Surviving & thriving while leading a social lab

Chelsea Robinson
The Labs Wānanga
Published in
7 min readAug 31, 2015


Lessons from the front line; wellbeing and resilience whilst facilitating Lifehack Labs 2014

How to read this story…

This is a love letter to the movement of people convening and facilitating social labs and entrepreneurial programs around the world.

It’s a love letter that says:

“Hey, what you do is hard, and most of the work of hosting and convening leaderfully is social & emotional heavy lifting.”

This is a cheat sheet for program designers and convenors to use as a checklist for all the human dynamics you need to pay attention to at once to make a program/lab space really thrive.

Most of this was learnt the hard way.
We’re not experts at this, we’re just sharing the results of our experience.

As you bring a diverse group of people together for a purpose (especially over a long period of time like we were over 5 weeks), you’re holding many layers of interactions at once & each layer needs a set of intentions and a daily practice of noticing. How are we going at a team level? What can I do today to support every layer of the work to thrive? How am I doing? What permission do I need to get to look after myself? Which aspect of the emotional work do I need to focus on today?

Looking after yourself

  • Create a regular debrief space for yourself outside of the team to process the complexity in your head. Get consent for this from someone or a group intentionally, don’t just constantly talk it over with friends and family.
  • Commit to some minimum survival techniques to maintain your well being whether that be physical exercise or phone calls with your partner. Tell your team that you need these in order to show up to the work properly, and support each other to persist with these practices even when it feels like you don’t have time.
  • Allow yourself to learn and change. If your personal approach to the work is not effective for you, your team, or the participants, try leaning into other parts of your own personality to see if it changes your style. E.g. louder/quieter/more visual/less visual/ winging it more/ planning things more/asking for permission more or less.

Helping the team be the best y’all can be

  • Build a cadence and stick to it. Try installing Agile. Change it when it needs changing.
  • Create spaces for dissent; normalise constructive critique of each other’s work and the team’s function overall. Make it part of a learning culture and actively support each other not to take things personally.
  • Encourage time out. Lunch breaks / afternoon walks / naps — what ever it takes to lower the stress levels when one of your teamies has lost their center. In Lifehack we now write “Wellbeing plans” which we fill out and share with the team before we head into an immersive program to make sure we know how to take care of each other.
  • Talk everything out; as soon as any one member of the team shows defensiveness or any other sign of having a hard time, one of you take them for a walk and talk it out. No one can learn and adapt when they have their defences up. It’s not about tearing defences down — it’s about showing one another love and care so that the defences relax. “We love you for who you are, even if you’re finding this thing hard right now. Now let’s make a game plan to make it better and tell the others so they can help too”
  • Re-evaluate your role descriptions every 2 weeks, minimum (if it’s more than a 4 week program). Are we still doing what we said we were each doing? Yes? No? Why? What are we noticing is the new set of roles that we really need to name and make visible?

Beyond the team, how might we be just as mindful about how we hold the people we’re working with and for?

Setting up and hosting one on one support systems

  • Make time for 1–1 check ins with participants of the program. Even if the scale of that seems crazy. Participants’ ideas are normally way better than the team’s ideas. They will be much more honest privately with you than if they’re asked to share how the program is going in a group. It makes participants feel like their perspectives are really being fed in, and it means that if you sit down as a team where everyone has 5 people in their head who they’ve talked to, you can advocate for the participants in key decisions more effective and mindfully as you pivot in your convening.
  • Take the time it needs — even if you booked 20 minutes with someone and it’s been an hour and a half and they’re upset, take the time. In saying that, make sure you’re balancing your energy, and also making sure that while you’re helping 1 person, all the other participants feel supported and have a sense of direction for their work.
  • There’s a knifes’ edge between empathy and taking someone’s feelings onto yourself. As you have 1 on 1 conversations be sure to name whether you’re talking with them as an Organiser / Colleague / Friend. You also might change hats halfway through. Managing expectations about how you’re supporting someone is key to making sure their sense of confusion doesn’t make you feel lost too.

Coaching teams to build momentum towards outcomes

  • Coaching teams (lab teams or ventures) takes different forms depending on the needs/ stage of the venture/experiment track and the personality type mix of the team. Recognise the differences, don’t try to supply the same kind of support for each team.
  • Ask permission to intervene.
  • If the team wants your help with a decision making process or help facilitating a discussion: Suggest a process, explain how it works & the value of it & ask them if they think that process feels relevant right now so they feel they have decided to do the process and can own it a bit while also building their capacity to use the technique in the future.
  • Ask if they have any rhythm, ritual or cadence to speak of. If they do, really leverage that to solve other issues they’re facing. If they don’t — start some meeting patterns..
  • Always ask: What have you just tested? What did you learn? What do you need to test next? Why and how will you do it? It keeps teams focussed on momentum and learning instead of who’s idea is the best or what structure to build or who’s in charge.

Facilitating the whole group / community

  • Facilitate at a meta level. Every day keep naming where we are in the process, why participants should expect to feel confused this week, why participants should expect to feel momentum pick up this week. Name why certain mentors are coming in and why they’re relevant in this particular moment of the journey so that lab teams/ ventures/ participants can see the spider web of intentionality behind the program. The more the participants have a mental model for what they’re going through, the more they can really show up well to that stage of work.
  • Earn respect by doing what you’ll say you’ll do
  • Don’t pretend to be an expert
  • Change the process when you learn it doesn’t suit people. Ask them what they want instead
  • Build expectations together and get permission to hold everyone to account to those
  • Show up every day to the whole circle with the intent to build community not just camaraderie. Cofounders are more like lovers than work mates and the trust needs to be really high to have the kinds of hard conversations y’all need to have in these programs. Support the whole community to be silly, to be sad, to be brave, to share deeply together. If the depth is fading, offer to hold a space of depth and see who comes. Not everyone has to come for the effect of that heart space to ripple through the group’s social capital & help people be more generous with one another.

Thanks to every single person that helped make Lifehack Labs happen, especially Charlotte Hayes who was the most incredible leader in this project!! May there be many more experiments like it, perhaps easier next time with all these tips :)

We began our Lab at Tapu Te Ranga Marae where kaumatua Bruce Stewart lives and breathes the whakatauki (proverb)— “those who build the house are built by the house”. I hope sharing our stories of how we were shaped by our mahi, our work on Lifehack Labs inspires more program & lab designers and convenors to share more of your insights too.

Nga mihi nui

Keen to hear more about Lifehack Labs? Check out our mini documentary!



Chelsea Robinson
The Labs Wānanga

Authentic conversations. Powerful prototypes. Co-designing systems change. Accelerating new systems through deepening innovator communities.