Priority-setting in a human-centred organisation

• Written by Richard D. Bartlett

This is the first article in our Cultural Technology series, where we share practices for working in a networked organisation. This is very much a work in progress but we hope it’s valuable to share what we’re learning.

Yesterday we had our first Away Day of the year.

We have an Away Day every 3 months, where we get out of the office for a day to review the past quarter and plan the next one.


The process started a fortnight earlier, with a survey.

agendaFirst we ask about the past: “What worked well in the last quarter? What was challenging? What have we learned?”

Then we ask about the future: “What should we prioritise next? If we had half the budget, what would we focus on? If we had twice the budget, what would we invest in?”

Then we have some more personal questions, to help with the final hiring decisions: “What’s your capacity for work in the next quarter? Are you interested in being a coordinator? What are you most excited to work on?”

We give people plenty of time to work on the survey and review what everyone else has said. It’s partly an information-gathering exercise, but it’s also a way to get people to shift into a different mindset, to switch the mental gears from ‘what am I working on today’ to ‘where are we heading as an organisation.’ It also provides great fodder for informal strategic conversations leading up to the Away Day.


In addition to the survey, we have a selection of reports to consider.

reportThe coordinators each write a report about the work that was delivered in their program for the past quarter, and what’s coming up on the horizon. (Check out this article if you want to know more about coordinators and programs.)

Individuals will also sometimes write their own report about their work, which is a great opportunity for personal reflection, that can then be shared with everyone else.


The day itself starts, like all good Loomio meetings, with a check-in round.

check inIn the check-in round, we hear from everyone, one at a time. It’s pretty informal and dynamic, we’re basically just trying to hear how people are feeling, what is “on top” for them as they arrive in the meeting. We want to hear from the “whole human”, beyond just the worker.

The check-in is a way for everyone to arrive. It allows people to transition from wherever they were previously, and settle into the work of the meeting ahead. It ensures that everyone’s voice has been heard. It means we all have the context to interpret what people bring to the rest of the meeting.

If I only had 3 hours sleep last night because I’m tense and stressed out, that’s relevant information when we’re trying to make a decision together.


Once we’ve all settled, the first half of the day is focussed on the past.

For yesterday’s Away Day, Mary hosted the retrospective session. She had us start by silently writing post-its in four categories: thinking about the past three months, what did you love? what did you lack? what did you long for? what did you learn?

After some time writing on our own, we read out what we’d each written. The themes that emerge from each category then provide us with some direction for the forward-looking part of the day. The process reveals what we want to do more of, and what we want to do differently next time.


Eating together is a hugely important part of culture-building.

lunchEveryone brings some food to share. As we eat, the conversation moves from the profound to the frivolous, from work to home and back again. It creates a sense of warmth, kindness, sincerity and mutual respect. It’s one of the ways we practice manaakitanga with each other.


After lunch, our attention turns to the future.

We start by setting context: how much money do we have to pay people? How much capacity to people have for paid work and unpaid work? What commitments have we made that we absolutely must adhere to? We also check in on the long-term strategy, the 3-year plan.

With the long term plan in mind, and the immediate constraints clear in our minds, we can start to think about what we’re going to aim to achieve over the next three months. Yesterday we approached this question from two angles:

Agreeing outcomes

The first approach is “top-down”: we discussed what outcomes we would commit to deliver by the end of the quarter. Having a shared target and a deadline is a great way to create a coherency of focus throughout the year, ensuring everyone’s efforts are pointing in the same direction. Every task we work on during this next quarter will be directly connected to one of the outcomes we’ve agreed.

Dot voting

dot votingThe second approach is more “bottom-up”. We wrote about 20 index cards with all the things we could work on. The cards are pretty high-level, like “capital raising” or “consulting sales”. We had a short discussion about each card, to hear from people with specific insight into that kind of work, and make sure we all have a shared understanding of what each card represents.

Then we took a few minutes to consider in silence: if you could fund only 6 of these things, what would you fund?

Once we’d all made our own decisions, we then each put 6 sticky dots on the cards we’d chosen. The distribution of dots on cards gives a clear picture of the collective understanding of what we think is most important to focus on.

Next steps

At this point in the day, we’ve revealed a lot of alignment and everyone has provided input into priorities, but there’s still plenty of work to do.

To digest all this input and turn it into a detailed work plan, we choose a couple of coordinators. The coordinators have a mandate to develop an implementation plan, and hire the staff to get it done. They’ll host another session next week, to develop that level of detail in close collaboration with the people who will be doing the work.

Tags: Guides Cultural Technology Articles and Interviews

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