It all started with a coffee.
Hera was working on Chayn, which has flourished in a global volunteer network addressing gender-based violence. James was connecting island stakeholders to empower their sustainability projects. And I was working on building AI to discover new antibiotics.
During the conversation, Hera mentioned the Global Shapers Community. A global network of over 10,000 young people who want to improve the state of the world. The community was formed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to give young people a voice at the global decision making table and to empower them to be responsible leaders.
Manchester had no Hub. Could the three of us start one? I started to think seriously about this project.
The breakthrough came at an unlikely event. In summer 2019, I attended a lecture about Isokon, a famous Bahaus building. The lecture was hosted at Ferrious, a luxury furniture shop in Altrincham. At the after-party, I met Tim Heatley, who was chairing Greater Manchester’s Mayor’s Charity.
In the few minutes that we got to chat, I told him the vision of Global Shapers Manchester. After quite a bit of back and forth emailing, this got us our first signature.
Another coffee led to Alice Sparks joining our team. She had started Invisible Manchester a few years ago and has done great work helping people who experienced homelessness to be walking tour guides of the city.
Together, we got the support of the mayor and submitted our application.
Global Shapers Manchester opened in January 2020 with myself and Alice at the helm. From the start, we decided we wanted to run this organisation as collaboratively and inclusively as possible. Distribute leadership. Do not centralise power. Focus on empowerement and minimise coercion. Work as co-curators. Manchester birthed cooperatives. Infuse this spirit in the Hub.
Shortly after, we were thrown in one of the biggest crises of our generation.
Despite the crisis - or maybe fuelled by the hardship that was happening in the world - we came together stronger than ever.
Our first meeting as a full hub was April 2020, where we came together with a simple task: what can we do to respond to the pandemic that has engulfed the world?
We quickly built a website that shared local information and connected people with businesses which they could support in the lockdown.
We then spent the summer getting to know each other and sharing the hardship.
Through many online spaces, we got to react and understand the crises that were unfolding and build a space where we could have challenging conversations in a way that helps us make sense of the unfolding events. Spaces where we could make sense of the unfolding events together.
Autum and winter came and we designed new projects.
Three initiatives came out of the conversation. Happy Benches encourages strangers to have conversations. Digital PI is running a fundraising campaign to raise money for Raspberry PI computers. And TwoCycles encourages people to cycle more.
And here we are, June 2021. My last month as co-curator of the Hub.
Time to reflect and put on paper some of the lessons that I have learned to leave to the next generation of Shapers.
Through Zoom calls and WhatsApp messages, we started 2020 as strangers. We are now a unit that served as a constant anchor for each other throughout the crisis.
For that, I am grateful. For everyone involved in the Hub and all their energy, enthusiasm and presence.
The simple fact that we came together, in the face of adversity, and created three little projects is something to be celebrated. A little team that can help each other grow into an impactful organisation.
Even if our impact is small right now, I can see the ripples that we can create. And in the end, this is all that we can do: create ripples in our corner of the world. And hope that others are creating the same ripples in their corners of their world. And together, these global ripples can lead the system to be more resilient in the face of the uncertainties in this world.
The hub itself was a product of those ripples that we kept amplifying. A coffee led to a conversation led to a letter of support led to an an application. Then an a crew and now four projects.
As Steve Jobs used to stay: you cannot connect the dots forwards. You can only connect them backwards.
As my tenure ends, I wanted to leave a few reflections and frames of thinking for the next generation of Shapers to ensure the Hub grows and flourishes. This crew means a lot to me and I want to make sure the team grows and continues to make positive impact!
Wisdom for the networked world
In 2020, we have been thrown in a completely new way of working, interacting and living that is mediated by technology. Slack, WhatsApp groups, Discord - the networked world.
The pace of change is confusing and chaotic. It’s throwing us off balance.
Technology adoption that otherwise would have happened over decades happened in weeks.
Thus, we adapt. We need to innovate in everything, from the way we organise to how we process information. To how we relate to each other. To how we think.
We have no playbook. So we write our own playbook.
One way to do it is through play in spaces where we have the freedom to do so.
Technology gives exponential leverage. Example: a single Elon Tweet can crash markets. The decisions a CEO makes can ripple out across the globe.
And with leverage comes great responsability. There is a sliding scale to responsability. Accept all of it (the traditional leader) which leads to burnout and information overload. Accept none of it and get in a situation of moral hazard.
As leaders, we need to understand where on that scale we need to be.
