of the commons develop and can be applied early.

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In his PROSOCIAL Magazine article titled “The Design Principles Evolve Naturally”, Alan Honick describes how a group of stakeholders who couldn’t agree on anything came together to manage a forest ecosystem in Oregon. Without anyone coaching them, they spontaneously adopted the Core Design Principles that are formally taught to groups by PROSOCIAL.

Another example of the Core Design Principles evolving “naturally” has been brought to my attention by Benjamin (“Benji”) Schoendorff, founder of the Contextual Psychology Institute and a leader in the use of the Matrix as a rapid form of Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), which has been incorporated into PROSOCIAL as a way to increase a group’s psychological flexibility (go here and here for more).  In this case the setting is the workplace rather than the wilderness, but the story is much the same—a model of cooperation, productivity, and well-being emerging like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes of the soul-sapping business environment that makes so many people want to take their job and shove it. 

You can read all about it in a book titled “Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness”, by a management consultant named Frederic Laloux. An enthusiastic foreword is provided by Ken Wilber, a name that is likely to carry a lot of weight with some readers but not others, a point to which I will return.  Laloux uses a case study approach to illustrate an advanced form of consciousness and social organization that he calls “Evolutionary”. He also calls it “Teal” in a color-coding scheme that is useful for contrasting with other stages of consciousness and social organization. If you are scientifically inclined and your Woo-Woo alarm bell is beginning to ring, bear with me. 

The companies described by Laloux span diverse business sectors and range in size from 100 to 40,000 employees, so Teal businesses are not confined to a narrow niche market. Whatever one might think of Laloux’s theoretical and inspirational framing in the first part of his book, Teal businesses accord beautifully with the theory underlying PROSOCIAL, including the following:

  • The overarching metaphor is that a business organization is a type of organism.
  • Small groups are a fundamental social unit within the larger organization.
  • The small groups are provided with an exceptional degree of authority to govern their own affairs (CDP7) and implement CDP1-6 exceptionally well.
  • Relationships among groups within the larger organization reflect the same principles (CDP8).

I highly recommend this book to readers of PROSOCIAL Magazine and thank Benji for bringing it to my attention. I won’t spoil the fun of learning about the remarkable details in companies as diverse as Morning Star, which processes tomatoes in America, to Buurtzorg, which delivers health care to neighborhoods in the Netherlands. For the rest of this article, I want to reflect on what it means for the Core Design Principles to evolve “naturally”.

The first and most obvious point to make is that the Core Design Principles usually don’t evolve in the modern business world, naturally or any other way. That’s why the companies described by LaLoux are so unusual. Special conditions were required for them to evolve into Teal businesses.

A second point is that each company’s path to a Teal social organization was highly idiosyncratic. All of the founders were offended by the standard business model and bold enough to try something radically new, but their efforts were informed primarily by their personal experiences and what seemed like common sense to them. As far as I can tell by the information provided by LaLoux, none of the founders knew or cared about any formal theory of human nature and society. Neither did they think about adopting a scientific methodology to study and improve performance. 

A third point is that despite their different paths, the founders did converge on a common worldview that differed radically from the standard business worldview. Here is how Dennis Bakke, co-founder of the energy production and distribution company AES, describes the difference.

Standard Business Worldview

  • Workers are lazy. If they aren’t watched, they will not work diligently.
  • Workers work primarily for money. Hey will do what it takes to make as much money as possible.
  • Workers put their own interest ahead of what is best for the organization. They are selfish.
  • Workers perform best and are most effective if they have one simple repeatable task to accomplish.
  • Workers are not capable of making good decisions about important matters that affect the economic performance of the company. Bosses are good at making these decisions.
  • Workers do not want to be responsible for their actions or for decisions that affect the performance of the organization.
  • Workers need care and protection, just as children need the care of their parents.
  • Workers should be compensated by the hour or by the number of “pieces” produced. Bosses should be paid a salary and possibly receive bonuses and stock.
  • Workers are interchangeable parts of machines. One “good” worker is pretty much the same as ay other “good” worker.
  • Workers need to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Bosses need to hold them accountable.

AES Worldview

  • People are creative, thoughtful, trustworthy adults, capable of making important decisions.
  • People are accountable and responsible for their decisions and actions.
  • People are fallible. We make mistakes, sometimes on purpose.
  • People are unique and want to use their talents and skills to make a positive contribution to the organization and the world.

LaLoux rightly emphasizes a connection between a given worldview, or form of consciousness, and the social organization(s) likely to arise from the worldview. A company guided by the AES worldview will not inevitably adopt a Teal organization, but this outcome is much more likely than a company guided by the standard business worldview. To summarize: The “naturalness” of any given practice depends upon one’s underlying worldview, but there is still plenty of variation in the practices that can result from any given worldview, which can be selected upon based on their consequences.

