Principles and processes for co-designing self-organizing events

It’s easier than it sounds. If you organize events, this is for you.

The international Art of Hosting community has developed a different way to design gatherings. There is an underlying pattern that has been fine-tuned and experimented around the world for over 20 years. No matter what the convening topic, from collaboration methods to water management, to financial matters, it is possible to design, organize and meet with the flavour and feel of life, because they are the result of an underlying pattern.

Participants and conveners do not necessarily get to see this backstage, (how the hosting team works together through the design/preparation day and onwards) though everyone is sensing its existence. Over and over, it has laid the conditions for groups to experience a functional self-organizing operating system, live an enlivening experience, access deep co-learning, and do good work. A friend with decades of event organisation explains it as an update of the system software we have been working with for a long time; a 2.0 version, if you will. This is my attempt to share the pattern in a practical and helpful way, without reducing it to a simple recipe to follow. The pattern holds deep consciousness and wisdom, and I hope I am honouring it well. It begins with three principles.

It is wise that a facilitation team spends some time together just prior to a convening. The length of time will depend on elements such as the duration of the convening, the familiarity between the team members, the challenges and risks. Typically, for a three-day event, the hosting team will spend one or two days together prior to the event. For a very short meeting, the hosts will spend a shorter time.


Principle 1: Responsive design — Wait until as close to the gathering/training as possible to design the program

Certain aspects related to organizing a gathering/training can and should be done well in advance of the event, such as the venue, food, decorations, lodging, budget, registration, communication. What the team also does upfront is getting to know the context more, and getting to know each other a better, so they become a real team. As for the design of the actual program, if we want it to be acutely responsive to the context and needs that connect to the convening, to the tiny changes, local and beyond, that are forever taking place right up to the first day of the convening, then it makes sense to leave the programming to just prior to the event.

Friendly warning: We have become so accustomed to developing our event programs months in advance of an event, that waiting until just prior to the event may generate a certain level of anxiety.

Principle 2: A strong container — Give importance to the invisible field that holds a meeting

If we want power, depth and flow in our gatherings then we will need to accord time and space to build what we call, for lack of a better word, “a relationship field” or a “strong container”. This is the invisible field that holds the potential of a group. It is the collective presence and the quality of the relationships between the team members that make up the quality of this field. If this is strong and healthy, it can facilitate generative conversations, paradigm shifts and deep connections. With it, the event team will stay in healthy collaboration even if the event brings stormy weather. This can mean taking time to be together, play, sing, cook, share silence, whatever flows. This is how friendship and familiarity grows. Being in good relationship with yourself and with others helps to enjoy and benefit from the diversity of others.

Friendly warning: We have become so accustomed to time management for performance that giving time and spaciousness to being together may cause some anxiety.

Principle 3: — Learning edges, self-organisation and community of practice — Practice our own medicine

Every work session in the preparation is a micro-example of what is being created. How you are imagining the event should be showing up during this preparation time. If you want participants to harvest online, the team should start during the design days. Be in this practice with the team before the event and you will be practicing well at the event. The practice contributes to the container. If we want the event participants to experience deep learning, then the team should share their learning edges with each other. If the team is trusting and trying something new during the convening, beyond our fears, with the support of each other, then we are modelling that for the whole event. There is life in the trembling and this is being in a community of practice.

Friendly warning: We have become so accustomed to showing up with our expertise that it can be uncomfortable to reveal our learning edges.

How do we design together?

When we finally get to design the actual event our reflex is to jump in directly. Go slow and begin with the following. By doing these steps, the design that is needed will reveal itself. Embody the principles described above in the actual design time.

Need, purpose and participants

Take time to strengthen the connection to the need underlying the event and then to the purpose. Since the purpose is the invisible leader it needs to be held clearly by the whole team. The original call for the event began with this and so should the design. It is the centre of the work.

Team learnings

What is the intention or learning edges of each person in the team? If we want to facilitate learning we need to be in learning ourselves. If we embody the work we strengthen it.

Sensing in

Take time to understand the context, the people who will be coming, what is going on around to be more in tune and responsive to what is needed. Listen with all your senses, on all kind of levels.

Outputs — Acting more wisely for the world

Good work should always yields real results. The Hopi Indians say: “Will it grown corn for the people?”. What is the convening going to create that will be useful for the world?

The venue

The venue can support the quality of the convening. When it is possible spend some time at the venue? Connect and feel the flow in the space. How can the event make use of it? Are there any outdoor possibilities? Imagine the space and beauty unfolding. Embrace the constraints that come with it.