Easiest to learn through trial and error before we scale out. How to be a responsible leader in an era of exponential leverage? (note: a medium-confidence model of an answer to this question is: distributing responsability to the edge of the system. I’ll hopefully explore this in a later post).
This is the environment that we have created in the Hub. One where people can learn how to adapt. Where people are encouraged to fail and to learn. Where we have a blank slate to experiment.
Where we can improve our wisdom through playful experimentation.
A place where people can be empowered to try things out, see what works and then build on top of that.
Here’s another frame on the same thought as above. While the thought above was focused on the technology and through a rational lens, the thoughts below are focused on the human and through an emotional lens.
Young people have a desire to be better and do better.
Armed with bookshelves full of books that expand their perspectives, they see how they can be better. Self-help is a popular genre.
Many also take a more social perspective. They don’t just want to be better. They want to do better. Many crises in the world, so let’s see what we can do about those crises. They take responsability for solving some of those crises.
So, they start becoming a responsible leader. How do you consider the consequences of your actions once you have so many consequences to consider?
Global ripples, but not global wisdom.
Every responsible leader must start from somewhere. Like strength training, a leader must start with the easy weights. The side projects where failure is cheap. This builds confidence in the process of leading in today’s world. All the skills that a leader needs.
Global Shapers Manchester facilitates this and serves as an incubator for young leaders. A place where people can find their voice, lead and learn how to lead.
This is one of the main reasons that failure is OK in the Hub.
I am a super chill curator because the people who joined Global Shapers Manchester fundamentally want to be better and do better. This is why they chose to give their free time.
We all need to rewire our minds, and that takes time. Encouragement.
And hopefully we will all figure out the right maps to navigate this change.
And eventually gradient descent the whole thing towards a better optimum.
Although the beautiful paradox is that we don’t really know what that optimum looks like, so all that we can do is look at the local slope and gradient descend on that. While the local slope keeps changing. This is the essence of flying blind. And it needs training.
Now time for a more strategic frame on how to lead in this post-everything world.
The fundamental force of today’s organisation is this: anyone can communicate with anyone instantly. I can reach someone across the Atlantic as easily as I can reach a friend two streets away.
The networked world has potential to increase our knowledge. We can learn from anyone. We can be exposed to multiple perspectives that help us navigate the world.
To paraphrase Jim Whitehurst, we need new models of leadership:
Traditional leadership is some flavour of directing and deciding. In the 21st century, where things are so much more volatile and unknown and we are all worried about being disrupted, we need a new way of leadership.
Success is not about having the best ideas and making the right decisions. Success is about making a lot of decisions and being open enough to change those decisions when circumstances warrant.
My job as a leader was not to have all the right answers. My job was to make sure that the right people had the appropriate data and everyone had a sense of the big picture of the company. To make sure that the right conversations happened. And to make sure that the really difficult things stayed in front of people to simmer and churn.
The cooperative, non-coercive organisation
Time for another human frame.
The current software-fueled world prioritises speed and autonomy. Coercion can stifle the spirit of people to innovate and be playful.
One of my principles for a healthy organisation is collaboration over coercion. Collective sense-making over telling people what they should or should not do. Shared understanding over directives.
We are all aligned towards a common goal: impact in our local community. We all sync-up our maps regularly at our meetings. And then, each and every one of us should be free to decide where to spend our energies based on all available data and information.
From the start, Alice and I decided to run the organisation as a co-curatorship model. We would both share the responsibility of Curator and play to each others’ strengths.
In designing the organisation, we have used these principles from Hierarchy is not the problem:
Maximise power-from-within: everyone feels empowered; they are confident to speak up, knowing their voice matters; good ideas can come from anywhere; people play to their strengths; creativity is celebrated; growth is encouraged; anyone can lead some of the time.
Make power-with transparent: we’re honest about who has influence; pathways to social power are clearly signposted; influential roles are distributed and rotated; the formal org chart maps closely to the informal influence network.
Minimise power-over: one person cannot force another to do something; we are sensitive to coercion; any restrictions on behaviour are developed with a collective mandate.
Responsibilities over titles
Titles are OK, but they can lead to coercive behaviour. The “I now have the title therefore I can force people to do things” vibe.
What is more important to make sure that things get done and they get done responsibly are responsabilities. Who is an expert in something? Who is taking the pen to update the website? Who is on top of the finances? Who drives a project forward?
We all have a duty to play if the group is to achieve its mission. Let’s be clear on that duty and have the autonomy to push it forward.
