Original image by Tola Brennan

When I meet people who have recently formed a cooperative, a collective, or other solidarity economy project, I always ask, “What was your biggest challenge getting started?” I guess I expect different answers: financing, legal structures, business plans. But the answer is always the same.

“Communication!” they say without hesitation. “Relationships. People!” The collaborative part of the collaborative provisioning economy.

Collaboration is indeed difficult for us. In our vertically-oriented culture, we haven’t been trained in how to direct ourselves together, making all our major decisions on an equal footing. When we work on teams at school or on the job, we are usually following the direction of someone above us, who has already assigned the key parameters of the project: its goals, its timeline, the resources we have to work with, even who is on the team with us. “Teamwork” in this sense is usually a limited time engagement, with very little meaningful decision making.

It is a far different matter to make decisions about strategies, projects, and resources across an enterprise, while managing and carrying out implementation. Especially in the startup phase, collaborative organizations tend to be figuring all this out at the same time as they are working out the basics of their organizational structure, their communication and decision-making flows, and all the legal and financial hurdles around getting started. It’s a heavy lift indeed.

And then the actual communication — sorting out how to work together as equals across all our differences — is not any easier. We may have different expectations about how much control we, as individuals, are going to have. We may be caught off guard that everyone doesn’t agree with us about our project’s goals or what our democratic process will actually look like in practice. We may find ourselves uncomfortable asserting our voices in leadership or unable to stop talking, find that we shy away from conflict or become flooded with anger and fear when members of our team start to disagree. We may be infuriated by others’ blind spots, but not know how to raise the issue in a productive way. And of course, we all bring our histories of success and failure, trauma and shame, and longing and fear to the table with us.

But communication doesn’t have to just be the biggest stumbling block to creating a new, more collaborative economy. It is also a key leverage point. We can collaborate much better than we currently do. And when we do, I believe we will thrive.

Working together is a key part of what makes us human. We were born to cooperate.

Working together is a key part of what makes us human. We were born to cooperate. We survived as a species because we cooperate. Many evolutionary biologists even believe that cooperation is what induced us to develop the capacity for language.

It’s also a big piece of what makes us happy and gives us a sense of meaning in our lives. It’s where we grow, where we face challenges, and where we feel the satisfied glow of deeper connections when we break through to a better understanding, or see what we can build together that we couldn’t alone.

I believe that a big part of our so-called epidemic of loneliness — the depression, despair, and addiction that plagues our culture — is the result of having too few opportunities for people to work together to make a positive impact in their communities. Collaborating on something we truly care about is a core human need. We feel empty without it, and transformed and empowered when we can do it.

Collaboration is a growing edge, no doubt! But it’s a growing edge we crave and need. When we learn to work together better — and groups can often improve their experience very quickly with a few simple changes in practice and perspectives — we gain confidence, capability, and joy that we can then pour into the next collaborative project. And so, this a leverage point, an opportunity to create a virtuous circle where building skills can feed us back satisfaction, connection, and widening circles of impact.

When we learn to work together better, we gain confidence, capability, and joy that we can then pour into the next collaborative project.

The other good news is that we’re not starting now. The 1960s and ‘70s also saw a flowering of cooperatives, communes, and collaborative projects of all kinds. Many of these exploded in conflict or failed to maintain their original momentum. Those that survived became cornerstones of today’s social justice, intentional community, cooperative, and community self-help movements. But perhaps even more important, many folks walked away from the failures with the realization that most people were carrying around too much trauma, and had too little in the way of mindfulness, self-management, and communication skills to work together effectively. Others focused on the understanding that systemic oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, and class were so deep and so largely unexamined that diverse groups — when they existed at all — were fraught with inequality.

Out of their examinations and their efforts to remedy these deficits came a half-century of anti-oppression, human potential, and social healing movements that have touched the lives of tens of millions of people and brought concepts like mindfulness, empowerment, diversity awareness, and trauma healing into the mainstream.

These efforts are far from complete. In fact, we now understand that this work, done individually and collectively, is essential to meaningful collaboration. And in particular, the work of raising the awareness of white-encultured people of the deep dynamics of privilege, implicit bias, and systemic racism is still just beginning to take root. But we have inherited from these movements a very rich toolbox to support our collaborations.

One way I like to break down the building blocks of healthy collaboration is like this:

There are values that teams and organizations can set, practice, check in on, and continuously strengthen and deepen, values like: equity, transparency, respect for all participants, a commitment to building individual and team capabilities, joy and celebration. Organizations need to consciously set their values and develop practices for living them.

There are structures that organizations can use, appropriate to their mission, constituency, size, and values: who makes what decisions, when and how; how do information and power flow within the organization; how are grievances aired and addressed? Organizations need to consciously choose among these structures and regularly evaluate whether their structures are serving them well. Perhaps counterintuitively, the more horizontal an organization, the more intentional it needs to be about its structures.

There are processes that teams and organizations can use for each component of their collaboration: decision-making processes, including variations of voting, consensus, and consultation; and processes for meetings, dialogs, and conflict resolution that can make all the difference to outcomes and to the felt sense of satisfaction in working together.

There are practices that can transform team and organization success, trust, and spirit: for meeting hygiene, information flow, feedback and communication, and ongoing evaluation.

There are skills that organizations and participants need and most likely have not been trained in, skills for being an effective facilitator for group process and an effective participant. These include: understanding the participatory decision-making process and how it differs from other types of processes they may have been involved in; awareness of cognitive differences among team members and how can they strengthen team work when worked with well; attending to our own participation, the degree to which we speak up or step back; awareness of how unconscious bias shapes all the interactions we have and the need to continually surface how it shapes power and influence within our groups; and all kinds of speaking and listening skills.

There are tools available to support teams and coalitions of all sizes in setting objectives, measuring impacts, tracking their progress, and communicating information of all kinds.

Collaboration is a capacity we can build. It won’t ever be faultlessly easy, but it can become far more productive and satisfying. And, in the process, we can become the people who are able to make the world we long to live in.