Communication for the Commons: 5 Shapes for Training Without Being the Boss

By Drew Hornbein, Medium and Enspiral 

I want to talk to you about an event Nati and Rich of the Loomio Cooperative/Enspiral Network from New Zealand facilitated in Asheville North Carolina. If you put on events I think you’ll find some juicy ideas that will take your work to the next level… but first a story about a garden in Brooklyn.

This year I planted Coral Sorghum. The red, corn-like kernels — traditionally from Sudan and South India — came out of a seed pack labeled only with the name Experimental Farm Network. Curious. While searching the web for planting instructions I came across the same seed’s page on Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE). Tucked into the bottom of the description was this line:

“30% of proceeds from this rare variety will go to the Experimental Farm Network”

This connection struck me because I instantly realized that years ago I had facilitated its very existence. While driving some folks from Acorn Community — the egalitarian income sharing community that runs SESE — to New York City I stopped by the small south Jersey farm where some friends were growing the first crop of seeds for what would become the Experimental Farm Network. I put these two groups together and from there they developed a collaboration. I grew this network through the simple alchemy of putting a few people in the same place at the same time.

Now, perhaps you are thinking about going to an event or planning your own event and wonder, like many of us do: Is it even worth it? Will be useful? Is what I have to share or learn valuable? I would argue that simply showing up can have an impact. This is the core of what Nati and Rich brought to Asheville. They were the catalyst for a group of people with a shared interest in non-hierarchical participatory structures to enter into a room together.

Of course the content is still important to some degree — Nati and Rich shared some really great content in Asheville. However, what impressed me, and what I found the most valuable, wasn’t what was shared from the facilitators down, it was the way in which it was shared. It was the context, not the content.

It got me thinking, “How many amazing connections were catalyzed through this event and all the other Enspiral events across the US?”

Shape of the event

People learn more from their environment than from the content they are taught. Let’s examine this idea a little more.

What shape do you most often find yourself in when learning? By that, I mean the shape of the space. In your mind’s eye, remove all the people and think about how the chairs are arranged in the room where the event is taking place (or if there aren’t any chairs at all). No matter the content, the shape whispers to us implicit messages.

Consider now a presentation, or panel discussion. There’s a large grid or semi-circle of people facing forward toward a small, separate group of people. This is hierarchical by its basic orientation. Those at the front are expected to have the answers and the gridded masses are expected to consume their content.

By contrast, Nati and Rich reminded us throughout their event that they didn’t have “The Answers”. This was made clear through the shape of their event, and it is through these shapes that I will structure my reflection of the Enspiral event in Asheville.

First Five Clusters

As the participants began to filter in they were invited to join self organizing groups, or stations, spread throughout the space. The folks I met were warm and friendly and had diverse backgrounds. At each station was a large paper with a 2 dimensional grid along with printed instructions asking participants to introduce themselves and begin discussing and plotting past experiences with groups they have been a part of. One axis represented how hierarchical their group was and the other how positive or negative an experience was. For instance I recounted my time at Occupy Wall Street as far over on the non-hierarchical side of the scale and the experience of meetings taking for-ever was quite negative. Others recounted positive experiences in hierarchy when it came to making decisions or how terribly dehumanizing is could be within those hierarchies.

This activity became a game and provided a wonderful way to get us to process and share stories about being in all kinds of different groups and how they related to hierarchy, a major theme of the event. The shape we created during this activity, five small groups, meant that each person had the time and space to speak much more than if they had been in a large group. From a logistical perspective it also created a buffer time to allow latecomers to merge into the space with limited disruption.

Half Circle

Once the space had filled with all the participants we were invited into a new configuration. Chairs arranged in two concentric half circles facing a wall in front of which sat Nati and Rich. The classic shape of imparting knowledge. From my time with Nati and Rich I got the feeling that they would rather do away with this shape all together but people come to these events to learn and this expectation had to be managed. These two, after all, had quite a lot of experience to share.

What followed was context setting and a slideshow about Enspiral, Loomio, and the patterns of collaboration. I found the “8 Collaboration Patterns” to be the most interesting.

  • intentionally produce counter-culture
  • distribute care labor
  • clear norms & boundaries
  • talk about power
  • make decisions asynchronously
  • agree how you use tech
  • use rhythm to cut info overload
  • generate new patterns together

For example the pattern “distribute care labor” asks us to consider care, or emotional labor, in our organization/group (imagine the person in your group who notices when someone is upset and initiates care). Often this work goes unnoticed and is typically taken on by women, disproportionately, implicitly and passively assigning the burden of “non-productive” work to a group of people who are traditionally marginalized. One solution is to intentionally distribute care labor by assigning everyone one a “steward”. A steward is a person who is tasked with checking in and providing support for one other person. Each member of a group is given a steward and acts as a steward to someone else, thus ensuring each member of a group is supported. It’s like that group building exercise where everyone sits in someone else’s lap. Many hands make light work.

