What’s the sound of a humming team?
This is a book about working in groups. I’m not so interested in what you’re working on together, I’m just going to focus on how you do it.
To my way of thinking, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to build a better electric vehicle, or develop government policy, or care for sick people, or blockade a pipeline; whenever you work with a group of people on a shared objective, there’s some stuff you’re going to deal with, some challenges. How do we decide what we’re working on? who does what? who can join our team? what are our expectations for each other? what happens when someone doesn’t fulfil those expectations? what do we do with disagreement? how do decisions get made?
A hierarchical management structure is one way to deal with the challenges of working together. There’s a boss at the top who calls the shots, they delegate some limited responsibilities down a ladder of managers, and the managers eventually pass a very small parcel of responsibility to the workers at the bottom of the pyramid. I don’t really know anything about working in traditional hierarchies. This is a book for people who are trying to organise in a different way, for groups who want less hierarchy and more collaboration. There’s not really a great word for it: self-organising, bottom-up, self-managing, grassroots, horizontal, sociocratic, heterarchical, teal, cooperative, non-hierarchical… I call it “decentralised organising” because I’m thinking of a network of relationships with no central point of power and control, no single point of failure. All the contributors have different areas of focus, different degrees of commitment or experience, but that difference sits on top of a strong foundation of equality: everyone’s voice is equally valued, everyone is equally entitled to dignity and respect. It’s more about fairness than sameness. A decentralised group is nimble, supple, limber: people adjust to each other and to the changing environment. Good ideas can come from anywhere, and no one person is irreplaceable.
Have you ever had an experience working with other people where it just felt easy? Everyone is playing to their strengths. There’s not a huge amount of process or formality getting in the way. Together you’re flexible and adaptable but not chaotic. You know when to take initiative, and when to stop and ask for input. You’ve got room to stretch and grow, but you can have an “off day” without feeling like you’re letting people down. You’re getting stuff done and having fun at the same time. Most of us have had glimpses of a way of working together that feels delightful, easy, productive, fun. When I say “a humming team”, most people know what I’m talking about. So I want to know, what does that hum sound like?
I’m convinced there is not a “one size fits all” recipe, a management structure that you can take off the shelf and install in your collective or your company. But my hypothesis is that there are patterns: common design elements you can draw on as you construct a recipe that’s right for you. Each pattern in this book names a challenge that you are likely to face, and offers tools and techniques you can try in response to that challenge.
In essence, I’m mostly drawing from three schools of thought: Agile software development (work in rhythm, develop peer accountability, talk about your problems and co-design solutions together), feminism (account for affective labour and distribute it fairly), and anarchism (consent, autonomy and mutual aid as first principles, combined with an honest and persistent appraisal of power). This is not a book about ideas though, it’s very practical, straightforward, grounded in direct experience, and ready to be applied in your team right away.
You can read the sections in any order, so if you want to get straight into it, skip ahead to the Patterns now. Or if you want to know more about me and where I am coming from, read on…
Hi, I’m Rich 🐸
Let me introduce myself with a few bullet points:
- I’m a straight man, recently turned 33.
- Mum and Dad are working class, but their focus on education and hard work means I’m middle class.
- I’m a 4th generation New Zealander, but I’m a 1st-generation Pākehā — I mean my siblings and I are the first of our family to ask “what does it mean to be a settler on colonised land?”
- I grew up in a devout Christian family, growing vegetables on a farm in the Wairarapa. I left the farm and studied engineering in the city. I let go of the God stories.
- I’ve done some community organising and a lot of facilitation.
- I co-founded a tech startup.
All of these characteristics influence my way of understanding the world; these are some of the lenses I’m wearing. Maybe my engineering training comes through as a mechanical or deterministic attitude towards human relationships. Maybe you’ll sense the privilege of my upbringing as a kind of naïve idealism. In this book I’m going to share some principles of togetherness which might be second nature to you if you come from a culture with more emphasis on the collective. I won’t claim that any of this is new, or mine. My intention is to name complicated things in a simple way, to give you practical suggestions for improving your group work, to encourage you to keep trying, and to invite you into a particular way of thinking.
Living in the future
My experience with decentralised organising starts in 2011, when I encountered the Occupy movement in Civic Square in Pōneke Wellington. Without a central leader or a management committee, Occupy camps sprouted in hundreds of cities around the world, with remarkable coherence: committed to non-violence, inclusion, participatory decision-making, hospitality. Politics geeks call a movement like this “prefigurative”, because we were prototyping the society we want to occupy, rather than demanding somebody give it to us.
The movement was decentralised, and each camp was decentralised too. At Occupy Wellington we had working groups to divide up all the tasks of running a small village: preparing food, maintaining shelter, running education and entertainment programs, external communications, 24hr hospitality. Nobody could tell anyone else what to do, we just had to figure it out together. When it worked, it was incredible, mind-blowing, transformative… but of course in the end it didn’t work. Our camp, like so many others, devolved into an incoherent, unsafe, uninviting mess.