Friendly reminder: It is not either or, you need the analytical and planning capacities together with many soft skills.

How do we design for self-organization?

When the time comes to actual designing the event, the same principles apply.

  1. Clarify responsibilities/teams

If the event goes over a few days, create sub-teams. One way to approach this is a team for each day, a team for space and beauty and a team for documenting (harvesting). It can be helpful to identify how many spots there are in each team; then it is clear if people are in a single team or multiple teams. When it is time to decide who is in which team, in a self-organizing framework it is important that each person choses for herself. It can be useful to invite people to think about their offering and their learning edges before and then place pens on the table and in silence everyone writes their name where they are feeling they should be. It is important to note that the sub-team have a role of stewarding the tasks, not of executing all the activities and work of the day.

2) Clarify the flow and structure

Each team spends time designing a flow of activities for their area of responsibility. It is NOT yet time to dig into the design, only identifying the flow of activities (ex. team hosts, team coaches, participants) and the number of each. Then, to ensure that all the parts work together, the teams share their flow and activities and receive comments. Friction points and blind spots will be revealed. The teams then have a bit of time to produce a second version of their flow and activities if necessary. The group then comes back together to agree on the design. In this way everyone is aware and in support of the total design.

3) Activity designing

Only now each person identifies the activities/roles they will be responsible for, individually or in teams. Now each activity can be designed in detail. Those for day one will take priority. Some will be done prior to the event and some will be designed during the event with (some of) the participants (during breaks or evening).

4) Inviting in

During the first morning of the event, participants are invited to step in with their own activities or proposals within the scaffolding structure set up by the team. This structure holds the space so that the facilitation/hosting and documenting/harvesting can be done with the ample participation of all, in an open and flexible way. When the preparation work has been done – attending to all the details with care — the principles described above allow the loose structure to be held with quality and rigour. It can appear chaotic but the freedom is held by a container that supports coherence, alignment and freedom. It allows us to open up to what is possible and alive. This is how we organise amongst ourselves.

The Art of Hosting way creates a self-organizing operating system, an edginess of possibility, a depth of learning and a quality in human connection that often eludes us in other types of gatherings and meetings. Events all over the world are organized in this manner with great success, from the European Institutions, to local neighbourhoods, from businesses to professional networks.


Learn more about Art of Hosting and upcoming trainings.

Thank you to Ria Baeck for contribution and support in writing this article.

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What are you doing on Tuesday? Or why Percolab has open team meetings.

“Well, why don’t you just come to one of our team meetings?” I say to the barista, “They are every Tuesday from 10 am to noon at the ECTO Coworking.”

He nods seriously and notes the time and place on a napkin behind the counter. I pick up my latte and wander off to one of the tables in the corner to work out a team budget proposal for one of our upcoming projects.

Inviting not-so-random folks to Percolab’s team meetings has become one of my everyday practices. I must extend at least 5 or 10 of these invitations a week. Sometimes these invitations are received as a gift and a possibility, like in the case of this barista who has just finished a graduate degree in urban planning and is interested in citizen co-design and consultation – one of Percolab’s areas of expertise. He had recognized me from a strategic planning session I had facilitated for one of the units at the university he attended.

Other times, the invitations are received by eyes wide with disbelief as though I had invited this human I have just met to my Sunday family brunch: please bring the mimosas and then you can go jump on the trampoline with the kids and Matante Guylaine.

“Why would you invite me to a team meeting?” said human demands, “Don’t you deal with, like, internal stuff at your meetings?”

“Yes,” I confirm, “we deal with internal stuff. Some of it is strategic, some of it is operational, some of is has to do with our personal dynamics, the first Tuesday of the month is about Percolab International. Some meetings deal with money and how we self-attribute our earnings, sometimes we even process conflicts in our team meetings. Like I said, Tuesday at 10 am – you should just come participate.”

“Um, OK, I can come observe,”says the human, “I am really curious. I won’t be distracting. I promise.”

“Yeah…well… no, that won’t work,” I reply with a suppressed smile, “I’m not inviting you to come observe us. We are people not hamsters. I’m inviting you to come be with us, to participate. Help us think through our challenges and issues, bring in all of your experience, and intelligence, and wisdom, contribute to our decision-making.”

“Really?” the human inquires, “But you only just met me! How can I understand all of your context and policies and regulations? How can I possibly contribute to decision-making? What will your boss say?”

