Gloria Flores on Pluralistic Networks

by Gloria Flores

Gloria Flores on Pluralistic Networks

Editors note: We conducted this interview with Gloria Flores, CEO of Pluralistic Networks, as the first in a series spotlighting special entrepreneurs whose companies synthesize technology, learning and fundamental human concerns, and represent what we think are a new class of highly evolved, yet largely undiscovered ‘innovation enablers.’

How do you describe your work at Pluralistic Networks?

As our name suggests, the focus of our company is to help people develop skills and sensibilities to work in what we call “Pluralistic Networks”: Networks in which people of different backgrounds, nationalities, cultures and belief systems, commit to collaborate to produce value for each other, while listening for and respecting their differences. Why? Because the development of these skills and sensibilities is crucial for navigating the world we live in today.

We live in a rapidly changing, global and highly interconnected world. At work, at play and at home, we are unavoidably connected to people from all over the world. In organizations large and small, project teams are increasingly virtual, consisting of people based in dispersed geographical locations, from different cultural backgrounds and value systems. Yet, despite our increased diversity and connectivity, we don’t know how to live and work together effectively.

There are many obstacles to pluralistic networks, including social barriers, political barriers, and our own emotional backgrounds, which can show up as feelings, attitudes or even prejudices. However, if we are unable to surpass these obstacles, we are left with a significantly weakened capacity to collaborate, to innovate and to coordinate efficiently and effectively to successfully accomplish what we care about accomplishing.

The good news is that the work that we have been doing shows that by learning new skills and sensibilities, we can learn to work with people in new ways, and to cultivate pluralistic networks despite our differences. We have invested significant time and effort developing and delivering these kinds of skills and sensibilities. We are convinced that the traditional educational model of “acquiring knowledge and applying information” does not work for this purpose. As we all know, today we can acquire knowledge and information pretty fast, and despite this, teams still fall apart, projects continue to fail, relationships are still damaged or broken. What we need is an education that teaches us how to engage with each other and the world around us in a new way.

Our focus has been to create new contexts for the development of what are often referred to as soft skills, but that I prefer to think of as the “core skills” of any collaborative work, including, for example:

• the ability to coordinate our commitments;
• the ability to build and repair trust;
• the ability to listen to other people’s concerns and make offers that add value to others;
• the ability to manage moods and shift negative moods that may get in the way of effective teamwork, such as resignation, distrust, resentment or overwhelm;
• and the ability to cope with change and disturbances as a routine part of life.

We are very excited by the work that we have been doing during the past few years. By combining the work we have done with corporate clients for many years with new technologies around immersive game play, we have been able to develop what we call “Virtual Learning Laboratories” designed to enable people to develop their abilities to successfully work with others, despite their different backgrounds, with respect and with trust.

In these Virtual Learning Laboratories, we are able to place people from many different countries around the world in the same team, and work with them as they learn, in action, to constitute themselves as a team that is able to articulate and commit to shared goals, and to collaborate with one another to accomplish these. The results have been excellent. Participants are able to acquire new skills much faster than I have ever seen before, and those skills immediately show up in their day to day engagement with other people as they are not just “acquiring new knowledge or information” that they need to learn to apply. Instead, by learning this way, they are acquiring new skills, and are able to take new actions in their real life teams that they could not take before. I find this very rewarding and I look forward to working with more people and inventing new ways of making this kind of education available to larger numbers of people.

What is your vision and hope for Pluralistic Networks?

The skills and sensibilities that we are focused on helping people to acquire are not “nice to haves.” They are critical for the world that we live in. Even if we have access to the best schools and universities (which many people around the world do not), if we are

• unable to work with other people with respect, particularly with those who may not see the world through the same lens that we do,
• unable to build trust where there is none,
• unable to listen to the world around us and make offers that take care of the concerns of others and that others will value,
• anxious and stressed, and unable to navigate]change with ambition and serenity,

we will be less likely to cope with constant change and uncertainty and to invent a good life for ourselves in the world that we live in today. By building numerous learning laboratories with people from different countries, backgrounds, professions and generations, we hope to enable people to not only work more effectively together, but to cultivate their capacity to recurrently build strong teams and to cultivate pluralistic networks, something that we believe is critical for our world today.