Coming out of that experience, my friends and I were left with a massive “what’s next?” It felt like we had come so close to a completely new kind of society, and then it disintegrated into mud and noise. We had all been inspired by the participatory decision-making process; not the focus on “consensus” exactly, but the deliberating, listening, patiently growing shared understanding, working by consent, not using force, caring about and caring for each other.
Like many others around the world, we figured that digital technology could make deliberative decision-making much more accessible, and much less time-consuming. So we started a software project called Loomio (from “loom” as in weaving and “lum” as in illumination). At first we thought we were just making a tool for activists, but as soon as we released our first rudimentary prototype we were flooded with interest from all sorts of groups: city governments, companies, NGOs, community projects, families. Fast forward to the present, and Loomio is six years old, still growing, being used by communities, organisations, collectives and institutions all over the world.
While we’ve been building the software, we’ve also built a remarkable cooperative company, globally respected for our ethical commitments. From the outset, we put a lot of thought and care into the foundations: we’re constitutionally required to prioritise positive social impact ahead of profit; the company is owned by the people working on it; the product is open source (a public resource freely available to anyone); the financing comes from patient ethical investment rather than extractive speculation; the business model is designed for fairness (people pay for value, so we don’t have to do creepy things like mining their private data for profit).
We’ve spent the past six years prototyping different management and governance structures, continuously adjusting and remixing to make a working environment that feels deeply nourishing, hugely productive, efficient and resilient. This book comes from that extensive R&D process: all the suggestions come from my direct personal experience.
This is not a book about how the Loomio cooperative manages a multi-million dollar software project without a management hierarchy (we already published that at loomio.coop). Instead, in this book I’ve taken the lessons from the Loomio story and translated them into terms that are ready to be applied in any company, collective, team or network that is trying to decentralise leadership and share ownership. The bones of this book emerged from my work supporting dozens of teams and companies in Enspiral, a network of decentralised organisations experimenting with new ways of working. Over the years I noticed that we all faced similar challenges, and sharing our experiences accelerated the learning process.
The nuance, validation, and refinement of this text comes as a result of a year on the road, from the South Pacific to South Korea, the Americas, Europe and Scandinavia. During 2017, my partner Nati and I worked with folks from the Seoul City Government, healthcare providers in Brighton, a slum in Buenos Aires, tech startups in Berlin, communes in California, and activists from Mexico, Cuba, Canada, Iran and Spain. As we listened to their struggles, we worked out the details of these Patterns for Decentralised Organisations, discovering what we all have in common.
One last thing…
Eventually I came to understand “Occupy” as a short chapter in an ongoing movement of movements, a single iteration of a multi-generational evolutionary process. This “blessed unrest” mostly proceeds underground, but sometimes comes to the surface with names like the Zapatistas, counter-globalisation movement, the Cutlery Revolution, Arab Spring, 15-M, the Sunflower Movement, Idle No More, the Umbrella Movement, #BlackLivesMatter… I believe these chaotic movements are absolutely essential to repairing our relationships with each other, with the Earth, and all the creatures we live with. I see these movements learning from each other, and I’m eager to accelerate that learning process. This book is offered as a contribution to a collective memory, a common body of knowledge.
This first draft is written by one pair of hands, but the ideas are not mine, which is why the book is published with a creative commons license. I’m delighted to walk alongside a cohort of wise, courageous, loving and creative people. In designing organisational structures, I’m most indebted to Vivien Maidaborn, Mary O’Keeffe, Ben Knight, and Alanna Irving. I’m forever grateful to the people who supported Loomio through our unorthodox fundraising campaigns: you paid my rent while I learnt all this stuff. I want to celebrate all my thinking-and-doing partners at Enspiral (especially the relentlessly supportive Teddy Taptiklis): Loomio would not exist without y’all. I’m thankful for the anarchists who extend my ethics with radical love and radical honesty (especially Audrey Tang and Emmi Bevensee), for the generations of feminists who exhausted themselves trying to get some of us men to do our fair share, and for the artists who insist on a life with less drudgery and more meaning.
I’m grateful to the people on my bookshelf: bell hooks, Nora Samaran, Frederic Laloux, Charles Eisenstein, Heather Marsh, Nathan Schneider, David Graeber, Patricia Shaw, Emma Goldman, Starhawk, Ursula K. le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia E. Butler, Marina Sitrin, Zeynep Tufekci, Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Douglas Rushkoff…
Most of all, this book is the product of a thousand conversations with my work-and-love partner Natalia Lombardo who inspires me every day. Every second word is hers. The mistakes are mine.
This book is dedicated to my late granddad Fred, who died on the day I joined the Occupy moment. He was a sweet man, a generous hard worker, and a helluva good dancer.