Lessons & Observations Team Syntegrity, Barcelona 2017

Team Syntegrity 2017: Positive and transformative characteristics observed in the methodology and process followed by a few debatable and challenging issues.

Cecilia Milesi
26 July 2017

A number of subtle and deftly interlinked outcomes were observed and documented throughout the Team Syntegrity[1] group process. These results are about powerful interlinked lessons and developments emerging from within the evolving dynamics and reflective interactions among the participants. Unlike what is expected from most group processes facilitated on the whole to ensure agreement, decision-making and implementation – this experience stimulated the joint creation of the invisible and incremental results that can arise from conversations in diversity.

In this document, I summarise what I consider the most relevant observations and lessons learnt from Team Syntegrity Barcelona 2017, highlighting those which I believe worked to reinvigorate citizens, organisations and democracy.

In brief, I understand that creating spaces to promote joint creativity, leading to personal and cultural shifts is not only exciting but very much needed at this dramatic socio-political moment.

I organised my observations and lessons in two main clusters:  

Positive and transformative characteristics observed in the methodology and process

- The power of self-organisation

- The importance of mutual learning and joint creation

- Democracy as a conversation: the return to conversational change processes

- Beyond expertise: horizontal exchange for democracy renewal

- Exchange as trauma-healing



Debatable and challenging issues observed in the methodology and process

- The political economy of participation

-  Context and linkage with a specifically relevant political process


I have included testimonies and concrete examples, situations and/or exchanges observed in the group process, in order to illustrate more concretely my brief conclusions.

     Testimonies and examples are highlighted with this bullet point  *

Towards the end of the document, I provide observations on logistics, administrative, funding and organisational matters which could be considered in future replications of TS.

Before I start presenting these observations, I would like to highlight the fact that I don’t consider observation and/or evaluation of social processes a neutral technique. Therefore, it is important to note where I position myself as an observer. So here I make explicit some characteristics of the observer (myself) which directly inform my conclusions:

  1. I support democracy and understand that both, democracy as a concept and democratic practices and institutional forms, have varied historically and in specific social contexts.
  2. I’m a woman from Latin America who has been involved in a wide variety of processes aimed at empowering civil society organisations, while opening up political spaces for participation in the region and globally. My knowhow relating to what works and what does not arises from my practical engagement in complex work at grassroot, macro, micro and policy level in Latin America and around the world.
  3. I value complexity theory and systems thinking. I consider that they underpin the way forward for planning and evaluation of really transformative change processes. I have trained others in these concepts and planning frameworks[1]. Therefore, I have a strong tendency to support them, in contrast to linear and positivist thinking.
  4. As a post-colonial thinker, I don’t support the replication of models as if they operate without context, culture and micro-realities that must be taken into consideration. In short, I’m against a “one size fits all” approach. Therefore, if there are chances to “replicate” something like Team Syntegrity, this should always be based on the principles of participation, local leadership, mutual accountability on the management of power and resources, with local actors taking the lead.

I hope you find the following insights useful,

Warmly and in solidarity,

 Cecilia Milesi

Observations and Lessons Learnt

Positive and transformative characteristics of the methodology

  1. a.    The power of self-organisation

One of the most striking features of the methodology is the belief in the power of participants/citizens to generate their own ways of engaging and deliberating around one common question and a number of co-created themes. Non-facilitation in the hands of external professionals has its limits: this presents both opportunities and challenges.

Firstly, I consider that it was and is positive to create a ‘time-space’ which offers participants a unique opportunity to practice self-organisation in jointly generating arguments and solutions. This is arguably necessary in times when our lives are monitored, censored, controlled, surveilled, manipulated, structured, serialised and thoroughly determined by several assorted  hierarchical and distant ineffective institutions. In this context, and over time, even social leaders more used to these kinds of encounters and exchanges, lose their capacity for dialogue, listening, collaboration and co-creation. We are all the time constrained by imposed mechanisms and boundaries for social organisation, so this methodology provides an excellent chance to practice and learn relevant collaborative leadership skills. From my observations, I feel I can confidently conclude that this is a formative and powerful experiential-learning protocol, useful for the development of the skills required for democracy regeneration.

In relation to this point and interestingly, during the group process a certain spectrum of discomfort was mainly observable at the commencement of working together. We noted initial confusion and heard complaints in relation to the lack of direction and explanation provided by the conveying/ facilitation team.

For example, some of the participants complained that the facilitators did not ensure that everyone had the same chance to talk during the joint plenary to select the themes or that they were not ensuring that people listened to each other in a respectful way. Normally, in most horizontal and consensual group processes the initial setting of ground rules for respectful communication is assumed to be vital. This aim is to balance symmetries while ensuring mutual respect.

However, it seems that this initial reaction dissipated as soon as the participants went into work in groups and realised the power of setting their own rules to promote communication, learn from each other and co-create solid arguments in relation to each theme. Thus, one could argue that the self-organising nature of the process was empowering, allowing for the initial discomfort of not being “managed/facilitated” by an outsider and/or from above to be transformed into personal and group power, vital for nurturing assertive and active citizenship.

The self-organising nature of the proposal was a chance to open up questions relating to how we would like democracy to be reinvigorated. Some of the issues debated in several groups were for example: Is democracy about holding power in our own hands or delegating power? What’s the balance between participation and representation if we want to promote active citizenship and hold the far-right or corrupted governments and corporations to account? What’s the relation between self-organisation and the feminisation of politics - i.e. how do new politics differ from the hierarchical and patriarchal “old left”? etc.

The fact that the group was supported by an external facilitator documenting (note-taking) key aspects and highlights arising in each conversation was useful. Because of this provision, the participants were not distracted by note-taking themselves and were fully immersed in the mutual listening process. Nevertheless, this requires a good number of human resources and the process sometimes generated conflict (questions in regards to what was noted down, why, etc). Interestingly, some groups agreed how to “monitor” what the note-taking/facilitator was scribbling on the boards and used this as a concrete opportunity to maintain focus and reach conclusions. The notes were accessible to everyone and there was no concentration of power in a particular person hiding information and note-taking in her/his own computer or note-book. This reinforced the transparency and mutual accountability required for any truly participatory and horizontal consensual process.

Sometimes people did leave their groups or openly complain that they were not able to follow conversations. At times, this created some interesting discussions in relation to when and how to sustain participation if we want to create effective and solid joint arguments and solutions:

For example, some groups debated participants’ decisions to leave the group, how to communicate disappointments or disagreements, who talks and when, who is more or less listened to, who was missing in a group, the level of education and ways to put in words ideas so that everyone was able to understand and no one was left outside or behind in the conversation. These important communication issues are central to strengthening the fundamentals of democratic policy-making and enabling citizens to take the lead in social spaces created for the common good.

For example: groups discussed how to start the conversation –“shall we start by introducing ourselves and presenting more info about our backgrounds?”. In general, what was  observable was a shared sense of responsibility for the common process and output.

Overall, the exercise was a practical chance to practice and realize the benefits and lessons from self-organisation, reinforcing some of the features of the more horizontal, inclusive and dynamic democracies we would like to co-create and support.

  1. b.   The importance of mutual learning and joint creation

At first, I had the impression that “we were all the same” (CSOs, NGOs, left-wing political party representatives, mainly middle and upper middle-class people, from mainly rich/developed countries, mostly white, progressive activists and professionals). However, through the conversational process the diversity of the group emerged more clearly:

For example, some groups discovered huge discrepancies and differences among themselves. Just to note some examples, I would mention those who categorised themselves as fitting with the description of the “old left” (i.e.: patriarchal, vertical, etc.) and those categorised within the “new left” (i.e. horizontal grassroots organisations and participants openly committed to the feminisation of politics). The old left representatives defended themselves as respectable and commendable despite being vertical and patriarchal. This is because, the old left had “fought” for democracy  – many people had died defending its ideals in the fight to restore democracy (Partido Nueva Democracia, Chile). Participants aligned with the so-called “new left” argued that this is not sufficient to justify obsolete ways of organising (Barcelona en Comu). Notably, representatives of both “sides” ended presenting their conclusions side by side, showing the respectful and mutual learning results from the process. The power of the approach was confirmed, as the groups created joint arguments beyond differences.

