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Groundwork and the Nature of Organising

August 29, 2017



An introduction



 This following text is from the introduction to the Groundwork Practice Guide, part of the pioneering Groundwork model, practice and training. It is a collaborative effort of James Ede (Denmark), Rowan Simonsen (Colombia) and Toke Moeller (Denmark), and builds on the collective experience and wisdom of many Art of Hosting and other practitioners over many years.


Queen Margrethe II of Denmark is quoted as postulating, “What if all the wars and conflict in the world are the result of conversations that never happened?”


There is no doubt that most conflicts would be averted if the parties involved could enter into conversation with a mutual desire to listen, understand and acknowledge the needs of the other, and to collaborate in finding a mutually agreeable solution. In reality however, many conversations are not so simple, even when there is a mutual desire to engage.


What often allows us to successfully engage in conversation or collaboration, is that certain conditions are in place. These conditions, and the practice of cultivating them, are the subject of this guide. We call the practice Groundwork.


The Need for Collaboration


Collaboration, or at least the idea of collaboration, is enjoying something of a renaissance these days. There is definitely some truth to the comparison of collaboration to teenage sex: “Everyone is talking about it. Everyone thinks everyone else is doing it. Those who are doing it aren’t doing it very well. Yet despite that, everyone talks about how good it feels.”


The reality is, the practice of working together as humans is incredibly powerful, and will always be much more than a popular concept. Collaborating is an art that requires commitment and practice. It is only by being in this practice that one truly learns what collaboration is all about.


Collaboration is essential for life. And as our understanding of this reality grows, so does our interest in what it takes to collaborate. At the same time, a tangible climate of fear and scarcity is manifesting in Western society as a push for separation. In response to this, many of us are asking ourselves: What are we collaborating for? Who are we prepared to collaborate with? What are we prepared to compromise on in order to achieve a common goal?


One thing is for sure. If we want to address the social, economic and environmental crises that are part of our reality today, we are long past the time for just thinking or talking about collaboration. We no longer have time to wait for others to make the first move. It is time to practice leadership by inviting each other together around what matters to us. The future of life as we know it will be determined by our ability to collaborate.


"Collaboration is vital to sustain what we call profound or really deep change, because without it, organisations are just overwhelmed by the forces of the status quo." - Peter Senge


Quality of Collaboration


Effective collaboration can be broadly measured according to whether or not you achieve that which you set out to achieve. For one reason or another, effective collaboration tends to be the exception, not the norm. There is no doubt that working with others brings challenges that don’t exist when working alone: needing to accommodate worldviews or perspectives that differ from our own; working and learning styles that conflict with ours; an inability to hear or understand what others are really saying.


When it comes to collaborating around really complex challenges the problem is not a lack of technical expertise. Most of us simply don’t have the organisational skills and capacities, the so-called “soft skills” required to co-create successful, long-term solutions. Fortunately, these capacities can be learned and developed through practice. The key point is that effective collaboration doesn’t need to be difficult or painful. Indeed, it is entirely possible to co-create a collaborative process which not only fulfills the purpose, but which also becomes a generative and life-affirming experience where everyone involved benefits from the collaborative process itself. We call it Powerful Collaboration, and our goal is to create a culture where collaborating in this way is the norm.




The Nature of Organising


In conventional usage, an organisation refers to any group of two or more people bound by common purpose or undertaking shared work together. We often use the word organisation to refer to the organising entity, regardless of size, scope or function. For example, a school, a business, a government, a community, etc. When seen as a verb, however, the act of organising is the neverending process and function of creating something or achieving something. It is the verb, the action, the second of these two definitions that we are most interested in.


Powerful Collaboration requires that we organise ourselves well, as individuals, teams and organisations. When we consider the act of organising, we often assign it the qualities of being systematic, efficient, orderly, maybe even controlled. However, if we look at the original definition of the verb organise taken from its Latin root organisare, “to arrange or form into a living being or organism”, we must also acknowledge qualities that are more organic, adaptive, even chaotic in nature.


Nature has an inherent self-organising pattern that has allowed life to flourish and adapt to different conditions over millennia, without any external control. When we look closer at this pattern we see that it has elements of both chaos and order co-existing harmoniously. Dee Hock, founder of the VISA card, named this the chaordic space; the state from which creativity, newness and growth emerges. It is also a pattern which we can consciously work with in our organisations.


Groundwork and the Nature of Organising


We work from the assumption that human organisations are living systems, not mechanistic systems, even though we sometimes treat them as if they were. The people that make up our organisations are not only capable of self-organising, taking leadership and collaborating to create extraordinary results, but in the process, they are capable of growing to become the best and strongest possible version of themselves. These ideas are not new, but we are beginning to see them in a variety of new forms, e.g. Holacracy, Open Space Technology, Teal Organisations and other so-called self-management systems.


Biologists exploring how living systems evolve have identified a number of preconditions that influence whether self-organisation can emerge within a system. We will come back to these later, but the important thing to understand now is that these conditions can be consciously cultivated and influenced. This is the work that we’re really interested in with Groundwork.


Groundwork is the practice of cultivating those conditions that enable powerful collaboration. Through practising Groundwork we can consciously create favourable conditions for self-organisation, and for other capacities we see as essential for collaborating powerfully, nurturing life, generating movement and innovating solutions in complex, adaptive systems like the ones we live and work in.


Naming this practice Groundwork connects it with the idea of organisations as living systems. It also draws inspiration from a quote by Otto Scharmer, who observes, “the quality of the field determines the quality of the yield”. When we work with organisations, Groundwork is the ongoing practice of cultivating the conditions (or creating the necessary foundations) which give rise to powerful collaboration. The fruits of that collaboration will be a direct result of the organisational conditions that the collaborators themselves created.


 The Groundwork framework


Groundwork and the Art of Hosting


Groundwork has emerged through the practice known as the Art of Hosting, widely acknowledged as an effective approach for working, collaborating, leading and learning in complex systems around issues that matter. The approach could be said to encompass three main components:


  1. Hosting conversations and work with a focus on dialogue methodology and process design;

  2. Harvesting the conversation/work, with a focus on learning, desired outcomes and strategy;

  3. Organising around the conversation/work, wit