Transitions, thoughtful growth and dreaming big: The Engine Room 2018 Retreat

Zara Rahman

At The Engine Room, we’re no strangers to working with complexity. Whether it’s understanding partner contexts, thinking carefully about how we can work best as a distributed team, or facing a major transition, we try to be thoughtful in how we work within complexity. That’s how last week, at our annual team retreat, we made the most of being together despite being in a period of transition.

As many of you will have seen, our Executive Director and co-founder, Alix, is stepping down, and we’re in the process of hiring for a replacement. While this time of transition might seem like unusual timing for a retreat, it actually helped us to consolidate what we’ve learned and collectively think about our shared priorities before our new Executive Director joins us.

Joys & challenges of being a distributed team

As a distributed organisation, with 15 people currently spread over ten countries, many challenges get amplified with distance. At this year’s retreat, we talked a lot about one challenge in particular: not intuitively knowing how everyone is doing. We don’t have the casual conversations over lunch in an office; we can’t grab a quick coffee together; and we don’t have the visual signals to help us know how our teammates are — not only at work, but in the rest of their lives.

That means we need to make an extra effort to make spaces that help us to get to know each other as full, complex people.

For some of us, this looks like scheduling ‘casual conversations’ with others on the team every couple of weeks. For others who can travel more, it can mean prioritising spending in-person time with others in their region. As a group, it means providing more spaces for people to talk about the challenges they’re having, particularly for things that can be harder to talk about without an in-person connection.

Growing thoughtfully & dreaming big

We spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to have in place to make this a smooth transition for our new Executive Director. As we wrote about in our 2017 Retrospective, one of our biggest developments last year was building out our operations team and processes, which helped us ensure we can navigate any transition. At the retreat, we built on what we have already accomplished, and started dreaming about what else we could do.

We spent some imagining what we, and our work, would look like in three years – perfect for the speculative fiction nerds among us! Some common themes were growing responsibly, and keeping our focus on our partner needs, while being open to change.

Planning for protection & safety

We all work in very different contexts, which is both our biggest strength and one of our biggest challenges. It makes creating organisational policies that suit most situations much harder, because of differences in assumptions and needs. But it also strengthens our work, in that we can draw on the experiences of many more people, and question our assumptions earlier on.

This year, we prioritised using in-person time to talk about safety and security from a holistic approach. We shared our biggest worries and concerns, and began to talk about strategies to mitigate them. We realised that security is an incredibly networked issue: our behaviour and our risks were shared and affected by our partners, our families and friends, and each other.

This, like many other issues, has come up in the past and will undoubtedly come up again. Part of our approach is understanding what our priorities are at any point in time, and providing space to iterate and improve.

What’s coming next?

This year has been one of continually trying to improve our internal processes and thinking carefully about what we do, how we do it and why. We’ve been working on our learning and impact strategies, which help us understand our impact and that of our partners, as well as how both of these relate to each other.

We’re about to start selecting our next batch of Matchbox partners: keep an eye out for details in August. We have a new grant to work on understanding how digital ID is being deployed – or could be deployed – in diverse contexts. We parted ways after our retreat excited about what’s coming next, and look forward to continuing to work with our diverse partners and communities.

From planning to post-retreat follow up, we benefited from the support of Chris Michael of Collaborations for Change, who designed and facilitated our retreat agenda. His historical knowledge of the organisation – he’s also helped us plan previous retreats and supported our work on DatNav – coupled with his nuanced approach and insights, were invaluable over the week.You can keep in touch with our work via our newsletter and Twitter, where we’ll be sharing news of our new ED and other hires and projects soon!

– The Engine Room team

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