Aligning on Working Agreements

When I first started talking with Eveline Shen of Forward Together and Holly Bartling of General Service Foundation about doing this work together, we quickly agreed that storytelling had to be central to the work. We wanted to have field-level impact, not just organizational, and one way we could do that would be to share what we learned as we were learning it, regardless of whether or not we were doing something well or making mistakes.

It’s easy to say you’re going to do this, but it’s hard to actually do. It’s especially hard to do this in a way that’s both authentic and that actually facilitates learning.

We were confronted with this hard truth almost immediately at our Future Forward kickoff this past January. The goals of that meeting were to align around project objectives and success, get clear about the process and the roadmap, and start the Muscles & Mindsets work. And, as often happens in complex work like this, we were dealt with a curveball almost immediately.

I kicked things off by proposing a set of working agreements for the meeting itself. (Later in the meeting, we were going to discuss working agreements for the project as a whole.) Most of what I had proposed was uncontroversial: Take care of yourself, be present, be curious. But my last proposed agreement caused a stir in the room: Open by default.

By “open by default,” I was proposing that we assume that we could share what we heard in the room with others. If we didn’t want what we said to be shared, then we simply had to make that clear, in which case we would expect others to honor that.

As soon as I proposed this, I felt several people in the room — particularly Forward Together staff members — tense up. I had clearly triggered a nerve. They had demonstrated great skill over the years at creating safe space and building trust (one of the reasons I was excited to work with them), and they had developed ground rules that worked well for their movement’s culture. What I was proposing felt counter to some of the basic principles that they had been so thoughtful in crafting.

To the credit of the group, they approached the proposal with curiosity rather than outright rejection. They made it clear that they wanted to be open with the group, but that my proposal would make it hard for them to do so. More importantly, they wanted to understand my reasoning behind the proposal.

This conversation is not new for me, and I had fully expected us to dive more deeply into it later that afternoon when we discussed working agreements for the process as a whole. Usually, when I design meetings, I take the time to vet proposed working agreements in advance with key stakeholders, but for a variety of reasons, I hadn’t done so this time. I had incorrectly assumed that the working agreement, as explained, would give people space to speak in confidence when they felt the need for that, and I was surprised by the intensity of the reaction.

I took a deep breath, I asked participants to explain their reactions, and I focused on listening. Why had people reacted so strongly to this? What adjustments could I make without compromising principles that I felt were critical for this work to be successful?

Here’s what I heard from the group:

  • People already had high degrees of trust in the others in the room, thanks to a lot of previous relationship-building.
  • Several people had felt burned in the past by their words getting taken out of context or misappropriated by others.
  • Eveline, Moira Bowman, and Maria Nakae (our Forward Together participants) wanted to feel free to voice their individual opinions in this conversation, but they also wanted to make sure that they spoke as a unified group when speaking in public.

Here’s why I proposed the “open by default” principle:

  • I, too, wanted people to feel safe to speak up, and I understood that that sometimes this requires speaking in confidence.
  • This project was designed to have a high-degree of transparency so that others could learn from us. Vetting everything with everyone before sharing would have severely constrained what was possible.
  • Structures that assume trust are more generative than structures that don’t. “Closed by default” assumes that people can’t be trusted to make good decisions on their own and that it’s critical to prevent any possibility of mistakes. “Open by default” assumes that the people in the room are well-meaning and sensitive. It also assumes that the group is resilient, that it will not only recover from misunderstandings, but will be stronger as a result.
  • “Open by default” creates more opportunities for emergence, which is what we’re trying to enable through our process.

We clearly had a high degree of trust and shared intention, but we had different philosophies about how to structure things. Practically speaking, if what I was proposing was equivalent to what they wanted, then the reverse was true as well, at least for the purposes of the meeting. I proposed that, for the meeting, we modify the working agreement to: “Closed by default when we’re talking about Forward Together, open by default for everything else.”

That seemed to work for the meeting, and we scheduled a followup call to discuss working agreements for the process itself. I also had some one-on-ones with individuals to better understand their feelings and to better articulate mine. We ended up aligning around the following four agreements to address issues about sharing:

Trust each other to share with others outside of this group in a sensitive and appropriate manner. We want this to be a safe space in which we can be open with each other, but we also want to feel empowered to share what we learn outside of this group. We will walk this line by being as clear as possible with each other about our hopes and concerns about sharing what we discuss outside of our group and by trusting each other to respect those hopes and concerns. If there is something we want to share in confidence with each other, we will be explicit about that, and we will honor those requests. When we share, we will share in our own voice. If we want to quote someone, we will check with that person first.

Be accountable and compassionate. We will make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes will be from taking a chance. Other times, those mistakes will be a result of not understanding. We will hold ourselves accountable for our actions, but we will also be compassionate with each other and with ourselves. Mistakes are a necessary part of learning and innovation, which is what this process ultimately is about.

These agreements are not static. We will continue to revisit and evolve these agreements as we learn.

I love how these agreements turned out. They are so much better and nuanced than what any of us would have come up with on our own, we all feel ownership over these agreements, and they will serve as a valuable cultural foundation as we move forward and grow the group.

All of this happened because we started with a baseline of trust, because our participants spoke up when they were uncomfortable, and because we all took the time to develop a better shared understanding of each other’s positions and concerns rather than rushing into judgment and debate.

Photo: Alison Lin.

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