The Power of Pattern Languages: a Q&A with Dave Pollard

Photo: Gene Stull

The following is a conversation between Dave Pollard, one of the core members of the nonprofit collective that produced the Group Works deck, and sharing and political activist Paxus Calta. They discuss what these pattern languages are, why they’re important, and how they’re being used.

Why are most meetings, conferences and other deliberative processes so bad?

Seven years ago, a group of professional facilitators convened to answer that question and see if they could come up with a better way. They ended up producing Group Works: A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings, a 100-card deck of exemplary group practices that has since been used by thousands of people in over two dozen countries.

Paxus Calta: What is a pattern language, and why do you think pattern languages are important?

Dave Pollard: Organizations used to use so-called “best practices” to improve the way things are done, but their use has waned recently because leaders realized that the context in which any such practice is useful is usually pretty narrow.

A more current approach to improving processes is to collect and mine large numbers of stories about what works well in a particular discipline or area of professional practice or other activity, and then look for the patterns in those stories – things that seem to work well across a wide spectrum of different contexts and at many different scales. A cohesive set of such patterns that can be used together to improve processes is called a pattern language. The term was coined by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues who developed the first such language in the field of architecture.

To give you an idea of what a pattern is, in collaborative and deliberative work we discovered a key recurring pattern in many stories of successful meetings is Holding the Space – creating a safe space in which all participants are enabled and encouraged to offer their knowledge, ideas, perspectives and insights to the whole group. Each field has its own patterns; in activism, for example, one recurring pattern is Reframing: changing the way people talk about an issue from the way your opponents speak about it to the way your supporters speak about it.

We’ve learned that understanding and evoking patterns of exemplary process leads to better outcomes than other approaches in many disciplines, and we’ve been blown away at the diverse and powerful ways our Group Works pattern language has been used, including some ways we never imagined.

Tell us something about how Group Works was created.

We came at the pattern identification from several directions – our intuitive knowledge of “things that just worked” in many different contexts, exploring stories that more than fifty different facilitators told during the development process, and exploring well-established methods of group process (such as Open Space, World Café, and Appreciative Inquiry) to discover their underlying patterns. We used an informal consensus process to organize and distill the harvest of patterns we found.

As the number of patterns grew, we started to look for ways to categorize them, so the full pattern set would be less overwhelming to new users. When we put each of the patterns on a sticky note and started organizing them into categories, the idea of a card deck emerged, that would let users sort the patterns their own way and use them in ways a book would not allow – storyboarding an event or playing games, for example.

Although some of us are published authors, we ended up self-publishing and printing the deck through a local printer because the book publishers we spoke with didn’t really understand the idea of a card deck. We’re now in our second printing, with more than 3,000 decks in use around the world.

The 91 patterns and nine categories the group settled on

How does Group Works help meetings be better? Wouldn’t it be better to just get rid of meetings entirely?

While smart delegation can be very helpful, there’s no getting around the fact that in many cases, people need to deliberate in order to figure things out together. For governance of your state or workplace or church group, do you want a dictatorship, or do you want some form of participatory democracy? Collaborative processes can accomplish things no individual can do. They can surface (often through iterative conversations) collective knowledge, appreciation, ideas, intelligence, perspectives and approaches to action, and lead to deeper engagement and commitment going forward.

When we deal with complex situations, effective group processes allow possible approaches for dealing with the problem to co-evolve, through conversation, discussion and a combination of creative and critical thinking, with a deeper understanding of the problem. That’s how complex problems are best addressed; hierarchical decision-making, even by “experts,” isn’t nearly as effective.

Group Works was designed to enable complex problem-solving, deep understanding, and collaborative decision-making to occur more effectively. The cards can be used by the project leaders, sponsors and facilitators to map out and design a collaborative event, anticipating the various needs (process, logistics, setting, knowledge and ‘people’ issues) that might arise and applying the patterns to resolve them up front.

They can also be used in the moment to identify a need that has arisen and deal with it effectively on the spot. They can be used after an event to reflect on and assess what might have been done better, and recognize exemplary performance (e.g. we send a thank you email with an e-copy of the pattern card to participants who have exemplified that pattern in a meeting).

And they can be used as a learning, teaching, and self-assessment tool. My appreciation of group process and facilitation came late in life (after many years in corporate environments), and I sort the cards to reflect my competence at invoking each pattern, identify the “learning edge” patterns I want to focus on, and annotate my personal deck to remind myself when and how I performed well and where I need to improve.

Who uses Group Works? Are they mainly for lefty activist types or is the take-up broader than this?

The City of Calgary used the cards as a tool to help over six thousand city employees identify and appreciate their shared values as the government of a municipality. They invited staff to “pick three cards and tell us a story of you working at your best to serve citizens,” and to prioritize which patterns were most important in conducting their work.

