Taking the first step.
It’s easy to talk about collaboration and community. It’s easy to dream about how the world could be. Every organisation makes the claim that they are catalysing change and impact. However, these words need to be lived and embodied before they can be truly understood and manifested.
During our inaugural IO Retreat, the IO Collective transformed from being an abstract concept into a living and breathing movement. We moved from talking and dreaming towards doing and experiencing.
In this article I will share with you the essence of what happened from my perspective; what I felt, what I did, why I did it and what I wish for the IO Collective as we continue to evolve and grow…
How this all started…
The spark for founding the IO collective was ignited three years ago when I faced an explosive moment in both my professional career and my personal life. Everything erupted and I was hit by an uncontrollable wave of emotion. After the anger and sadness passed I realised that I was living completely unconsciously, unaware of all the unspoken signals storming around me. Since then I have been redesigning my work/life, researching new organisational theories and experimenting with building online and offline communities.
In September last year I read a short article about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly and how this transformation is triggered by an emergent network of self-organising imaginal cells. From this article the IO Collective emerged. I wanted to explore how we could build a completely self-organising, non-hierarchical purpose driven organisation based on a foundation of collaborative and conscious leadership. Could we prototype a whole new community-led architecture?
To explore this concept, I began speaking to many friends and colleagues about what an imaginal economy could look and feel like. Eventually, I realised that the only way to give substance to all of this research and discussion would be to run a tangible experiment. So that’s what I did. I organised the IO Retreat.
The build up and design of the IO Retreat
On the 8th June 2016 more than 40 people from across Europe and world came together for five days on an island region in Greece. I had intentionally invited the most diverse group possible with a full spectrum of skills, cultures, generations, talents and expertise. I also wanted to give the retreat design multiple dimensions. On one hand I wanted the retreat to be participatory, where we co-create our own agenda and experience a truly self-organising culture. On the other hand, after quite a bit of feedback before the retreat, I also had specific projects on the table to provide more direction and substance. Myself and Marcus were planning to present our masterplan for regenerating the Region of Euboea and take small groups to sites such as Faracla, Vlachia and Villa Averoff. We would also have a check in at 9.30am after breakfast and then at 3pm after lunch which will lead us into dinner at 8pm.
For a bit more context, leading up to the retreat I was feeling very lost. I had just overcome a near death experience three months before and I was in a period of questioning everything. The truth is that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted the outcome of the retreat to be. I was unsure whether this retreat should be about launching a movement, running an experiment in collaboration or just an opportunity to crowdsource feedback for our projects in Euboea such as the Farakla Festival and the Innovation Hub / Lab? I was also feeling stressed out by all the logistics and worried about whether the event would break even. During the final days before the retreat I spent a lot of time in the park (running and meditating) trying to let go of my anxiety.
In hindsight, I should have asked for more help in co-designing and facilitating the retreat. I should have been clearer on the purpose of the retreat and I should have given more time to group rituals in the first two days. However, I could just as easily argue that without an abstract brief then I wouldn’t have been able to assemble such a diverse and conscious group of people. Many people came because of the mystery. They were curious to try something different. Ultimately, you just have to trust the co-creation process and be willing to adapt and change things in the moment.
What happened through my eyes…
For those who weren’t able to attend the retreat, I’m going to run through what happened.
On Wed 8th we all arrived to Candili and started with a relaxed dinner and a quick fire sharing circle stating our names, where we live and where we were born.
On the morning of the 9th we began with an embodied workshop where we would get out of our heads, let go of our stresses and connect with ourselves, the ground beneath us and each other. After a short massage in pairs we closed our eyes and then were guided into a collective dance. Then we did a quick few rounds of speed dating questions to spark discussions around our individual agendas, purpose and contribution.
A couple of hours later we gathered for a quick fire co-creation session before lunch. For this session I was expecting everyone to have read the preparatory pdf I sent out and to be ready to instantly pitch in with workshop ideas and self-organise into clusters and teams. In hindsight, this didn’t really work. Instead of the fantastic self-organisation I had envisioned there was a lot of confusion. In fact during this short session one group disbanded, some groups mocked up specific project collaborations and other groups focussed on how to build culture and facilitate the processes of the retreat. One of the key points was that we didn’t know enough about the skills and talents in the room. Everyone needed more context before jumping into anything more specific.