Another example of group diversity was the presence of participants with solid grassroots experience among others who were only engaged with big/ distant institutions or political parties. At the same time, there were people with strong academic background and little direct experience of engagement in socio-political work, debating together with those working at the “micro” level (small/local organisations). They were all seated together, engaging as well with participants working at national and regional policy-making institutions (for example, a couple of parliamentarians). As such, the process was an opportunity to discuss politics and how politics is done at various levels, sharing stories, theory, practice, experiences and feelings, all necessary components of daily policy-making.

These binaries and contrasts, in dialogue, triggered some strong debate, the deconstruction of ideas and re-creation of arguments based on complex exchanges of ideas. Some groups opted for focusing on where they found common ground, while others opted to work on dismantling and comprehending differences. In all, the whole experience was about active listening, cooperation and commitment to finding common solutions despite challenges.

It seems that each group in particular – and the group as a whole – ended with a sense of synergy and took home multiple and unexpected lessons from this dialogue in diversity. Participants recognised the value of taking time to exchange and argue despite the at times unnerving environment created by disagreement, misunderstanding, lack of a common language and background, etc. I would expect only some of ‘the infoset’ to take their joint ideas beyond the encounter. A number of participants mentioned that they might concretise multiple actions, while also supporting openDemocracy as a platform enabling the communication of progressive, democratic and alternative messages for social change.

Overall, I consider that an exercise such as this is a chance to reinforce some key capabilities needed to improve our democracies. More precisely, the capacity to exchange ideas and commitments beyond differences allows for an inter-group/ideas exchange that re-humanizes and values “multiple others”.

  1. c.    Democracy as a conversation: the return to conversational change processes

The experience was about the creation of a ‘time and space’ for rich semi-structured, non-hierarchical and non-guided/ self-organised conversations. I understand that sustaining substantive ‘conversations’ is one of the pre-conditions of a participatory, inclusive and healthy democracy. A democracy should be based on the sound flow of information, mutual learning and respect and joint decision-making to create conditions for everyone to enjoy dignity and freedom. The TS experience was a small-scale space, presenting what our daily lives might look like in renewed democracies.

Considering this, and from observing the process, I understand that the conversational exercise proposed by TS is a tool, among many others, helpful to reinvigorate citizens’ ability to maintain rich, necessary and difficult conversations. This is particularly important at a time when conversational encounters are receding in favour of technology-mediated participation and/or off-line mobilisations with limited objectives – such as expressing support for or opposition to something or someone. Balancing opportunities for participation through technology with the chance to immerse ourselves in real-time, profound conversations will be an important objective for the real reinvigoration of our democracies and organisations.

In each group, as these conversations evolved, it was easy to observe how every participant made efforts to present ideas in a clear way, listen to everyone, support joint analysis while recognising others’ insights, trajectories and experiences. Importantly, participants attempted to remain open to transforming their own personal thinking and positions. I wonder if this openness was facilitated by the fact that there was no agenda or pre-conceived objectives imposed upon them. My initial response to this question, and after having observed and engaged with many groups in similar encounters, is that the methodological freedom was central to avoiding resistance, decreasing confrontation and multiplying the opportunities for innovation. Everyone simply faced ‘the other’ humanity, beyond labels.

Some specific notes in relation to the conversation flow are as follows:

For example, it was notable to observe those playing the role of “critics”, and how they slowly adapted to the proposal. That is, critics acknowledged that critiquing was a means to support those in conversation, rather than a moment to make their personal points and/or “big statements”. At the start, it was clear that some participants felt more comfortable using the brief “critic time” to participate rather than “taking care of the conversation”. In my opinion, supporting this shift (from protagonist to carer) was in itself a vital lesson.