Where does one’s worldview come from? Can we be more systematic about establishing a given worldview, rather than each person following his or her own idiosyncratic path? Can the worldview underlying a Teal organization be justified scientifically? That is what LaLoux attempts to accomplish in the first part of his book, building upon the work of Ken Wilber and likeminded authors.

Wilber is the author of “A Brief History of Everything” and many other books. He is described as the most widely read and translated author on consciousness studies in the world—yet he operates almost entirely outside the Ivory Tower. Few of my academic colleagues take him seriously or know about him at all. Something else about Wilber is that he wants to create a spiritual system in addition to a synthesis of knowledge. In other words, his writing is intended to inspire people to act, which earns him a large following outside the Ivory Tower but makes my academic colleagues squirm. They prefer to study knowledge purely for knowledge’s sake. 

The upshot is that the first part of LaLoux’s book is likely to be embraced by some readers but dismissed by many others as New Age nonsense. Is there any real scientific justification for the worldview underlying a Teal organization? As it turns out, I have a lot to say on that subject, including an ongoing dialogue with Ken Wilber himself.

First, some background: If anything qualifies as a theory of everything, or at least a theory of every living thing, it is evolutionary theory. As the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky declared in 1973, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.  This boldness was confined to the study of nonhuman species for most of the 20th century, but now it is expanding rapidly to include all aspects of humanity, fulfilling Darwin’s original vision. Thus, evolutionary science as a whole is converging upon Wilber’s individual quest to derive a theory of everything, which required him to drop out of college altogether in the 1970’s.

Second, there is nothing wrong with wanting to inspire people and move them to action! Even the pursuit of pure knowledge is justified on the basis of the need for pure knowledge to make wise decisions. It is naïve to expect a strict division of labor between knowledge producers and knowledge appliers. Anyone who holds such a view does not occupy the moral high ground.  The science underlying PROSOCIAL is based on a position called Functional Contextualism and for this reason is called Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS). It is derived from a philosophical tradition called Pragmatism that was developed by thinkers such as William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Pierce, and John Dewey, who were directly inspired by Darwin’s theory. In short, a contextual behavioral scientist would not (or at least should not) be embarrassed or dismissive of Wilber’s attempt to move people to act on the basis of a synthesis of scientific knowledge. 

It therefore remains to evaluate the synthetic efforts of Wilber and likeminded thinkers from a modern scientific (and especially evolutionary) perspective. Based on my own examination, I’m pleased to report that while Wilber can be accused of being an extreme generalist, he is committed to methodological naturalism and stays away from the Woo-Woo (by which I mean flagrant departures from factual reality) that is often associated with New Age thought. His four-quadrant Kosmos (not to be confused with the four-quadrant Matrix, although it is interesting to compare them) is very helpful for distinguishing the individual (top half) from the collective (bottom half) and the life of the mind (left half), which can accommodate multiple truths, from the physical world (right half), which can admit only one truth (e.g., mountains existed before people). I find the Kosmos easy to translate into modern evolutionary terms.

Other aspects of Wilber’s thought are more problematic, including a typology of stages of human history that is conflated with stages of individual human development. For example, I cringed when LaLoux, following Wilber and others, compared small-scale hunter-gatherer societies (a supposed early stage in human history) with the psychology of babies: “There are only a few remaining bands of people operating from this paradigm in the world today. However, child psychologists study what amounts to the same stage in newborn babies, who engage with the world via a comparable form of consciousness, where the concept of self isn’t yet fully separate from the mother and the environment.” This is a whopper that would cause most of my academic colleagues to stop reading further. 

Apart from obvious stages of individual development (e.g., the transformation from a tadpole to a frog or tooth development and puberty in mammals) historical and psychological stage theories tend to be problematic from a modern evolutionary perspective. However, it is not my purpose to attack Wilber or LaLoux for the occasional whopper. I would rather join them in an effort to create a scientific worldview that leads to human thriving, tossing out the whoppers as we proceed.  My dialogue with Ken Wilber and like-minded thinkers began a year ago and continues.

What does all of this mean for readers of PROSOCIAL Magazine? First, it means that we have some detailed case studies of prosociality evolving “naturally” in a workplace environment to learn from, similar to the forest management example provided by Alan Honick. Reinventing Organizations is well worth reading for the case studies, regardless of what you might think about the Wilberian framing.

Second, we have shown that what evolves “naturally” depends critically on the underlying worldview, a point also stressed by LeLoux.

Third, the science behind PROSOCIAL provides an even stronger foundation for  Teal organizations than LaLoux’s Wilberian framework. Even better, PROSOCIAL is designed to engage groups in ongoing scientific inquiry.

Finally, PROSOCIAL provides an opportunity to engage in deeply philosophical issues while improving the performance of groups in a practical sense. I find this combination doubly intoxicating.

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