Insights from orchestrating a rapid collaboration across 3 organisations

Dark Matter Labs, Healing Justice London and the Transformational Governance Collective collaborated to host an event: ‘Life-Affirming Organisational Practice Lab’. Here are some reflections from our team about ‘the how’ of our collaboration.

Zahra Davidson
Transformational Governance Universe
13 min readJan 31, 2024

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Co-authored by Sarah McAdam, Annette Dhami, Nasim Forootan, Jasmine Castledine and Zahra Davidson.

(Most of the) orchestration team

In summer 2023 we came together, as 2 organisations and 1 collective, to co-organise an in-person event with the intention to create a practice space for people who are actively working on organising and governance systems that are conducive to life, dignity, thriving, safety and joy. We wanted to gather practitioners who could build on each other’s experience, to enable our collective knowledge to grow, and we wanted to centre practice exchange over top-down knowledge transmission.

Beyond the Rules planted the seed of the idea and brought together the partners, and over just a few months we collaborated to bring this 120 person event to life (see the full event write-up here).

We’ve now had the opportunity to reflect together on the nature of our collaboration (as well as reflecting on the event itself). We’re proud of the event we hosted and we hope the ripples will continue to spread within the contexts of each of our guests, but this blog post collects our reflections on how we collaborated. Organising the event gave us a live opportunity to practise what we were preaching/advocating for. It felt particularly important to work together in a way that reflected the themes and principles of the event.

Welcoming rest as a principle for event design

A key question that surfaced in our reflections was ‘how can we blend the powers of collaborative, partnership working with the powers of lean working?’ We were curious whether the brilliance of this collaboration might be possible with a leaner working style — or whether this is simply what it takes to orchestrate at pace (and with care)?!

What did the collaboration look like?

  • We were a fairly large and distributed group of about 12 co-organisers, spanning different organisational cultures and practices, and with varying levels of capacity to bring to the collaboration.
  • We wanted to come together as peers, respectful of one another’s practice, and we all wanted the collaboration to feel equitable and truly co-owned.
  • To start with we had very fluid roles and it took us some time to find the right enabling structures to work with.
  • There were wonderful benefits to the collaboration, including great relationships built between us and an event that was held with great care.
  • There were also some costs, particularly financially, to working with such a large and fluid organising group.

In practice what happened?

  • Annette gathered everyone around an initial purpose which the group shaped further, helping the work become co-owned.
  • We acknowledged that the timescale would be challenging (with the organising time covering much of the summer holidays) with various people on leave at different times, but felt that between us we could hold the different pieces, and that having more people in the collaboration would bring more capacity.
  • Time was fairly short so the TransGov Collective made a proposal to take on some specific roles including facilitation of the event design process, to help to gather momentum.
  • We tried to establish roles at the start, but there were always some members of the group who weren’t present at each of the early meetings, so it took us some time to create shared clarity.
  • Changing constellations of people meant there was some ‘cycling’ and repetition to keep bringing people up to speed and keeping a clear shared sense of purpose.
  • Within our design sessions we managed to bring the whole organising team together and we proposed an enabling process and roles to follow the sessions, including one ‘proposal tuner’ (or tuna as it came to be known 🐟) from each organisation, whose role it would be to collaborate to ‘tune up’ the event design into a detailed programme (The concept of a proposal tuner is drawn from sociocracy — see here).
  • Having a smaller group of tuners unleashed some energy as it gave us clarity and the ease of a smaller group to schedule and work with. This enabled us to reach clarity over exactly what would happen at the event and a detailed list of contributors that we needed to invite and brief.
  • As we came close to the event itself our organising became more fluid again, with everyone flexing, responding and picking up tasks that needed doing (partly made possible because we were using Slack to keep in touch).
  • Nasim took on a large share of the production role for the event, as did Annette in the final weeks. It was invaluable for some of the group to be able to spend larger chunks of dedicated time on the event.

There were some specific moments which helped us move toward clarity, momentum and/or progress. Collectively we felt that if we were to collaborate again, or go into other collaborations, we might be able to accelerate the unleashing of our energy a bit, by using some of the enabling structures that we found to be effective.

We also felt that there was a high base level of relational and collaborative capability in this group that was really enabling, and that actually some of the structures that helped us might still be insufficient for another group.

Read on for some more reflections, contributed by members of our team:

Reflections from Annette Dhami:

High capability in the team enabled self-organisation without a huge investment in upfront relationship-building

One of my key observations is that there was a high capability in the team to organise and woven in a collaborative, emergent and plural context — and that made the collaboration a joy. This meant that the group could quickly and collaboratively self-organise to produce the event into something more ambitious than the original vision, despite very little to no dedicated relationship-building time at the outset. I found that we were able to hold disagreements or challenges together, holding the respect for one another and the ambition of the endeavour.

