If you work in any type of co-op, or non-hierarchical group, with open and inclusive values and aspirations for horizontal management, this post is for you. It summarises a workshop from the founders of Loomio, at which they shared their distilled wisdom for effective collaboration within groups.

You’ve probably heard of Loomio, the simple but effective decision making software from Enspiral, but what you might not have heard about are the patterns and principles which the founders of Loomio use in their own organisation.

Make no mistake Rich and Nati, who delivered this workshop as part of their grand tour, have been living and breathing this stuff for years. Their pragmatic inspiration shone through the event, like a beam of brilliance from above.

The event took place at the always inspiring Newspeak House, with roughly 30 participants split into groups. Rich warned us he would be delivering a lot of condensed information and I wondered if he would live up to the promise… 4 slides and 20 minutes later I was reeling with new ideas. It’s not that his patterns for working in groups are entirely novel – it’s that he’s thought about it, and clearly lived by the rules he so passionately espouses, I could almost feel his hard-earned acumen making its way from his brain into my own.

Take the first pattern for example: “Intentionally produce counter-culture” which you probably instinctively know is a good idea but what really struck me were the magic words: “belonging is a superpower”. This is something we so often fail to deliver on… If everyone in your group feels the same empowering sense of belonging there’s no limit to what can be achieved. Conversely, if new-comers struggle to find the inroads to find belonging within a group, or old timers lord it over knowledge and do not empower everyone with the same sense of worthiness within the group, belonging can crumble and with it goes organisational effectiveness. We came back to this theme in the second session (see below) but the other patterns are equally awesome.

With pattern 2, “Systematically distribute care labour”, Rich talked about everyone in their organisation being a steward for someone else and a stewardee too – to ensure everyone receives adequate support. Simple, effective relationship building which is bound to reduce conflicts.

Pattern 3 introduced the idea that groups should “Make explicit norms and boundaries” in order to avoid any ambiguity about what a group is, how it works, what it finds acceptable and what it will not tolerate. It sounds simple, but ignoring this step can be perilous.

Pattern 4 addressed the inevitable challenge with the wise words “Keep talking about power”. Refreshingly, Rich recognises that power imbalances are inevitable, citing the public speakers from any group as those that naturally accumulate respect and hence power. The down to earth advice on this one is to make it explicit who has it and to take turns, rotating roles by stepping out and encouraging others to step in. Brilliant advice which might be hard for some egos to hear.

Suddenly I felt myself drifting off – it was gone 11am and I had only had one tiny cup of tea… But before I knew it the inimitable tag-team had switched places and Nati was getting every one up and stretching to boost the oxygen to our brains. The rooms burst into a relived revelry of smiles and stretches and then just as quickly we were back at work.

Pattern 5 “Make decisions asynchronously” is so simple it’s surprising that more groups don’t follow the rule: Meetings are great for bonding and building trust, computers are great for helping us make better decisions – which can be more inclusive and less invasive; timely but not hurried. This is exactly what Loomio was built for.

Pattern 6 address the elephant which lurks in every room by asking groups to “Agree how you use tech”. I’ve never seen it put so simply before and this was a little revelation to me; the vast proportion of tech tools can be split into what Rich refers to as the ‘holy trinity’ for group management: A tool for realtime communication (i.e. chat), a space for asynchronous comms (email or a forum etc) and, a space for static content (a wiki or doc management app). If you can clearly define and agree which tool/s you will be using for each of these three essential areas of group work, your team is bound to be more effective.

Pattern 7 proposed “Using rhythm to cut information overload” by providing clear and well planned times for team members to tell others what they are up to and to find out who needs support. The real gem is to set the right length and kind of rhythms for the right types of sharing i.e. by using quarterly reviews to get everyone out of the office and bonding again (by creating ‘peak oxytocin’ moments!) and shorter cycles for discussing more day-to-day, week-to-week plans, reviews and celebrations.

Pattern 8 encapsulates the overall ethos, that groups should “Generate new patterns together”. Rich and Loomio have clearly learned the value of iterative development, and the power of regular review and reflection. There is enormous strength in continuous participatory change.

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For the rest of the workshop they split us out into groups in which we defined a challenge we were facing, worked out a “desired future” and “next steps” to get there together. Our group chose to focus on the process of “on-boarding” and the challenge of empowering everyone, especially newcomers to a group, with the “superpower of belonging”. The ideas we came up with were many and varied and largely inspired by the patterns above and others’ lived experiences. You can see the ideas in the “Next steps” section of our worksheet – hopefully some of them will be useful for you in your groups.

I’d like to send a huge THANK YOU out to Rich and Nati for making this event happen and for delivering such a well planned and designed workshop with such timely content. The more effective we can make decentralised teams the more positive change we will be able to deliver. I highly recommend their future workshops to others, which I am sure will help inspire anyone that attends.


Photo by sswj

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