Realising this, the afternoon session was re-focussed on mapping the talent in the room. I gave everyone a blank piece of A4 paper to draw their profile and present back. I had also created a diagram that combined three flows of conscious business, community building and place-making all leading into the Euboea Bioregion Prototype. I had this grand plan that we would finish with an epic campaign to share with the world around #REGENERATION. I also drew out a diagram of boxes that I thought would bring together all the skills, interests and projects that everyone had presented. However, in reality many people felt that they couldn’t put themselves into these boxes. Many people resisted and struggled with the diagram I had drawn. I was rushing ahead in the spirit of ‘let’s make things happen’ and imposing a format and structure before everyone was united around a single approach and methodology.
On the second day (10th) my plan was to step back and let co-creation flow. However, in the morning we had a trip planned to go to Villa Averoff so the day turned into more of a hackathon to explore our innovation lab / hub project rather than continuing to shape the IO vision, values and the agenda of the retreat. We whizzed through the second day talking about Village 3.0, Villa Averoff and a few other potential project ideas, leaving many people who weren’t interested in the Euboea Projects more and more confused and disengaged. Even though I stated repeatedly that everyone was free to suggest ideas / workshops and self-organise into flash IO teams, few people in the group felt empowered to step up. I was becoming slightly frustrated by this and so decided to take the initiative and propose specific teams and projects with pre-selected team leaders.
Some people had told me repeatedly that they felt we were not making the most of the collective talents in the room. I was also beginning to sense that the desire of the group was to build something together as one collective rather than jumping between many different projects / brainstorms / workshops. I felt that I was being pulled in many different directions, all of the time. I would step out of an intense workshop and deep discussion feeling energised and then I would here some negative feedback about people feeling disengaged from the process. I had conversations with people who wanted more direction and clarity on the projects and then there were people who felt we were using the group for our own agenda and should do more to embody the spirit of co-creation. Some nights I went to bed feeling content and excited and other nights I felt like everything was falling apart. The whole journey was like an emotional rollercoaster.
Eventually, I was hit with a moment of clarity.
I had taken up the roles of leader, organiser, participant and facilitator and this had resulted in confusion within myself and everyone around me. It was clear that the working sessions were creating tensions and divisions, while the evenings and meals were keeping everyone inspired and together. The community was flourishing and really deep relationships were being forged. However, my attempt at facilitating (or perhaps forcing) self-organisation had failed. In this moment I knew that if I was to keep the group together, I would need to readjust my approach. I began to seek out feedback on a one-to-one basis and just listen.
An insight : I find that there is a tension that always arises in group situations between the individual desire to drive forward towards action and the collective wisdom to respect the unity and natural flow of the group. Collaborative leadership comes down to the ability to deeply listen and sense when there needs to be more drive (I) and when what is needed is more unity (O).
In many ways the IO name represents this balance of drive and unity, masculine and feminine, individual and collective. If we are to co-create effectively we need to respect and value of all of these elements.
Emerging out of the chaos.
On Sunday morning (12th) I openly and publicly acknowledged my mistakes in designing and facilitating the retreat so far. I had been too project focussed and not allowed enough time for the group to unite around a single vision and purpose. I passed on my role as facilitator to Ilana, Chloe, Steffen, Dan and Kyle.
After that moment everything flowed much better. The first thing we did was check in with each other in groups of three and reflect on what we appreciated about our experience so far and what was holding us back. Then after a relaxing trip to the beach and two long swims, we all participated in one of the most significant rituals / unifying moments of the retreat.
We held a sharing circle where everyone would complete the sentences ‘My dream for us is…’ We passed round a talking stick from the woods and had two scribes who would record in real time what was being shared. We managed to fill two and a half large pages with our collective answers, which would then influence Steffen’s branding workshop.
At the end of this ritual there was a physical group convergence to celebrate what we had just created together.
The funny thing is that after this single ritual we kept to time, worked as a self-organising team and had great workshops with very useful outcomes. The confusion was gone. Everyone was playing to their strengths. This was a great lesson for me. Before we can drive forward and transform the world we first need to gather in a circle and unite through rituals like the one that Kyle kindly facilitated and shared with the group. If I could rewind the clock, I would definitely place this workshop much sooner in the agenda, perhaps in the morning of second day or the afternoon of the first day.
The final presentations
On the final day after lunch we gathered at 3pm for presentations. At this point I was thinking more about the unity of the group rather than any specific outcomes or projects.
