Open working: Overcoming the monster (an update)

Ellie Hale
Catalyst
Published in
13 min readJul 23, 2021

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Image credit: telf

The amazing outputs from Hera Hussain and the team at Chayn about their open, co-created strategy process, today’s update from Careful Industries’ Rachel Coldicutt as well as this fab piece about making work visible from Cassie Robinson that features in this all-new open working toolkit, have given me renewed determination to pick up the weeknotes again. Or at least something like weeknotes. Because the more I let it build up, the more of a monster it’ll be to overcome.

Most of all it fosters transparency, a culture of learning openly, surfaces the potential and intelligences in an ecosystem and makes visible any opportunities for collaboration… It’s about giving life to what you are doing so that it can live way beyond who you are, creating the conditions for discovery, or in Tim Ingold’s words, it’s a way of “calling forth.” — Cassie Robinson

I really believe this. I also think different communication/connection styles affect people’s confidence and tendency to work in the open in certain ways. If you get me in conversation, either 1:1 or in a small group, I’ll happily share everything I’m doing, learning and puzzling over. I’m also a big fan of long, thoughtful Slack responses to single recipients. Writing one-to-many (or into the silent void) is something I’m still far less comfortable with.

In this podcast, Social Chemistry author Marissa King describes three types of network/community person (explaining the difference between the two, “there’s something so powerful feeling that possibility that you’re part of something bigger than yourself… community is part of the magic that happens on networks, networks are just the parts” — which nicely captures why I always try to build community where possible, not ‘just’ networks). She describes conveners as creating networks where people tend to know each other, so there are lots of interconnected relationships like a web, while brokers are one node in the middle with groups that are tied to the middle node but not necessarily to each other, and expansionists are the one-to-many broadcast type. I’m most comfortable as a convenor, which is good because that’s also the model Catalyst aspires to. People can be combinations of two, with one of the most common being expansionist and convenor. So perhaps I can learn to be a better broadcaster with time and practice.

In the weeks where opening a blank Medium page feels just too daunting, I’ve tried to do a couple of tweetnotes threads, and am pretty active on Twitter generally these days (follow me at @eg_hale for updates).

I’ve also tried to keep the Coda of Catalyst working group experiments regularly updated as those progress, adding links so people can follow the breadcrumbs to the various shared workspaces if they’re interested. I know that’s not the most accessible format; while it shows what’s going on, it misses the important and useful stuff like how it’s going and what’s being learned, unless you dive into the meeting notes. But some have documented their progress, like this blog from Doug at We Are Open and summary of key takeaways from the Network Engagement working group (more thoughts to come soon from me on that!)

Overview of different Catalyst working groups, and who’s in them: https://coda.io/@ellie-hale/catalyst-working-groups

I actually tried dictating reflections into transcription app Otter.ai, at the suggestion of colleagues. At first it seemed a genius solution but unfortunately my spoken articulation just doesn’t work as a piece of writing — or an engaging/clear one, anyway. I had to spend just as long editing; no time saved sadly.

Capturing the complexity

Part of the challenge has been that there’s plenty happening, yet much of it is still in such a state of emergence that collapsing it into words has felt premature. Or at least, too difficult and time-consuming to prioritise. I certainly have a renewed admiration for the hundreds of nonprofits who’ve regularly published updates as part of their Catalyst-funded work.

In some cases, the closest I’ve come is clouds of words. These have been helpful for me to build a felt sense of the things I know are important, and how they hang together — fostering the ‘vibe’ of the next phase of Catalyst, which actually is probably the most important thing of all. But this probably doesn’t mean much to anyone else.

My thoughts in progress from the Stewards Miro board

I guess that’s one learning worth sharing: communicating complex, emergent, highly iterative systems and ideas before the concepts have fully settled and the right language forms around them is hard!

I find I need space and patience for things to percolate. But I also need a motivation to crystallise and distill, otherwise it’s all too tempting to languish in a place of beautiful ambiguity for too long. In conversation with Dark Matter Labs’ Annette Dhami last week we discussed the need for just enough structure to be implemented quickly behind emergence, to channel displaced energy where people otherwise cling to the structures of the old order. I definitely recognise this from the recent Network Engagement working group experiment, where the group reflected that stronger structure and framing could have helped them get further (interesting question this raises of whose role it is to create structures and framings in a network-led ecology?)

I’ve resisted leaving the ambiguous place til now partly because I want to wait until the new team starts and we can consider it all together. I have a fear that if there’s already too much clarity formed in my head when they join, my biases would make collective sense-making more challenging. But that may be unfounded. And hopefully just being aware it’s a risk should help combat it.

