MG Taylor

From Faster Than 20

Matt Taylor, an architect by training and passion, and Gail Taylor, formerly a kindergarten and second grade teacher, formed MG Taylor in the mid-1970s and have been helping catalyze "Group Genius" in groups ever since. They are partners in both life and work, they have spawned a network of at least a thousand "Value Web" members — people who have been trained in and who practice their philosophy, including large set of practitioners at Capgemini and PriceWaterhouseCoopers — all over the world, and they have personally inspired and mentored many more, including me.

I have met, worked with, and learned from many members of the Value Web, which speaks to the scope of Gail and Matt's influence. I want to focus this page on things I learned directly from them, although I will occasionally mention others from their network. Sadly, I won't be able to do justice to the many, many great folks I have learned from in this short amount of space.

How I Met Gail and Matt

I first learned of Matt and Gail's work in 2001. I went to see Larry Leifer, director of Center for Design Research, speak at Stanford. (My friend and later Blue Oxen Associates advisor, Ade Mabogunje, whom I met through Doug Engelbart, was the associate director at the Center for Design Research and worked for Larry.) Larry gave a wide-ranging talk covering many interesting topics, but one of the things that stood out to me were the "collaborative technologies" developed by MG Taylor at the knOwhere Store in Palo Alto. They were using moveable whiteboard walls, special furniture, and all sorts of other tools to bring meetings alive.

I was intrigued enough that I made a special trip to visit the "store" a few weeks later, only to discover it wasn't actually a store. It was a workspace for the future, except it was here and now, and Matt, Gail, and their colleagues and clients were practicing and experimenting with high-performance collaboration within its walls. I realized all of this later. At the time, I was confused and disoriented, and I was too chicken to walk in and ask what was going on, so I left without going inside. But Larry's talk and my brief run-in with the knOwhere Store (which unfortunately closed soon thereafter) left me curious, and I started reading more about their work.

In late 2001, shortly before I started Blue Oxen Associates, I met Jim Fournier, the director of Planetwork, a network + community gathering that emerged as a reaction to the anti-technology sentiment among the Bioneers community. They had had a successful conference in 2000 and were planning another one in 2003. Curiously, they were interested in digital identity as a lever for social change, and they were interested in my work with Doug and my approaches to supporting asynchronous collaboration. Jim later asked me if I would help support and facilitate the 2003 conference pro bono. He added that he had also talked to Matt and Gail Taylor about doing the same, and they had agreed. As soon as he mentioned the Taylors, I agreed, as it was my excuse to meet them and work with them.

As it turned out, Matt was unable to help out, so I worked primarily with Gail and one of her sons (Jeff Johnston). Gail was so wise and skilled and gracious and curious. I wasn't surprised when I learned that she had been a teacher, because she had the same soft, powerful presence that all my favorite teachers had growing up. It was eye-opening to see how thoughtful and systemic she was about thinking about design and bringing the best out of groups. At the same time, she was so humble and curious and supportive. Not surprisingly, she and Matt knew and admired Doug among a host of other influences. As it turned out, Christine Peterson — co-founder of Foresight Institute, coiner of the term, "open source," and another Blue Oxen Associates advisor — was also familiar with and inspired by Matt and Gail, so much so that she co-authored a book about their philosophy and process, Leaping the Abyss: Putting Group Genius to Work.

I worked with Gail again on the Planetwork 2004 conference (this time we were both paid), and I later got to know Matt more as well. They already had a strong ethic around documentation and synthesis, but they relied primarily on a centralized support team (dubbed "Knowledge Workers," or "KreW" for short) to do the synthesis. They were intrigued by how I used wikis and other practices to support groups in self-documentation.

They invited me to help support their 2004 7 Domains Workshop — a peer learning gathering of their tribe — which is where I got to see their process in action to an extreme. It was an extraordinary 4.5 day meeting at Vanderbilt University's Navigation Center in Nashville, Tennessee. (NavCenters were physical spaces designed to support the kinds of gatherings MG Taylor designed. Remember, Matt is an architect, and they had all sorts of custom furniture and philosophies around using physical space. The knOwhere Store in Palo Alto was the showcase space, but many others had licensed their technology and had built NavCenters around the country, including Capgemini. See this and this for more on NavCenters.)

