Update on our Initiative Leads collective governance experiment

Ellie Hale
Catalyst
Published in
14 min readApr 28, 2022

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Gosh, it’s been a while again. I shrink from writing when I’m processing a lot.

According to David Perell, there are two kinds of writing — H/T Ab Brightman for this:

Clear Thesis articles where you know exactly what you’re going to say before you start writing, and Foggy Intuition ones where writing helps you discover what you think.

Foggy Intuition articles are harder because you have to start writing before you have the answers. Since you don’t know how the ideas connect, you can’t make an outline either. You have to jump into typing. Only by creating an archipelago of ideas will you discover what you think.

This note is part Clear Thesis, part Foggy Intuition.

Recent processing

Over recent weeks I’ve been mostly pondering about/learning:

  • What good onboarding does (and doesn’t!) look like, and how to balance induction into history, tools, practices etc. with co-creating those things with my new co-Producers (and others), using their fresh perspective
  • Power dynamics (below)
  • Leaderfulness and what that means in a collective (and how I feel about my role in it)
  • Trust, kindness, anger, discomfort and joy, in the context of systemic injustice, trauma and healing
  • Related to that, inclusion and belonging, and how to be a good co-conspirator. My amazing colleague Siana hosted a fantastic roundtable discussion on inclusive tech this week, featuring brilliant contributions from Catalyst shapers Zoe Amar, Nish Doshi, Shanice Blair and Tess Cooper — more on that in blogs to come, but here’s a powerful opening gambit from Zoe on why tech for good needs to be more inclusive
  • Experimental governance, in the context of deep transitions and depleted energies
  • Balancing the what and how of values-led working
  • Impact measurement in tech for good; a broad field containing many different sub-cultures and philosophies. What do we mean by ‘good’ or ‘positive’ anyway and who decides?
  • Metamodern thought and action — defined by integrating, including and transcending (both/and thinking), rather than postmodernism’s wholesale rejection of and opposition to what’s gone before
  • How to explore the enticing intellectual puzzles above while staying grounded in an embodied state of love? Love is everything.

Initiative Leads update

Right, onto the practical stuff. Catalyst Initiative Leads are those delivering core Catalyst services. Over the last year, we’ve been testing ways for Catalyst to be more ‘network-led’; recognising different partners’ ownership and leadership of their initiatives via decentralised governance.

Structurally and culturally, this has taken the form of a sociocratic(ish) circle formation (my co-Producer Jo wrote about sociocracy in a previous weeknote, and how it’s a tool to help redistribute and decentralise power).

Below are my latest attempts to visualise it (with apologies for the ugliness):

Graphic of May 2021 structure of Catalyst, with CAST at the centre commissioning multiple services
From CAST at the centre; running, leading and holding the contracts for all initiatives…
Three self-governing circles — Support & Training, Reuse Infrastructure and Collaborative Network
… to three self-governing circles. Dark blue = currently receiving core Catalyst funding from the collective pot; khaki = aligned thematically but currently funded elsewhere.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how we structure it or visualise that structure. Power dynamics are the important thing here. I love Rich Bartlett’s pieces on Hierarchy is not the problem… It’s the power dynamics and 11 Practical Steps to Healthy Power Dynamics at Work.

His observation resonated that,

Org charts in “less hierarchical” organisations are usually drawn with friendly circles instead of evil triangles. Take Enspiral, for instance. We frequently use a circular metaphor to draw a map of our the different roles in the network. I know the circle has symbolic importance for us, but… isn’t it just a pyramid viewed from a different angle?

So true! He continues,

I think words like “non-hierarchical”, “self-managing” and “horizontal” are kind of vague codes, pointing to our intention to create healthy power relations.

That’s spot on. The Catalyst circles were intended to test how we might shift power, and accountability for our collective funding pot (contributed into by Catalyst Founding Funders), away from CAST at the centre — and the transactional relationships that went with that — to (a small portion of) the wider network. I wrote about the initial phases of the test back in September.

How the circles work

The majority of Catalyst delivery work and impact is created by the initiatives in these circles. Each circle meets once a month for 1hr 50 minutes.

The purpose of these sessions has been evolving as we figure out what works best for each group of people. It’s generally a mix of checking in to get to know each other, sharing updates and working together on particular blockers or ways to increase the value of our work, individually and collectively. We hope to eventually get to a point where we can also have collective discussions about budget (re)allocation within the circles.