What have you learned from running WEST?

The first time we delivered what has become our core four months immersive course — Working Effectively in Small Teams — now often referred as the WEST Course, in 2009, we did not know, for sure, whether we could use an off-the-shelf MMORPG as a platform to help people develop new skills that would enable them to work more effectively in their real life teams. We suspected that we could. We now know that we can.

Through our courses, I have learned that although the games that we use as platforms for team exercises are not real, the moods people experience as they engage with each other in the game are real. As they play with their team members, participants experience frustration, impatience, confusion, boredom resignation, mistrust, elation, ambition, resolution and many other moods and emotions, which are the same kinds of moods and emotions that routinely show up in real life team. The moods and emotions experienced by members of a team will often make the difference as to whether or not a team is successful, or whether or not two people can forge a collaborative relation. As a consequence, these games can be part of great learning laboratories for real life engagements.

Which brings me to another thing that I have learned. Although the game that we often use during the course is fantastic for doing team exercises, the game itself is not enough. It is a crucial “part” as I say above, but it is not enough. On the other hand, what we call “core skills” can not be learned simply by reading a book or attending a lecture. These could be helpful to someone’s learning, but to really acquire these skills, we need recurrent practice, guidance and reflection. We have learned to create an environment where all three of these can happen at once, and as people engage in this environment, they acquire new skills and new sensibilities for working with other people that transfer immediately to how they work with people outside of this environment. After doing a series of immersion courses that combine a game environment designed for group interactions, with spaces for guided discussions and reflections, I have learned that we can teach “core skills” to people from all over the world, in a very effective manner.

Are there games beyond WoW that you will explore?

Yes. We are constantly keeping our eyes and ears open for other games that may serve as a platform for the delivery of this kind of education. Thus far, WoW has been great for us as it is very well designed for encouraging people to do things together. WoW has many quests and areas in the game that are designed to be completed by many people playing various roles. These quests or areas in the game can not easily be done by one person (if at all), which, by defaults requires people to engage with other people and decide how they are going to do something together. The game then allows them to very quickly experience many successes and many failures in working together, which enables them to learn, when they are alert to this kind of learning, how to build successful teams. We are open to exploring different games, however, and I would love to build an alliance with a game company where they would allow us to modify some things in the game for our purposes. If you know of any other game that we should consider, please do let us know!

Do you ever dream about creating your own game?

Yes! Although I feel that we have developed our own “game within a game,” ultimately, the game I would like to create is one that helps players create their own games, with real life quests that they define and care about accomplishing, and then helps them to facilitate their play as they work to accomplish the objectives of their games.

You have a very special father. How would you describe his influence on you/your life?

I have a very special father AND mother, and I would be remiss not to mention her at least a little bit since she has been married to my father for over 50 years, and in many ways, my father’s influence on me has been “infused” by my mother. Nevertheless, my father’s influence on my life are too many to share, but I will focus on three that I consider most important.

First, my father has an enormous ability to constantly learn and to take action to invent the future he cares to bring about. I know this is a bit vague, but as we recently marked the 40th anniversary of the “other September 11” in my life — Chile’s Coup d’Etat — which led to my father being imprisoned for three years and my family’s exile from our native country — I have to admire my father’s resilience and his capacity to accept whatever is going on in his life, no matter how bad, not as a “victim” of circumstances, but as someone who has the capacity to constantly learn and to take action in the present to build what he wants to build in his life. Being his daughter has made me very aware that things happen sometimes, sometimes unexpected things, sometimes bad things, but I’m not helpless in the face of them. I have the capacity to learn from every situation, and to take action to bring about whatever I care to bring about, if I choose to do so.

