Think Together: Mindmeld Tools

Pixar, Apple, Google and other leading players spare no expense when allocating resources to cross-discipline teams that collaborate on hard, revenue-critical problems. Have you seen the new Apple campus?'s essentially a collaboration spaceship!

But what about the rest of us? ...we mostly toil away in endless drab conference room meetings, muttering into speakerphones.   For teams in "average" organizations, the creative brainstorm and collaboration process is very hit or miss. (But it doesn't have to be that way.)

Take-away: In most organizations... collaboration design is not on the radar. Ironic, considering how much time we spend on meetings and team efforts!

Team fabric brought to you by: Steve Jobs

Pixar has an extraordinary track record of movie industry success... due in large part to their very sophisticated collaboration culture that extends from the campus level to the central atrium and office structure that Steve Jobs thoughtfully designed. Many aspects of the new Apple "spaceship" campus in Cupertino show Jobs' stamp of collaboration design thinking.

Emergent collaboration

Steve Jobs designed the office structures and atrium at Pixar so it forces people with different skills and viewpoints to rub elbows and socialize in ad hoc encounters. The Pixar executives then developed a meeting culture in this space that mandates peer-to-peer exchanges between people with different skillsets and roles within the organization. Managers facilitate equal participation... everyone in the room contributes before the meeting can be adjourned

Safe enclaves

According to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar/Disney Animation:   A collaboration braintrust is defined as a group of top people who get together and solve problems with candid feedback in a safe environment.

"We remove the power structures from the room to make it safe for the leader of the project to listen better because there is no existential threat."

Explaining vs doing

When Pixar and Disney merged, Catmull says it took Pixar about 4 hours to explain their collaboration framework and 4 years to deploy it in the Disney context.

Collaboration design... not trivial stuff!

Take-away: Even with executive buy-in at the very top of the org, awesome mindmeld meetings are a difficult strategic undertaking.

So what about mindmeld meetings on a somewhat smaller and more focused scale?

Google facilitated sprints

The Google Ventures incubator holds 5 day workshops (documented in the book Sprint by Jake Knapp) to refine the product offerings of high-velocity start-ups, e.g., Slack, Medium, Nest, etc.

A GV sprint workshop is a series of structured discussions and brainstorms that iterate into a working prototype and well-conceived business model. These highly focused and choreographed facilitator mindmelds produce remarkable results but they require a rare set of moderation capabilities and so are not going to happen on the average day in the average org.

Magic mindmelds!

Pixar, Google, Apple and other best in class players have redefined meetings to be a spectrum of peer-to-peer, face-to-face encounters spread across a campus collaboration fabric that includes socially-enhanced building grounds, offices, common spaces, atriums and meeting protocols.

Take-away: Bringing structure and efficient process to meetings is a special and elusive abillity... get it right and you can author a book!

So what about mindmeld meetings for the rest of us... what's really possible? Can we somehow get better tools and meeting process in a system that's practical in the "real world."

The way forward...

The rest of this article looks at some success I've had using a unique mash-up of advanced collaboration (Group Intelligence) software and facilitation methodologies that draw on a range of cognitive and social science disciplines. Here's the key success indicators:

  • Enable cost-effective cross-discipline collaboration and problem solving...

    for everyone!

  • Create ad hoc collaboration encounters...

    for remote and local users!

  • Help managers listen in a radically open way...

    remove power structures when necessary!

  • Provide non-intrusive shared thinking processes and patterns...

    software augmented facilitation!

  • Mitigate a wide range of fear-based group dynamics...

    some contributions should be anonymous!

  • Support diversity of views. Overcome differences in vocabulary and mental models that various silos have...

    tags and taxonomies can help!

  • Integrate content and workflow artifacts with collaboration process...


With the resources discussed below, the "faster, better, smarter" results of a Pixar mindmeld meeting or a Google incubator Sprint can be duplicated with a mix of collaboration software, facilitator methodologies and "group intelligence" process (examples below).


The approach to "virtual mindmeld meetings" described below is based on my work with senior facilitators and collaboration experts over the past 10+ years. This solution is an affordable, practical collaboration software platform that adapts to a very wide range of team problem solving exercises. Key building blocks are principles from meeting facilitation and group intelligence tools:

Capturing the facilitator process

Facilitators are experts with qualitative team process skills that overcome bad group dynamics and mental gridlock in meetings and conferences. Good facilitators are rare, specialized resources... not widely available in the average org but their practices and insights can be incorporated into software tools and process.