Initiative leads circle and Producer circle graphic
Initiative leads circles represent the continuation of Catalyst support while we transition to our next phase. Alongside this, Producers are leading three key areas that represent that transition. All is underpinned by Core support (Finance & Ops), currently provided by CAST as Catalyst’s incubating organisation.

In between meetings we use Slack to keep in touch and share information and requests ad hoc. We share key initiative updates and learnings on a monthly basis through a shared Google doc (H/T Edward Saperia for the idea and format).

A GIF of our rolling updates doc containing highlights, learnings, questions, milestones, requests and trends

Questions we’re collectively exploring and testing

Besides redistributing power, some of the questions we’ve hoped to find answers to are:

  • What is the value of doing this work collectively, rather than individually?
  • How can we help everyone feel they are acting as (not with) Catalyst?
  • What role should the Producers play to best enable individuals, initiatives and the collective to thrive?
  • In categorising work, does it make sense to divvy things by initiative, by organisation or by person?
  • How best to bring in other connected work that’s not Catalyst-funded?
  • What are we learning from this process that needs to be a) actioned by people within the circles, and b) fed into the Catalyst review?

Learnings from a Producer perspective

As with any new process, there’s been a lot of learning. And some confusion and frustration along the way. We always knew it would be challenging and there’s a line acknowledging this in Initiative Leads circle agreement:

Snippet of highlighted text reading ‘it will take several iterations to get right, so it’s ok to fail and feel tensions — these can be a source of learning if surfaced’

Challenges I’ve experienced fall broadly into four areas.

Collaboration design — how best to spend our limited time together

Following a retro last November, we changed the meeting cadence to once a month for 1hr 50mins rather than once a fortnight for 1hr, to give us longer to dig into juicy topics. The flip-side is that meetings can now feel long and heavy, and need more skilful facilitation.

We have a section at the end of each meeting for reflections, so we can be intentional about how we’re using the space/time and iterate as we go (a practice we learned from Outlandish). It’s hard to get the right weighting between reflection time and actually doing work to reflect on. There’s also a tension between the desire for regular iteration and creating enough stability for people to work with — a classic quandary of agile practice.

Admin for the circles has taken much longer than anticipated (agenda prep, reminders, documentation, making sure the right people are invited to the right meetings, catching people up on meetings missed, onboarding new members etc.) and our own limited capacity as Producers means we haven’t always been able to do as much of this as we’d like.

Clarity on roles

Initiative leads are there to (hopefully) gain value and reflect on the utility of the spaces for them; Producers are there to create enabling conditions for others to gain value, and reflect on some of the meta-processes at work. We’ve been feeling our way with this. We’ve tended a little too much towards trying to hold and co-create things collectively, when in fact some things need to be led by Producers, who have more time to put towards this.

We wanted to take turns to facilitate meetings. Sounds great in theory but facilitation is a practiced skill and an additional cognitive overhead for people, especially in larger groups where not everyone knows each other. It’s not always the right approach.

Nuance always gets flattened when people take mental shortcuts, so we need to anticipate what their simplest go-to mental model will be (e.g. “Catalyst is my funder”). It’s the shortcut people use to make sense of information, not the intention with which it was shared, which can lead to mismatched expectations.

Shifting timelines

I had originally hoped by now to have learnings from our Catalyst review to help inform the shape and development of these circles, and whether to persevere or pivot to a different model. Also to have really clear outcomes and transparent financial reports for the initiative leads to work with, as shared visibility of this needs to underpin collective decision-making.

But everything takes longer than expected. A lesson in setting more realistic goals. Ones that take into account the fact that every organisation, network and system is currently experiencing huge delays due to illness, fatigue and burnout.

We’re finally embarking on our review, with my fabulous new team and funding for it now in place, but the delay has meant the initiative leads circles have been slightly in limbo — still a hugely valuable experiment but slightly lacking in focus as the goalposts keep moving.

A screenshot of a timeline from a Miro board, showing the different Initiative Leads circles’ development and their focus over time
Timeline of Catalyst activity, including initiative leads’ contracts, Catalyst funding and review milestones

Culture and power dynamics in a multi-stakeholder collective

This is the most important of all, and a biggie!

