The Structure of Projects

Phases of a Project

Projects at Common Knowledge typically have four phases.

  • Groundwork - we are working out how to do the project, and how to work with the collaborator
  • Design and Build - the main element of the project where we design and build the thing
  • Improve and Launch - with the thing built, we then look at it and try and make improvements. The project goes live
  • Reflect and Change - we learn the lessons of the project and bring them forward

You can read in detail about each phase in the links above.

This pattern of phases accounts for about 80% of projects we work on. Every project should have at minimum Groundwork and Reflect and Change - some period of research and some of feedback. Certain whole projects are themselves an extended Groundwork phase of research, for example, our work with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which ended in an internal presentation.

It is the responsibility of the Project Steward to lead the project through these phases.

General notes on how projects are managed at Common Knowledge

Collaborators not clients

Typically our projects are working with another organisation. We call these other organisations collaborators. Agencies often call these people clients. Though we are sometimes working in a legal and financial relationship that agencies would call a client relationship, it is important to us to as much as is reasonable to break down these boundaries and work in a genuinely collaborative manner.

This is partly for us and partly for the collaborator. For us, we don't value relationships where there is simply a command and an action - this is a form of power-over us and we don't like it. We feel this undervalues what we bring to the mix and results in worse political outcomes for the collaborator and more widely. For the collaborator, working in a rich, deep and collaborative manner will result in a better thing built and the thing built actually meeting the political goals that they have more clearly. More peripherally, it will mean them them learning the ropes in terms of how things get built, especially in a digital context. They can then use these skills elsewhere. Overall, the approach should be relational dynamics, not transactional exchanges. In an ideal world, we'd not have money involved. In an ideal world, we'd not have money!

We've noticed that when relationships with collaborators are going wrong, we slip into calling them clients. This is a sure sign that there is something wrong in the relationship that we should seek to repair. We pay attention to the quality of relationships, as well as their formal legal and financial representation.

Continuous delivery of value

"Continuous Delivery of Value" may sound like a dreadful corporate catchphrase, but it pretty accurately describes our project approach. The term is really useful in describing our work in movement projects, especially in contexts where resources are tight and every effort must count.

Each project phase is crafted to deliver immediate, practical benefits. In the Groundwork phase, for example, user testing goes beyond determining potential functionality, it offers key insights into campaign messaging and organizational strategy. The presentations concluding this phase aren't just procedural, they shed light on new aspects of the organization, providing valuable new perspectives and insights.

Our design work, especially in tools like Figma, is forward-thinking. The layouts and elements we develop aren’t disposable, they are the basis for a potential reusable design system. In engineering, once a substantial part of the project is completed, we’re ready to launch a fully functional website, say, illustrating that value is not a final deliverable but infused throughout the process and handed to the collaborator. As we continue to enhance and refine, the foundational work remains solid and effective. Meaningful, full and grounded progress in every step of the project.

Our dedication to continuous delivery of value stems from a deep-rooted commitment to the success of movement organisations. We understand the challenges faced by resource-constrained organisations striving for social justice, and we respond by ensuring that our collaboration delivers continuous, incremental value. It's not about just having an idea, building it, and then delivering something valuable, it's about ensuring that value is a constant throughout the entire process. This approach not only maximizes the impact of limited resources but also accelerates the momentum of social change initiatives, constantly propelling the collaborator's important work forward.

Teaching as we go

One of our roles in the movement is to explain to other movement actors what technology can bring to the table in terms of their work, it's powers and limitations. But the way in which we seek to do this is in empowering our collaborators to learn more about how technology functions, how it is made and what it can do, in the hope that they have more capability with technology in future. In addition, we have a plethora of techniques in terms of managing creative, democratic, effective self-organising horizontal teams we have developed ourselves that are useful to others. When working on a project we will never miss the opportunity to teach people more about what is going on. We should go out of our way to upskill people.

"Teaching as we go" embodies our commitment to a more transformative, dialogic learning approach, influenced by the principles of critical pedagogy. This method is not just about conveying information but about engaging in a collaborative process of co-creating knowledge. By doing so, we demystify technology and project management (for example), making these tools more accessible and understandable. Our aim is to leave collaborators not only with a solution but also with enhanced skills and understanding. This process is reciprocal: we aim to gain as much insight from our collaborators as they do from us, jointly creating new knowledge that enriches the common knowledge of movements for social change.

This approach is rooted in the ethos of sustainability, solidarity and capacity-building, ensuring that the benefits of our collaboration extend beyond the immediate scope of the project. By imparting these skills, we ensure that collaborators are better equipped for future challenges, able to make informed decisions, and more adept at leveraging technology for their cause. This philosophy is not just about building a project together, it's about building a movement together equipped with the knowledge and tools to effect change.

Communication with collaborators

We should keep the following principles in mind when communicating with collaborators, regardless of it it is through email, in meetings or on tools like Linear.

  1. Dialogic and Inclusive: Emphasize open, two-way conversations where every collaborator's perspective is valued. This approach nurtures a sense of collective ownership and leads to more diverse and comprehensive solutions.

  2. Clear and Accessible: Communicate in straightforward, easy-to-understand language. When dealing with complex subjects like technology, organisational strategy or campaign design, it's crucial to break down information into digestible pieces that are accessible to all collaborators, regardless of their expertise. Don't patronise, but also don't assume.

  3. Transparent and Honest: Prioritise openness in all communications. Be frank about the challenges, limitations, and unknowns of a project. This transparency is key to building trust and ensuring everyone is on the same page. Take ownership of errors and mistakes and apologise where needed.

  4. Educational and Empowering: View each interaction as a chance for mutual learning. Share knowledge generously, but also remain open to the insights and expertise of collaborators. This exchange of knowledge aligns with the principle of "Teaching as we go," ensuring a reciprocal flow of learning.

  5. Responsive and Collaborative: Actively listen to and consider the feedback of collaborators. Communication should be a dynamic process, adapting to the evolving needs and insights of the project.

  6. Constructive and Forward-Looking: Offer feedback and discuss challenges in a constructive manner, focusing on solutions and opportunities for growth rather than assigning blame.

  7. Regular and Consistent: Maintain a consistent schedule for updates and check-ins to keep everyone updated and engaged. This consistency helps in maintaining project momentum and builds trust.

By working by these communication principles, Common Knowledge not only ensures effective collaboration but reinforces its commitment to democratic, inclusive, and empowering practices in movements for social change.

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