That meeting was and remains a landmark for me professionally. It was and continues to be the best meeting I've ever experienced, and it is is the standard by which I measure every meeting. I was in an unusual position, because I was part of the support team, which meant I was putting in 16-hour days grinding away trying to create a great meeting experience, but I also occasionally got pulled into design conversations and the meeting itself, thanks to the work I was doing. Thanks to this unique role, in addition to everything I learned about design, facilitation, systems thinking, and collaboration (which I describe in more detail below), I got to practice with an extraordinary team, and I got to know many of the extraordinary participants, several of whom I remain close to today.

Shortly after 7 Domains, several practitioners in the Value Web from around the world formed a loose network called (appropriately) The Value Web. Their first joint project was supporting the World Economic Forum, and they invited me to help support the support team from afar, which I did for two years. I continued to stay engaged with Gail and her other son, Todd Johnston.

I also partnered with Jeff Shults — the manager of the knOwhere Store, who led the support team at the 7 Domains Workshop, and who brought a lot of his own experience with adult learning — to host a number of our own one-day peer learning gatherings. We dubbed these, "Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration," and we held these at Jeff's space with a lot of the original knOwhere Store furniture. Working with Jeff really deepened my own understanding and skill around designing and facilitating meetings, and it was also a great excuse to bring together my growing tribe, which always made me happy. All of my mentors, including Gail and Matt, participated in at least one of these gatherings, which was gratifying, exhilarating, and just a bit intimidating.

Over the years, I have continued to stay close with both Gail and Matt. I learn something new every time I'm with them, and I have been inspired by them and have leaned on them when I've felt discouraged more than they'll ever realize. Most recently, I attended a Happening (an informal gathering of the MG Taylor tribe) in July 2016, where I got to meet a slew of newer practitioners. They accelerated my own progress as a practitioner by two orders of magnitude, both through their considerable wisdom and modeling, also their kindness and generosity. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude, and I try my best every day to live up to the standards they set and to pay their gifts forward.

Lessons Learned

We have to understand systems and complexity. Gail and Matt, like Doug and Jeff Conklin, were motivated to make the world a better place. At the Happening in 2016, Matt said:

The world that we designed this for is here now. It's no longer tomorrow. Almost every system we know is collapsing. That seems shocking, but how do you create a new world if the old one doesn't disappear?
We're not trying to create global transformation. It's going to happen. The question is, how much blood will be spilled? Let's do this gracefully without killing a whole bunch of people. Let's minimize dragging in all these old errors.

Making the world a better place requires understanding how systems and complexity work. They were strongly influenced by cybernetics and the Law of Requisite Variety, which essentially states that in complex systems, you need at least an equivalent number of solution variables to address the number of problem variables. (Another way of thinking about it: You won't be able to analyze your way into the "right" solution. You need to try a bunch of things to see what combination works.) They were particularly influenced by Stuart Kauffman, his study of prairies (a powerful metaphor in general when considering systems), and his theory of patches, nodes, and connectedness.

If all of this sounds abstract, it is. But it has its origins in the study of living things, and it has its practical applications, as I describe in more detail below.

Big, long-term vision. Like my other mentors, Matt and Gail really modeled what it looked like to have a really big, long-term vision. They thought decades, even centuries in advance. I first learned of backcasting from them as well as their corresponding axioms:

  • The future is rational only in hindsight
  • You can’t get there from here, but you can get here from there

Matt keeps a detailed journal — both paper and digital — and I've often marveled at the things he's shared with me, such as this sketch from 1982 where he envisioned a physical / digital space with touch screens. In this way, he and Gail were very similar to Doug — they had a big, big vision, and they executed as much as they could while doing their best to inspire others to fill in the gaps.

