The Human Operating Layer: creating networks that collaborate and care

How do we create healthy networks of collaboration and care?

There is what I have come to call a human operating layer (HOL), or system, to everything we do. It is the layer of human interaction that exists over our physical infrastructures. It is our operating system: how we interact in our workplaces, how we make use of technology, how we collaborate on projects, how we communicate and hold each other accountable.

It is the layer of how we do “human” on earth. Whether it is at school, university, and other institutions of learning, friendship circles, communities, families, short term projects, or in the workplace. This HOL is invisible; and difficult to diagnose, define or measure. But it is there.

In the context of work, school and family (i.e. where we spend the majority of our lives), I am beginning to learn that the presence of a healthy, resilient HOL defines whether we co-create in an evolving, joyous and collaborative way, or whether our projects and work fall flat on their faces. It is not enough to have the latest technology. It is not enough to have state-of-the-art classrooms and innovative education materials. It is not enough to offer great work opportunities and a sleek management structure. The HOL is what unlocks human potential, kindness and thriving.

Many groups are clocking onto this — and new experiments in building a healthy HOL are taking place in the margins, often without a physical infrastructure at all. Sometimes it comes along with talk of “company culture” and “learning ethos” which attempt to put a finger on this layer of reality. But I think it extends beyond the buzzwords, deeply into what it means to be human all together.

How do we create healthy, resilient human operating layers?

What are some ingredients that make a healthy HOL, I hear you ask? Some things stand out to me: accountability, and care are two ingredients that have crop up again and again, and are essential. Shared vision, purpose and mission are also essential — and can even take the place of leadership, or accompany leadership as a motivating force. Shared commitment to rhythms, showing up, doing the work, and seeing work through are also important. Transparency and clear, compassionate communication and a commitment to conflict resolution, when conflicts arise.

I also increasingly believe that a dedication to surfacing power-over relationships, illuminating hierarchy, and not ignoring the link between social, political and economic oppression and what happens when groups of us associate together, is central to a healthy HOL. When we come together in small groups, we often find ourselves playing out the larger patterns of society. Maintaining an awareness of this and continuing to do the work to heal these patterns is part of HOL health.

At the same time, leadership is also a vital ingredient — a leadership vacuum does not a healthy HOL make. But moving to models of servant leadership — and cycling “leaders” in a group (whether for different projects, roles, turns to facilitate, etc.) keeps a healthy flow of human energy and power dynamics running through the group.

Something I’ve observed in workplaces and other communities when setting HOL culture are ingredients such as “creativity” and“collaboration”. These to me seem much more like products of a healthy HOL, the formation of which is catalysed by the presence of essential ingredients. These are the behaviours and culture that will arise if the HOL is prioritised and kept well functioning from the start.

Seeding and spreading the HOL: a science and an alchemy

Weaving the HOL is a work of both science and alchemy. The science is that there are ingredients, protocols and tools, different in each context, that are needed in specific ways, measurements and times, to catalyse the collaborative nature of a group. If you imagine a social ‘fabric’ being woven between members of a group, it is the threads needed to make a fabric that stays. Or in a scientific experiment, you build a protocol out of a combination of basic materials, ingredients and processes that have worked elsewhere and makes sense in your head.

But every scientist knows that even when everything is precisely measured and accounted for, an experiment still often fails. There is something, a sort of quality, that emerges from adjustment, listening and intuition to the specific context of your experiment, which contributes to its success. And with the HOL, there is a human layer — something that is allowed to emerge from the space created, in the intuitive and emotional realms — that is beyond ingredients and science. This quality of intuition and beyond the measurable is what I like to refer as alchemy. The word ‘alchemy’ is relevant, as it refers to the “seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination”.

A case study: 3 days facilitating the weaving of a fresh HOL with a youth programme in Sweden

One of the self-organised, bossless groups, sharing dreams and building a collective project.

A couple of months ago, I co-facilitated a 3-day long programme for a group of budding social entrepreneurs aged 18–28 on a 10-month programme called YIP in Sweden. The theme of the programme was “building collaborative projects and entrepreneurial ecosystems that care”.

Essentially, this was about facilitating the formation of a collaborative, healthy and resilient HOL moving forward. The group had spent between 3–7 months together already (part of the group had actually had to leave with zero notice at the 3-month mark, from what was meant to be a continuous 10-month programme, due to Sweden’s changing immigration laws). Thus, there was great humanity between the members of the group and certainly great levels of intimacy and trust — but also a level of fragmentation, due to the inconsistency of time together.

There’s also something to say here that the quality between friends, and peers, can be quite a different quality to that of co-workers and co-creators, which was discussed at various points over the 3 days. When you enter a working relationship with someone, there can be something very meaningful about the level of accountability and commitment you take on. This isn’t always the case — but for a healthy and collaborative HOL, it is essential.

The commitment is in the acknowledgement that you will be making decisions, sharing ideas, and creating things together with this person. That requires, increasingly over time, a level of vulnerability, authenticity and cooperation that isn’t always necessary to move into within friendships. Relationships seem to leap-frog in the face of tackling a challenge together, or facing adversity — and when founding a project, or taking on a big piece of work together, the chances this will happen are very high.

The question for the group over these 3 days and beyond, was: How can we go from a group of people, each with individual projects and ideas, to a mutually accountable and interdependent network, supporting collective dreams and projects moving forward? How can we collectively build a new quality of HOL: a collaborative network of care?