Whether the title is Curator or Project Lead or Treasurer, what matters is their responsibility and how well they do it.
One place where titles are very useful is empowerment. To give people the courage to take a responsability.
Global Shapers Manchester wants to empower young people to be leaders. Sometimes, a little push and a nice pin is all it takes for someone’s shy voice to speak up and say “yes, I can take this responsibility and I can learn from it”.
Community as a consistent anchor navigating an uncertain sea
A simple thing like a consistent meeting with the same group of people is a powerful community building tool. Key to community is consistency.
When the same group of people meets regularly, they build trust and psychological safety. Then they can start sharing their perspectives of the world through dialogue.
Best way I’ve found to build psychological safety is through repeated yes-and interactions and friendly and positive vibes. Positive does not mean agreeing (I have had some of my intense disagreements while still being in a super positive vibe).
You build psychological safety through repeated yes-and interactions. Interactions framed in the positive, where your play idea jazz with people.
Where you create a vibe of “It’s OK to fumble things through. Let’s all think through this step by step and see how we can get out of it.”
A leader is an organisational gardener
Here’s a failure mode that I see a lot of times in organisations that burns out leaders and creates fragile organisations.
The leader sees themselves as the person who needs to answer to every message. To every request. Always plugged in. Always connected.
The vessel of all the information. Know everything and be able to answer questions about everything. The generating thought is: I need to answer all the questions for the people who I lead.
This creates a single point of failure in the organisation: the leader. A major bottleneck and a point of failure.
This failure can happen as follows. The organisation grows more and more complex. The leader stops taking breaks and runs non-stop. Then, the gas runs out.
As a leader, you are in for the long-run. You need periods of rest and replenishment. Walks in nature, strength raining, close relationships. All of these are essential to being able to lead, especially in turmoil.
There will always be another message to respond to. Another thing to help out with. The number of tasks is huge and exponentially expanding.
No organisational models that require an always-plugged-in leader can survive the modern world.
Leaders need the courage to step away from this way of leading and take a break.
Create a self-propelling organisation that can withstand times when even the leader is away for a bit.
This requites clear communication of priorities. It needs being transparent about information. It means sharing, it means giving away all of the things that traditionally were in the bucket “I am a leader because I have all the answers”.
If you give all of this away, you are left with an organisation that can be resilient even when you step back to rest. To recover. To take care of your family. All things which are essential to life.
This is scary for a traditional mindset. If we step back and things are OK without us, does this not mean we are useless?
Our skills as leaders are different. Leadership is like gardening. You start by planting the seeds. Here’s one that I planted that lead to the Digital PI project:
Then you direct the growth, but let it happen organically. You don’t try to control the outcome, but you direct the power that comes from motivated people just doin’ their thing.
Then, once the garden is going you can take a step back for a few days and it will be fine. There is some resilience in the system.
Then you come back and direct and challenge again.
If you constantly trim and adjust the garden (micromanagement), it will shunt its growth.
Design the landscape. Plant the seeds. Direct the growth. Trim things.
But let it grow organically.
And if you do so, you will get a beautiful thing.
You can take a step back for a few days and the garden will be fine. There is some resilience in the system.
A little note that this does not only apply just to organisations. This model of thinking applies to education too. David Fox’s Personal Theories of Teaching has been one of the most influential texts for me. From the abstract:
The paper presents a conceptual model for thinking about the process of teaching and learning based on how teachers respond to the question: ‘What do you mean by teaching? There emerge four basic ‘theories of teaching. There is the transfer theory which treats knowledge as a commodity to be transferred from one vessel to another. There is the shaping theory which treats teaching as a process of shaping or moulding students to a predetermined pattern. Thirdly, there is the travelling theory which treats a subject as a terrain to be explored with hills to be climbed for better viewpoints with the teacher as the travelling companion or expert guide. Finally, there is the growing theory which focusses more attention on the intellectual and emotional development of the learner. These theories are reflected by, and interact with, the views that students have of the process of learning. Whichever theory a teacher uses to help him/her think about the process it will affect the strategies she/he uses and it will colour his/her attitudes to students and to any training programme that she/he undertakes.
The growing theory of teaching focuses on the intellectual and emotional development of the learner.
A leader that can navigate today’s world is first and foremost this type of teacher: one that creates an organisation that grows organically intellectually and emotionally.
Some features of the organisational garden
To grow a garden out of an organisation, you need to understand lots of things about the organisation.
