Co-lab 101: The Yellow Seed Process of Collaboration

In the age of the connection and sharing economy, words like “collaboration” are as ubiquitous as water and suited to fit a variety of contexts. The purpose of this blog is to give you a sense of what it means to be a participant in our Collaborative Project. The following is a living document, meaning it will update as we learn together.


What does “collaboration” mean to Yellow Seed?  

As we define it, collaboration includes more than simply producing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It also includes a shared vision, shared goals and a strong set of values. The strategy to reach these goals also requires an awareness of individual needs and challenges. Here is one definition that we liked:

Collaboration is “a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties to achieve common goals by sharing responsibility, authority and accountability for achieving results. It is more than simply sharing knowledge and information (communication) and more than a relationship that helps each party achieve its own goals (cooperation and coordination). The purpose of collaboration is to create a shared vision and joint strategies to address concerns that go beyond the purview of any particular party.” – David Chrislip and Chip Larson, 1994, p. 5

Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) touches on the purpose and benefits of collaboration in a recent article Lessons in Mass Collaboration:

“Beyond coordination, today’s technological capability permits organizations to leverage and focus public interest, talent, and energy through mass collaborative engagement to better understand and solve today’s challenges.”

“Advances in crowdsourcing have enabled multitudes of individuals to coordinate their efforts to contribute to a common goal.”

Yet, there is still untapped co-creation potential needed to solve the world’s complex problems.

“In the years to come, only an iterative process of learning will allow institutions to foster communities where individuals feel empowered to collaborate toward the creation of a better world.”





The purpose of Yellow Seed’s Collaborative Project is to improve trading relationships between buyers, farmers and intermediaries alike that:

  • Increases market access for small-scale cacao farmers.
  • Increases quality, diversity and supply of cacao bean sources available to buyers.
  • Promotes choice, agency and decision-making, empowering users to be active participants in the marketplace and in their communities.
  • Cultivates connections and relationships to build trust throughout the value chain.
  • Leverages trust and relationship as a way to assure quality and validate information.
  • Distributes responsibility of quality assurance and verification.
  • Enables conscious trade through transparency, sharing and efficient use of resources.
  • Facilitates learning when challenges or obstacles arise.


Why cacao?

Cacao serves as a great vehicle to understand the inner-workings of collaboration. Specifically, in speaking to buyers and farmers we learned that cacao facilitates collaboration in meeting or maintaining the following aspects:

  • Quality and flavor
  • Coordination between market actors
  • Effective distribution of skills and resources
  • Metrics, verification and assurance

Quality and Flavor:

Quality is king amongst our community of cacao buyers. When we ask buyers, “how do you define quality” or “what makes a ‘good’ flavor?” we often hear a range of both quantitative or physical metrics as well as qualitative and subjective characteristics. As you did deeper, you realize resulting quality is actually a product of coordination and trust along a supply chain. From collection of cacao pods to post harvest processing requires that each member along the chain did the work as intended and did not cut corners for individual gain, ie the harvestor selected only ripe and good quality pods or the person fermenting sold the cacao only after fermenting an agreed number of days.

Coordination between market actors:

Connection and communication between farmers, intermediaries and buyers is needed to develop shared goals, coordinate market information effectively and inform decision making.  Farmers collaborate to pool resources and skills needed for fermentation, drying and quality control processes in order to meet quality and quantity specifications. Maintaining quality and shared goals over time with variable conditions, resources or people requires continuous communication and process improvement to get it right.

“The development of a systemic view of the chain recognizes and values the interdependence of the actors. Where critical elements of the supply chain add strong incentives for participation, such as food safety or quality, this creates an even stronger collaboration vehicle for identification and resolution of problems” (Vorely, 2009).

Effective distribution of skills or resources:

Often emerging farmers don’t have the individual capacity or financial resources individually to meet buyer standards of quantity, quality or certification. Coordination and communication between farmers, buyers, as well as outside partner support is required to effectively allocate share resources such as equipment, technology and skills.

“Both the literature and project experience tell us that access to assets by poor households, and their ability to accumulate and use those assets effectively, are critical to their participation in value chains and their ability to benefit from participation (McKay 2009).”

Metrics, verification and assurance:

Is the bean of good quality? Who says? Is the farmer happy? Do you enjoy working with this firm? why?

Verifying information and assuring the product will meet expectations is often a result of  both scientific or comparable metrics as well as relative or subjective factors based on context. For example, social or cultural factors often need to be considered in maintaining trust and social equality at the farm level. Cacao makers can sort flavor into well defined categorizes as well as use metaphorically expressive terms to describe an experience. “This bar tastes like a bundle of hugs.” In this light, one might say defining quality is akin to defining something like “joy,” where its full value cannot always be rationally defined using linear or provable factors. However, it is possible to collectively verify the experience “joy” using a number of examples that taken together adequately communicate its full essence. Similarly, crowd-sourcing examples like Airbnb use a feedback and rating system from a network of users and personal connections to aid decision-making for renters or hosts.