“Well, to start off with there are no bosses at Percolab, we are a truly flat organization and we make decisions through a consent-based approach. And of course you can’t possibly understand everything we are about. But attending a team meeting is sure a more effective way of getting to know us than reading our “About” page online. If we are discussing an issue that needs to be decided upon and you, from your understandably limited perspective, are able to see a potential risk to the organization, we are gonna listen and take that into account as we move forward.”

“OK,” says the human – I can see that they are getting really curious, “but will I be the only stranger there?”

“I have no idea,” I say, “we’ll know when you show up! Some weeks we have no guests (we don’t call them strangers), often we have one or two, and a few times when several members have been out working with clients, we have had three times as many guests as Percolab members! Those weeks are usually great for brainstorming about issues we’ve been trying to work through, like rethinking our website.”

“Doesn’t it get exhausting having new people at your meetings every week?” inquires the human.

“It can be,” I admit, “Some weeks I’ve been downright grumpy about having to host new people into a team meeting, especially when there is a topic that is really important to me. Yet, again and again, I find our guests help me think through some tough questions about both our work with clients and how we work together as a team. Especially, if the person doesn’t “get” what we do easily, it challenges us to be clearer in how we speak about ourselves and cleaner in how we work together. So I might arrive grumpy but I almost always leave energized… coffee helps.”

“What type of people come to your meetings?” they ask.

“Some of the guests at meetings are interested in collaborating with us, some want to study us for academic purposes, some attend our meetings so they can learn about self-management and maybe even bring new practices to their own organizations, some are international experts passing through Montreal who want to jam with us, some are clients we already work with or are thinking of working with us – attending our meetings gives them a really good practical sense of our applied knowledge. One of my favourite things to do is invite all the participants in my workshops to come to a team meeting. You should see their faces!”

“OK, I’m in!” exclaims my new human friend, “I’ve been wanting to learn about self-management for a long time but I haven’t been too sure if my team is ready for it. Seeing it in action would really be helpful. It makes me feel a lot better to think that I won’t just be some voyeur and I can contribute with any knowledge or experience I already have. I find this idea of open meetings really inspiring and unusual. You guys sure are brave to do this!”

“Well…” I respond cautiously. I want to be able to accept this compliment but at the same time I am slightly irked that this practice that I find so normal is deemed as brave. “Well, we have a choice: we can talk about collaboration or actually experiment and experience what it is like to work with “strangers”. We can talk about transparency or open ourselves up to others so we can truly be seen, for better or worse, and understand ourselves and our blind spots better. We can talk about collective intelligence or actively engage in thinking with other people who come from really different backgrounds. To me and to probably everyone else at Percolab too, opening up our team meetings is a practical benefit to the organization, the generosity people show us by sharing their insights into our work is amazing. But opening our team meetings is also a meaningful and symbolic act: we are a fractal of how we would like organizations to function in the world. Imagine, if governments and institutions and corporations and foundations and community organizations had as their base model meetings that were open, transparent, collaborative, and drew on collective intelligence? Just that. Imagine that. ”

“Whoa!” says the human, “I’m gonna need to wrap my mind around that one. Maybe we can talk about that after the meeting on Tuesday.”

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Self-management and public administrations are not a match you say?

I met Bernd Reichert at a training I offered in Brussels on Self-management. During introductions everyone was surprised that we had amongst us a Head of Unit from a European Union Agency that supports small and medium enterprises to bring disruptive innovations to market. Even more surprising was that he was already implementing self-management since 2014 and was there to fine tune his practices and reflect on how he was doing it! It’s not evident how to implement self-management within a larger hierarchical organization; the story of Bernd is helpful if that is your situation and to learn that it is actually possible! After the training I interviewed Bernd to learn a bit more about his amazing story. Here it is.


How did you come to being a ‘director’ of a self-managing unit at a European Union Agency?

I participated in an Art of Hosting training with some colleagues; in the European institutions it is named Participatory Leadership. At that training I was given the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux by one of the team. This gave words to the ways I was thinking and working and supported my shift to deliberately develop my unit with self-organization, wholeness and evolutionary purpose (the three main elements described in the book).

However, I was challenged because in the book Laloux states that if you are in a bigger organization and you are not at the top, or the people at the top are not supporting working like this, then forget it. Later on Laloux did change this story though, stating the job of the manager is to hold what he calls, the “shit umbrella”. That’s to say, make sure people can do their work in a self-organized way and also take care of the people who don’t understand this way of working.

How is your unit set up?

We are currently 60 people and still growing. We are organized as per our business processes into three strands of about 20 persons each: i) Evaluation of proposals; ii) Contract management; iii) Business acceleration. Each sector has a ‘head’ of sector who acts as team coach and helps the sector find its way of what they are doing. Each sector is organized into teams of 5–6 people. There are no orders.