However, during the presentations I was genuinely amazed at how much had been explored. I was really inspired by the idea of describing a conscious business by looking at what is not a conscious business. Suddenly the definition became much more concrete and real for me.
I also liked the fact that we had progressed on the Innovation Lab, Village 3.0 and the technical challenge of figuring out how best for all of us to stay connected after the retreat. And finally, there was an opportunity for Christiana to present her vision for her mountain village and The Meraki People, which later resulted in Tom offering to organise a small fundraise to support her through the startup phase of the project. If we reach our goal he will adopt a real world monkey for the IO Community!
Monkey-business aside, in a large 40 person retreat it is impossible to be present in every workshop, team and conversation. That’s why it is so important to have regular playback presentation sessions to cross-pollinate and make sure no one feels like they have missed out. It also inspires everyone to want to commit and do more.
At the beginning of the retreat I didn’t know whether we would make a great team. It felt safer to think of the IO as an experiment. In this final presentation session, I really began to feel the potential of the IO Collective. I began to believe that we were at the beginning of co-creating something special.
Despite all of the ebbs and flows of the retreat we had aligned around a shared vision to ‘Unite and Transform’ (Steffen is working on polishing of our IO branding presentation / visual identity / strategy). Not only did we generate some meaningful work outcomes, but we also had an amazing time and connected deeply as a community. We even managed to create an art installation for the closing ceremony and after our final sharing circle we held a group hugs for many minutes with a soulful tune that seemed to appear at just the right moment. The only time I experienced anything like this was at Burning Man. Somehow, we managed to draw out this spirit, energy and intensity in a small Greek village with only 40 people.
I think the magic of what happened over these five days came out of the diversity and consciousness of the group. At the core of the IO is a simple belief that when you bring together people who are willing to listen to each other, be present in a space and genuinely co-create then anything is possible.
Throughout the retreat I kept hearing everyone say how amazing this group of people was. Every day each one of us would collide with someone new and be amazed by their stories. The funny thing is that on paper I wouldn’t say our group was hugely successful or influential by the world’s standards. I never turned anyone away who applied for this retreat (until the last week when we reached full capacity). There was no long application and initiation process like with the Thousand Network. This event was pretty inclusive and open and it really worked.
One of my key conclusions is that you don’t need to be elitist or closed when building a high quality community. The IO story was enough to draw in the right mix of people.
Why I chose to give it all away…
On the final day I was really inspired by what had been achieved, not just in terms of projects and presentations, but in terms of the level of intimacy and connectedness of the group. I found myself thinking a lot about leadership and what it meant.
I was inspired by how many things we managed to accomplish together, without me needing to drive the process.
I realised that for a long time I had been talking about self-organisation, but actually what I was doing was crowd-sourcing, not collaborating. Ultimately, deep collaboration is about more than just exchanging ideas and freelancing with friends on client projects. It is about letting go of the desire to control everything. It is about really trusting others, playing to your strengths and recognising when to step back and commit to empowering others around you to step forward.
For our final sharing circle at 6pm I decided to step up and offer a gift to everyone in the room. I reflected on how many transitions and emotions I had felt and experienced over the past five days. I also spoke about how the IO had now taken on a new life. The IO was no longer my vision. It had evolved beyond my control. It was now a collective, and the highest contribution that I could make as a member of this collective was to embody the values of the IO and step down as the founder / leader.
To get this crazy IO project off the ground it needed my leadership, networking and communication skills. Now what is needed is a kind a loving person who will embody the heart of the community and make sure that the spirit of this retreat is not lost in the months to come.
To avoid having a leadership vacuum, I made the decision to give Ilana the invitation to facilitate this new phase of growth. As the leader and founder of the IO Collective I felt that this would be the most powerful way to demonstrate the importance of sticking to our values and embodying them in the work we do together. I am excited to see what happens next and will continue to play to my strengths, participating in project teams and writing long articles about how this community and movement continues to flourish.
I have seen and experienced many communities and I believe that this single act of either admitting failure or passing on leadership in a conscious and courageous way is essential to building a culture of trust that is contagious and empowering over the long term. Letting go of our ego-response and empowering the people around us is at the core of genuine collaborative leadership. I strongly believe that within an IO there should exist a continuous and fluid distribution of decision-making power, responsibility and accountability. No one person is perfect. No one person has all the answers. We need diversity. We need collaboration. We need to be conscious and to give before we take. We need to empower every member to initiate and grow their own projects and ideas. Without these principles the IO will never be able to make a lasting transformational impact in the world.
