From triangles to circles: Transforming group culture

“How do you transform a group used to hierarchies into a horizontal structure? How do you build a collaborative culture?”

I’ve been involved with collectives and intentional communities for more than a decade. Now I work at Loomio as part of the Enspiral network. This year Rich and I from Loomio are out in the world giving talks, hosting workshops, and meeting with activists, community organisers, and people interested in new ways of working, and the question above always comes up.

I don’t claim to have the answers, although I have some ideas:

The importance of relationships
Change is hard if we don’t know each other. For what I’ve experienced, relationships are the most important ingredient in a collaborative group. I need to trust the others in order to be willing to share with them. I need to know them in order to trust them.

Try to make time for the group to build that trust. Generate a space where people can feel safe to be themselves and to be present with one another. Spending time outside the workspace, like a day in nature, a shared meal and laughter, or stories by a fire. Somewhere where people can get to know each others’ life stories, passions and fears. Create spaces to be vulnerable and open, to play, make, act talk and listen together.

To build community, build a sense of belonging.

The fire starter
I think that for any change to happen in a group, it takes at least one person in the room to feel the dissatisfactions and name the issues, making it visible to others so it can be addressed. If the group is willing to change, it takes a person (or a few) to hold the space for the conversations and processes that will bring on the change.

Have informal talks with the others in the group, or call for formal meetings to discuss the issues. How are we working together? What do we like and dislike about it?

In a hierarchical organisation, trying to change the structure can be hard if the person has no power in the line of command. Finding allies with higher ranks that are willing to listen and push for a change is a good strategy in that case.

Agree that a change is needed
If you sense that a different way of working and being together would be better, and you have the power to change it, first hold the space for others to reflect about it. Invite everyone into those conversation. Agree before you co-create.

What do you see happening? How do you feel? What are your needs? How can we create a structure that works for everyone? Host conversations where everyone can openly talk about the issues and agree that a change is needed and wanted. Then you can get into visualising a better way, and finding the steps to get there together.

Bring in someone from outside
You may want to bring in an external coach to uncover the issues, agree on a future vision, and help the group build structures and processes to move forward.

External, neutral observers are not invested in your group struggles, so they can hold up a more objective mirror to reflect on group behaviours.

Other groups may like to do it from the inside and learn on the go.

Experiment, Reflect, Iterate
Once you have the big picture, agree on some small first steps to start. You don’t need to change everything in one go, I actually highly recommend that you don’t.

Think together on a few simple things that you can try out to move towards a more collaborative culture together. Set a time frame for the ‘experiment’ to run.

Maybe just agreeing on a process to make your decisions more inclusive. Setting time aside to plan and reflect together on your work every two weeks. Or going on a retreat all together to dive deeper into the ideas and find interventions that everyone can have a say on.

At the end of your given trial time (let’s say a month) come back together and reflect on it. How did we feel? What worked? What didn’t? What can be changed? How can it be better?

Iterate on the format, set a new time frame, try it out again… reflect, iterate and keep on moving this way. For more details you can read about Agile Retrospectives.

Step back so others can step forward
Moving away from hierarchy requires leaders to step back and followers to step in. If you are the one instigating/leading the change, many will look towards you for answers.

In the conversations I’m having I frequently hear “But a lot of people just want to be told what to do”… maybe it’s just that people are not used to doing it in another way.

We all come from a hierarchical society, from home, to school, to work, to country. Also adding gender, abilities, race, and so on… If you are closer to the top you are used to telling other what to do. And if you are closer to the bottom you are used to being told what to do, but rarely asked What do you want to do? What do you think about this? How could we do this in a different way?

Learning to work in a more autonomous way takes time, patience and care. Once change is on its way, the group seems comfortable with a new structure and ways of being together, you (and anyone in a leader role) may want to step back and encourage others to step in. For example, give everyone a turn to facilitate a meeting, project or working group.

Experience and knowledge is built over time, but none of us can build it if we don’t have a chance to try, fail and try again. So be prepared to encourage and mentor those with less experience or confidence. Distributing responsibility is a great way to change the power dynamics.

Build structures for support and accountability
We all need different ways of working, some of us feel more empowered to be self driven, others may be less confident and need more encouragement. Some of us need a fluid structure and thrive by adapting to change on the go, others may need more clear lines, steps to follow and time frames.

In a collaborative place we want to build for all of us. So, think on the structure that makes sense for everyone’s needs. As you would be (hopefully) building that structure with everyone, that shouldn’t be a hard task. However, we may miss the point at times, some people will feel lost and out of place, others may step in too hard.

Create a structure that cares for everyone, and that also encourages everyone to care for others. Have systems for people to self reflect, share and listen, be accountable, and be supported. (For some ideas on how to do this I invite you to read about Loomio’s stewarding system)

I believe that collaborative groups thrive in an environment where everyone is heard and cared for, in a structure that embraces flexibility, experimentation and change. So if you make space for relationships to flourish, have regular group reflection time and are open to iteration, then you are already on your way.