Too Many Cooks?

Too many cooks spoil the broth? Then how many do we need?

In July 2021 Network commissioned The Change Collective to host a feast of ideas about working collectively in the creative industries. In liaison with Professor Lois Weaver, and the collective of drama students, called Air Supply, that she works with to curate the Peopling the Palace festival every year at QMUL, the digital feast brought together collectives from around the world responding to the following provocation –

Rigid hierarchy within organisations is proving increasingly problematic. The days of a founding father or mother leading with passion and charisma from the front, seem to be dwindling. We’re asking for something different, but what does that look like? What happens when decision making is more shared? What is lost and what is gained when organisations resemble pancakes as opposed to pyramids? What can we learn from how collectives have failed in the past? What does it take to embed and nurture a culture of more collaborative leadership? 

A mural that captures some of the responses can be explored here, and an account of the event is given below

A Communal Feast. A Digital Gathering. A Mischievous Plotting Session

Date: Wednesday 7th July 2021

Venue: A creaking banqueting table in a landscape made of maps, dials, donkeys, rolling hills and sunken castles.

At The Change Collective we have been exploring how we can create a collective as a learning system, or a learning exchange. A space in the world that brings people together from different creative practices to find synergies that hopefully leads to something new, not something that is already out there. Like all good things in life, it’s been an experiment; a messy, joyful, frustrating experiment. At times it’s felt circular and inward looking, at times it’s felt like through the work we’ve been doing, we’ve been looking deep into the eyes of a fairer and more hopeful world. There is a shared sense at the core of the organisation, that good practice does not, and should not, sit either with an individual or a single approach. 

Our models and approach have emerged through an intensive, and often quite intense, process of opening up to each other, bringing ourselves and our individual practice to these ‘petri dish’ spaces, being guided by a shared purpose of exploring ‘arts-led approaches to change in multiple contexts and conditions”. What the collective sells or stands for is process and not product always, there’s a tension there, the end game wasn’t to make a living through the change collective, it was to be part of a nourishing creative process. As a Community-Interest Company we have needed a Director, and for the last 8 years that’s been me. I’ve signed the forms and sent the accounts when they’ve needed sending. I’ve been the person who has sent the lengthy emails and I have helped gather people around the fire whilst also crucially, making sure that the fire doesn’t go out.

So far so good, but recently we hit a bump in the road. After a three month period of strategic thinking and creative exploration, looking at how we build something more sustainable for the organisation and how we might move towards something that feels more collaborative as a leadership model, we find ourselves asking the same familiar questions we’ve been asking for years; How do we ensure everyone has a say in decisions? How do we share responsibility better? What happens if we don’t all have the same purpose? Why are some people always pushing, while others are feeling like they don’t have the time or the mandate to push? What does it really mean to be in a collective when we have a Director who is legally responsible for everything?

We knew that we weren’t the only group of people asking ourselves these questions and we felt that the current trend to understand more about collaborative leadership could provide some useful insights for us. So, we dusted off our little yellow book and reached out to friends and collaborators around the world with an invitation to be part of a conversation for people who work as collectives and self-organising groups, across a digital table that crossed borders and physical boundaries. Part communal feast, part digital gathering and part mischievous plotting session, ‘Too Many Cooks?’ gave us space to widen our circle of understanding around some of the issues we’ve been grappling with.

We wanted to create a playful space of possibilities where we are all able to discuss the complexities and opportunities of collaborative leadership. We wanted to understand more about what happens when groups/organisations/movements look more like pancakes than pyramids and we wanted to learn from other collectives’ discoveries, connecting some of the dots across different practices and perspectives.

We gave our guests a challenge ahead of the night itself;

‘We invite you to create a short, sharp provocation, in advance, for the table. The provocation can take any form; it could be a video link to a project you’re proud of, an image, an audio track, a Padlet or anything else that captures who you are as a group and some of the questions you’re holding – It will be part insight sharing and part call to action and will act as a stimulus for conversations at the table’

We worked with the brilliant designer Maria Piva to create a digital landscape on Mural that we used as our canvas and our building blocks. Ahead of the event we embedded the provocations onto our table for our guests to feast on. Feasters on the night included practitioners from Sudan, Manchester (via New York), France and all across the UK. We were joined by the Queen Mary’s collective Air Supply, fresh from curating the Peopling the Palace Festival, the collaborative leadership wisdom of Sour Lemons, participatory democracy and legislative theatre expert Katy Rubin from the US. The Change Collective’s questions sat alongside provocations from Drum Circle Sudan and Sudanese powerhouse Maya Gadir.  

We danced. We spent time in the body as well as the mind. We shared what was working, as well as what wasn’t. We broke into smaller spaces and we came together as one. We left feeling full, but also full of hope and possibility I think. There was a generosity with which people approached the night, they had come perhaps not knowing too much about what to expect, but left feeling like they had been well fed and watered. On the night, the landscape was a space to gather around but it also now becomes a creative resource to capture reflections and further provocations for other interested thinkers, do-ers, dreamers, in the hope that it sparks further exploration, deeper understanding and new individual and collective action.

After dinner mints: we now open up the table for others to see what delicacies are there to be consumed. We have invited everyone who attended the gathering to add a creative response to the shared digital table/landscape. Follow the link and see what you can find: explore, be curious, lots of the symbols around the table are link to the creative responses, lots of the symbols on the table itself are the original shared provocations.


Article written by Dan Boyden (TCC) with all Mural and general co-piloting brilliance by Chloe Osborne (TCC)

Some of the original provocations (if you can’t find them on the Mural!!!!!!)

  • “This is an opportunity for collaborative ideation – what are the ideas that liberate all of us? The more people that collaborate on that ideation, the more that people will be served by the resulting world(s)” Provocation from Sour Lemons quote from Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown
  • “What is hope? It is a presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is a hunch that the overwhelming brutality of facts that oppress and repress is not the last word. It is a suspicion that reality is more complex than realism wants us to believe and that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual and that in a miraculous and unexpected way life is preparing the creative events which will open the way to freedom and resurrection. From Katy Rubin taken from a passage by theologist Rubem Alves

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