Their Cultural Transformation Project won several awards in the field and is being studied by several other municipalities.

We were initially concerned that some of the patterns and images might not resonate with large conservative organizations. It turns out that people in these settings are some of the most hungry for meaningful ways to express their feelings and values. Executives, corporate facilitators, government administrators and planners, public engagement teams, correctional institutions, IT and knowledge management leaders, organizational development leaders, educators and other traditional groups have embraced the language as readily as housing and food co-ops, co-housers, online facilitators, permaculturalists, activists, artists, spiritual groups and non-profits. And the deck is now being translated into several languages.

Permaculturalists seem to especially resonate with the cards (the photo at the top of this article is at a ”permie” event where participants used the cards to identify their collective “gestalt” – what defined them as a group.

What are some other ways the cards are being used?

We’ve developed several games that can be used to develop and enrich group process competency. The game that is currently most popular gives each player a chance to share a current dilemma and receive consulting support from the other players using the cards.

Another application is as “group process oracle” or tarot deck, and we’ve been amazed at how much insight and inspiration such seemingly “new-agey” applications have generated.

Practitioners of particular facilitation methods have enjoyed “mapping” the patterns to their preferred methods. That is, if you had to choose 5-10 cards from the deck to illustrate your method for meetings, which cards would you choose, and how would you lay them out? Doing this allows people to compare methods in useful ways. We also have an iPhone app that allows several new applications of the language.

What have you been most surprised by since the deck was published?

The biggest surprise was that the visual and tactile appeal and novelty of the deck, and the resonance of the pattern names and images, was enough that many people wanted to buy a deck of their own as soon as they saw it, even before they really understood what it was for and how they could use it.

We’re also delighted at how users like the City of Calgary and the permaculture community have found ways to use the cards and the language in ways we hadn’t even anticipated, such as storytelling or values discernment. It’s been taken up by all kinds of groups all over the world, and despite no Amazon presence and no real marketing, it continues to sell well every month. It’s delightful to see the diversity of groups using the deck, and to discover the unique ways they’re using it.

How is Group Works relevant to the sharing economy, resilience-building, and cooperatives and collective organizations?

Where industrial-era product development and marketing are largely assigned, solitary processes, geared to create a new product and then convince ”consumers” they want it, the activities of sharing economy enterprises are of necessity largely group processes, involving a lot more listening and learning and iteration, in order to discover, explore and tap into unmet needs.

Pattern languages are designed to work in messy, complex situations where there is no one right answer, where complete knowledge is unavailable (so the “wisdom of the crowd” is needed), and where deduction and analysis alone won’t suffice to make optimal decisions. The sharing economy is replete with such situations. When we can’t control, coerce, or buy our way to success, we need to work together with curiosity, sensitivity and open-mindedness. Group Works was designed to make that easier.

The economic, energy and ecological challenges we face today similarly resist easy solutions, and will require us to work together to discover and experiment and adapt instead of trying to use brute force to resolve them. There are no simple fixes, and how well we do in adapting to these challenges will depend on our competence at group processes – such as living in community, community-building, collective learning, conflict resolution, and achieving consensus. Group Works helps both facilitators and participants in these group processes to improve both their personal and interpersonal skills.

And as the old economy continues to shed millions of jobs, more and more of us will be working in self-initiated collectives, since these tend to be more successful and stable than one-person or even family enterprises. The task of finding the right partners, and working with them effectively, competently, compassionately and co-creatively will require exceptional group process capabilities. Facilitation competence is destined to become one of the essential skills of this century.

How can we learn more, and get our hands on a deck?

Group Works is a labour of love and collective passion, and our non-profit aspires to nothing more than making enough from the deck to publicize it more broadly and be able to self-finance the next printing. While buying a hard-copy deck ($35 from groupworksdeck.org) will help us do that, you don’t have to spend a penny to use the deck. You can download a free printable deck at groupworksdeck.org/download-invitation. You can download a free zip file of all 91 pattern card images at tinyurl.com/91cards . And you can download a copy of the one-page graphic of all the patterns reproduced above at tinyurl.com/91patterns. (There’s also a $2 iPhone app available from the iTunes store.)

Please feel free to join our community online to ask questions, share your own experiences, and connect with other uses. Welcome to the wonderful world of pattern languages!

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Dave Pollard retired from paid work in 2010, after 35 years as an advisor to small enterprises, with a focus on sustainability, innovation, and understanding complexity. He is a long-time student of our culture and its systems, of history and of how the world really works, and has authored the blog How to Save the World for over twelve years. His book Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, was published by Chelsea Green in 2008. He is one of the authors of Group Works: A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings, published in 2012. He is a member of the international Transition movement, the Communities movement and the Sharing Economy movement, and is a regular writer for the deep ecology magazine Shift. He is working on a collection of short stories about the world two millennia from now. He lives on Bowen Island, Canada.

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