The circles require people to act as one team, but they aren’t one team — they’re coming from different teams, each with different cultures, ways of working and expectations. For example, people have different levels of expectation and comfort with conflict.

How to harness the richness of that diversity while ensuring enough consistency?

Circle membership also changes as initiatives evolve their teams. As we now meet quite infrequently there’s less opportunity to build deep, trusting relationships with fellow initiative leads from other organisations. Some have those relationships already, whereas others are newer to Catalyst. This creates imbalances in social power across the group (see Rich’s article above). Trust is key and needs careful nurturing.

The two worlds of tech and charity sectors use different vocabulary, and Catalyst itself has its own. Every new term (retro, outcomes, Ochre, Initiative Lead etc.) is exclusionary jargon until it is not only explained but also used in practice repeatedly.

Overlaying all of this is the wider social/economic/political context we each absorb and reflect, and ignore at our peril. People are of course, though to different extents, affected by the psychological pressures of the pandemic (still), the cost of living scandal, global political upheaval and unfolding environmental collapse. We bring this into our work both consciously and unconsciously. Social and environmental justice movements continue to reconfigure power relationships across society, redefining what humans value as important — and Catalyst needs to respond and contribute to this. This backdrop for our work and interactions can be amazing, exciting, bewildering and intense.

Reflections from Initiative Leads

We had a retro earlier this month. We started with the motivations initiative leads had shared last October, which outlined what each person hoped to achieve through being part of this experiment.

Each person chose a colourful dot to represent them, then using a matrix of Not important > Very important and Haven’t achieved > Have experienced this multiple times, we mapped how people felt about those motivations now.

Example matrices from our Miro retro

The results were illuminating, and showed where the group were in agreement and where there was more divergence of opinion/experience. We then discussed each one as a group, exploring the ‘why’ behind the dots.

Capacity and engagement

Capacity to engage came up multiple times as a blocker. Initiative leads can claim a £400 participation fee every 6 weeks on top of their delivery contract payments to cover the ‘collaboration overhead’, but this doesn’t fully solve the problem, especially as organisations have been grappling with reduced capacity anyway this year.

Overwhelm

Generally, there is an information overload across Catalyst spaces meaning people struggle to engage due to overwhelm. The updates doc (above) is popular as a means of seeing what’s happening across different initiatives, but people find it hard to digest the updates when they are time poor. Producers need to proactively weave and spot connections, and distill key parts into a TL;DR.

Large group meetings can be intimidating and contribute to the sense of overwhelm. There’s a need for smaller group working through 1:1s.

Clearer information flows

A ‘birds eye view’ may not be either desirable nor possible in a complex dynamic system like Catalyst. People need to know about things that are relevant to them. We need the right structures to ensure information flows through the system and gets to the right people.

Suggestions included more open working through weeknotes (already actioned by Joe Roberson), ‘link’ people floating between teams to reduce duplication (which we’ll consider as part of our Models research for our review), and a shared timings planner to show upcoming dates/activity so opportunities to link up or avoid duplication are spotted further upstream (which we’re picking up in our Comms meetings).

Collaboration — but how

Experience of collaboration was low, especially for those who’d more recently joined the circles. One suggestion to increase this was dependency mapping between initiatives, to better visualise connections.

There are different expectations of what collaboration ‘should’ look like in Catalyst. This highlights that we need to be explicit about our strategic model/theory/framework of collaboration (field catalyst, collective impact, movement building, portfolio of experiments etc.). Cassie Robinson did some great writing on this in the early days of Catalyst that we’ll revisit and refresh as part of our review.

Clarity on our model will help so many things, right down to helping us design meetings more effectively.

Accountability

Constructive challenge and accountability is vital to our work, but most feel it’s currently not being achieved. There’s lots in here around psychological safety, highlighting a need for facilitation training and support to bring constructive challenge, and clarity.

In embracing emergence and a desire to co-evolve as we go, we’ve slightly fallen victim to the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’. There’s a need for clearer frameworks and documentation around decision making, and knowing who the buck stops with. It’s also hard to challenge without a robust metrics and outcomes framework, and the process of co-creating this has taken far longer than expected.

