The staff of Mutante pose for a photo in their office.

Photo: Mutante

Team agreements, consensus and ongoing dialogue

How Mutante’s commitment to collaboration shapes their internal culture

Back in October, I attended DazzleCon, a conference for founders and entrepreneurs building collaborative organizations, hosted by Zebras Unite co-op. As a founding member of the co-op, I hoped to connect with other founders and meet inspiring people building values-based businesses and experimenting with new ways of working. 

I ended up talking to Juan Camilo Maldonado, cofounder and editorial director Mutante, a Colombian digital news organization with a unique work culture — one that is deeply participatory, and rooted in consensus and consent. 

After I heard Juan talk on a panel about building mutualistic organizations with distributed leadership teams, I introduced myself as a person who cares very much about journalism organizations that have invested in their culture. 

We started discussing practical things that Mutante has done, such as implementing a 35-hour work week and participating in mental health training with the Self-Investigation to center staff wellbeing. Then we quickly shifted to a deeper conversation that explored how the editorial mission of the organization was a positive influence on the culture from the outset, such as how early coverage of sexual abuse created an environment where colleagues often sought consent from coworkers. 

The balance of power within Mutante has shifted from the original founders to a large leadership team, mostly staff who have grown within the organization over time. The key to Mutante’s participatory culture has been fostering trust among the team and equipping them with communication tools which help them talk openly about their needs and petitions. They have also grappled with the philosophical discussions about who they are, how they work together and how the structure of the organization should change over time. 

 “We invested in a workshop on nonviolent communication and that was mind blowing,” Juan told me. “They did the work – this was an organization that has been focusing on workshopping communities that have been gone through civil war in Colombia, like divided communities or communities who are receiving ex-combatants from the guerrillas.” 

The workshop focused on teaching the team three principles to guide their communication when a situation arises. The steps for nonviolent dialogue include: 

  • Describe what happened in a unbiased way, with no judgment
  • Tell how you felt
  • Describe what you need

Every team member who participated in the workshop was given a card (the distinctive green color of Mutante’s logo) with these steps on them so they could carry them around. 

“It helps a lot. It doesn’t solve everything, but it does contribute to the sense of building a common ground of the way we do things,” Juan said.

This actionable communication practice created a shared agreement for the team and set a norm for how to communicate in certain times around what happened, especially when there is a conflict. As the team has grown, the challenge has been to continue to instill this in new hires and make it an institutional practice. Now, as Mutante has been drafting a new strategic plan, they are prioritizing ways to socialize some of these tools in “micro-meetings” to reinforce the practice.

A commitment to collaboration

Since launching in 2018, Mutante has defined itself by a commitment to collaboration. This has guided their approach, not only to how they work together, but also to how they approach their journalism. The organization, which identifies itself as the “first digital movement of citizen conversation in Latin America,” intends to promote conversations between journalists and the communities based around the topics Mutante covers: gender, human rights, climate emergency and mental health. 

Their collaborative approach is embedded in the organization’s culture, shaped by consensus and democratic participation. Mutante is guided by four values: care, critical spirit, participation, and creativity. These values, along with their focus on engaging communities, shape the organization and how the team works together. 

Mutante has brought on new staff and found new roles for staff who have been with the organization for years. “We are in constant transition: from the unilateral to the collaborative, from the individual to the collective, from the binary to the diverse, from information to action,” Mutante states on its “About Mutante” page. “We are Mutante: journalism in transition.”  

The organization launched with a multi-part investigation of sexual assault cases and a series of participatory conversations in Colombia around that work. The reporting centered the experiences of the women who had been victims of sexual assault when they were children. They used the hashtag “#HablemosDeLasNiñas [Let’s Talk about the Girls]” in social media posts that encouraged conversations around the trauma and the healing these women experienced. Conversations around consent didn’t just apply to the investigations — they also shaped the team’s dynamic. 

