My professional background is in project management – using non-hierarchical and agile principles to help teams and individuals thrive.
I also have some experience using these skills to found, run and support community groups and creative projects.
There are some guiding principles to non-hierarchical organisations that help create a thriving environment and I have learned some things along the way. I wanted to share some simple rules that help create a strong and engaged community for anyone who is thinking of setting something up.
This would work well for creating a meditation group or practice community, for example.
Why This is Important
The quality of your relationships is one of the defining features in both your wellbeing and your sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Creating and participating in supportive communities that facilitate you to connect more deeply with others and work towards things that feel meaningful is one of the most worthwhile things in life.
Practicing together can also mean you can wake up faster and enjoy it more along the way.
Non-hierarchy doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t take on roles that have more responsibility than others, it means that those roles don’t inherently give that person more status.
It’s necessary for there to be leadership for a community or organisation to function, but in a non-hierarchical organisation leadership is guided by those who are willing to be in service to the group, have the flexibility to accommodate others and the ability to create a safe space as much as they are by things like knowledge, strength and authority.
For a non-hierarchical organisation to sustain, it’s important that there is a founder, CEO or leader who believes in the principles of this way of working and is willing to hold the space that facilitates this to continue emerging. People are in the habit of hierarchical and fixed ways of working and having someone who is there to remind and encourage people to be proactive and non-hierarchical is important for it to function and for it not to get into a negative spiral of disengagement or power dynamics.
The three guiding principles of non-hierarchical organisations are self-management, wholeness and purpose. All three are very conducive to spirituality – practicing showing up in the world in this way can be an amazing way of deepening experience in and of itself.
Self-management is about owning your own projections and being willing to take responsibility for how you show up in the group. It’s also about recognising that the group emerges from people’s ability to play their part in contributing to it.
Wholeness is about bringing every part of you – being willing to be vulnerable and to be with the difficult parts of experience as well as the positive. Space for people to share and express this needs to be made explicit as part of the group or organisation.
Purpose is about having a shared purpose with the group and being clear about how this aligns with your intentions and your role.
Ultimately, through working in this way, you are empowering people to be an authentic expression of themselves and feel a sense of agency and responsibility for the collective success of the group.
This is a basic list of rules that I have found vital for running or working with this kind of group.
This is based on creating a community or group of people whose sole purpose it is to do something together – i.e. it’s not an organisation that is providing a product or service to an external customer base.
It’s possible to run companies and social enterprises in a non-hierarchical way, but the specifics are slightly different. In this case, you can still use the things on this list, just be willing to experiment and see what works.
Every group of people is different and remember to bring those qualities of service, flexibility and providing safety when considering how to run and organise a group.
Format for Meetings
These are the basics for creating a thriving community.
1 – Start by identifying some leaders and early adopters
It’s important that there is a small core of people that are passionate about it, are willing to put in the work and will make it sustainable. It’s possible to do this on your own, but it is easier with some co-founders.
Find some people in your networks that you trust and who are really interested in joining as members. This helps you to identify that there is a genuine desire for the group you are wanting to create. It also gives you a sense of support in setting it up.
2 – Have a clear, shared purpose that you all want to be there for
This can be incredibly broad but ideally there will be something beyond just meeting for the sake of it. For example, rather than meeting to meditate together, meeting with the purpose of awakening for the benefit of yourselves and all beings would be more powerful because it helps create a sense of purposefulness.
Each person will have a different way of connecting with and manifesting this purpose, for example, someone in a teacher role will connect to this differently to someone who is a beginner.
It’s important that people feel connected to their personal purpose and the group’s purpose and that they genuinely want to be there – they aren’t doing it because they feel like they should. This sense of whole-heartedness is vital to the success of a non-hierarchical group.
3 – Meet regularly for a set amount of time
Set a regular time and place to meet. It could be anything from weekly to annually but unless you commit to a regular meeting, things are very likely to fizzle out.
It also helps people who are considering joining to decide whether they can commit to the group.
4 – Have an exercise/ focus point for each meeting
This can be incredibly simple but having someone guide the group in something that feels aligned with the purpose will help keep the meetings focused.
It could be picking a topic for discussion and facilitating that, guiding a meditation or running an exercise for people to do.