Operationally, the group was able to quickly draw up (building from former practice and a range of tools), things such as:

  • A kick off session to align on the details (using Miro)
  • A multi-party partnership agreement for the work (on GDoc)
  • A shared board to keep all critical info and to host the co-design sessions, and a filing system (Miro and GDrive)
  • A facilitation plan for the group to imagine and co-design the day (lead by Trans Gov Collective, using Miro)
  • A shared note-taking system to record all of the sessions and critical decisions (GDoc)
  • An collaborative event schedule, operational plan and briefings (GSheet)
  • (etc)

Initial time investments into a wiser, collaborative approach did mean that we had a lot still to organise in the final weeks, and as a result briefing times to space holders were shorter than we would have wanted (and there was a bit of a flurry in finalising the final programme).

For me, the different team members contributing leadership in varying ways felt really generative and made the collaboration a pleasure, which I think seeped into the work. As a result, despite a big push in the final weeks, the collaboration left me feeling overall more energised than when we started. The people who attended the event were also a huge part of this energising feeling, as the care and wisdom they brought on the day felt palpable.

Reflections from Sarah McAdam:

Embracing multiple intentions and ebbs and flows of capacity

One of the things I most appreciated about this collaboration was the opportunity to explore more deeply what it means to embrace a plurality of perspectives and experience. An interesting learning edge for me has been around what this means when the collaboration is being set up. Up to this point, I’ve perhaps been a little dogmatic about the importance of those involved in a collective endeavour taking time to agree on a clear, shared purpose early in the process. I’ve advocated for this purpose to be as simple as possible, drawing on experience that a complex, multi-faceted statement of intent isn’t very helpful as a guide to where energy and attention should be invested once the collaboration is underway..

Early on in the planning for this event, I felt a concern that we didn’t have a clear enough shared purpose. Annette, from Dark Matter Labs, had played a really important initiator role, proposing the event and having separate conversations with different potential partners. The relatively short timescale, meant we couldn’t get everyone together early on to agree intentions and I left a couple of meetings with a concern that different partners had quite different ideas about what the event would look and feel like.

What, I think, helped in this case was that we took time and created space for people to share guiding principles and dreams for the event without working too hard to combine these into a set of collective agreements. It felt like we surfaced enough information about the different perspectives people were bringing to the collaboration for all of us to get intrigued and excited about the unfamiliar, while also feeling increasingly confident that our intentions were complementary. This way of beginning seemed to help us to move into the designing of the event with more openness to the multiple ways that people might participate. This left me wondering whether there are some types of collaboration which benefit from a looser, more expansive shared purpose. What are the minimum agreements we need to define what we are, and are not, willing to work on together? How can we leave space within this for a plurality of contributions and outcomes without things being so loose that we haven’t created a meaningful “we”?

Having such a large group of designers and contributors was tricky as we moved into the design and production phases of the event. Holidays, illness and other work and personal commitments meant that people moved in and out of engagement with this particular project and I found myself reflecting on an interesting tension between the need for trust that people will complete agreed tasks (or, at least, report back when they can’t) and what I’ve started calling pulsation in my head — the natural ebbs and flows of capacity as we navigate life. Some time after the event, I heard Emily Bazelgette’s talk about chronic illness-informed organising and this helped me reflect more deeply about the practices and behaviours which support us to pass work around a changing group with more ease.

Reflections from Nasim Forootan:

Reflections on manifesting our working principles in the design of the event

We set ourselves up to have the following principles in mind before we designed the day:

  • Plurality of feels in the room & pathways through the day
  • Ripples of impact back into people’s contexts
  • Facilitate exchange of knowledge, ideas etc — at a deeper level of depth, nuance than usual.
  • Help people connect emotionally & physically to the themes
  • Facilitating practical / tangible progress
  • Practising what we preach on the day
  • To build relationships, reduce loneliness and make this ‘field’ visible

After the event, we took feedback on whether these were manifested (some snippets):

“I don’t think I have ever been to an event with such a diverse range of participants (loved the mapping the room Jamie did) It did feel very caring, open, honest, nourishing and connected. Just being there with others on the same journey of putting theory into practice took a huge weight off my shoulders. It was nice to have a laugh and chat with people knowing we had common ground regardless of the sector we were in.”

“It was great to have a space that provided all the above and think about my project more positively because in the listening and sharing, I was being affirmed and validated in hearing my thoughts and experiences being expressed by others.”

“Certainly dynamic, varied, connecting, centred and plural. The joy felt missing to me (see above). I felt inhibited in mutual support and safety (see above).”

“For me the main thing was being in a space with people who get it. This work can often be quite isolating, so it was very joyful.”

Overall, there were some aspects that we should have upheld better, and also a strong manifestation of the principles in many areas, perhaps most.

Finding solutions for plural needs rather than taking a binary option felt key to this.

After setting the plan for the event, we created a detailed form to understand the participants, this included questions related to accessibility, food, space, topics, type of sessions, feel for the day’s needs, etc. It was quickly clear that we’d need to solve for plural experiences — for example, the need for a resting space throughout, but also a varied programme of options (including some in quiet spaces) to accommodate different interests and needs, including different types of sessions.

