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Cultivating Relationships through Projects

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In this article, I’m asking the question: How would project-based collaboration look differently, if we saw it as a means of cultivating relationships (rather than a way to produce results)?

What is a project? You might think a project is something a group of people does to produce a result, create something, and change the world a little bit. For the vast majority of projects, this is probably true – except if you are doing something way different than everyone else. One thing that projects also do is cultivate relationships. Through working together we get to know each other in a different way, than if we just were to hang out as friends. Similar to how you get to know someone in a different way when you live with them or are in an intimate relationship. All these relationships have different qualities to them; they bring out different aspects of ourselves.

I find this topic relevant because, over the past years I’ve found, that spending my time with people I really trust is just way more fun (surprising, I know) – plus strong relationships are the basis for lasting positive-sum1 impact.

Why should I care about using projects as tools for cultivating relationships?

The conventional way we look at projects sounds like a version of this: “We have this problem, that we need to solve. We already know what the solution might be, so let’s get to work on it. There are some different tasks that need to get done, so everybody: pick some, that you like or you think you’re good at. We’ll set some goals together for when we want to be done with the tasks. Now everybody go work on it, we’ll meet again tomorrow or in a week and see how everybody did.”

Did I get that more or less right?

This way of approaching projects is great for getting stuff done efficiently and quickly. It is especially well suited to hierarchical ways of organizing but also works well with self-organized teams.

It is also very good at putting people under pressure, causing externalities, and brushing over important considerations, but that is a topic for another time. What I want to emphasize for the time being is an idea that I got from Richard D. Bartlett: Everything grows inside of something else.

pine trees in forest photographed up from the ground.
Like a tree in a forest, the way our relationships grow is highly dependent on the environment they are growing in.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

The Importance of Context for Cultivating Relationships

Like the way a tree grows is heavily influenced by the conditions its environment provides, the way our relationships develop is greatly influenced by the social container they are happening in.

The same two people going through military service together or studying political theory at a liberal university; you and your partner living together alone or in a shared house with 3 other people; a group of people working for an NGO to save the world or going for it on their own; being in a friends group where success is measured by money in the bank vs the ability to access your own emotions and be vulnerable.

Context matters. Context always dictates to a great extent the shape a process takes. Looping back to projects as tools for cultivating relationships: the way we look at projects, and the idea we have about what a project is, shapes the context we create for ourselves, which in turn creates the conditions in which we develop. It’s a push-pull kinda situation we got here.

Great! But why do I need a Project for that?

Good question! You might say: “Nice idea with creating good contexts for ourselves and all, but why do I need projects for that? Can’t I just go create a different context?”

What I’ve found in the past is, that it is extremely difficult to get people excited about an abstract idea of “creating a context in which we as people can grow together and build trusting and strong relationships”. I’ve tried these kinds of invitations and generally, it doesn’t work. What has worked almost always though is approaching someone with an idea for a project, like: “Hey, do you want to have a chat about how we could use both our skillsets together to provide service x to community y?”

This gives people something to say yes to, something they can relate to more easily. The whole “creating a good context for relationships to grow in” thing – you don’t have to tell anyone right off the bat. Where it comes in, is in the way you are being in the collaboration. How do you express your needs, what kind of rhythm are you proposing? Do you start to draft an MVP and roadmap right off the bat or do you invite the other person or people to a long lunch where you just chat and get to know each other?

A formula I have found useful

Please take this with a grain of salt, everybody is different and this is the kind of thing where you kind of have to figure out the details for yourself. But to give you an idea of how this might look in practice I will briefly describe how I often experience successful projects (when they are framed under the paradigm of building relationships).

Getting to know new collaborators

What they all have in common, is that they start with a phase of undirected exploration. I might meet someone, that I just know I will vibe with and I know I want to get to know that person better. An inconspicuous first invitation is always: “Hey when we met at event X I really liked the way you talked about topic Y (plus what you liked about it). I have a feeling we could get along really well. Would you be down to have some lunch together someday?”

During a “getting to know each other” phase, I am usually most interested in who the other person is, rather than what they do. What are they motivated by? What do they care about? What are the paradigms they operate under? What vision are they living from? How does this relate to who I am?

If after this first common exploration there is still excitement on both parts to get to know each other, I might make an invitation to have a more concrete invitation to talk about the challenges we see in the world and to explore what a topic might be, that we are both excited to work on together. What direction this takes is usually quite obvious after getting to know each other a little.

Diving into Collaboration

Now comes the important part: when a topic emerges, don’t get too excited and go for a huge shiny project right off the bat. Rather go for a small and relatively easy project, that doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting. Remember: it’s not about producing crazy results, but about cultivating trust and a strong relationship.

Questions for this stage: What are we both (all) excited about? What is the smallest version of this, that is still a useful contribution? What kind of workload can we handle, so we have plenty of space to chat about life, debrief meetings and events extensively and share when we feel tension or disconnect?

Once you have done a small first project together the most important thing is to debrief extensively. This is an important space to further explore where and how you are aligned. How did you feel throughout the collaboration? How do you feel about the impact you made? What did you learn about yourself?

Final words

To summarize the point I’m trying to make here once more: when we look at projects as a tool for cultivating relationships, rather than a means to have an impact, we are able to create conditions in which really strong relationships can grow, which can have a way greater beneficial impact in the future and are way more fun to be and work in.

I’ve mostly experienced this kind of project-based relationship cultivation in 1:1 settings. I have had glimpses of it in small groups up to 5 people. Don’t try to get 10 or 15 people together to do this. To say it in the words of adrienne maree brown: “small is good, small is all”. Bigger things will come later. Focus on the small scale for now – it will save you a lot of pain.

You can find a vocabulary for this fractal approach to relationships and community and a great collection of resources here: microsolidarity.cc. I’ve also offered workshops on this topic in the past (for example this one) and will do so again in the future. If you want to get notified about new workshop offerings, you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

1 positive-sum is a term that describes the idea, that there is a way to interact in which everyone wins. It stands in contrast to zero-sum, which describes a scenario where there is a limited amount of good stuff, and not everyone can have some – this assumption leads to competitive behavior, whereas assuming positive-sum interactions are possible leads to cooperative behavior.

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