One of the key aspects of this solution is the ability to capture best practices from seasoned meeting facilitators and embed them in the collaboration server platform. Shown here are two mature and effective meeting facilitation techniques: Dynamic Facilitation and Dialog Mapping:

Dynamic Facilitation

Dialog Mapping

Group Intelligence Software

Along with techniques cherry-picked from meeting facilitation, more building blocks for the mindmeld collaboration system come from Group Intelligence, a category of team software that can move a cross-discipline braintrust through lightly structured brainstorm exercises with the goal of shared problem solving, co-creation or peer-to-peer decision making.

Group Intelligence software is way more effective than Slack, Yammer, Jive and other social collaboration tools, but the currently available forms of this software are not fully commercialized or productized.

Take-away: Meeting facilitators are expensive to hire and time consuming to train. Group Intelligence software captures the tacit knowledge of a seasoned facilitator and makes it available in easy-to-use team software.

Converge /diverge a solution space

One of the key principles of Group Intelligence is the pattern of converging and diverging ideas created by the group.

Expanding the scope of discussion is known as "divergence" in facilitator-speak. Narrowing down the concepts for discussion is "convergence" or "reduction."

Cognitive patterns of collaboration

To navigate a shared reasoning experience, team members must jointly engage in a sequence of cognitive thinking patterns that are supported by neural structures managed by the prefrontal cortex (Damasio and Damasio, 1992; Holyoak and Kroger, 1995).

Diverge — move from having fewer concepts to having more concepts.

Converge — move from having many concepts to focusing on a few concepts deemed worthy of further attention.

Organize — move from less understanding to more understanding of the relationships among concepts.

Elaborate — move from having concepts expressed in less detail to having concepts expressed in more detail.

Abstract — move from having concepts expressed in more detail to having concepts expressed in less detail.

Evaluate — move from less understanding of the value of concepts for achieving a goal to more understanding of the value of concepts for achieving a goal.

Build Consensus — Move from having less agreement among stakeholders to having more.

Initial concept input

A mindmeld elicitation session starts with an input tool that gathers concepts from a local or distributed team of knowledge workers and domain experts. In this example, team inputs are "bucketed" in SWOT categories, but the categories are completely flexible and can be different for every exercise.

Multi-scale rating tool

After concepts are received from team members, subsequent exercises organize, rank, rate and prioritize the items.

Check-off exercise

The multi-check tool lets users prioritize items they have defined in a previous exercise.

Science of collaboration

Under the covers, team problem solving exercises are assisted with patterns drawn from cognitive science and Group Intelligence research. One model for shared cognition is based on thinklets, small units of useful, repeatable collaborative thought process. Each block in this diagram represents a thinklet.

(A Conceptual Foundation of the ThinkLet Concept for Collaboration Engineering; Briggs, et. al.)

Thinklet examples

This is a partial list of thinklet collaboration patterns. A group intelligence session comprises a set of thinklets organized into a generative flow with a tangible outcome. Thinklets are: "Named, packaged facilitation strategies that create predictable, repeatable patterns of collaboration."

(Collaboration Engineering: Foundations and Opportunities, Gert-Jan de Vreede, et. al.)

Group intelligence exercise

Shown is a guided cybersecurity attack and penetration exercise. The same process flow could be applied to marketing, product design, risk management, decision support, health care, etc.

Different thinklet shared thinking patterns can be used at each step in the collaboration process.

Final take-away: In the fields of cyber-security, healthcare, finance, marketing and risk management, the solution shown above has achieved good results because it integrates key practices of leading meeting facilitators with the software tools of Group Intelligence... enabling "Pixar-quality" mindmelds in average orgs on a regular basis.

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A similar info page where "strong tie" social network theory and virtual knowledge exchange is applied at a larger scale to online communities: ... organic reach with influence here we come!!

Thanks to Bob Briggs, Karen Chenette, David Tobey, David Boje and the many other PhD researchers, collaboration software experts and shared thinking advocates that I have communed with over the past 20 years.

Copyright © Steve King 2016