You need to understand the personalities of the members of the Hub. What are people’s strengths and weaknesses. In Global Shapers Manchester we started doing baseball cards, where people describe their personality and teach others how to best play with one another.
The organisation needs the spirit of community. A shared emotional bond between people. Psychological safety so people can speak their minds.
A space where peoples’ voices can be heard. Identifying people who are quiet and giving them a microphone.
Setting a strong vision that everyone can get on board to. Giving the team a North Star.
Creating a shared body of knowledge so that people have access to the right knowledge without the leader being the blocker.
Giving people the ability to make decisions without asking for permission. Empowering people to be their own decision makers - to go search for information and make fast decisions.
Creating transparent communication. We use Discord to make all communication visible to all Hub members. Transparency helps everyone feel in the loop and keeps leadership accountable.
Fast communication when it’s needed in the face of emergency.
One of the most powerful things I saw during 2020 was how Shapers coordinated emergency response through a WhatsApp group. A shaper from one part of the world used satellite images to help emergency responders in a completely different part of the world. The power of networks to connect people with needs with people with skills at the speed of the internet.
Actions over words. One key principle is that it’s more important to build than to protest. We now have the tools to empower individuals and small teams to build and reach a scale that was before only available to large organisations. Small packs of 3-4 people can quickly synchronise and use these tools to build powerful projects.
These building blocks build a constantly improving organisation. I think that instead of going through cycles of booms and bust, if we maintain the ability for the organisation to experiment we can achieve steady and sustainable growth as an organisation.
What I know is that traditional models of leadership need changing - I know because I live in the networked world of constant Slack messages and fast, chaotic communication.
I think it’s an environment where we can thrive. But to do this, we need to drop some of the mental anchors that hold us back, embrace the chaos and see what comes out of it on the other side, while still respecting the fundamental: each other’s humanity.
I really see Global Shapers Manchester as growing into an organisational template for the next decades. If we play our cards right.
We have started during the pandemic. Whether you call this period the Great Reset, where we have the chance of building new systems, or simply the Great Weirdening, a confusing, chaotic period where we were kicked off balance and we need to readjust - Global Shapers Manchester can be an experiment of what’s next after the chaos, confusion and complicatedness of 2020.
The spirit of Manchester is seen through the words that I have put here. One of innovation, respect and equality.
Let’s take this spirit into the Great Weirdning, into the Great Reset and see what we can build based off of these principles
And then share it to the world. Collaborate with other Hubs. Expand this model of organising and show its true power.
Not through these words. Words ar just the start. The call for action, so to speak.
But through the actions that we all take. Through the successes of our projects in having local impact.
Let’s build an organisational garden that organically grows in the service of our communities.
PS: I’m still trying to understand where these thoughts lead. I think there is a vision there of something, but it’s sometimes hard to find the words of that something is.
In here, I have tried to express it in the best way that I could.
I was mentioning to a friend lately: I don’t write because I have understood something and I want to communicate it.
I write to understand.
The word essay comes from the French essayer, meaning “to try”. Essays not as complete arguments but as exploratory journeys into the space of ideas.
Another frame that I also like is Joe Edelman’s astronauts of the interface.
Something else to explore for later.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Joseph Glanvill in 1661, reproduced by David Wooton in The Invention of Science.
And I doubt not but posterity will find many things that are now but Rumors into practical Realities. It may be some Ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown Tracts, yea possibly the Moon, will not be more strange then one to America. To them, that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into the remotest Regions; as now a pair of Boots to ride a Journey. And to conferr at the distance of the Indies by Sympathetick conveyances, may be as usual to future times, as to us in a litterary correspondance… Now thosem that judge by the narrowness of former Principles, will smile at these Paradoxical expectations: But questionless those great Inventions, that have in these later Ages altered the face of all things; in their naked proposals, and meer suppositions, were to former times as ridiculous. To have talk’d of new Earth [Americas] to have been discoveredm, had been a Romance to the Antiquity; And to sayl without the sight of Stars or shoars by the guidance of a Mineral [the compass], a story more absurd then the flight of the Deadalus.
It’s really interesting to think that, in posterity, my language will sound equally dated.
But, in the ages that followed Joseph Glanvill, the world did indeed go to the Southern unknown Tracts (now known as Australia) and even the Moon 🚀 🌕.
We can’t yet buy a pair of wings, but we can board a plane and fly to the remotest regions. And we can talk to the remotest places by Sympathetic conveyances.
We now just call them electromagnetic waves.