How is a self-managing unit perceived within your European Agency?

If you deliver, people leave in you peace. They might think you are crazy, but they leave you in peace. When I first let my colleagues attend a meeting between business units on my behalf their was an uproar. Then over time it became normal.

What is a challenge you still have to figure out?

Performance assessment and promotions. There is an invitation now to do performance assessment as conversations in groups. But we work with people who do expect the organization to work in a certain way and “does” the assessment to them. This is a major issue right now.

What does your recruitment process look like?

The important part of the recruitment process is being able to get a sense if the person applying has a belief that self-management is possible. That’s basically all we are looking for. They don’t need to know ‘how’ to do it, but at least believe in the possibility.

What have you had to unlearn?

1. I am able to decide by myself. It’s a deeply rooted belief that there has to be a hierarchy.

2. You are allowed to make errors. We very much come from a blame culture. So that is huge.

3. Work can be fun. There is an ingrained belief that if you get paid for doing this work it must be serious and hard.

What impact is this having on other units? If any?

Here are two self-managing practices that are being picked up by other units:

1. Freedom — you are the best positioned to know the best place where you need to be during a work day and how you track your hours. Everyone has flex time and telework as they wish. The priority is more on delivering on the work rather than having to know where a person is.

2. Personal development. Training is free and you can take trainings on whatever you want. The priority is people developing themselves rather than having to take trainings related to their job.

What is your advice for other leaders in large hierarchical organizations contemplating a shift to self-organization?

Just let go. You cannot know what will happen until you do it. It’s like everyone is standing around a swimming pool and now everyone is allowed to go in. There is no real danger because the swimming pool is shallow. You can stand up at any time.

Thank you Bernd for sharing.
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Collective sense-making as practice

Semi-structured co-learning across projects, domains, territories

Collective sense making is not evaluation nor debate. Very simply it requires some common themes which serve as common language or filters through which to think together about work that is very different. The common filters honor what is specific of what is happening in each place or domain and invite in a common language and thinking angle.

Recently I joined the European university of public sector territorial innovation for a 3 day adventure with over 200 people structured around 16 real projects from multiple countries. I was invited as an external witness, a healthy innovation practice, and was invited to intervene at the closing session. My task was to bridge between the event itself and the future via my external observations and insights. It was an invitation to work in emergence, with no possibility to plan ahead; this is the zone in which I thrive.

 At the end of the three days, I spoke to the group on the importance of prototyping as a rapid learning process, imperfect doing in order to gain information and insights. I reminded us all that co-creation requires being explicit with ourselves and the group on our commitment and contribution level. It is ok to be involved intensely and then step out, as long as it is made known. And then I finished on the topic of collective sense-making as a key process to help see more systemically. It is this point I wish to share in more detail.

I invited participants to identify some themes that could be interesting for us all. I do love how I can trust human beings and their intelligence and natural care. The themes that emerged were:

#citizeninvolvement

#coherence

#interdisciplinarity

There was no need to modify or improve upon these themes. They came straight from those who had lived the three days together. They would serve us for our collective sense making. We needed only to trust that that they were helpful themes for us.

I invited everyone to spend 5 minutes in silence to write whatever came up for them around these themes and our last three days of exploration around public sector innovation via the projects. Just a raw 5 minute writing time to prepare us for our collective sense-making.

Then it was time to step into conversations in pairs. Again, I reminded everyone to help each other not fall into debate or evaluation culture and to find someone who they had not met and who had worked on a different project than them. We had 15 minutes together in co-learning around our agreed themes.

There was some hesitation and then the entire room delved into deep conversation. Afterwards we had a share back and people spoke to how this had brought forward insights, anchored learning and made connections. People spoke of the delight to be in this type of flowing conversation with depth. The process was received as a gift. Some even used the term “soothing”. It does feel good to step back from our daily work, and converse with someone we don’t even know. Having a light “container” of shared themes and a little bit of solo time helps us access the deeper learnings that are ready to surface. It is about the sweet spot between chaos and order that allows generative emergence.

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What is the pay system you dream of? Beyond the taboo of money

As an employee for 16 years, I was thankful for my regular pay checks. I never really gave a thought to how I would dream of being paid.  In 2007, I co-founded my own company and I was faced with the freedom and possibility of all that compensation could potentially be. A journey began.

