16 Gathering together

Every six months, the fellowship comes together in person for a working week to share ideas, ask for help, build bonds and find common ground in the work we all do separately. It is an environment of openness and trust, with consent, respect and care central to its design. Each Gathering is a microcosm of the way the fellowship works all year round; a support system designed for and with the fellows.

All Foundation staff and current fellows participate, with past fellows attending as their schedules allow. Every Gathering takes on a life of its own, but the one constant is that all participants are equal in the room. By removing hierarchy, partnership is created and shared between everyone, with the whole community acting in service to each other.

The Gathering is not for creating a work product, nor is it for bragging about accomplishments. Everyone brings and shares expertise, experience and wisdom, and takes away new ideas, reflections and different perspectives. It is a place for personal and professional rejuvenation within a network of like-minded and generous colleagues. Gifts are exchanged, friendships are renewed and stories are shared; laughter and catharsis are experienced in equal measure.

There are a few basic rules (see the full list later in the book): everyone who takes part must commit for the whole week, be fully present for every session and engage with every attendee. To allow the group to fully focus on each other, no families, co-workers or guests attend. For deeper relationships to develop and grow, the participants are shielded as much as possible from the complexities of work and life outside the Gathering.

Each participant offers a unique perspective. Some bring past experiences of the fellowship and reflections on life post-funding and share their insights to help current fellows along their own paths. New fellows bring stories from lives outside the Shuttleworth Foundation community, and add a new dimension to our thinking.

It took a long time to find the current format. When the fellowship evolved from a residential programme to one that was virtual and distributed, it felt like something had been lost. In an attempt to recreate the residential camaraderie, the decision was made to bring everyone together, in person, for two days. The first Gathering.

It was a small group, some of whom already knew each other and worked in the same fields. Yet there was clear value in being together, and this was vital to building true fellowship. As new fellows joined remotely from all corners of the world, the face-to-face time became more engaging and increasingly pivotal to establishing real community. Eventually, the fellowship incorporated two week-long Gatherings per year, with all fellows attending.

But the evolution and format changes didn’t stop there.

The Boston “me” party

In May 2013, the MIT Media Lab offered to host us in Boston. This was our seventh Gathering, and the inspirational location and compelling schedule promised much. But the reality left us cold.

The physical space was a massive, impersonal area with glaring white walls; far too big for the small group. Dimmed lights and a large screen did little to warm the room. At the MIT Media Lab there are always interesting students and faculty happening by, but the people popping in and out proved disruptive. The experience shifted focus from the Shuttleworth community to the broader world and sacrificed depth of engagement for superficial breadth.

The format also failed. Each session started with a presentation, introducing a feeling of competition. The misplaced focus disturbed the sense of belonging and community that was the original purpose. Questions and insecurities were hard to express, and the sessions forced each fellow into me-first thinking. Other fellows were behind their laptops refining their own presentations rather than being engaged.

While every component of this Gathering was designed with positive community and camaraderie in mind, it was clear that this format no longer served those objectives. The programme and people were suffering because of it. Small changes were made immediately, but it took 18 months to develop a new format that fostered the desired environment.

Get your Gunner

Trusted expert in collaborative events Allen Gunn – Gunner as he’s more widely known – was brought in to help. A long time collaborator, he advocated the need to shift the focus in participatory events from organisers and panellists to participants. Along with some tools and tips, he helped redesign the event from scratch.

The first step was to choose a location that was away from any partners or significant locations, with a venue that had space for people to hang out and find each other outside of the formal agenda.

Next, presentations were banished along with the use of any devices during sessions. In order to build real relationships, conversation and connection in the room were prioritised. Gunner worked with each fellow to design collaborative sessions in advance, identifying topics that would be most useful to them. Fellows owned their own sessions and were encouraged and empowered to ask for help from others. We broke up into smaller groups to create space for more active participation. Finally, Gunner participated as an outside facilitator, tasked with creating an appropriate structure through a loose agenda.

In Malta, October 2014, the group was introduced to this new format.

The change surpassed all expectations. It established the purpose of the Gathering as more important than any specific practice or outcome, and that the format could – and should – evolve. The focus was on learning, and the community became a resource for all to share.

Gatherings would no longer be about having all the answers. By moving towards participation and collaboration, the sessions placed fellows in a landscape that allowed them to get lost.

Participants were immediately more engaged, not only in sessions but also outside of the formal programme. A space grew for human connection within the context of a specific problem set, naturally leading to further conversation and moving easily between the specifics of a domain to a higher order of challenge. It changed from “how am I solving this?” to “how are we solving this?” and, over time, to “how do we solve this together?”

“Many fellowships end when [funding] ends – that’s it. You don’t go to meetings and you aren’t invited – you become part of the mailing list and it ends there. I’m not obliged to go to the Gatherings, but it’s where I get energy and inspiration, and I solidify my commitment to Open. I still feel part of this.”

“Many fellowships end when [funding] ends – that’s it. You don’t go to meetings and you aren’t invited – you become part of the mailing list and it ends there. I’m not obliged to go to the Gatherings, but it’s where I get energy and inspiration, and I solidify my commitment to Open. I still feel part of this.”

Esra’a Al Shafei (2012–2015)

The format requires a leap of faith from new fellows, but the fellowship is there to catch them. Being vulnerable and showing weakness, especially to a group of high achievers, is hard and takes practice and trust. It can be stressful for newcomers, and things get messy. But it’s okay, because it has a purpose: the design is such that everyone learns from helping to clean up the muddle.

Since Malta, we have continued to experiment with the Gathering format. Every event is different because a different subset of the community participates. With their input, the agenda is adapted to make the most of those who will be in the room. Different types of locations and venues are tested. All of this sits in service to the core idea of creating an environment of learning and collaboration in a safe communal space.

“No two Gatherings will ever be the same. Take a moment and look around the room; this is the last time this exact set of people will ever be sitting together.” Allen Gunn

The Gathering culture

Some of the Gathering’s social activities are formally planned, and some have evolved as informal “rituals” over time. The location plays a role too, allowing for spontaneous moments that fade into lore. It’s hard to go swimming in an underground cave when you’re not in Mexico or to hike the Atlas Mountains if you aren’t in Marrakech. These social components nurture and deepen relationships. Breaking out from the intensity of work and into a space for adventure, laughter and connection makes a long week short.

The culture of the Gathering is carefully shaped to mirror the values we hold in the fellowship all year round. In the same way, the culture of the Gathering spills out and influences other fellowship spaces. It changes how we chat, email and speak in meetings. It enables partnerships and collaborations. It connects people to one another and solidifies the ongoing commitment fellows and Foundation make to the shared fellowship. In short, the Gathering both reflects and shapes the “us”.