Tools vs humans

Often the “future of work” and “non-hierarchical organising” and “collaborative xyz” workshops seem to have a real focus on tools and processes. But underneath all that, it’s the humans, and the mutuality, understanding, vulnerability and trust between them that really makes it real. Within Enspiral, the open collaborative network I contribute to, we often say “humans are more important than structures”. But since structures are easy to generalise, but the humans and the HOL certainly are not, often we end up speaking a lot about the former.

The great thing about a multi-day workshop, is that there is space for emergence beyond words and giving a talk. And this is where the importance of the science and alchemy of creating that space, which facilitates embodiment, vulnerability and authenticity, comes in. This is so interesting to me — what are the parts that all added together and managed to create that? What is it, beyond the exercises, beyond the words, beyond the plans, that make the HOL emerge, and crystallise?

My reflections tell me it’s a combination: the stories and examples you share, the practises and group processes engaged, and the ways of being and doing that you yourself, as a facilitator, embody. But most of all, it is the quality of being, listening and seeing each other that makes the difference, that as a facilitator you can have a role in seeding. This all sets the scene for the creation of a new quality of HOL.

Being able to embody that way of being with your co-facilitator(s) comes in important as well. Here is an opportunity to “walk the talk” — for example, how do you and your co-facilitator(s) demonstrate collaboration and pass control and leadership between you? Do you trust each other, give each other mutual support and care, and step back for each other to take the lead?

Collaborative dreaming and collective creation: from “my” to “our”

One focus for the week was on collaborative dreaming and co-creation. How do we let go of our individually born dreams and allow co-creation to emerge? How are all voices heard and true collaboration achieved? How do we move from our attachments to things needing to be the way we imagine them in our head, to projects that respond to the environment, and the emergence between the team? And how do we heal our relationship to work, achievement and finance so that celebration is present in all we do?

We provided participants with a “menu” of options for our following days together — and opened the floor for voting.

First, it was important to connect the group members with their individual visions and their worlds within. Their personal qualities, ways of working and being. Some of the frameworks used were adapted from a collection of practises called Dragon Dreaming, pioneered by John Croft in Australia. By connecting to the qualities of being a Dreamer, Planner, Doer or Celebrator (or bits of all 4), participants were able to start recognising their part in a diverse whole of collaboration — and the need, and quality of, diverse working styles and gifts. Looking around, it was exciting to see that there were roughly equal distributions of self-identified Dreamers, Planners, Doers and Celebrators — and the conversations that arose from reflecting on the challenges and strengths of the different qualities, were very rich.

From there, we went through a collective dreaming process, which identified projects within the group that majorities of the group were attracted to work on and with. These “dream-holders” or project “founders” then went through a process of letting go of their dream, to allow the group dreaming process to . One participant reflected:

It was such a relief to be able to let go of my dream and idea, and know that it would now be held by many others, and be out of my control.

With group projects in place (ranging from tasks to full blown project ideas), collective learning and small group processes started to emerge. Creating project plans and longer-term strategies catalysed accountability, and solidified roles — or parts in a smaller whole. Defining roles, strengths, complementarities, commitments and accountability together allowed the recognised diversity of a group that leads to a functioning system of parts. The collective dreaming and collaborative projects were to make up part of the infrastructure that could then support the whole-group network of collaboration and care.

The one time we turned to Powerpoint…

An emerging HOL that serves the needs of the group

Finally, we turned to collectively identifying the tools, frameworks and rhythms that could support and sustain the HOL. And rather than paste the existing tools and human technologies I have experienced in my networks, this was about presenting alternatives, and creating space for the group to self-organise around and create the patterns that would best serve them.

It’s very interesting for me to observe the variety of HOLs that can emerge, depending on specific needs of the group. What is the “goal” of the human superorganism here? What are the needs and motivations of the individuals in the group, that keep bringing them back to engaging in the network? What is the DNA that is present in each of the human cells, that defines how these cells communicate, adhere, synchronise and conglomerate into tissues, organs, organisms?

For this network, at least for now, the energy and resources that would be flowing through it would not be monetary, but time, connection, care, and physical assets. I’m still undecided about whether monetary value and flow is part of the glue and necessary infrastructure that binds together and maintains strength of the HOL. What I see is various “succession” stages of these HOLs — one can exist in a community or learning group, but to progress on to another level of accountability and coherence, doing work and making right livelihood together seems like an important ingredient.

Explaining the Enspiral superorganism — with dialogue, participatory exercises and live graphic facilitation! Thank you to Sakura!

A wider vision

Whether there was enough time and space created in 3 days to weave enough of a new HOL for it to persist and take off, will become clear over future months. I’m grateful to have a group to explore, learn and experiment alongside as my understanding of the science and alchemy that catalyse HOLs deepens and broadens.

This work deeply excites me as I see a new age of ‘Human Technology’ emerging. We may not have to rebuild the physical infrastructures, rely on technology to save the day (on its own) or start all new companies to realise the more beautiful world that many of us see as possible. I’m interested now in how to keep serving and weaving the many local, and one larger global, HOLs that are emerging. This new human operating system has the power to unlock our greatest potential, talents, kindness, compassion and keep us asking: what does it mean to be human?

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