This could be done completely non-hierarchically, i.e. anyone is welcome to come forward and run a session, or it could be that there are some people who are in that role.
Be open about what this process is so that people who are interested in taking on the role of facilitator feel empowered in doing so.
5 – Create time for reflection and sharing
This is really important. There must be an opportunity for people to share as part of the group. This will help them feel engaged, accepted and connected with the group.
It’s important for cultivating wholeness that people are able to share difficult stuff as well as positive stuff. As a leader or facilitator, it’s vital to model a certain degree of vulnerability so that people know that they aren’t expected to be perfect or conform to some ideal in order to fit in, their perspectives and experiences will be accepted.
It’s also nice to hear feedback about how the group and meeting is impacting people.
6 – Fail fast
Be willing to experiment. All groups of people are a bit like a slightly chaotic chemistry experiment – with different forces, traits and conditions impacting things in different ways. In non-hierarchical organisations you are consciously allowing this organic sense of unfolding to be present.
In order for this to happen you want to be able to listen to people’s feedback and take it on board; be willing to pivot and change how things are done and also be prepared to cut your losses and call it a day. No-one likes to be part of a group that is limping on for the sake of it.
Here is a check-list for some of the infrastructure around the meetings that will support a thriving community or group.
1 – Have the intention of presence and friendship
You don’t need to be best friends with everyone in the group, but the magic of a non-hierarchical group comes from genuinely caring about the purpose of it and being present for each other in a way where you are interested in people. If this isn’t genuine it will be felt.
2 – Have a decentralised way of communicating
This could be something like a WhatsApp group or a Slack or Discord channel.
Give some guidance to people for what you would like people to share, for example asking questions or sharing their experiences. It’s nice for people to understand what is expected of them, but allow people to be creative and use it in the way that is most supportive for them, too.
Consider creating sub-groups. For example, you may want to keep a main channel for announcements and create separate groups for more detailed discussion.
Model basic, respectful communication. It’s important for cultivating wholeness that people are allowed to hold and share differing opinions while also being able to own their projections.
3 – Have an onboarding process for new members
This is important for embracing openness – allowing people to sign up and bring new people along – while still retaining some structure and cohesiveness.
Depending on how much of a commitment you are expecting from group members will depend on how involved this is.
As a minimum, you want to communicate to people: how often you meet and when, what the purpose of the group is and how people use the communication channels.
Ensure that this process of joining is open, so that people know how to invite people or sign up.
People won’t start feeling connected to the group until they have a method of communicating, either at meetings or through the communication channels. Ensure that new members feel welcomed and encouraged to do this.
4 – Review membership on a regular basis
There is an inevitable thing that happens with all groups of people – people sign up and then either decide it’s not for them or their capacity to commit changes and they disengage.
You need to allow for some natural waxing and waning in interest levels, but it’s important to have some process of reviewing the membership on a regular-ish basis.
This allows people who are not engaged to leave and keeps the space safe and engaged for those who are part of it.
Again, how you do this depends on the level of commitment you are expecting from people in the group.
One example of this is the women’s group I founded. It was a small close-knit community of people who shared a lot of vulnerable stuff, so we made it a requirement that people take part in an annual virtual meeting, where everyone shared something they were focusing on in life in a shared document.
Another example is the Dharmagarage. This is a larger and more informal group of people, so we asked people to just drop a message in the WhatsApp thread about whether they would like to stay and to share a little about what they got out of being in the group.
In both cases, people who didn’t respond were taken out of the group, with the explicit invitation that if they ever wanted to join again they would be very welcome to.
Also in both cases, people reported that it was a really nice way to connect to the group and hear about the reasons why other people were part of it.
5 – Remember that it’s fun
It doesn’t need to be perfect. Running groups and communities can be challenging so remembering that you are there to work together and enjoy the process is vitally important.
Here are some in-depth examples of communities that use these principles.
These two episodes of my podcast Creative Adventures discuss some of the details of the Dharmagarage and the Women’s Group that I founded:
In this episode of the Buddhist Geeks podcast Vince Horn interviews Kati Devaney about the San Francisco Dharma Collective. This podcast episode inspired the creation of the Dharmagarage.