Shared Assets is 10 years old this year. Looking back on what we’ve achieved, one of the things I’m proudest of is the kind of organisation that Shared Assets has become.
Mark and I have been building Shared Assets, alongside a wonderful array of colleagues, partners and collaborators since 2012. We both started with a quite visceral desire to build the kind of organisation we’d “actually want to work for”, and to not replicate some of the practices that we had seen in other roles. So alongside the work of supporting and building the conditions for common good land stewards to thrive, we’ve always put energy into thinking about how we are working, and the kind of culture we are trying to build.
In many ways Shared Assets has always been an experiment in new ways of working, and it feels like over the past 10 years we’ve been through two distinct phases. It feels now like we are entering into a new third phase.
Phase 1: accidental mum and dad
The first, start up, phase, from 2012 to about 2017, was - as is common - a little scrappy and unintentional. We had a desire to build a healthy organisation but neither of us had much experience actually being in one, and we didn’t have many frameworks to be working from. We had a wonderful series of people come through the organisation, from interns to people who stayed for a year or two, but Mark and I were very central to the team.
I remember at our 5th birthday party we got a few people to come and speak and I noticed that almost all of them talked about “Mark and Kate” rather than “Shared Assets” - and I remember thinking “we need to change that”. This phase could be called the “mum and dad” phase - we had unintentionally built a family dynamic, and by trying to treat people well, and insulate them from some of the harder bits of running a business, we had actually centralised power around us.
Phase 2: self managing experiments
In 2017, I went on maternity leave for 7 months, and (as well as watching lots of telly and eating lots of cake), took the opportunity to do some reading and thinking about what it really takes to build a human organisation that builds people’s autonomy and treats people like adults. That time away was really important in being able to get the distance to do the thinking and research about what is possible to do with an organisation, and it ushered in the second phase of Shared Assets development, which has been characterised by experiments in building a self-managing and mutually supportive culture.
You can read more about this, and how we work now, here. The key shift has been about working to consciously distribute power through the organisation and away from Mark and I - and it’s been such a pleasure to be building a team that are really committed to both doing the work and thinking about how we work. One of our key strategic goals is about building a “leaderful” organisation - not about trying to be non hierarchical, but about having healthy and transparent power dynamics, and building leadership in every part of the organisation.
A key pragmatic part of this is the recognition that Shared Assets isn’t a retirement plan for Mark nor for myself. Working with Mark has been a real partnership, and I’ve learned so much from his wisdom, thoughtfulness, rigour, and strategic thinking. I’ve learned more than I ever thought possible. We both believe that a key marker of success will be that it is thriving and growing once we’ve both moved on.
Phase 3: distributed leadership and organisational fuzziness
We’ve been having conversations over the past couple of years about what it would look like to imagine Shared Assets as a network as much as an organisation. We are wondering about what happens when you have a less firm line between “inside” an organisation, and “outside” an organisation, and how we can share the work and grow our impact without just increasing the size of the organisation.We are consciously seeing ourselves as part of an ecosystem, and Shared Assets as an ecosystem in itself. This feels like it marks the beginning of the third phase of Shared Assets’ organisational development, one marked by a deeper focus on distributing leadership and experimenting with organisational form.
For that to happen, we need to create space. We are really busy at the moment, at Shared Assets. The wonderful team is straining at the edges, and we have been around a number of cycles of trying to work out how to create the right configuration of people. Without something in the structure of the organisation changing, it’s hard to see how to unleash the potential of the people we do have. It’s like a woodland that needs coppicing to bring more light and vigour into the system and allow more new shoots to grow.
Endings and beginnings
Things are changing in my life too; my daughter is starting school in September, which comes with its own needs for flexibility, and for a while now I’ve had a question gnawing in my brain about what kind of freelance life I could build for myself, whether I could survive outside of an organisation. Some of the people I see doing the most interesting work all wear multiple hats. I’m curious about what will happen when I fling myself into the world.
So, from the beginning of September, I’m going freelance. It’s not a total jump into the void; I’ll be doing a day a week for Shared Assets initially, as a non-executive director and continuing to deliver on a couple of projects (in particular as the CIDs learning partner, and supporting peer learning on the Enterprise Development Programme). I’ll also be exploring what the blurring of organisational boundaries could look like for us. I’m finally going to train as a coach. I’m excited about leading work on developing our “organisational fuzziness” - supporting the extension and creation of our networks and the team of non-exec directors as well as developing an associate pool. I’ll be keeping my email address until December.
Critically, I’ll also be continuing to help set up the Digital Commons Cooperative. This is a new community tech cooperative that we have set up with our friends at the Solidarity Economy Association. It provides mapping and data software tools for people building a more regenerative world. I’m looking forward to being able to put more focussed time into laying the foundations of a healthy organisation there while we move into a crowdfunding campaign in September.
I’m also really looking forward to getting some distance on what we’ve achieved so far at Shared Assets, getting to work out what I really want to be spending the next 10 years of my life working on. I suspect there will be a mixture of facilitation, governance, coaching, place and organisations in there, but I’m so curious about what will emerge for me next. There’s so much more I want to learn and do, and I’m keen to be trying new things, especially from January onwards.
In lots of ways this new phase is an expansion of the Shared Assets ecosystem. I will still be in it, but much less centrally. I’m so excited to see what new ideas, projects and approaches fill the gap that I will be leaving, and curious to see what I will learn out there on the edge that I can bring back into the heart of the system.