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A powerful emerging language for Group Process?

Pattern Language DeckThe day before the Cascadia NCDD gathering last November, I was sitting with a dozen process folks in Portland playing with a set of 78 cards describing the underlying dynamics of good group process.  The draft card set was being developed as guidance for meeting planners, hosts, facilitators and participants. The cards had names like All Grist for the Mill, Expressive Arts, Listening, Moving Towards Alignment, Purpose, Transparency, The Whole System in the Room, etc.

Like others in that November work session, I had 7 cards in my hand, each with an evocative picture and a short, compelling description of one of those dynamics.  After listening to NCDDer and project leader Tree Bressen read a facilitation case study, we all examined our hands for relevant cards.  We shared which dynamics we thought were well handled in the case study we’d heard, and which were poorly handled.  As we used those cards to reflect on that meeting, I had an epiphany….

More about that in a minute.

The project I was working with is called “A pattern language for group process.”  It is inspired by the work of a team led by architect Christopher Alexander in the 1970s articulating the design elements that give a community “the quality that has no name” (aka aliveness, wholeness, spirit, etc.).  From a designer’s, planner’s and architect’s perspective, a pattern language articulates what would make a community more enjoyable, vital, productive, and healthy.

The pattern language Open Space session at the NCDD Portland event in November 2011 was a popular one.

The team created a list of about 250 such design elements to pay attention to, described them and their rationales in accessible, compelling detail, and then linked them all into a coherent, useful and truly fascinating whole, which they published in the book A PATTERN LANGUAGE.

The idea of creating a pattern language to describe the essential elements needed to create a functional, vibrant whole was soon being applied by others to their diverse fields and projects.  Pattern languages popped up for computer programming, classroom curricula, community organizing and other undertakings.  Following this trend, Peggy Holman and I offered a one-day workshop before the 2008 NCDD conference inviting participants to try designing “a pattern language for conversations that matter.”

One of the participants in that workshop was Tree Bressen, attending on computer via Skype.  She’d had the same impulse as Peggy and I, at about the same time.  But instead of convening a one day exploratory workshop like ours, she initiated a 3-year project to actually create such a pattern language.  I intuited that it would be a monumental intellectual and creative task but really had no idea what it would entail.

Tree undertook it with remarkable dedication and profound insight, engaging a creative learning community of dozens of volunteers on the phone, online, and in person.  Not only did they develop the pattern language but they figured out how any volunteer group could create one, and developed guidelines and software to guide others. Their work was coordinated and compiled on a new kind of wiki — Wagn — that acts like a participatory database, “wagoneered” by NCDDer and process geek John Abbe. (You can check it out at http://grouppatternlanguage.org.)

Open Space Portland SignUp picI kept in touch with the project tangentially, only occasionally diving in and out (including 3 days last week).  The 2010 work day in Portland was one of those times.

Which brings me back to my epiphany:  What I realized in that reflective “game” with the pattern cards in Portland is that this pattern language is not just a language in a metaphorical sense (because it has a “syntax” of interconnections among the patterns).  It is, in fact, a true language — a sort of common-sense jargon for our field of process practice that clarifies and transcends all our diverse methodologies and approaches, allowing us to not only talk clearly with each other across boundaries but to communicate more clearly to the public at large and even to draw in and train new grassroots practitioners.

When the pattern language is finally released as a full set of cards in its 1.0 version — probably sometime this year — we will be entering a new era.  I see this pattern language as part of the emerging shared knowledge infrastructure for our field’s “conversational commons.”  It joins the Core Principles for Public Engagement and the many other all-field gems listed in NCDD’s “Best of the Best Resources” page as one more powerful universal tool for the life-serving, world-healing, culture-transforming mission we are all on together.

Also see Tree Bressen’s April 6, 2010 guest post about the Group Pattern Language project on the NCDD blog (exactly one year ago, coincidentally!).

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Tom Atlee
Awed by the evolutionary challenges and opportunities we face as a civilization, Tom Atlee researches and promotes dialogue, deliberation, and other resources for collective intelligence and conscious evolution. Tom founded The Co-Intelligence Institute in 1996 and wrote The Tao of Democracy in 2003.

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  1. Tree Bressen says:

    Gosh Tom, thanks for your kind words and especially for seeing the possibilities in this project.

    I appreciate everything you've written here. However i feel it is perhaps over-stating to say that "we figured out how any volunteer group could create [a pattern language], and developed guidelines and software to guide others." I agree that the work we've done might well be helpful to groups creating pattern languages in other areas, and certainly the Wagn software (which pre-existed) can be an excellent platform for such undertakings. The work of creating any pattern language is immense, and i believe that any such creation, while it can draw from previous efforts, is necessarily organic and unique, so that while we can offer support, there will never be a cookie-cutter process.

    Thanks again for what you wrote and for your own excellent contributions to the project.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    As I've come to be involved with this project, what has continued to astonish me is its applicability to nearly all forms of group process — facilitated meetings, conferences, community-based problem-solving and collaborative events, information and educational events and processes, and even to a wide range of business activities, where the need for effective, empathetic and democratic learning and collaboration, and hence vastly improved process skills, is huge and growing.

    Thanks Tom for your articulate summation of this exciting project.

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