“I work with communities of place … just people who happen to live together in the same neighborhood, same city, same town, who come from different cultures, ideologies, religions, tastes and values. In my philosophy, those differences are the greatest untapped asset we have in our society. In what conditions can those differences lead to something productive?” —Milenko Matanovic

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Milenko Matanovic

Milenko Matanovic is a self-described recovering artist whose Pomegranate Center in Issaquah, Wash., is using collaboration to transform communities nationwide.

The center, which Matanovic founded in 1986, is a non-profit organization that works with communities “to imagine, plan and create shared public places designed to encourage social interaction and to build a local sense of identity.” Why the emphasis on public spaces? “Unintentional encounters happen in intentional places,” the center’s website explains, noting that “modern U.S. communities may be among the first ever to be built without town squares or commons or central gathering places.”

The Pomegranate Center is currently working with tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala., for example, to create an amphitheater and picnic shelters constructed primarily of materials salvaged from the ruins. Over the course of 2011, the center worked with 781 volunteers, who gave 8,000 hours of time to conceptualize, design and build gathering places in five different communities in the Seattle area. Here’s a video explaining how the center worked with Walla Walla, Wash., to turn an area rampant with drug and gang activity into a thriving community park:

I first learned about Matanovic when I stumbled on this interview with him on the PopTech blog, which includes a video of his excellent 2011 PopTech talk:

Solving Problems (Instead of Arguing)

In the PopTech video, Matanovic describes the tension that inevitably arises in any collaboration between pragmatism and idealism — between the people in the room who want to focus on what’s doable, and others who want to focus, instead, on articulating a full-bodied vision of what should be done. As someone who’s managed a number of collaborative projects, this observation rang true, and I wondered — what does the Pomegranate Center do to resolve, or at least negotiate, this tension?

The key to resolving this and other tensions, Matanovic said, is to establish clear ground rules for discussion that steer the group toward active problem-solving, and away from simply advocating pre-existing positions.

The center invites each community it works with to contribute ground rules, but has a core set of rules it takes from project to project. Rule No. 1: Participants need to agree to listen. Matanovic is quick to point out that “listening” isn’t just about waiting for your turn to talk; instead, it’s about “being courageous enough to allow new thoughts to enter one’s awareness.” In other words: Be willing to change your mind based on new information. The best solutions usually come in what Matanovic calls the “second or third generation of ideas, when people start improvising and riffing off each other.”

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Screenshot of the Pomegranate Center’s homepage.

The center also establishes at the outset of its meetings that there’s no blaming allowed. And it’s not enough to say no to something; it’s much more courageous to propose something better instead. (Matanovic calls this turning “opposition into proposition.”) Another of the center’s ground rules: Be respectful, and be mindful of giving everyone time to talk. Having this ground rule established at the outset lets the facilitator keep the discussion on track without being combative. For example, if someone is dominating the discussion, the facilitator might say, “Remember, there are 40 people here, and we only have an hour, so please bring your comments to a close.”

The real success, Matonovic said, is when the group takes responsibility for their code of conduct, encouraging each other to be constructive and creative.

Facilitation is Key

Matanovic emphasized that facilitators need to be “assertive and firm” in enforcing how the conversation is being conducted, while remaining neutral on the substance of the conversation. (The Pomegranate Center firmly believes that the community needs to have full control of the project’s vision, in order to feel ownership of the final product.)

Facilitators also need to ask questions that steer discussion in a constructive direction. For example, at the first community meeting in Tuscaloosa, each of the approximately 60 attendees started out promoting that the planned project should be built in their own neighborhoods. The facilitator quickly intervened, asking, “If the project wasn’t built in your neighborhood — then what neighborhood should it be built in?” Matanovic remembers how in that instant, a woman who had been advocating her neighborhood suddenly shifted gears, naming a lower income neighborhood as the best location for the project. Others quickly followed suit.

The facilitator then emphasized that the question wasn’t, “Where should the project be located?”; rather, the question was, “Where should we locate this first project to increase the chances of creating additional gathering places in the future?” “Our goal,” Matanovic said, “is to stimulate a movement in the city — to start with a pilot project, then mentor other people to replicate our work, until it becomes a normal standard of conduct in the community.”