With limited spaces in the venue, this meant — for example — liaising with the brilliant team of the venue (Watershed in Bristol) back and forth to find additional spaces that could accommodate everything needed involving many iterations across the spaces team, agenda and facilitators to come to a final version that could fully work. This really meant collectively upholding care for the principles that we set out and following through with them relentlessly (and having a values-aligned venue that was willing to be flexible with us!).

Reflections from Zahra Davidson:

A reflection on inclusive practice, how we often unintentionally divide ourselves into ‘includers’ and ‘includees’, and musings on whether we can get beyond this divide:

I’ve been really trying to shift my mindset, across work that I’m involved with, at Huddlecraft and beyond, away from the mindset of organiser as the sole ‘includer’ and participant as the sole ‘includee’. What I sometimes observe happening is that this creates a binary, a separation and a tendency for the organiser to sacrifice their own boundaries in order to ensure that they’re seen to include every single participant’s need. Often this dynamic reflects a parent-child relationship more than an adult-adult relationship.

In most cases I’ve seen, this does come from a root of genuine kindness and care. But sometimes it becomes more about ‘optics’, aka being seen to do the right thing, driven by fear rather than care. In some cases this can lead to harm, and sometimes this harm is to the organisers, who transgress all their own boundaries in order to cater to the micro-needs of a much larger group of participants. Harm might be personal (e.g. burnout), it might be financial in the project (e.g. an overspend), or it might be an opportunity cost (e.g. something else that is now unable to happen because of the harm).

It feels important to recognise that we don’t hold equal ‘power to include’. Organisers usually hold much greater power to include, but rarely do they hold all of this power, nor the entirety of this responsibility. I’m interested in how, within groups, we can see these powers and responsibilities as shared, albeit unevenly.

Collaborating to organise this event prompted this reflection because I think we paid a huge amount of attention to our includees — and actually I think this came from a really authentic place of care, and we had lots of great feedback! But I was left with a wondering about what it might have meant if we had also seen ourselves as includees as well, particularly Dark Matter, who — as initiators — ended up absorbing more overspend and pre-event heavy lifting.

What this fully means in practice I’m not sure yet. But I’m interested in a mindset of inclusion that extends beyond includers and includees, and includes the organisers in this, without any shame.

Reflections from Jasmine Castledine:

A reflection on collaborating with complexity, anticipating its unfolding and anchoring in joy

Governance — or “everything that relates to how we organise” (an alternative definition referenced by Immy Kaur at the event) is a broad, complex and often messy field. We made an early design decision to embrace this and try to create an event which held space for the needs brought by a diverse range of practitioners working on related topics, to arise and hopefully, be met. We sought to do this in a values-aligned way: uplifting the wisdom of others and holding space for sharing, rather than teaching as the organising group; maximising space for connection and community between holders of what can be solitary roles; holding organising power among a large, diverse team with different practice backgrounds; distributing elements of design and facilitation out to other practitioners beyond the group. These decisions allowed for a rich and organic event to take place, and also created layers of complexity for our collaboration to work with.

Some observations on things that helped:

  1. Finding balance between control and emergence, or being intentional about when we let things flow and be organic versus where we concentrated the team’s energy to try and craft a particular outcome;
  2. That trust allows the magic to happen when working with complexity — for the team and the event participants; priority areas for work were those which fostered trust through care (e.g. for ways of working, or access requirements)
  3. The more layers of complexity designed for, the more resources they take to work with well. Choosing where this investment is important is key to managing expectations (and budgets.)
  4. Taking the time to craft simple commonalities helps to anchor messy work in joy
  5. Working in similar fields gave us the “jumpstart” of shared language and was a reminder of how essential this is to enabling effective and enjoyable participation.
  6. A shared sense of endeavour was a powerful guiding force that helped us to come back to what was important in the face of adversity and held us in joy, grace and compassion.
  7. We benefitted from a mutual commitment to building an agreement of how we would work together. This is not to be taken for granted, and the investment ensured the experience was rewarding and tensions became opportunities rather than obstacles. The more moving pieces, the more time it might take to create and iterate a working agreement, and the more invaluable it is.

Some things I learned to watch for:

  1. The amount of complexity needs to be proportionate to the amount of resources (time, capacity, and financial) we are able to invest. The more you embrace the more likely you are to need to revisit working agreements to keep them live and keep practices aligned. Complexity unfolds over time.
  2. When trust in shared endeavour and understanding is so great that it can tip into assumption, it’s possible to stumble on blind spots and miss nuance.
  3. Consider your personal contingency plan, not just the project’s! I fell unexpectedly rather ill during the latter phase of the project, and reflected on the amount of admin it creates to handle this with care. I’ve begun creating myself little roadmaps on entering new projects, of things I will need to do and how I would like to go about it if I need to step back. A small act of self-care to prepare at the point I have energy, to make things easier in the event that I don’t.

Thanks for reading. You can read a full write up of the event itself here, put together by the Dark Matter Labs team.

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