Emerging from emergence: structuring knowledge

Now with the help of my wonderful colleague Debby I’m beginning to forge a clearer path forward. We’ve started compiling the many questions for the next phase of Catalyst into a trusty Knowledge Board (more about Knowledge Boards here). It helps bring structure to the emergence. We’re using Airtable for this so we can link questions, insights and insight sources. It’ll be a home and holding ground for the assumptions we’re testing and the learnings that are continuously coming through. Those, along with the reports from Catalyst’s independent evaluators inFocus, will help inform the ‘proper’ review that will start in September once the new team is in place.

Work in progress Knowledge Board — due to add in assumptions, additional insights and research/testing to do

This feels like the right time to consolidate. It means more systematically reflecting on the experiments in the Coda, some of which are still running. As well as the inFocus evaluation (here’s a taste) and the many brilliant blog posts that have shared learning along the way. It also means identifying what’s missing that will be needed for the review, so we can run more experiments to get that information/evidence before the team starts.

Telling the story — past and future

One recent motivation for consolidating was to play back the story so far, and where we’re headed next, to Catalyst’s founding funders. This has been in presentation sessions, individual chats and funding applications for the next phase.

Deck we presented to Catalyst’s founding funders (yes, need to work on the style consistency!)

I’ve been really enjoying this new part of my role. It meant I was able to deeply delve into what we’re ultimately trying to achieve and our progress since Catalyst launched in 2019. I wrote this in an (unpublished) blog a couple of weeks ago, in a spirit of general elation and gratitude:

A couple of the Catalyst stewards have remarked that whoever steers Catalyst through this next phase will need to have a deep love for the network and everyone in it. Having been immersed in attempting to articulate the network’s collective achievements and brilliance these last two weeks, I can say with some confidence that I’m fully there. I have so much fondness, appreciation and respect for the many incredible people I get to work with, and that are contributing in various ways to this shared endeavour. It just keeps growing and at times I feel genuinely in awe.

If that sounds cringeworthily gushing, I don’t care. I don’t generally feel anything by halves. This week is a full of love week, which was needed, and I’m leaning into it 🙂

It’s been so energising to hear the funders’ reactions as well. There’s justifiable excitement around what everyone’s been doing and learning, and it’s super to have that reflected back from people who haven’t been so knee-deep in it all.

Another motivation for consolidation is that we’re soon going to be advertising for the two roles to join Catalyst’s new ‘core team’ (name might change). I need to put together role descriptions and an ‘about Catalyst’ info pack to ensure people who aren’t already closely connected to the current team are just as able to understand what it’s about and apply. Joe Roberson’s recent piece ‘What is Catalyst?’ did a good job of outlining some of the big questions we’re asking, and the answers that have come in from across the network. But it probably also needs a more practical/visual overview of all the different work streams, initiatives, audiences and outputs that currently contribute to Catalyst’s vision.

I’m very excited to work with Collaborative Future on this to ensure the recruitment is as fair and open as possible, and reaches talented folks beyond ‘the usual suspects’. One of the guiding motivations for Catalyst’s transition is the need for more diverse and equitable representation, particularly in positions of power and influence, so it’s vital we get this right. We’ve started batting around ideas for who else should be invited to join the panel — representatives from the network? If so, who? How do we advertise/select/fairly compensate people’s time?

Our intended recruitment timelines are over the Summer, with interviews in September. The team will then work with the network to review the last two years, gathering and synthesising the insights against all the questions on the Knowledge Board — and others that arise from the process — and then lead what comes out of it. There are still far more questions than answers, so it’s a great opportunity for anyone who’s excited to help sense-make and shape a collective effort.

What else?

I’m being inspired from multiple directions at the moment; here’s a more weeknotes-y snapshot of the last couple of weeks:

  • Debby made me smile last week by reflecting that Catalyst is “starting to stand on its own two feet — no wait, its own thousands of feet!” I love this :)
I spent longer creating this Canva graphic of a many-footed Catalyst than I probably should’ve, so prepare to see it everywhere
  • Co-working in person with colleagues in both Brighton and London — I’d forgotten how awesome it is to be able to spend time in each others’ physical company, share ideas and quickly sense-check things so that they don’t just bounce around the walls of a single head. We also had a lovely in-person dinner with a few of the CAST and Catalyst team, past and present. So good.
Smiles all round at our in-person get-together — also the first time some had ever met face to face!
  • I’m organising an event on August 17th with the excellent Ab Brightman (above, far left) and the ACF Funders Collaborative Hub around what makes fantastic digital funding and how collaboration is at its heart. Open to all grant-makers and it will be interactive and fun! Registration is now open, sign up here.
  • A massive success this week was our Initiative Leads working group coming to a consent agreement on a collective Catalyst budget for the next year of continuation and momentum of key services/initiatives. This is actually pretty huge and I’m grateful to the group for their time and willingness to test/trust the process, to Debby for helping fill in the gaps and score the initiatives, and to Cat Ainsworth from DOT PROJECT for facilitating our discussion today. Stay tuned for an update on this (and other) working groups’ activity and learnings next week.
Another Airtable! This is just continuation and momentum — transition work is separate (though all current initiatives will need to align with whatever comes out of the transition review)
  • More practice in consent-based decision-making, supported by Building OUT, came as part of a new collaboration we’re exploring with Power to Change. It’s about harnessing Catalyst networks and expertise to help build digital capacity in community businesses. The value for us is that it’s forcing us to more precisely articulate what ‘Catalyst’ is in the context of a new partnership, and the difference between a partner working directly with individuals in the ‘core team’ (or the prototype core team, as it currently exists, of me and Debby) vs. the wider network — of which Building OUT are a part, along with hundreds of people and organisations with relevant digital capacity-building experience. Where we’ve currently landed is that we in the core team are effectively holding the space for the wider network, endeavouring to create the conditions for the network to help itself. We know these conditions include things like platforms, rituals and spaces for cross-network communication and connection; our open procurement approach; a relational, inclusive culture etc. This will take time to get right as we don’t want the core team to be a gatekeeper and need to know when to get out of the way. So how do ‘we’ define and scope new programmes of work that arise within the Catalyst ecology? How do ‘we’ make them visible to the wider network as opportunities? Who is the ‘we’ that gets to be involved at each stage? Should those involved in scoping be ruled out of delivery? All great questions for our Knowledge Board!
  • Exciting to connect with a couple of partners in Northern Ireland and get a sense of the digital support and infrastructure landscape there. Lots happening around basic digital skills and there are opportunities to be better joined up with wider UK efforts. And for the region to more actively participate in and shape Catalyst — gaining and contributing value to Catalyst networks and services. Watch this space…
  • We got a free upgrade to the Agencies for Good Slack community (woohoo) which means we now get more detailed analytics. Fascinating to see how people are using the space. Community manager Shanice Blair is also reaching out to members to learn about their work, needs and motivations for joining, which should be handy qualitative insight to add to the mix. And it’s super cool to see people increasingly collaborating around briefs and questions posted by fellow members.
Yay juicy analytics data — unsurprisingly most activity still in the #general channel… for now
  • I sat in on an interesting discussion session on ethics in user research with the CAST team and Rose Bonner of Neontribe. It struck me afterwards that surely there’s a whole body of knowledge about ethics in traditional research, already specific to a charity sector context, that could be applied and reused here too? I suspect in large charities, Research & Learning and Digital teams may be quite separate (in small charities they’d be lucky to have a dedicated team or even individual for either, so perhaps there’s more chance of cross-over?), and I wonder how much digital partners seek to learn about this from the research expertise of their charity clients. I also compiled some links to others’ recent approaches:
User research ethics — essential reading for our sector. I’m really enjoying reading Design Justice at the moment
  • Had an exploratory chat with Hannah Barker at Spring Impact, who sent this handy diagram of different types of replication for scale — I like the spectrum:
Models of extending reach and impact through different forms of replication
  • I’m very much enjoying being part of Act Build Change’s Membership pilot programme, connecting with a group of community organisers to help the team shape this offer, and learning lots from them in the process. I love the language and energy of Steph and Edith on the team (meet them here); phrases like ‘this is an invitation for slow thinking’ create a spacious, thoughtful and inclusive group culture and I already feel very comfortable with my ‘co-pilots’. This week we dived into some sticky questions that came up last session around the potential shape, focus and audience of the Membership. It reminded me of the Knowledge Board. Particularly memorable moments included one co-pilot’s reference to how in the theatre world one of the most useful forms of peer support is reading someone’s script and providing constructive feedback (which led us to explore how do we effectively support each other to hone our craft in any field — what’s our equivalent of script-sharing?) Another suggested the visual metaphor of interlinked Olympic rings to represent separate and defined spaces/offers for people with different needs that are crucially linked so they don’t become silos and echo chambers — really like this.
One of Act Build Change’s values that particularly resonated. Others include accountability and care :)
  • Lovely as ever to catch up with fellow UK Tech for Good Network volunteer organisers. This week we discussed proposals for creating shared data sharing agreements between our communities (a process that is being co-funded by several members in another example of collaborative funding) and how best to build on the regional stakeholder/network mapping and theory of change activity begun last year. Great facilitation from David Scurr too who kept us to task. If you’re running, or interested in running, a tech for good community, sign up to our next open meeting!
Nine communities represented at this week’s meet, spanning three nations. Not bad!

End note

I’ve dispensed with Hemingway this time. I figured it would probably add another three hours to the editing, and that simply wasn’t worth it. Hopefully this writing isn’t too flowery/technical/inaccessible, but I’d welcome feedback if it is, and generally on what is or isn’t interesting, useful, clear etc. This is very much a voice-finding learning journey for me!

So, ‘open working is hard’ whinge over. Time to finish and publish some of these other draft posts…

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Ellie Hale
Catalyst

Connecting & nurturing relationships, communities and networks at Catalyst (currently incubated by CAST). Co-organiser of several tech for good meetups.