Group collaboration: lessons from conflict resolution

Some of the approaches applied to conflict resolution apply equally well to the development of on-line and virtual communities, teams and networks. One of the most interesting is "The Flight of the Flamingos" scenario.


The end of apartheid in South Africa

In 1992 four scenarios were developed collaboratively by 22 prominent South Africans [1] from across the ideological spectrum to capture a ten-year vision about where South Africa might end up:

  1. Ostrich (continuation of apartheid)

  2. Lame Duck (constitutionally weakened government leading to slow and indecisive transition)

  3. Icarus (rapid introduction of populist but unsustainable economic policies followed by economic crash)

  4. Flight of the Flamingos (sustainable government policies leading to inclusive growth and democracy)

The last scenario was, of course, in the end largely achieved where like the graceful birds taking off from a lake “every one in society rises slowly and steadily together”.

However the other scenarios were all entirely possible outcomes which needed to be identified and somehow mitigated against.

Virtual community development scenarios

These four scenarios are equally relevant to those of us trying to mobilise, nurture or incubate virtual communities which are able to sustain themselves beyond an initial enthusiasm or novelty stage.

The failures and scenarios often follow a similar sequence in our virtual community-building initiatives:

Mistake#1: We don’t take time to involve people properly……
Outcome#1: Ostrich - head in the sand - and everybody ignores it

Mistake#2: We take too long and don’t create enough urgency or quick wins.
Outcome#2: Lame Duck - limps along - only the leaders use it!

Mistake#3: We are too ambitious and over-sell it…..
Outcome#3: Icarus - great start but soon crashes and burns

If we are humble enough to learn from these majestic birds and incorporate natures teaming principles in our approach to virtual collaboration then we have an excellent chance of a “Flight of the flamingos” with everybody in the virtual community rising up slowly and steadily together.


1. Chrislip, D., 2003. The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook - A guide for citizens and civic leaders, Jossey Bass pp. 200-202

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While I am sure that nobody "sets out" to be a lame duck, or icarus, what people may need are "signs/symbolic actions" that denote a direction is being enacted. i.e. I think I am gathering consensus, seeking assumptions, but what I am actually doing in practice is communicating my vision. What might therefore be useful is a post on "if you've been in a meeting and have heard these phrases"; "here is how to parse a conversational strucure after a meeting to unearth unchallenged assumptions", etc. etc. Tall ask! I know a company that put an organisational phychologist and conversational analyst into a top team meeting to evaluate how comprehensively they were speaking about their subjects, how well conflicts were handled etc. The end result? they wanted that analyst to work with them full time because sometimes the elephant in the room is the way we talk around here"!


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