Guest Post: What Collaborative Workspaces Can Teach Us About Leadership

Guest post by Evan Leonard
cornucopiaIn early July I joined a number of other great thinkers and doers around the topic of reinventing management under the umbrella of the Stoos movement. Conversations were great all around. However, there was one take-away lesson for me that I would like to share. The seed of the idea was simply experiencing Gangplank, the host of the event. However, the theme echoed throughout the weekend.

Gangplank provides a local collaborative workspace. What differentiates Gangplank from other co-working spaces is that no money is exchanged for the time you spend there.

Instead, in return for desk space, phone, Internet and good company, all that is asked in return is that you find some way to contribute to the community. That could be a talk on a topic you are knowledgeable about, or simply taking out the trash. What matters is that you reciprocate what you receive with something you give.

Its a pretty simple concept, but it has transformed Gangplank from a few hundred square feet into what must be close to 6,000 square feet of working, performing, speaking, training, and creating spaces in about 6 years.

After the initial tour of the buildings, my mind was tempted to reject what I had just seen by saying things like, “Oh this is just a philanthropic thing the two co-founders do,” or “This can’t work in the ‘real world’ where people have to pay rent.” But these justifications could not withstand the reality of it all. Especially considering that the Gangplank idea has successfully spread to at least four other locations, all supported by their local economies of receiving and giving.

After having a day to reflect on this experience, there are three things I’m taking away from this:

The first is that we all have a surplus of something. The problem usually is that our individual surpluses are fallow, un-tapped. It might be an extra printer in your basement. Or those books on your shelf that haven’t been opened in years or your knowledge about starting up small businesses, or photography, or songwriting.

The second is that for this surplus to become activated it must be connected to a social container for reciprocal accounting. Each of us as individuals can donate these things, or put them on Freecycle to give away, but that’s just what we do: give them away. In these contexts there is no social boundary that invites the recipients of these gifts to find a way to return the favor.

When we donate something, we get a tax deduction. Its really a simple financial exchange with maybe some good feelings attached to it. When we give things away to the anonymous public there is nothing left afterward except perhaps some symbolic karmic coin that might be returned in future lifetimes, if your belief system lets you enjoy that satisfaction.

However, when a clear social container is in place, every deposit of goodwill you make into that container engenders more deposits of goodwill from others in the community. And this cycle repeated over time creates abundance.

It has to function this way, because if someone takes more from the community than he gives, he will eventually be shunned and not allowed to take any more. There doesn’t have to be any formal accounting system for this to work.

Our brains are hardwired for this kind of accounting. We just know when someone is freeloading, and eventually the freeloader will simply choose not to participate because no one will give to him or her anymore.

The third is that leadership in this context is about creating social container and being courageous enough to make the initial deposit. This type of leadership can be applied in any context. One doesn’t have to start an entire separate organization to activate the surpluses in each of us.

Consider the teams that you are already a part of. What needs to be done to tighten up the social container? And what have you done recently to make a deposit into that container? Are you afraid that your gift will be not be returned — or even worse, rejected?

Walking through that fear is an act of leadership, one that may bear more fruit than all of the “change” and “progress” we’ve tried to create before.
Evan LeonardI treasure exploring powerful ideas with Evan Leonard at Stoos Phoenix last month. Evan blogs at Organizing Principles. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanLeonard

Posted in Leadership on 08/07/2012 01:54 am
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