In a blog post I wrote about the visioning process, Gail reminded me how people's tendencies were to understretch, and how important it was to push them to their edge.

Group Genius. Matt and Gail framed their work around "Group Genius." Gail first came across the term in one of Lawrence Halprin's notebooks, which he had annotated next to this commentary on camels:

"A camel is a horse designed by a committee."
This old saw demeans the camel – which is an admirably designed animal (for the environment in which he lives) and the group design process. It is not the ideas of collective creativity which has failed but the committee idea itself: which attempts to function without clear understanding of the necessary processes involved in group problem solving. (Lawrence Halprin, 1974)

I also like how Gail once described the experience of Group Genius:

As a relay racer in a much earlier life, I studied the passing of the baton. When we were “magic” we neither passed or received as separate events. Rather, something more happened… a synergy that I cannot describe.

Philosophy and practice, not methodology. Matt and Gail developed lots and lots of great tools, but they did not espouse a recipe-based approach. As they explained in their introduction to their modeling language, "Although the models can be studied and applied individually, their full power is only unleashed when considered in an interconnected and collective manner."

As brilliant as they and many of the practitioners in their network are, they are still stuck on how to apply principles to asynchronous. It's the reason why we started working together, and I've clearly not done a good job of helping people make the connection. I find this block fascinating, and it's something that I should spend more time trying to address. —Eekim (talk) 20:38, 30 January 2017 (UTC)

Design is more important than facilitation. Most people's model of good meetings is focused on the skill of the facilitator. But if you take a systems view of the meeting, there are many, many more ways to impact people's experience than facilitation — the space, accommodating people's natural rhythms (e.g. countering post-lunch coma, shift in mood and understanding after sleeping, etc.), group size, etc.

Gail and Matt really modeled this. When you walked into one of their meetings, it just felt different — the space, the energy, the movement. There was intense thinking, discussion, documentation. One of the things you never had were a bunch of people sitting around looking bored. I learned to pick up on little indicators: how people reacted when they first experienced the space (when I used to do meetings with Jeff, most people's initial reactions upon walking in was to look around in wonder, then exclaim, "Wow, what a great space!"), watch whether people were leaning in toward each other, listen for laughter, etc.

Everyone is a facilitator. One of the reasons design is more important than facilitation is that you are never facilitating the room by yourself. Everyone in the room is a facilitator. A good design leverages the leadership in the room, which creates a more resilient space that the participants own.

This is especially important when designing and facilitating highly complex meetings. These meetings are hard — intellectually, emotionally, even physically — and anyone can have a bad day. I saw Gail have one early in my time working with her, when she was sick and not fully recovered. Recognizing that you are not the sole facilitator, that the whole meeting's success does not rely on you, helps free you to be your best.

It's easier to design meetings for really big groups than for small groups. Even though design is always more important than facilitation, facilitation has the ability to play a larger role with small groups. Not so with large groups. The physics simply doesn't allow it. So to be successful, you have to let go of control and trust the makeup of the group, which are central principles for maximizing collective intelligence. You can impact the meeting simply by how you mix up the groups.

Eliminate unnecessary burdens on the participants. Going to an MG Taylor gathering is like going to a fancy restaurant, where they escort you to the bathroom and fold your napkins and refill your glass every time you turn away. The goal is to remove any unnecessary cognitive burden on the participants so that they can just be present and focus on the work. That means hiding the agenda (which is going to change anyway), constantly resetting the space, and carefully documenting the proceedings (see below).

In order to do this, you need to have a large support crew (dubbed "Knowledge Workers," or "KreW"). At the 2004 7 Domains Workshop, I saw firsthand how much talent and support is required to make a meeting like this work. We had a KreW of six skilled practitioners supporting four skilled facilitators for about 60 participants — one support person for every six participants. Every member of the KreW was multi-talented and steeped in the process. As I mentioned above, we all worked 16-hour days, not to mention two days beforehand and a day afterward to prep and wrapup. It was tremendously hard, largely unseen work, but it made a huge difference.

