Shared Space Supports Collaboration for Innovation

Fellow Cutter consultant Jeroen van Tyn from writes:

Christopher, I’m writing a Cutter Benchmark Review on IT Trends, and one of the trends relates to innovation.  I remember a conversation we had at the Cutter Summit earlier this year, and I wanted to reference something you shared with me.

You made a statement something like, true collaborative innovation happens when the means of collaboration is also the product of collaboration.  Your example was a composer and lyricist collaborating to write songs, where the means and product of collaboration were the written music & lyrics on the pages in front of them.  Did I get that right?  Was it Rogers and Hammerstein in your example, or who were they? Thanks, Jeroen van TynImage of No More Teams

What you refer to comes to me from the work of Michael Schrage and his concept of “shared space.” Here are two identical books about it — word for word as far as  can tell — with different titles, so don’t buy them both like I did.

Schrage, M. (1990). Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration. Random House. (I didn’t find a cover image for this one, for the other books mentioned in this post, click on the image to go to

Schrage, M. (1995). No More Teams. Currency.

Schrage’s research at the MIT Media Lab on collaborators throughout history suggests that our sometimes-blank-slate-approach to teamwork today isn’t natural. He says that collaboration usually starts when one party shows another party something she’s working on and the other party starts working on it with her. Hence the thing the first party brought to show is the shared space. The issue is that collaboration doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens about or on something, and that something is the shared space.

Illustration supporting shared space concept Consider this illustration. On the left are two people talking without necessarily collaborating, i.e., words are ephemeral, floating around like soap bubbles until they disappear. Nothing necessarily altered in either mind, no shared mind. On the right are two people working on something together. As they talk, they modify the thing. As they modify the thing, they talk. As they talk and modify the thing, both minds are changed, i.e., shared mind through shared space.

It definitely explains and labels something I’ve witnessed in my practice and studies, and the metaphor is additive. I consider shared space to be one of the newer truly useful additions to the body of literature on teamwork and collaboration.

The shared space can be a piano and blank sheet music, a al Rogers and Hammerstein as you alluded or the Gershwin brothers, or it could be code, or a case room in a law firm devoted to a case throughout the litigation project, or the Christmas tree my family decorated Sunday, or a whiteboard or flip chart during a meeting.Image of Serious Play

Shrage has gone on to extend his work on shared spaces to rapid prototyping (in the spirit of Stephan Tomke’s, Experimentation Matters) and innovation.

See his book:

Schrage, M. (1999). Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate. Harvard Business School Press.

and Tompke’s:

Image of Experimentation MattersThomke, S. H. (2003). Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation. Harvard Business School Press.

One of my rules of thumb is that if I’m attending a meeting and no one is usingImage of How to Make Meetings Work shared space, I’ll stand at the white board with a marker in my hand and write whatever comes to mind (about the conversation) or what people tell me to right about key information, decisions, parking lot items, and such. Interaction always becomes more effective when I do that. Doyle and Strauss wrote about that in their classic — and still the best book ever on meeting management — How to Make Meetings Work:

Doyle, M. (1986). How to Make Meetings Work. Jove.


Posted in Collaboration, Recommended Resources on 12/14/2006 05:03 pm
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