Microsolidarity Part 3: The Reciprocity Game

This is part 3 of a 4 part series about ‘microsolidarity’: a plan for people supporting each other to do more meaningful work. The other parts are here: 1, 2, 4

Cartoon characters from “Captain Planet & The Planeteers”

Crews: when they’re good they’re really very good

Around ~5–8 people is a sweet spot of high impact and low coordination cost. Our little Loomio co-op is one example: we’ve raised more than $1M in ethical financing and supported 1000s of groups to be more inclusive and more effective in their governance. This is a scale of impact that I cannot possibly have on my own.

A good Crew is not only super efficient. It can also be a potent site for personal development. In a Crew you can experience human difference as a resource, which is our best antidote to bigoted tribalism. It’s a place to practice multiple Partnerships simultaneously, a rich source of belonging, acceptance, recognition, and accountability, a place to start coming out of my traumatised patterns of behaviour. My Crew is where my values gain nuance and complexity. One example: I only learned the crucial distinction between fairness and sameness by practicing a tonne of collective decision making around money.

In my original design criteria I said I want to work in a way that produces courage and meaning. You begin to see how Crews play such an important role when you view courage and meaning as social phenomena.

Simply, I believe courage is developed when we encourage each other, with our enthusiastic listening, praising, challenging, cuddling, gazing, regarding, acknowledging and reminding. It’s a fucking discouraging world out there! I need almost constant deposits of encouragement to maintain a positive balance in the courage account.

Meaning, too. I make sense of a phenomenon by considering how my peers respond to it. If I know them very well, and I know myself well, I can interpolate the meaning of an event from the scattered data of my peers’ reactions. My stable membership in a few Crews gives me great confidence in my ability to make sense of this chaotic world.

Unfortunately, Crews are often dysfunctional

Because we’re infected with individualism, we lack the techniques, behaviours, language, beliefs, ideas, tools, and nuanced values required to thrive in multiplicity. As a result, many small groups suffer common ailments: mini dictatorship, hidden hierarchy, too much consensus, not enough consensus, toxic culture, unresolved conflict, repetitive trauma, equal power dogma… We can easily get stuck in the triangular domination patterns, or the circular design-by-committee patterns.

Nati and I have spent the past 2 years helping groups to recover from some of these dysfunctions. I’m writing a book of practical solutions for the common failure patterns of collaborative groups. Hopefully these ideas can help a little, but what’s needed most of all is practice.

I’m curious what happens when we start new groups, already inoculated against the most common strains of the individualism virus. So in 2019 I plan to start a bunch more Crews so I can learn how to start them well. Here’s the first draft of the experiment I intend to run. I’m already looking forward to coming back here in a year to discover which ideas were totally misguided. Yay, practice! 🏋🏾‍

A Sequence to Crystallise new Crews

The first step is to start a Congregation localised to one geographic region (I’m starting in Western Europe). Nati and I will invite about 20 or 30 trusted people to a first gathering where we can co-design the minimum viable structure to govern our community.

As a starting point I suggest our purpose could be something like “people supporting each other to do more meaningful work”. That is, peers mobilising our diverse strengths to look after our peers, not institutional, paternalistic, or condescending support. “Meaningful work” is intentionally subjective, inviting a complicated amalgam of different purposes: planting trees, raising kids, writing software; if it is truly meaningful to you, it’s probably worth doing. And “more” is ambiguous in a good way: maybe you need more meaning in your work, or you’ve already found your meaningful work but you want to do more of it, or maybe you want to shift the whole global system of work to be more meaningful. All the options are good!

If the 20–30 people subsequently invite 1 or 2 more, we’ll have a first cohort of up to 90 people, which should be a big enough dating pool for complementary Crew-mates to find each other. Hopefully we can immediately launch a handful of new Crews and run many micro-experiments in parallel.

I suspect the first thing to do within a Crew is to establish psychological safety, a space where all the parts of your networked Self are welcome to show up. From there, the job is just to respond to the needs in the group.

