Together Institute
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Together Institute

Relationships before structure — an obvious lesson we keep forgetting?

In the movie Groundhog day, Bill Murray wakes up every morning to relive the same day, again and again.

Have you ever participated in a meeting to debrief a collaborative project, where the ultimate conclusion is that we should have invested first into relationships and trust before rushing to build out the actual program or project infrastructure? And that we could have saved ourselves a lot of energy, trouble, resources, confusion, conflict and time if we had done so?

I feel like that keeps happening to me.

In various constellations we keep coming back to the same realization, again and again: If we do collaborative projects, we need to invest into relationships first. And it keeps coming up at meetings as if it were a new insight. As if we were surprised by the outcome: “What, we can’t just get some random strangers to collaborate?!”.

Intuitively, we all know this: collaborative projects highly depend on relationships. And relationships don’t magically appear overnight. Trust isn’t a given, but has to be earned. It takes time, it takes a caring environment, it takes shared experiences, it takes conversations. It takes intentional weaving. And the infrastructure piece doesn’t replace it. Putting up a virtual social network doesn’t create trust. An engagement plan doesn’t create relationships.

There is a prevalent illusion that the tech itself will create collaboration and community. This belief is also all too visible in the crypto world: that simply having smart contracts, ownership stakes and a Discord channel will make you a decentralized org that actually gets stuff done. In reality tech is, of course, just a tool that can facilitate relationships towards collaboration and community. But the relationships still need to be formed and nurtured. I thought David Phelps put it well:

Not easy to do in a world with a narrow definition of productive outcomes

I write this as if I knew better, but I keep falling into the same trap. When I write project plans for communities I try to create visible, tangible milestones. And investing 12 months into relationships just isn’t considered a “productive” outcome. It’s hard to measure. It’s hard to sell to your funder, client or boss.

Even though, of course, investing into relationships is tremendously “productive”. It just takes time and the results are emergent. We can’t force specific outcomes. But we can create the right conditions for the relationships to blossoms and outcomes to emerge.

So what do we do about it?

So what can we do to normalize that investing into relationships is a great investment of resources and time for collaborative projects?

As usual I have questions with no answers and just some half-backed opinions. I think we need a much deeper understanding about the power of relationships and I’m very excited about the work that David Jay is pursuing with the Relationality Lab and Immy Robinson and the team at the Relationship Project.

Applies more widely

This likely applies to a much wider circle than collaborative projects or collaborative types of organizations, such as communities, networks, ecosystems, collectives, alliances, partnerships etc. But also for projects where the case is less obvious, such as environments where we learn together, where we are trying to change a system, where we trying to heal and probably many many other instances…

How does this resonate with you? Have you been in debrief meetings where this is the ultimate conclusion? And what can we do about it? Thank you for sharing your thoughts

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller


Grüezi, Swiss community weaver in Amsterdam, co-founder Together Institute, co-author Community Canvas, |