In the groups, many argued that “new politics” and “better democracies” are about openness and responsiveness to peoples’ needs. It was assessed that this is what is missing in our democracies today: democracies and organisations have lost the capacity to listen and care for others, as they remain mainly devoted to the self-servicing of your own, limited interests. In this sense, the methodology was an exercise in learning what democracy may look like if we focus on caring for groups’ and peoples’ needs, using basic dialogical skills as the pre-condition to creating a people-centred political project. In conclusion, the encounter was a chance to practice this transformation on a small scale.

Interestingly, there was an invitation to continue each group reflection in the margins of the process (breaks, lunch, plenaries, dinners, etc.). The “observers” were mainly those with the responsibility of cross-fertilising the process, taking information from one place to the other, trying to influence participants and shape the conversation from the periphery. In my view, this presented an interesting parallel in relation to the challenge of refreshing our democracies:  the role played by the critics and observers – not sitting at centre stage – reminds us that we can shape democracies from every position as soon as we become active, if we use all our chances to influence processes and decisions. If we consider the “conversation table” as a metaphor for institutions where ideas and decisions affecting everyone are usually made – for example, the parliament or a human rights organisation – with little or no consultation, the surrounding variety of roles and spaces from whence to influence the conversations during the TS encounter, is a practical experiential lesson in policy-influencing and how to revitalise a multi-layered and distributed democratic process.

The exercise was a reminder that democracy is working with what emerges and the need to safeguard responsiveness to groups’ (peoples’) needs. The proposal does not impose any “ready-made” ideas and suggestions. It’s an open invitation to collaborate in creating new ‘arguments’ and/or ‘solutions’ based on trust and respect for what every participant (citizen) brings. Debate is a cornerstone and vital pillar of every democratic exercise: in this sense, TS was a small-scale exercise in people power, where focusing on the process is as important as a concrete result in the form of a ‘solution’.

In all, the initiative reminded us that democracy is a construction in our hands and an invitation to remember that we must and can move beyond the passive consumption of information and others’ ideas. We are part of the conversation no matter where we stand. 

  1. d.   Beyond expertise: horizontal exchange for democracy renewal

It was interesting to observe that the groups were not divided by ‘expertise’ in one topic or the other. Themes were co-created in a constructivist (dialogical) way and everyone was given the chance to select one group or the other considering personal interests. It was the “algorithm” which made the final decision on final group membership.

I don’t have information on how this algorithm works, however, I can certainly associate this process with various different exercises used in participatory group processes in which randomised techniques are used to support group formation. Randomised techniques ensure the creation of groups which promote mutual learning and collaborative thinking.

However, the use of the “algorithm” in my view, while interesting, is debatable in some regards (see below). Here, I would like to highlight the “horizontal” aspect of the group process as a factor which enables innovation, participation and mutual respect. In particular, I found interesting that nobody was ‘named’ or ‘labelled’ as knowing more about a given theme than any other team member. Nobody was ‘categorised’ as bringing ‘more’ or ‘needed’ insights to the process for outcomes to be rich and useful. As everyone was treated the same, the non-hierarchical conferencing approach, the space for interaction and creation was honestly based in a few core democratic values: equality and egalitarian rights. The consequence was that everyone enjoyed sharing responsibility for the joint outputs and everyone felt a powerful co-creator of the final outputs and lessons gained together:

For example, one of the participants of the “Politics of feelings” requested their fellow participants to help him get to that “space” the group was proposing (i.e: talking about traumatic patriarchal experiences which lead to controlling and violent behaviour). “Please, lead me there”. The response was to adjust the way the table was located, replacing it by comfy sofas and opening up a more relaxing environment to enable a return to the memories of the past.

The non-hierarchical and horizontal approach is reminiscent of the values of South-South Cooperation and the founding members of the “Bandung Conference”. It also resonates with the principles of popular education and its need to overcome “banking education” (Paulo Freire) as a mean to liberate the oppressed and ensure real democratization of our societies, (beyond representation). Finally, it echoes with the promises of post-colonial, feminist and post-linear thinking, important foundations of revitalised democracies in a multipolar world.

In traditional seminars and policy sessions, the “participants” only have the chance (sometimes) to ask questions at the end of long presentations by “experts” or “decision-makers”. Participants are in a disempowered position with no chance to influence what is being said, presented or discussed. The way these kinds of meetings are organised implies that participants don’t have knowhow, unlike those sitting at the front entitled to “enlighten” others. Most NGOs, civil society, academic and international organisation conferences and seminars are organised this way. They diminish democracy and the transforming power we all need to recognise and exercise in making policy and joint creation spaces. In this sense, TS is a revitalizing counter-paradigm proposal.

  1. e.    Exchange as trauma healing

My impression is that there were instances in which the exchange naturally led to what is called (by some) “trauma healing” and memorialisation, both being central to democratization processes and post-conflict community rebuilding efforts. The trauma-healing aspect of TS is a helpful approach to be used by societies in transition, bearing in mind that all societies are always transitioning! Complexity and systems thinking is a reminder that there is no such thing as a final stabilisation, peace, development or the like. Democratic participation is constant engagement in adapting to ever-changing conditions, and joint responsibility in constantly creating the best means to promote dignity. In this sense, the groupwork opened up the space for “transitioning” together -from the personal to the political level:

For example, some people talked about their past (both individual and collective). Specifically, experiences of violence, authoritarianism and other oppressive situations which made them who they are today. One of the women participants shared her experiences of suffering manipulative behaviour by women in the Middle East and others voiced childhood experiences of physical attacks - just to mention a couple of stories that were shared. Story-tellers make evident to everyone how these various events and experiences shaped their capacity/ incapacity to engage in policy-influencing and collective creation of the “commons” (from families to countries and regions).

Today, there are a number of emerging frameworks giving physio-social support to human rights defenders (holistic security), which are based on this type of storytelling as enablers of leadership and active citizenship. Story-sharing creates the political space to sustain struggles and various social change initiatives as they increase connectivity, mutual care and support, activating capacities for resilience and empowerment in a context of dramatic threats and instability.

In conclusion, the TS initiative opened an important space for sharing personal stories. Because of this, it was an opportunity to increase synergy, heal and remember, pre-conditions for resilient activism and work for change.  

[1]  Cecilia is a Latin-American professional with over 20 years of experience working on inclusive development, democratization, participatory change processes, peacebuilding and human rights in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. Cecilia has held leadership and advisory roles at renowned organizations worldwide: Amnesty International, Oxfam GB, BRICS Policy Centre, Conciliation Resources, CDA Collaborative Learning, United Nations (WIPO), Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), Open Democracy | Democracia Abierta, #SiempreVivas, Hivos, SES Foundation, among others.

She is the founder of Subir al Sur, an argentine-global project promoting intercultural education and youth leadership.  Her areas of expertise include process design, participatory research, conflict analysis, context relevant design, management and evaluation of multi-countries programmes and complex initiatives, organisational development, capacity building and mediation and facilitation of participatory change processes. Education: Sociologist (University of Buenos Aires, Honours), Diploma in Anthropology and Development (Latino America Faculty of Social Sciences, Honours) and an MSc on “Violence, Conflict and Development” (SOAS, University of London, Merit). In 2014, Cecilia was selected Fellow of the BRICS Policy Centre, Global South Unit for Mediation (Brazil). In 2015, Cecilia was certified an expert in the analysis and facilitation of company/community conflicts by the University of Cape Town (South Africa). Cecilia regularly publicises her research at regional and global conferences. More info: www.ceciliamilesi.com

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