In sum, the above references are intended to open up the conversation of ways to better understand collaboration. The list or content is in no way conclusive.



The Collaborative Project attracts and unites cacao buyers, farmers, and intermediaries who want to participate in trade that is fair, transparent, feasible, and regenerative for actors throughout the entire supply chain and their extended communities. It also attracts donors and community members who seek to add their skills, talents and resources more directly to meaningful causes. We also consider nature as a stakeholder and partner in this work.


How? Our Collaborative Credo  (Values)

What are the conditions that helps collaboration succeed or fail? Together, we are exploring new ways to connect, share information and resources, and trade with one another. Through this process we have come to value:

  • Cultivating existing resources first
  • Openness and cooperation over competition and protection
  • Balancing collective needs and goals with that of the individual
  • Inclusivity and shared access
  • Intentionality over apathy
  • Learning by doing
  • Transforming problems into opportunities via inquiry
  • Co-creation and do-ocracy (defined below)
  • Playing the long game – strive to create long-term shared value by being a partner of choice

Process Diagram

Phases and methodology

Yellow Seed applies a participatory and human-centered approach to trade to promote learning and agency within trading relationships. Practically these steps aim to improve communication and coordination across the market chain to ensure buyer expectations are met and the farmer receives a fair wage.


  1. Understand needs and values within the social and environmental context.
  2. Illuminate existing condition and available resources.
  3. Hear proposals or alternatives for improvement.


  1. Define goals, both individual and shared.
  2. Propose terms, conditions or ideas for trade.


  1. Buyers and sellers mutually agree on shared goals and terms for trade.
  2. Assume responsibility and take action with transparency and communication.
  3. Flag any challenges or barriers to meeting goals and expectations.


  1. Review trade experience.
  2. Incentivize and celebrate positive action.
  3. Share rewards. Find opportunities to make your partner look and feel good.
  4. Communicate what could be improved or propose opportunities for innovation or alternative trade.
  5. Implement learnings and iterate.

In summary, understanding the existing conditions of farm or business is the first step in creating relationship. Illuminating existing state, goals and challenges helps us to collectively identify areas for innovation and buyers and farmers can be better matched.  Positive feedback and communication of issues are powerful means of process improvement. In other words, providing a way to help create collective understanding of what are current roadblocks to meeting standards or shared goals, also invites shared responsibility in creating a solution. Celebrating is rooted in gratitude and thankfulness, acknowledgement and recognition.  This phase connects trade back to the listening and dreaming phases and should iterates throughout the process.


Methodology inspired by:

Link Toolkit (CIAT)

The core methodology is inspired by Nancy’s work on the LINK Toolkit at the Center of International Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in partnership with the Sustainable Food Lab. The LINK Toolkit methodology is a participatory guide to business models aimed at linking smallholders to markets by fostering inclusive trading relationships between farmer organizations and formal markets. English Version.

In the photo, CIAT was leading a participatory workshop using the LINK Toolkit Methodology. The photo was of an exercise during the workshop to demonstrate the power of the New Business Model Principle  "Chain-wide Collaboration" against competition and strengthening the chain's ability to reach new markets. The benefits of incorporating these six principles are to make value chains more "equitable, durable, efficient, reliable, adaptable and credible" to both buyers and small-scale producers.

In the photo, CIAT was leading a participatory workshop using the LINK Toolkit Methodology. The photo was of an exercise during the workshop to demonstrate the power of the New Business Model Principle “Chain-wide Collaboration” against competition and strengthening the chain’s ability to reach new markets. The benefits of incorporating these six principles are to make value chains more “equitable, durable, efficient, reliable, adaptable and credible” to both buyers and small-scale producers.

IDEO Human Centered Design (HCD):

Phases are inspired by IDEO’s Human-Centered Design methodology, “Hear, Create, Deliver.” See related HCD project from our initial planning stage.

Nordstrom Innovation Lab:

Combines approaches of Design Thinking, Lean Startup and Agile Process.


Mayan Creation Cycle:  My translation of referenced link: (1) Origin or source (2) Polarity (3) Movement (4) Measure (5) Integration (6) Adding time and space (7) Resonance between two polarities (8) Prototype or test (9) Refine or scale (10) Apply practically (11) Integrate with existing system (12) Stabilize (13) Review and reflect.

Dragon Dreaming Process: Dream, Plan, Do, Celebrate.


Wrong turns or failure modes

  • Side-selling without feedback or communication on why or how to improve.
  • Belated feedback – feedback comes too late for person to incorporate into current efforts causing unnecessary expenditure of time and resources.
  • “Devils Advocate” when one party creates resistance to an idea without offering alternative solutions. This tends to create hurdles to action or sometimes reverses current progress.
  • Trashing – putting others down in order to defeat or punish for individual gain. No learning or greater understanding is achieved in this mode.
  • Taking short-cuts for individual gain.  Cutting corners or doing less than a thorough job may jeopardize the entire group for self interest or personal gains. For example, a farmer may add moldy pods to a batch to get more wage, yet jeopardizes cooperatives reputation for regional quality.


Collaboration Links:

SRRI. Lessons in Mass Collaboration

Interaction Institute. Networks for Change: Collaboration and Cooperation.

Interaction Institute. Collaboration, Cooperation and Do-ocracy

100 Open.The Five Behaviors of Successful Collaborators.

100 Open. Exploring the Power of Creative Collaboration

Vorely.  Linking Worlds: New Business Models for Sustainable Trading Relations between Smallholders and Formalized Markets, 2009.


Foundational Terms and Concepts:

Conscious Trade:

Awake, aware, agency

How can industries operate with an amplified whole system outlook, with decision making between actors incorporating collective, firm and individual outcomes? As the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, by mobilizing the power of coordinated action we can unlock potential and flow of value across the chain, creating shared value and illuminating true impact.

The entry point for enterprises is awareness of your context, seeing your place in the system to know what is possible and choosing to have personal agency and affect leverage points within your sphere of influence, and by doing so realizing greater ripple effects. Our tool seeks to create the container for this virtuous cycle to occur in an interactive and replicable manner, prioritizing voice, choice and continuous improvement, beginning with small one to one interactions that aggregate to create change across a system of trade, transferring value equitably and sustainably.


Three founding members of Yellow Seed studied at Bainbridge Graduate Institute – the pioneer school in sustainable business, where the culture of co-creative learning is rooted in the idea that  students and faculty build the learning experience together.  “The faculty does not see students as empty vessels ready to receive their vast knowledge, but as partners in learning with value and experience to add to the class.“ Five Practices to Save the World. Co-creation quickly taught us to “turn our complaints into commitments for action” (Kegan & Lahey, 2001) and that we can “lead from any chair” (Zander & Zander, 2000).

At its core co-creation invites participation from individuals within and outside an organization or group to “share, combine and renew each other’s resources and capabilities to create value through new forms of interaction, service and learning mechanisms” Wikipedia. Co-creation often increases the capacity for innovation and flow of ideas by tapping into a larger pool of creative and intellectual skills.

Co-creation is at the heart of the open-source-software movement, where users have full access to the source code and are empowered to make their own changes and improvements.

8 Forms of Capital:

Ethan Roland & Gregory Landua asked the question, “What would it look like if we re-designed the global financial system using permaculture principles?” and “What if our financial system looked more like an ecosystem?” Eight Forms of Capital emerged out of the desire to articulate and describe a system of ‘valuable resources’ which an individual or entity could gather or exchange. The Oxford American Dictionary states that capital is, “wealth in the form of money or other assets” and a “valuable resource of a particular kind.”


This diagram details the 8 forms of currency associated with 8 forms of capital.

This diagram details the 8 forms of currency associated with 8 forms of capital.

Created Shared Value (CSV):

Creating shared value (CSV) is a business concept first introduced in Harvard Business Review article Strategy & Society: The Link between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility.[1] The concept was further expanded in the January 2011 follow-up piece entitled “Creating Shared Value: Redefining Capitalism and the Role of the Corporation in Society”.[2]  Wikipedia

The central premise behind creating shared value is that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are mutually dependent. Recognizing and capitalizing on these connections between societal and economic progress has the power to unleash the next wave of global growth and to redefine capitalismWikipedia


Sharing Economy:

By making existing assets and needs visible, Yellow Seed opens the door to the conversation of how to engage and share resources more effectively.

The sharing economy (sometimes also referred to as the peer-to-peer economy, mesh, collaborative economy, collaborative consumption) is a socio-economic system built around the sharing of human and physical assets. It includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organizations. These systems take a variety of forms, often leveraging information technology to empower individuals, corporations, non-profits and government with information that enables distribution, sharing and reuse of excess capacity in goods and services.[1] A common premise is that when information about goods is shared, the value of those goods may increase, for the business, for individuals, and for the community.[2]Wikipedia

Do-ocracy: is a loose and relatively new governance term meaning if you’d like to see something happen, then take action with transparency and communication. Transparency means doing so in a way that others could get involved or participate if they wanted. Clear communication means letting people know it’s happening, and giving them a chance to give feedback before taking action.



Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey. “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work; Seven Languages for Transformation.” Jossey-Bass 2001.

McKay, A. 2009. ‘Assets and chronic poverty: Background paper.’ Chronic Poverty Research Centre Working Paper No. 100. Available at (Cited from Seville, 2010)

Seville, Don. Under what conditions are value chains effective tools for pro-poor development? IIED, 2010.

Vorley, Bill. Linking Worlds: New Business Models for Sustainable Trading Relations between Smallholders and Formalized Markets, IIED, 2009.

Zander, Ben and Rosamund Zander. “The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life.” 2000.

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