Their collaborative approach is embedded in the organization’s culture, shaped by consensus and democratic participation. Mutante is guided by four values: care, critical spirit, participation, and creativity. These values, along with their focus on engaging communities, shape the organization and how the team works together. 

“Since the beginning, we had a very collective idea, which meant that we really cared about consensus. We were also very receptive about the needs and the petitions of the team,” Juan said. 

The focus on consent created communication norms where colleagues regularly check in with each other about their work. Every month, colleagues get together to say what’s on their mind and talk through emerging issues and their emotions.

Mutante was initially founded by two men, Juan Camilo Maldonado and Nicolás Vallejo, with the seminal guidance of Juliana Zárate, who served as an advisor. But most of the staff, six of the nine team members at launch, were women. The women on the team were vocal, and sometimes critical, of the power imbalance with two men in leadership and a majority female staff. These conversations raised important issues and led to a shift. Mutante invested in leadership training and one-on-one coaching for staff and changed their structure so that employees had more power in decision making. 

In 2021, Mutante reorganized and rewrote their charter. They named 11 cofounders, eight of whom were women, including Juliana, who joined the team as an official co-founder. This move not only recognized the contributions of the women on the team, it also anchored more deeply into the values of the organization, demonstrating how the dialogues they had as a team led to new ways of understanding the work. 

A growth and shift  

After the team grew quickly — the staff has doubled over the past two years — Mutante wanted to bring in someone from the outside to give an assessment about what was happening within the organization. 

Mutante worked with three organizational psychologists to better understand the experiences of team members. The psychologists used multiple tools to assess the organization and align on the team’s needs. They interviewed every single person on the team and did a survey. They organized workshops, including one where they unpacked the psychology of team members’ body language when communicating with each other. The psychologists emphasized how much employees and members of the organization acknowledged Mutante’s value-focused work culture. 

“The work with the psychologists also allowed us to acknowledge our shadow, those things we have to keep improving to reduce emotional stress in the team,” Juan said. “I was particularly surprised with the fact that one of the main causes of pain was the lack of clarity in our processes, roles and collective strategy. Since that day, I have committed to prioritize institutional strengthening as my main endeavor to contribute to our workplace wellbeing.”    

Juan told me colleagues value how people treat each other when they’re working together, drawing attention to “the tenderness, these soft relationships, the solidarity, this commonality.” 

Mutante’s culture can be disorienting to newcomers, especially those who have been harmed from working in other places. Often, new staff are thrown off by how staff at Mutante respect each others’ working schedules, how they ask for consent and check to see if people have the capacity to help with tasks. They’re not used to colleagues negotiating timeframes that are sensitive to the capacity of the operation, or being mindful about how new work might impact existing projects. 

Giving new hires time to settle into the culture and making space to have conversations about how they work has been important to incorporate them into the team, especially those that have come from more traditional journalism backgrounds. Having discussions about the tensions between “neutrality” and “subjectivity”, between “journalism” and “activism” is important to align the team values-wise and how they currently approach the work they are doing. 

It’s tempting to declare Mutante’s willingness to talk through the work as one of their defining characteristics: their own internal dialogues, which happen at least once a month, deepen the sense of collaboration. 

But Mutante’s propensity to act is key. They continue working to codify their shared agreements and to live their values at work. They created internal documentation around their work culture and values and as a result, their culture of care has shown up in the habits of the team. 

“As a male leader, and as a person in power, I have been consistently going back in my power, allowing other people to have power and to be responsible for the power they have,” Juan said. 

That may sometimes seem counterintuitive, especially for a leader who has very high standards around quality of work, but Juan has seen over time how important it is to foster a culture of experimentation and how important it is to step back to allow other people to contribute, make mistakes, take responsibility and grow from the experience.  

“I have come to terms with the imperfection, the outcome of what we do, because it’s the only way the teammates can feel that they own their own processes,” Juan said. 

Cite this article

Mizgata, Jennifer (2024, February 22). Team agreements, consensus and ongoing dialogueReynolds Journalism Institute. Retrieved from:


Comments are closed.