Respecting Multiple Intelligences

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In Walla Walla, neighbors built a dance floor, promenade and benches that displaced drug-dealing in a corner of a pubic park

In addition to tensions between idealists and pragmatists, a host of other common tensions arise in town after town: tensions between those who make decisions based on data, and those who are more motivated by intuition, for example, or between those who talk in terms of concrete details, and those who prefer to speak more broadly, emphasizing values. These tensions, Matanovic said, stem from bringing together people with multiple intelligences. “People are smart in different ways,” he said, “and we take that seriously. That’s why we build things — we don’t just talk.” This last point is critical: “Once hands and bodies get involved,” he said, “a whole other layer of participation and collaboration is possible than if we just talked.”

This emphasis on action and results is key to the Pomegranate formula. People are tired of attending endless meetings without seeing results, Matanovic said, noting that everywhere he travels, people seem to be getting skeptical about the idea of visioning; too often, they’ve been asked what they think, without evidence that anything happens with their input. This, he said, does not bode well for participatory democracy; people need to feel good about participating, and they need to know that their input matters. “That’s why we move very succinctly through our process,” Matanovic explained, with a limit of three to four meetings maximum per community. “Most talented people will disappear after two to three meetings,” he said. That’s enough time to arrive at the “essence of a vision,” at which point Pomegranate staff can begin the design process, based on a community’s vision.

Collaboration: Alone, Together

“I learned that what I need to do is both listen to the community — so I’m open to understanding what’s going on — and then I shift to become a design team leader, and I need to make sense of all that information I just absorbed,” Matanovic said. The latter, he observed, is “very individual work” (which often happens in the middle of the night) — and yet, even this individual work is part of the collaborative process, in his mind. “It’s like jazz,” he said. “The teamwork and individual virtuosity are completely intertwined — the greater one, the greater the other … You build on each other.”

He referenced the January New York Times article, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” which generated a lot of buzz, in which author Susan Cain argues passionately for the importance of solitude, in a culture she feels overly champions teamwork. Collaboration, Matanovic says, is typically associated with teamwork, and to him, this is a mistake. “Even in solitude, we can collaborate,” he argued. How’s that? “Collaboration is a state of being,” he said, “that allows new information to penetrate my being — allows otherness to enter my fixed assumption. It’s a very courageous state of being that allows new things to happen. That is the foundation for me. And then some people like to collaborate physically — and we call that teamwork — but even in solitude, we can collaborate.”

The Theater of Collaboration

“I’m not a proponent of collaboration as the only mode of expressing creativity,” Matanovic said, “but I am a proponent that in this day and age, we need to be courageous about stepping beyond our assumptions. We need to find a way to work with each other’s differences. This is the cutting edge of human evolution: Be centered in yourself, and be open to new information and insights at the same time.”

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The possibilities of an empty stage.

In Tuscaloosa, the visioning meetings — which began in early December — are over, and the design process is coming to a close. Now, the center is waiting to get the permits it needs to begin building; some grading is planned, along with some work on the site’s concrete foundation. Then, for 10 days in June, a mix of local volunteers and volunteers from the center and its funder, Tully Coffee, will build a gathering place for the community, complete with an amphitheater, two picnic shelters, gateways, a new path, handcrafted banners and tiles.

Speaking of theater: Matanovic said that because of his roots in the art world, in some ways, he thinks of the center’s work with communities as theater, “where people witness each other, and invisible ideas become visible.”

Making invisible ideas, visible, by bringing people together — isn’t that ultimately what all collaboration is about?

Connections to Journalism?

How can news organizations apply the Pomegranate Center’s model? Are there ideas here that we can apply to our work with citizens and communities as we shape products and services to meet their needs? What about collaborations between news orgs — how can we honor that mix of “teamwork and individual virtuosity” that Matanovic describes? Share your ideas using the comments feature below.

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Amanda Hirsch is the editor of Collaboration Central. She is a writer, online media consultant and performer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com spends way too much time on Twitter.

Photos courtesy of the Pomegranate Center, except for the photo of an empty stage, which is courtesy of Flickr user Simon Scott.

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