Levels and forms of participation

Most viewed collective, participatory decision-making as unimportant. This came as a big surprise to us Producers, as it’s a foundational assumption we’ve been working on as a mechanism to support equity and collectivism — two of our core values (my co-Producer Jo wrote about this here). It gave us a lot of food for thought going into our retreat.

It speaks to the question of roles and models above — some people love exploring collective governance, but the group we’ve convened here are (mostly) not those people — they love delivering excellent services and impact, and some find the governance experiments more of a distraction and frustration.

Once there’s clarity on our model and decision-making process it should be easier. We also reflected that it’s initiative leads’ role to be focusing on their initiatives and Producers’ role to establish a framework that they can then follow.

Liked, lacked, learned, longed for

We did this more traditional retro exercise and found that people:

  • liked connection, freedom, information (about each others’ work through the updates doc and funding updates from Producers) and experimentation
  • learned that more sharing is more beneficial but there’s never enough time; also that we have a very broad range of people coming together with different opinions and preferences
  • lacked clarity and inclusion (we’ve picked this up with an Inclusion working group and a dedicated group session)
  • and longed for more focus, clarity, connection and trust-building, as well as a greater sense of safety, belonging and how they fitted in/what they could bring.
A screenshot of our Miro board 4 L’s exercise, and of course our tea break!

Next steps

We ended by identifying next steps that we could take individually, in circles or that Producers should take forwards.

  • Individually people committed to more sharing: of their own work, each others’ work through social media, and insights from the circles with their wider team.
  • Collectively in circles, people committed to designing an onboarding process for new members, spotlighting different initiatives each meeting, building stronger relationships with each other, pooling weeknotes and discussing the role of funding through Catalyst and how we contribute to shared Catalyst objectives with other work.
  • Initiative leads would like Producers to take a lead on dependency mapping between projects; creating a shared calendar and overview of all initiatives; scheduling time to complete the updates doc; bringing more clarity on budgeting and funding; onboarding new members; convening sessions around inclusion, collective impact, accountability and directive action; fostering connection opportunities e.g. paired coaching; and work to understand how to manage the differences in collaboration preferences.

There was a lot to digest, but overall people reflected that it had been one of the most useful and powerful meetings we’d had, with a refreshing level of openness, honesty and healthy challenge. Everyone shared appreciation for the work that had gone into the session, and for their fellow explorers.

There were lots of areas for agreement and the areas of difference are important to lean into. One post-it read ‘we may never get the answers we need but we’re asking the right questions’, which feels so important.

Some additional comments shared in the chat:

I feel like that Miro board magically unlocked / revealed things that maybe lots of people had felt but hadn’t really understood how to put into words.

I think there’s loads of potential personal benefit for each of us, outside of our roles/orgs, in being part of our attempts to collaborate well. By personal I mean our growth, getting clear on our values and how we want to work together with others in all our life roles.

I really love that — it speaks to the wider growth journey we’re all on together, through this work.

What next

The experiments continue! Producers are taking our actions forwards, some individuals have taken a lead on theirs, and we’ll pick up the others together in our subcircles.

We sent out a survey following the session to gather more info on a few areas and are currently waiting for the last few people to complete this. It includes viewpoints on potential contract extensions. We’ll use this to help design a clear, fair and transparent contracting and budgeting process for the next phase of delivery, from August. I’m excited about this.

Part of that discussion will include looking at widening the circle membership. We’re all keen to get more of the network involved in these core governance capacities. We’ll be sharing ideas on this soon.

Things inspiring me in the last week

Wanted to end this (long!) note with this section because it’s important to take a moment to acknowledge how the wider world is influencing us. See Siana’s latest What’s on our radar? post for more of this.

  • Hearing the calm, grounded conviction of young(er) climate activists at this Guiltless Healing Earth Day event, facilitated beautifully by Siana’s mentee. I love how many younger activists have an unquestioning appreciation of the need for giving space to healing and care (of self and others) rather than rushing to solutions.
  • Sunshine. I really can’t get enough of being outdoors at the moment.
  • Sea swims, which I did without my gloves and socks for the first time this week — that means Summer is so nearly here!
  • Random strangers doing beautiful things on Brighton beach — the lady with rainbow braids singing softly to her baby; the busking guitarist playing soulfully at sunset; every toddler throwing stones at the sea then squealing when a wave comes in and soaks their feet. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to call this city home.

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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.