Another way that he has influenced my life by example is by showing me that we can get along with all kinds of people, and that in the end, no matter how “different” we seem, we have many things in common — we live in the same planet, we need to make a living, we want to take care of our families, etc. In my younger years, I was very unhappy about having had to leave Chile. I missed my family, my friends, my home and my life as I knew it. I was angry and resentful towards the people whose “fault” I felt it was. I could never be friends, let alone “respect” those who sympathized with the Junta, and I could never imagine myself working with anybody that had a different opinion with respect to any of the events surrounding the Coup or the years that followed. As time passed, however, I watched my dad forge ahead with his life, with purpose and determination, and without resentment, often collaborating and building trust with people that I would have described as “persona non grata” at some point in my life. Watching my dad inspired me to strive to lead my life in a similar fashion. We often prejudge each other in ways that are totally unfounded or that are based on things that happened many years ago and are not relevant to the situations we find ourselves in today. We often are stuck on “us” vs. “them” stories that don’t allow us to build a “we.” But in this global and interconnected world, if we care about our planet, our families, the education of our children, it is important that we learn to engage with a wide array of people, stop being at war with another, and cultivate the “we” that we have in common instead.

The final way that he has influenced me is the reason I do the work that I do. For multiple reasons, many of which I can only speculate about, since his early 20s, my father has been concerned with how human beings work together to get things done. He published his PhD dissertation on this topic, and has spent most of his adult life on this question, focused on not only developing tools to facilitate people’s capacity to coordinate with one another, but also on developing their capacity to work more productively, with more dignity, more joy and more trust.

I decided to be a lawyer when I was little as I wanted to bring “justice” to the world after all of the injustices I had witnessed in Chile. I studied law, and briefly practiced litigation. And although I love the law, I did not enjoy the adversarial nature of what I was doing, helping our clients to “win” and to prove the other party “wrong.” This was not rewarding to me. It seemed like too little too late. So, when I heard about some of the results that my father and his colleagues were helping teams in companies achieve — particularly in one company that had had historically poor relations between labor and management — I was very intrigued. By teaching people new ways to coordinate together for the sake of accomplishing what they all cared about accomplishing, their clients were able see their colleagues as being crucial members of the same team, with shared goals an responsibilities, and as a result, they not only produced strong bottom line results together (new sales, reduction of cycle times, etc.) but they did it in a way that build trust with one another and made their work more joyful. As I began to explore the work that they were doing in the late 80s/early 90s, I thought to myself “that is what I want to do! I don’t want to help people win a fight over something. I want to enable them to work together, to learn to be part of the same team and to accomplish what they care about accomplishing.” And in some way or another, that has been the game I have been in ever since. Our exploration of the world of online role-playing games is the latest version of the same game.

Do you think we could get members of Congress to play these games?

I would not be surprised to find out that at least some members of Congress play these games already, but they are probably not sharing this past time with others for fear that it might not be well received. My father was a Senator of Chile when he first started exploring World of Warcraft, and I doubt that he was the only politician playing at that time! Last year, a woman running for State Senate in Vermont came under attack by her opponent for playing World of Warcraft. Many came to her defense, arguing that her playing with others in the game made her more qualified to be a State Senator, and she prevailed. I think that the attacks on her had no merit, but I can understand how some might see this kind of activity as frivolous, time consuming, and detracting from real life, which may be the case at times. However, if you play the kind of game that we have designed, the end result is far from a waste of time. By immersing themselves in this kind of learning environment, members of Congress could enhance their capacity to listen, to build trust, and to get things done, and given the adversarial way they have been engaging with each other lately, to the detriment of the country, this would certainly be worth a try!

image credits: world of warcraft, UC Berkeley, Wikipedia

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Gloria Flores is a co-founder of Pluralistic Networks, and a key member of the team developing The Orchestration of Commitments in Pluralistic Networks programs. She is committed to creating innovative ways for people to work together, and has immersed herself in the world of multi-player on line role playing games in order to explore how these virtual worlds can be enhanced and cultivated as environments for learning new skills and building new communities. Learn more about their programs here.

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