New Society Publishers, 2011

ISBN: 978-0865716971

Reviewed by Trevor Sharman
I have been involved in groups, networks and organisations for much of my life, most of which could be described as ‘collaborative’, and many as ‘challenging’ in terms of how well they worked and how comfortable they were to belong to. This interest and experience attracted me to Starhawk’s book, along with my awareness of her extraordinarily rich and long involvement in spiritual activism as a writer, teacher and organiser.

The Manual seeks to identify the key elements that enable collaborative groups to thrive, how these elements can be identified, often by their absence, and how their healthy development can be facilitated with many practical exercises and rituals drawn from and credited to a wide range of sources.

Starhawk illustrates what might otherwise be a rather bloodless book by applying these elements and processes to a dramatically created fictional co-housing cooperative working its way through difficulties and challenges. This enlivens the book, although I’m not sure many of us will be involved in such an intense collaborative group!

Key issues which particularly resonated with me included, ‘clarifying intention’ – absolutely essential in ensuring everyone is on the same journey; the importance of ‘learning’ as opposed to ‘winning’ in group processes; leadership styles and self-awareness of these; ensuring appreciation and acknowledgement – vital in nourishing commitment; accountability and openness in the use of power and the last section, titled ‘Dealing with difficult people’- i.e. pretty much any and all of us on any given day! This latter section seems to have been informed by a great deal of personal experience.

The final chapter on ‘Groups that work’, with the fictional ‘Rootbound Cooperative’ as a model, re-emphasises the importance of group process to group health, not just what you do, but how you do it and the need for skilful facilitation of these processes. I was impressed that a social enterprise she cites has an ‘Effective Meetings Committee’. Now that would be a cost-effective addition to many organisations.

Although my sense from the book is that it is drawing on experiences from the 1970s onwards, in a West Coast USA context, from my experience it remains relevant in its messages and applications – maybe with some translation into a local context. This book is about the principles of healthy collaboration – not a rigid template.

Starhawk ends by referring to the amazing levels of global collaboration offered by digital technology and how all organisations must adapt and evolve to the changing contexts of our times.