We won’t get into them here, but the other patterns they covered were equally as interesting. According to Nati and Rich there are even some in development. Follow Rich to keep an eye out for more.

The download of this information lit up my mind. Through these patterns I could see how and why my past adventures with non-hierarchical groups had fallen apart and it gave me new ideas to bring back to my own fledgling cooperative, Good Good Work.

I can’t be sure, but I would like to imagine that everyone in the room was experiencing a similar revelation; the uncovering of something known but also unnamed, the implicit patterns that are present in every group of humans, which so often are never identified, seemed here to be explicit, finally.

The informal cluster

After a short Q&A it was time for lunch and the half circle exploded into a swarm of hungry people buzzing with these new ideas. Each one of us grappling with the novelty of the 8 patterns or new ideas about the possible shapes a group can take, some modeled by Enspiral itself.

It is in this informal shape (the self-organizing swarm/cloud of people) that so much happens. Here the worlds meet and meld. This is the space and shape where the environment matters so much and the content matters so little. We were like excited particles bouncing around and clumping together. These people were all attracted here by the idea of a possible different way to organize ourselves. And now they were mingling and excitedly talking about the new ideas rattling around in their head.

Emergent clusters

We returned to our half circle after lunch and were asked to share challenges from our own organizations. People were invited to propose a topic or problem for the group to work on. Through a processes called “dot voting” we chose five topics out of the bunch by putting a sticker dot next to the topic written on a paper on the wall.

Dot voting is a great way to model participatory processes and teach lessons by doing rather than saying.

We splintered off and began playing with these challenges in smaller groups. Another new shape.

I joined a group that had gathered around Franzi’s project. She and her team are seeking to bring worker ownership to traditional businesses whose current owners wanted to retire without putting the business and their employees at risk; converting corporations to cooperations. She had the business experience to tackle her problem, but was unsure how to bring the culture of shared ownership into spaces where there had never been much co-ownership.

Here’s why this shape works. Nati and Rich couldn’t possibly have answered all the questions that came up, and certainly not in the traditional shape of presentation (grid facing front). What they were modeling was the emergent intelligence of the group. They were showing what some consider the greatest form of leadership:

“A leader is best when people barely know she exists, when her work is done, her aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

– Lao Tzu

These two people from New Zealand didn’t bring with them a doctrine or methodology for us to recreate or implement. They brought a simple idea, one that I think we all already know: the solutions are right here within us waiting for us to come together and allow them to emerge. The locals know the answers to local challenges. Those closest to problems know the most detail about and parameters of those problems. The lesson was embedded in the shape!

Hierarchies are failing to meet the challenges of our time because those who make decisions are so very far from the problems and the avenues for getting solutions in front of decision makers are often murky and disempowering.

In circle

Once we had practiced our emergent problem solving we came back together into a big circle and shared what had happened. Through sharing in small groups, which allow more people more time to speak, each of us were able to share our knowledge. The most impactful outcome was that people learned about what their neighbors were doing and that they were now connected for future collaboration. The most obvious expression of this was when one group’s problem was solved by getting two of the other groups in the room together.

This large circle shape represents another concept that I think is very important to groups: the retrospective (something covered in Rich’s collaboration patterns). It’s expressed as the sharing of information from separate groups back into the whole. You can think of it more like a grassroots approach, with ideas moving from the bottom upward.


After the retrospective, our big circle was shattered into pairs where we took turns reflecting on the day and the event. We each had 5 minutes to share and 5 minutes to listen.

Again this modeled a number of key concepts from the collaborative patterns. Firstly it gave a small example of what it means to distribute care labor. Simply listening (without responding or thinking about how you might respond) to someone is a great method of caring. And it’s much easier to do this in pairs, where quiet and introspection has space to percolate. Being able to talk to a peer and, more importantly, listen to a peer authentically is such a necessary skill when building any group.

All groups are built on relationships. We know this fundamentally. But so often, groups built within hierarchical structures rely on coercion and dominance as the primary bond that binds individuals to one another. It creates a barrier to the sharing of information and ideas and places a heavy burden on those doing care labor.

🖤 Special thanks to Katie Falkenberg for editing, this is as much her’s as it is mine.

Originally posted on the Good Good Work blog