Space to place new steps of change

Space to place new steps of change

An active hosting presence is vital in collaborative workspaces, even if it's a quiet background presence. Attention to the edges of the space and the thresholds into and out of spaces can help configure a collaborative workspace.


The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
                       Maya Angelou 'On the pulse of the morning'

Often we are not invited into, or don't invite people into, the 'space to place new steps of change'. This, as we work in multiple spaces and places in different forms of collaborative effort day in and day out. Thresholds into and out of, and movements between, collaborative workspaces are often invisible, overlooked or carelessly managed. The workspace is increasingly fractured, dislocated and simultaneous in chaotic and confusing ways. We find ourselves moving between groups and spaces, having to pick up cues to fit in, or decide when to stand out, bracing ourselves to cut through the muddle and settle in and contribute. Or perhaps we just aim to survive and be heard above the racket of empty activity from time to time.

Winding back to when I first started thinking about thresholds and movement between knowledge spaces, there was a knowledge management conference in the Hague, way back in 2000 or so. We'd decided to construct a stand which was a garden shed as an evolution of some playful research into slow knowledge and learning spaces(*). It was charming. And daunting. I trailed conference participants who were willing to whip in and out of other spaces and whisk off a glossy brochure or two. But our space ended up with people hovering outside, teetering on the edge, needing a friendly hand and a welcome to help them step inside and strike up a conversation. I think we had made visible some of the deeper anxieties of the unknown, fear of encounter and being encountered. In any case, how thresholds work in the workplace became an ongoing matter of curiosity for me. And it still is.

If there are thresholds, then another question comes with the need to empty out collaborative spaces, rather than cluttering them with easily consumable, slippery and essentially meaningless knowledge.  But before they can be emptied, they need to be created and looked after. And that's where two connected ideas come in: hosting, rituals and customs; and, groups and collaboration spaces as containers with edges that are just firm enough to hold the work that needs to unfold, and just fuzzy enough to allow for movement within and between spaces. The rest of this note says a bit more about both.

Hosting: the art of arranging

Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey(**), in their book on host leadership, work the metaphor of host hard. They have some things to say which are just as useful when applied to hosting collaboration and project spaces.

Hosts don’t just engage people by drawing them in. They introduce people to each other, make connections and act positively to bring together synergistic groups....The art of arranging - whom to put with whom, what might make an interesting group, even thinking about keeping specific participants apart - is a key element of the host’s skill.

Six hosting roles play out in four positions and moving in two directions, combining to form shifting rhythms of hosting. A hosting dance, if you like.

  • Roles: initiator, space creator, gatekeeper, connector, co-participant
  • Positions: spotlight, with the guests, in the gallery, in the kitchen
  • Directions: step forward, step back

A couple of useful glosses here for adjusting the balance in hosting collaborative spaces.

As a creator of a space, work with just safe enough spaces. If it's not safe enough, people will be anxious and hesitate or retreat. If it's too safe they'll relax, it's too predictable, not enough call to action. That means constant work around what the edges of the space are doing to get that firm/fuzzy mix right.

As a gatekeeper, step back and take notice of the thresholds to your space, source people to invite in from other spaces. Or step forward, welcome people in, establish routines and rituals that make that delicate sense of safety necessary to good work.

While we were writing up the research in the summer of 2019, I also ran a workshop hosted by a brand agency for a client of theirs and of mine. The agency had all the funky element you might expect. They also had a ringmaster whose express role was to host the space and help both visitors and inhabitants feel protected in their own temporary and permanent spaces, and also able to connect with each other in different ways. The whole experience of being there felt more rooted and substantial as a result. We belonged, even though we'd only borrowed a bit of their space for a day. We were looked after, even though we were passing through. We felt part of a place where everyone was being attended to, which created a sense of ease that you couldn't exactly put into words, but which certainly contributed to what we got done together.

Containers for groups working together

As a gatekeeper, understand your containers. An idea introduced to me by McKergow and Bailey, which comes from Ed Olson and Glenda Eoyang(***). Containers, say Eoyang and Olson

provide boundaries, center points, and connections. How a team frames its purpose, its culture, and its processes provide multiple containers for its self-organizing activities.

Too strong constricts and gets in the way. Too loose is weak and doesn't create the conditions for groups to organise themselves. Somehow a container (a collaborative workspace) needs to be just firm enough at the edges to make a space to 'allow members to freely interact and for new patterns to form'.

One example Eoyong and Olsen offer is an everyday one.  If meetings are scheduled at times and places where there is every chance they'll be interrupted, the meeting is not bounded or rooted, and so rather unstable.  If work processes are too set, then the container is too strong to make room for newness. Or

A team with cultural norms that suppress dissent has behavioural containers that are too strong or tight.

There's more to think about in terms of the configuration and culture of small or large, strong or weak teams, groups and communities. And around setting and evolving the conditions that keep containers working well. Eoyong and Olsen add two other dimensions: the challenges of encouraging differences in team (because that's where the potential for change comes from); and, transforming exchanges that need to occur in teams if they are to realise that potential. More on these themes another time.

The degree of constraint in all three conditions (container, difference, exchange) determines the predictability or unpredictability of patterns.

What might this add up to in configuring collaborative workspaces, virtual, physical, synchronous, asynchronous?

  • A thoughtful and alert hosting presence, working with the rhythm of the McKergow & Bailey 642 (6 roles, 4 positions, 2 directions of travel)
  • Setting conditions for containers with fuzzy/firm edges
  • Encouraging difference
  • Choreographing transforming exchanges

Reconfiguring the collaborative workspace:

This is hugely useful insight, adjacent to research just published by the Leading Edge Forum into reconfiguring the collaborative workspace(****). In that work we take ideas around time, space and attitude as precious resources, with attitude in particular as the Cinderella of culture work.

Over the next few weeks and months, I'll be picking out aspects of the research and connecting them with other threads of thinking and practise from the last 25 years or so of work in this area.

And, in passing, as someone who works in association with a small handful of (really excellent!) boutique research and consulting groups, and in different client and research teams and projects, I notice daily how different collaborative workspaces are shaped, both intentionally and by accident. Dr Caitlin McDonald, with whom I am lucky to be working on the LEF research, will be pleased that I'm being my own digital anthropologist. Watching myself at work certainly offers me a space to 'place new steps of change'.

You might want to head to 'Building a mindful infrastructure'. and read about building spaces for dialogue and interactive routines.


(*)'Designing knowledge spaces that work for learning. The experiment of the art exhibition and the garden shed' by Professor Clive Holtham & Victoria Ward, submitted to the PKDD2000 Workshop

'(**)Host Leadership' by Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey - for teams, organisations, communities, movements. Solutions books, 2014 London (In passing, their take on the limitations of hero leadership, as opposed to host leadership, is also worth a whole separate section of thinking another time.)

(***)'Using Complexity Science to Facilitate Self-Organizing Processes in Teams' By Edwin E. Olson and Glenda H. Eoyang April 30, 2001

(****)'Reconfiguring the collaborative workspace: making the most of time, space and attitude' by Dr Caitlin McDonald and Victoria Ward with contributions from Joseph Cook, LEF 2019        

Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash