Big picture, little stitches at our annual retreat

Zara Rahman

At the beginning of this month, The Engine Room team–all 17 of us!–met in-person for our annual team retreat. This year, we gathered at the Redondo de Guayedra on Gran Canaria, complete with stunning views and even better weather. 

This year, we did things a little differently than how we’ve done them in the past. First, we opted to facilitate it ourselves instead of with an external facilitator, giving everyone a chance to lead a session, icebreaker, or exercise for the rest of the team. And second, rather than focusing on our internal processes and how we work, we turned our attention to the outside world and how we fit within it. 

This felt like a necessary shift given the state of the world today–fast-changing political environments, revolutions and protests in many of our home countries, and above all, a very different world to the one in which The Engine Room was founded in 2011. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom; we used our time together to situate ourselves as human beings, bodies, people with stories and lives and experiences outside of what we often share online or over email.

Trust offline, trust online  

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after seven years of working remotely, it’s that having trusted relationships with people you work with makes the world of difference. And so that’s where we started with our retreat–easing in, getting to know each other and understanding why we come to this work. We had six people for whom it was their first retreat, so this also felt like a kind of onboarding for them, too. 

Towards the end of last year, we did small group coworking for the first time–providing budget and time for people to get together in smaller groups. We learned many lessons from those meetings, like how much joy and connection can come from storytelling and visioning, and how important it is to connect our personal aspirations to the work we’re doing together at The Engine Room. These exercises helped create space for getting to know each other as people, not just as colleagues, and–I hope–will help us situate online pings and emails with more empathy and understanding than before. 

Acknowledging our expertise 

There’s no way of saying this without sounding contradictory, but altogether, we at The Engine Room are a pretty modest bunch. This is a strength when it comes to our support work–there’s no assuming that we’re the experts or that we know more or better than the partners we work with. But in a way, it’s also a weakness, in that we sometimes we don’t take the time to appreciate the expertise that we’ve built up as individuals and as a collective. 

This year, we debuted a series of ‘lightning talks’ held by staff members on different aspects of substantive work. From novel approaches to anti-corruption activism, to advocacy trends across Southern Africa, they were a fantastic way to learn from each other and spotlight each other’s body of knowledge. Hopefully this lays the groundwork for more big-picture thinking aside from the daily project work that we do, too. 

Why we do what we do, and for whom 

It wouldn’t be an Engine Room retreat without at least a bit of existential thinking. We’re in the middle of a participatory strategy refresh–an exercise in which everyone is getting the opportunity to talk to allies, people they respect, and people whose work ours is meant to support–to collectively imagine the future we want and plan how to get there together.  

Internally, each team has been thinking about how their work fits into the organisation and the larger space within which we work. This activity has allowed us to identify cross-cutting connections among teams. At our retreat, it fueled some great discussions about the missions, goals and assumptions that inform our work.

Another highlight of the retreat this year was the swag we walked away with–needlepoint kits, thoughtfully prepared by our multi-talented Operations Lead, Elissa. Throughout the retreat, many of us learned to cross-stitch, embroidering patterns on whatever we could get our hands on and letting the creative juices flow!

Overall, we’re thankful for the opportunity to come together as humans and colleagues (and aspiring hand embroiderers) and look ahead to where we want to go and why. We’re eager to share more from our strategy refresh process as it progresses. To see what we’re building on, take a look at our 2019 retrospective, and to see what comes next, keep an eye on our blog and Twitter feed.

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