For a long time now I’ve been interested in self-organising ways of getting things done. Clay Shirky provides the metaphor of exploring the desert. The existing institution doesn’t need to explore the desert unless it is in crisis mode. The startup will race out and find the first oasis it can but after that it has little motivation to risk anything by exploring further. A self organising community will slowly but surely map the whole desert as each individual risks a little discretionary effort and shares learning with the whole community.
The key challenge, of course, is building the community that wants to self organise along with me – and if I’m lucky enough to capture that enthusiasm, that I provide operational clarity and tools to empower all.
To that end, I have been exploring governance models, this blog captures the insights I have found most useful.
[I had hoped to gather insights during my Churchill Fellowship but community energy organisations are largely a blend of traditional institutional forms (NGO’s, member based associations and cooperatives) that have adopted some digital tools like Facebook and GoogleDocs. That’s not the cutting edge governance I was searching for but it is a reminder that traditional forms have developed some robust ways of operating.]
I think the Constellation Model, Swarmwise and the creative coalitions model from Crisis Action (described here) all provide valuable lessons.
The Constellation Model coordinates diverse stakeholders to achieve an agreed aim. It recognises that different organisations will want to work on different parts of the challenge. It advocates for an independent secretariat to ensure that the responsibility remains shared across the partners. It resources all the activities flexibly and the core leadership through MOU/partnership arrangements. Most importantly, it refrains from building anything permanent into its structure, as institutional permanence tends to become self protecting rather than focused on finishing the task at hand and winding up.
Swarmwise is about the people movement that got the Pirate Party elected to European Parliament. It advocates for management of group sizes to achieve working groups of about 7 people and informal groups limited to 150, with a middle size of 30 when a number of working groups are collaborating. It operates with very loose control (you provide the vision, the swarm does the talking) and introduces the three-pirate rule. If three pirates agree on an action, then they can act in the name of the organisation. Acting without permission is acting with accountability – all pirates are empowered to ‘own’ this organisation. The organisation did have guiding values and structure for the flow of resources (but again, not really controlled). The principle of supporting pirates to do good work and good PR in the name of the organisation led to everyone being given the freedom to get on and do what they think would be most effective. Transparency is essential with this model of governance because it provides the dimension of accountability to each other.
Creative Coalitions provide an opt-in model, recognising that ideas are best when they are collaboratively created but decisions are best when they are decisive and clear. I like the “decide like a dictator” mode because in consensus mode there is an unfortunate desire for most of us to join the talkfest regardless of how committed our personal resources are in creating the action. The self organising power I highlighted at the beginning of this piece is all about giving stronger decision making power to those who are providing the action resource. You can see that the dictatorship in this context is not the all powerful dictatorship we fear because the resources to act depend on the decision being a good one and generating partners who ‘opt-in’. Likewise with the pirates – the more people supporting an action, the more resources it will have. The other takeaway from the Crisis Action is the importance of being clear and explicit about your model for change. How an action will lead to change is an important part of the culture and beliefs that create and sustain a movement. As Caroline reminded me the other day, storytelling and narrative is an essential component and needs to be used early in every journey.
Finally, I’ll touch on some tips from Enspiral, the NZ golden child of experimental, sharing economy, organisational structure. They use the magic group numbers of 30 (inner sanctum) and 150 (broader network). They have developed Loomio – a decision making tool that can cope with anything on the spectrum from consensus to dictatorship-informed-by-rich-discussion. The culture then develops to guide people as to when to participate in decision making – will your input help the organisation get a better result? Does participation help you grow as an individual? They also have a co-budgeting process to give everyone back control over the common resources that they are accumulating, in the proportion that each person has contributed.
Conclusion? There are no right answers, but you can see from the collection of resources above that people are exploiting some common features of group behaviour in order to unlock powerful and nimble collaborative efforts. Indy Johar is worth a read on this subject – he suggests 10 starting points:
- An authentic invitation to a shared challenge
- A love for the outcome, not the attribution
- Open whiteboarding, open planning
- Invest in collective capacity and shared learning
- Many-to-many accountability
- Mission goals
- Brand the mission, not your organisation
- Open data
- New models of financing
- New organisational infrastructures
As an aside, I have just read Together, the rituals and pleasures of cooperation by Richard Sennett and I must blog about it. It doesn’t dwell on organisational form but it has been an unusual journey for me through the thinking of philosophers and sociologists of the last 300 years. The resources above all touch on relationships and rich conversations, which the forms described are all trying to achieve. Sennett provides insights into the rituals and informal interactions that are needed to give rise to essential dialogic conversations – not dialectic debates aimed at being right but open-ended interactions where the participants learn, follow their own thoughts and benefit from the serendipity of whatever comes up.