At the start, submerged in the business of starting a business, my associate and I agreed on a model that was a cinch to administrate, though somewhat naive: equal salary. No need to waste time tallying up who is bringing in more business or debating who has more value. All company earnings go into a collective « pot » and equal pay comes out, irrelevant of what each person put in. A bit idealistic you might say? Yes. The model requires similar work experience, similar weekly work hours and similar vacation time. And of course it also requires sufficient revenues for all.

As the company grew, we realized we wanted to offer freedom and possibility for people to create the working rhythm and pace that suits their needs and desires. We didn’t want to systematize any obligations, giving preference to diversity and modularity. This meant that we needed to move on to a different compensation model.

Initially, we were attracted to an algorithm based compensation model. We were inspired by Buffer’s approach. They even have a transparent salary calculator whereby you can find out how much you would make if you worked there.   What were the variables that could help us establish our own contextualized formula?

After a bit of in house exploration we crafted a proposal for the team with our percolab variables as complexity of the work, experience and risk. We held a team workshop and each of us plugged in numbers to try to see if the formula would work for us. Major flop! The process revealed that working abstractly with numbers caused us to create a collective salary budget much higher than the funds available. We were operating from a dream scenario rather than reality. This is when it started becoming clear that the path to fair and equitable pay required the whole team to understand money flows of our company.

But how could we do this? The regular salary model offers stability and regularity of bi-monthly pay checks of fixed amounts as well as benefits. We generally have little influence or involvement in this approach as it is directly linked to an organisation’s budget and pay scale.  The freelancer model offers flexibility and autonomy around our earnings as we are responsible for negotiating our own contractual agreements. The latter model usually comes with extra administrative burden and stress to be able to ensure regular and sufficient pay. Was there a way to blend the advantages of these models together?

Things were becoming clearer. Not only did we want self-set salaries but we also wanted to allow for variance from month to month in the amount each person was earning or wanted to work. As simple as that, we broke free from our fixed salaries and stepped into a negotiated agreements model that we also call variable self-determined salaries.  In so doing, we each gained control over our earnings, began benefiting from a shared administrative system and were better able to leverage the collective work opportunities amongst ourselves to help ensure regular and sufficient pay for all.

Our percolab model goes like this.

  1. Each project has a project lead and project budget parameters (projects can be client based and others not)
  2. A fixed percentage of the project goes to the company  to cover our collective services  (our beautiful office, insurances, web services, resources, business development, accounting, work tools etc.) and development.
  3. Together, the project team (anyone in the team) discusses and makes financial agreements based the project honorarium budget, with full transparency. We strive for a feeling of fairness and there is freedom in how agreements are made
  4. Administration of the compensation model is carried out in a distributed, collective way.  Percolab team members keep track of their agreements with standardized tools and are responsible for their own data entry into the online book keeping system (WaveApps). The project lead takes care of all agreements, invoicing and billing with external contractors, clients and suppliers.
  5. Any challenges with a project that have consequences on the budget are managed within the project with the team and do not overflow onto the company.

Each month any percolab member is involved in multiple projects (as lead, team member or business development).  Therefore your salary is the sum of the work you accomplished that month in each project as per your agreements.

For the system to work, everyone needs to make explicit their work availability and skills they can offer or wish to develop within projects.

Suddenly it was if each person was injected with more space, freedom and creativity to sculpt their ideal professional world. A new service went from idea to reality and the team was stepping up to greater challenges  than ever before. Having control over ones earnings reveals itself as a key lever for empowerment and leadership. Services and business development grew. With hindsight it seems evident that for people to be in their full potential having control over their pay is a key condition.  

Underlying principles

  1. Engagement is commiserate with our power to self-determine our own salary and expenses. Each person is responsible for the salary they want to earn.
  2. Practicing conversations around value helps us to better own our own value.
  3. Our relationship with money is not a taboo, but a skill that can be developed.

Impact

This flexible compensation model has supported us getting beyond our assumptions and fears around pay. It helps us get to deeper conversations around value and to work with money without it being the finality. The potential of a team is strengthened through this compensation as practice approach. More specifically:

  1. Individual: We are all even more responsible and engaged. Each person is finding her own balance with how much she wants to be working, earning, learning, playing and making their personal projects come to action. We are each developing skills around money, business and value.
  2. Teams: More solidarity, mutual support and good spirit.
  3. Organization: More initiatives and entrepreneurship and more revenues.

Lessons

1. A compensation model is meant to be energizing a team forward – if that is no longer the case, then try out a different model. It’s as easy as that.

2. A compensation model can be flexible and self-managing

3. A flexible negotiated compensation model can be an enormous driver of individual, team and organisational development.

If you want to know more about this model and the tools that support its functioning, contact Samantha Slade sam@percolab.com

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