A key point to make here is that I am not leaving this community. I am committed to ensuring that the IO Collective continues to grow and thrive. I will play an active role in establishing the processes and structures to keep us all united. I am writing this article and creating yet another pdf to share with everyone.
It really works!
For me the IO Retreat was not only a successful event, it was a complete validation of the power in diversity, collaborative leadership and conscious business / place-making to change the world for the better. The amount of heartfelt hugs that were exchanged at the end of the retreat before the minibus and coach drove away was a powerful moment. I am super excited to work with everyone who came to the retreat and wants to be part of this movement.
My wish for the IO Collective is for all of us to continue working together to push the boundaries of what is possible in the world.
We are rule-breakers. We are risk-takers. And together we can co-create amazing things. However, as we endeavour to transform the world around us we must stay grounded and never forget the importance of unity. We must remind ourselves that the rituals that unite us are just as important as the projects and experiences that drive and transform us. I believe we now have a vision and a story that is truly unique. This retreat now gives us a platform to build an incredible movement and community. If we embody the values of the IO that we have shaped and experienced during this retreat, then anything is possible.
So Welcome to the IO.
Ultimately, our success will depend on the people, processes and projects that we are collectively able to attract, design and initiate. Here are some suggested components that I believe will help us to mature and evolve as a community… (in no particular order, inspired by enspiral, thousand network, make sense and more)
- Decision Making. Let’s use Loomio to make collective decisions and make sure we are united in our strategy and operations, without getting stuck in the inertia of consensus.
- Communications. Let’s develop a communications strategy to ensure that our facebook group page is active and that we send out regular email updates to the community. What content should be in this newsletter? What’s our social media outreach strategy / how do we want to use twitter and our public facebook page?
- Branding & Vision. Let’s complete Steffen’s branding journey and redesign the logo and website, with an epic video of our retreat. Let’s consider the long term vision that want to communicate to the world.
- Handbook. Let’s create a beautiful pdf that would tell our story and initiate new members into the values and spirit of the IO Collective. This can be an evolving document that we update every 6 months.
- Governance. What is the best organisational structure for us to adopt? (charity, CIC, LLP or nothing). Let’s learn as much as we can from Chloe and the enspiral network, building on the amazing work that they have already done. Do we need to have clearly defined roles, e.g. Community Managers, Local Ambassadors, Leadership Teams? Do we want to set up a consulting arm and commercialise the IO in some ways? Should we create a slack channel for the leadership team?
- Project Initiation. Let’s define how projects and future events should be initiated, organised, funded and presented to the overall group. What would be an effective and engaging template for all of us to use?
- Retreats, Events & Experiences. Let’s define the format of the ideal IO Retreat, dinner and/or gathering. How do we decide where and when to host retreats and events? How do we optimise the logistics such as organising transportation and collecting payments? How do we keep the cost of retreats affordable for everyone?
- Profile Directory. Let’s make it easy for us to search through a excel database of members, so that we can find the right person at the right time. Perhaps we can setup a google sheet that links out to mindmeister pages. We could do the same for projects too.
- Recruitment. Let’s decide on how best to grow the IO Collective. How should we recruit new members and scale our collective impact and influence without diluting our culture? Do we have a rolling application process or do we have a specific time each year when we initiate new members?
- Library, Resources & Blogging. Let’s all share our experiences and insights from the IO Retreat using Medium and/or Gdrive. Let’s upload our collective photos, stories, project proposals. Medium articles shared on social media can be a great way to attract the right. Should we create an IO Collective Medium publications page for all our stories and articles? Should we gather together the rituals, stories and ideas that make up the IO culture? How do we continue to grow and learn as a community?
Here are the ten components that if we get right will enable the IO Collective to continue to scale and flourish, both online and offline. I strongly believe that individual leaders need to step up and take responsibility for each component and then get support from others in the group. E.g. Ilana can facilitate the collective decision making and Steffen can lead on the branding and vision. However, as I have learned from our retreat, this is not something that I can or should impose. This is something that we must decide on and make happen together.
I am here to listen and help in anyway I can. Please share your feedback, reflections, commitments and photos.
Thank you all for following your curiosity and making the retreat such an incredible experience. Much love. A