Decision science provides theoretical backing to this practice. --Eekim (talk) 17:33, 29 January 2017 (UTC)

Sensemaking and documentation are critical. Gail and Matt emphasized the role of sensemaking and documentation in collaborative processes. In meetings, they were thoughtful about how to incorporate artifacts into the design. For example, they placed a huge emphasis on graphic recording. While I was familiar with visual capture (thanks largely to [wikipedia:Robert E. Horn|Bob Horn]], whose book I read in the late 1990s and whom I eventually met through Doug), I had never seen it used live in a meeting, and I had never seen it used actively as a way to facilitate conversations. Through Matt and Gail, I met extraordinary artists (especially Alicia Bramlett and Brian Narelle) and visual facilitators, particularly Bryan Coffman. Because of my work with Jeff Conklin, I was able to appreciate what they were doing at a deeper level and integrate into my own work.

They went way beyond visual capture, however, incorporating everything from modeling clay and pipe cleaners to physical movement to help with sensemaking. One of my favorites is using cardboard boxes as a portable table and multisided display on which to scribble notes and do synthesis. They loved to note that the boxes could be used as a Glass Bead Game (a book they adored and constantly referenced), where people could connect different sides of boxes to show the relationship between different ideas and to synthesize different narratives.

Capturing these artifacts for afterward was a major role for the KreW, who often came up with innovative ways to do this. For example, with the cardboard boxes, Ryan Romsey came up with an Adobe Illustrator template, where you could drop in photographs of each side of a box, then color print the template on regular paper, which you could cut out and fashion into a little mini-box. It helped that folks who worked on the KreW were often multitalented. Ryan, for example, is a skilled photographer, videographer, and musician, who was capable of handling many aspects of production singlehandedly. Alicia is an extraordinary graphic recorder, painter, and filmmaker.

Another corollary to supporting sensemaking was to work big (which I first heard Jeff Shults describe), another of their practices that has been backed by studies.

Build networks of practice. MG Taylor has stringent IP practices that made it challenging for me to get to close to them, as I personally only engage in work that is open IP. I had many long conversations with Matt about this in the early days. I understood where he was coming from, and I think he understood where I was coming from. In spirit, both Matt and Gail wanted what I wanted, but at the end of the day, the IP licensing (especially from companies such as Capgemini and PriceWaterhouseCoopers) provided significant revenue and also enabled their work to scale. Furthermore, they were doing this work at a very different time, when proven business models around open licenses were not widely understood.

I argued (and still believe) that the closed IP would act as a ceiling on scale. Even if I'm right, clearly Matt and Gail have done all the other things that are necessary to allow a network to flourish and grow. First and foremost, their warmth and generosity were the seeds from which this community grew. Even understanding my views on IP, for example, Matt and Gail never held back from sharing or from including me. That meant so much to me as a young practitioner, and it still means the world to me.

Second, they did just enough synthesis of their ideas to support the growth of their ideas. Neither of them has ever published a book, even though both are talented writers, thinkers, and storytellers, but there is a book about their process written by others — a testament to network-building.

I have met too many amazing practitioners through their network to name here — people who strongly share my values and my spirit. At the same time, I have also seen some of the challenges of scaling and growing a network. I have met a lot of practitioners through their network who are well-meaning, but who are more recipe- than principles-driven, for example. These folks tend to be the ones who have come up through the corporate trainings and networks rather than through Gail and Matt. Gail and Matt's style was much more about mentorship, apprentice ship, and doing the work side-by-side.

I have found both Matt and Gail extremely thoughtful about this and network-building in general. After one of my workshops in 2006, where I was talking about my desire to help build the field more broadly, Matt shared a letter that Frank Lloyd Wright (one of his mentors) had written about the dangers of professionalization and why he would not join the AIA. It's a lesson that has stuck with me very strongly ever since.

See Also

Blue Oxen Barnstars: Gail Taylor (April 5, 2009)

Gail Taylor on learning and wicked problems: