10 ways to make groups work better

Transformative principles and practices I’ve uncovered in 3 years of working in a boss-less environment.


2015 is my fourth year of being involved in Enspiral. There are many ways to describe us as an organisation, but the way I like to think of it is this :

We’re a network of over 250 social entrepreneurs designing and prototyping a system of work which enables people to focus their energies on what is most meaningful to them — solving some of the biggest challenges of our time.

This purpose has lead to some pretty different organisational practices and structures which are radically non-hierarchical, focussed on empowerment instead of control, with values of transparency, openness and humanness. We invest in becoming as effective at group process such as decision-making and distributing leadership as possible.

This year I’ve been working to turn some of what we’ve become successful at into documentation and experiences that can be adopted by other groups and organisations.

My mission in my professional life is to make participatory process joyful, and make it ubiquitous in how humans create value.

The past 4 months I’ve been travelling around the US and Canada translating Enspiral.

I’ve done this through running Immersive Workshops, giving talks, hosting meet-ups and generally taking every opportunity to interact with people to try and understand what our secret sauce is.

**Note :: I’m running a workshop on October 12 in Oakland on this — scroll down to bottom of article for details and booking**

Here’s what I’ve uncovered so far — 5 principles and 5 practices that can transform the experience of working in groups and collaborative endeavour.

Disclaimer : There are no silver bullets that are going to make collaboration painless overnight. It really comes down to practicing good human interaction at every chance you get.


Cultural principles :-

1. If you are operating in a group decision-making space then you are thinking in the interest of the group — not just yourself as an individual. A key frame here is not ‘what do I want?’ or ‘what should we do?’, but instead ‘what makes sense here?’. This of course doesn’t mean that we become self-sacrificing, but that you blend your interest with that of the group.

2. Difference as a resource — if someone disagrees it’s because they have found a legitimate problem with the proposal that they want to be part of solving. Difference is a strength not a weakness. Dissent is valuable. At Enspiral the expectation that comes with disagreeing with a proposal is that you become invested in finding a better solution that works for everyone.

3. Creative reconciliation- compromising is a lose:lose situation. Instead reach for creative reconciliation. This potential that comes with effective group work — the potential to create new possibilities that no one person could have come up with on their own — is the whole deal. This is why we do collaboration — because we believe that groups are more generative and intelligent that individuals. But this means you need to hold loosely to what you propose, to be open to a better solution which means a different definition of success - you don’t win when you’re the one who comes up with the great idea, you win when the group becomes authentically generative.

4. Feelings are information too- create explicit invitations to express feelings — even if they are inarticulate, they are a valuable source of intelligence. We’re conditioned in the workplace to pretend like “I haven’t got feelings. I left them at home! I’m at work now and I have my special uniform on that says No Feelings.” But this forces people to become less than human, which is detrimental fostering the care and high trust that lubricates group work.

5. Humans flourish in flexibility — a community is not a monolithic thing — it is full of contradictions and there are no solutions that are going to fit everyone perfectly. Humans need flexibility to be able to flourish and show up with their full selves. Working in group intelligence is as inherently messy as any other human endeavour and pretending otherwise is just going to get you into trouble.

Cultural practices :-

1. Check-ins and Check-outs — starting and finishing every meeting with every voice being heard by everyone and space held to express feelings is such a simple thing, and probably the most important thing we do every day to foster effective collaboration. A Check-in or Check-out is framed by a question for everyone to respond to in turn. It can be as simple as ‘how are you feeling today?’ and include things like ‘what is important for me to happen in this meeting so that I feel satisfied at the end?’. The vital thing is that it’s human and personal. It allows everyone to get present and creates a dynamic where everyone’s voice is as valid as everyone else’s.

2. Setting agendas collectively- allowing everyone to participate in setting the agenda for meetings might seem like an inefficient thing to do. However the clarity it brings and the things that get surfaced through the whole group thinking about what it is important to discuss, rather that just one person, is incredibly valuable and actually saves time in the long run. Even just checking in to clarify purpose can help.

3. Reflecting back — paraphrase what you’ve heard from people to check you’ve understood what they’re expressing. This is a practical way to ensure you’re clear and it feels great! Often, what escalates disagreements in groups is either people feeling like they can’t express their feelings, or that they are not being heard by the group (which leads to feelings of frustration, defensiveness and isolation). Thoughtful reflecting back can break down these dynamics super fast.

4. Look for the common thread- sometimes in a group conversation it seems like there is no convergence happening — just people scrapping and speaking their individual minds. By diving under the surface of what’s being said, and instead listening for what people are communicating is important to them, you can find an underlying place of commonality to operate from. Expressing this through reflecting back can be a powerful tool for convergence and finding new possibilities.

5. Create space for the meta conversation — as often as is practical, make time to review ‘how did this meeting go today?’ ‘What pieces were most alive and what could we improve on for next time?’ ‘What impact has this discussion had on me, on the group?’. Holding this meta conversation is the fastest practice I know to dramatically improve the quality of conversation. This is both because of the insights generated, and also because it gets everyone on board with the job of improving interaction.


Video from Enspiral Immersive Workshop in Montreal in June this year

Upcoming Workshops :

We’re running an Enspiral Immersive Workshop in the Bay Area in October to share the highlights of what we’ve learned about practicing collaboration through Enspiral and the organisational innovations we’ve been developing. Each workshop is strictly limited to 20 participants.


Enspiral Immersive Afternoon :: Monday 12 October

1:00–5:00pm at Impact Hub Oakland

Tickets $39 + Eventbrite fee Pre-Sale or $45 cash on the door

http://enspiral-immersive-workshop.eventbrite.com