Most of the people we plan to invite have already got a sense of what work is most meaningful to them, but almost all of us are financially precarious. So I’m interested in moving quite rapidly from emotional intimacy to economics. An easy place to start would be to disrupt the money taboo and expose our financial parts to each other: how much income do you earn? Where does it come from? What lifestyle would support you to be at your best? How much does that cost? If you need to earn more, are there some creative new tactics you can try? If you already earn enough, are there opportunities for you to get the same money with less compromise in your values, or more freedom in your time, or with more social impact? If you have a surplus, what needs to be true for you to want to share it with your crewmates?

Personally I’m interested in building economic solidarity, because I think we can do more good when we’re in a position to be generous. But maybe the rest of the Congregation will have different priorities. Mostly I’m interested in experiments that produce deep deep trust.

The Reciprocity Game

Building trust is not rocket science. It’s mostly about reciprocity i.e. building a track record of doing each other favours. Here are some versions of the reciprocity game I’ve tried. If you know some more, please share ‘em!

Level 1: Listening

Sit in a circle. One at a time, someone says something that is true for them right now, e.g. “I’m excited about x” or “I feel sad because Y”. All you have to do is pay attention, listen to each person in turn, then eventually you say something that is true for you. If everyone listens to everyone, congratulations, you all just earned 1 reciprocity point.

Level 2: Money

One person talks about (A) the work they do for money, and (B) the work that is most meaningful to them. Discuss together how they might bring A and B into closer alignment. Now, anyone can make a small gesture to help make this happen, e.g. share a new perspective, offer a design process or productivity improvement, make an introduction, encourage them to keep trying even though it is hard. If you offer something: hooray, 5 points for you. If you asked for something you need, hey! 5 points for you too! And BONUS! you both get an extra point for talking and listening with mutual respect and positive regard.

Level 3: Consistency

It’s pretty easy to do something nice one time and have a momentary surge of good feelings. If you really want to excel at the reciprocity game though, focus on consistency.

Either in a Partnership (2 people) or in a Crew (up to 8), practice meeting once a month (virtually or in person). Reflect on where you’ve been and envision where you might go next. (You can do this during or before the meeting.) Take turns to share your reflections.

Everyone gets 1 point for the first meeting, 3 for the second, and 5 points for every meeting after that. 5 points deducted for missing a meeting.

If you want a little more structure, here are some documented processes you can try:

  • Feelz Circle (3 processes for sharing emotional care between friends/ comrades/ lovers)
  • Care Pod (personal-and-professional development in small groups, a new practice in development at Enspiral, based on Intentional Change Theory)
  • Stewardship (peer support system for Partnerships)
  • The Elephants (long term personal development for Crews)

Level 4: Conflict

Now we’re getting into the harder levels. Conflict is a great way to strengthen ties. It goes like this: you do something thoughtless, or miscommunicate in a way that upsets somebody you care about. They get hurt. Then you apologise, take responsibility, and attempt to make amends. They listen and forgive. Woohoo! You transformed your conflict into greater connection: 10 reciprocity points each! Careful with this one though, because you lose 20 points each if you don’t find a mutually agreeable resolution.

Level 5: Co-owners

After you’ve played a few rounds of the earlier levels, you might be ready to play Co-owners. Start with an idea, maybe it’s a new tech platform or a community project or a commune. Maybe it’s a savings pool or lending circle or livelihood pod for sharing credit, income or savings with your trusted peers. Whatever the idea, find some people who want to work on it with you. Now, when you formally incorporate as a company or an association or co-op, whatever, share the legal ownership with a few people. Congratulations, 100 reciprocity points! Whatever happens, this relationship is going to form a part of your life story.


Okay that is all fun and cool and optimistic, but if you’re reading with a critical eye you’ll notice that there are some parts of this proposal that run against the grain of a lot of progressive and radical thinking about social change. In the next part of this article, I’ll name some of the ways this recipe is unorthodox. Then y’all can help me discover if I’m the good kind of heretic, or the very very bad kind. 👹

On to Part 4. An Unorthodox Recipe For Social Change


This story is published with no rights reserved: do what you like with the text. You can find it in many file formats on my website.