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Our learnings from Ouishare Fest Forward 2016 on organizing a decentralized organization

For those of you who don’t know: ‘OuiShare is a collective, a think tank, an international community. Their mission is to build and nurture a collaborative society by connecting people, organizations and ideas around fairness, openness and trust’. Quite a good match with our mission at Part-up, a platform that aims to match people into temporary teams based on shared interest, skills and motivation. That’s why we were dead serious when we found out that they were organizing an accelerator program called Fest Forward. We were one of the three selected start-ups in the program and got to choose who we would like to meet from the speaker and attendee list based on the challenges we’re facing. This is what we learned.

Organizing like a boss, without being a boss

Part-up aims to be a decentralized autonomous organization. As three founders we started a limited to get things going. Now a year later, we’re growing the team with 13 freelancers working on Part-up. And are growing our platform as well. From the start we had the ambition to make Part-up a co-owned platform. When the users of Part-up have a say (and shares) in the strategy of development, we believe they will be more loyal and will have the drive to help Part-up to grow. But the first step is how to organize ourselves as a team.

Over the last months we grew rapidly. We added new members to the team and are working on a basis of trust. Decisions however are still made by us as founders. Something we would like to change over time, but how to do so? When are we ready to say: Part-up isn’t mine anymore, it’s ours. How will decision making go, who is really in and what would the process look like?

On day one of the Fest Forward program we talked about this challenge with the guys from Enspiral / Loomio and Cocoon Projects / LiquidO. Both are bossless organizations. Enspiral has a core team of 50 and a total network of 320 people. The core team of Cocoon Projects is around 15, but they as well are working with a network of contributors. Although both organizations are very (very) social, it’s is not easy to become a member of the core team. It is all about trust.


Thinking & Drinking session of the Part-up core team

The core team

Becoming part of the core team of Cocoon Projects is a process. Every six months they organize a three day retreat, aligning their strategy, investing in personal development and in the interpersonal growth of the team. Every member of the network is invited. The core team however has decision power and owns the budget to execute the strategy. New members to the core team can present themselves or can be invited. Acceptance has to be unanimous. This might feel a bit overdone. In most organizations this is the decision of just the manager and maybe one teammember. But if there is no manager and each member of the core team has budget responsibility? Exactly: the decision has to be unanimous. This could cause that the diversity of the team is under pressure (we all tend to search for clones of ourselves). Knowing so, the team actively strives for diversity, because of the strengths it will bring the team. If (based on differences) the trust is not high enough for an individual member to accept someone new, they will start to work on this.

Decision making

Within the core team decisions do not have to be unanimous however. This wouldn’t even be a healthy situation. As Jakober from Cocoon Projects stated: hierarchy is not a bad thing, it is even needed. With 8 people in the room there is always hierarchy. You just have to make sure that hierarchy isn’t static. Cocoon projects solves this with different decision making tools, and (based on the subject and context) voting rights can differ. At Enspiral they use the decision making tool Loomio, developed by one of their own business units.


Manifesto and bylaws

When organizing decision making in a horizontal way everyone on the team (and in the network) has to know by which rules the organization lives. It’s therefore a good thing to write a manifesto stating the values of the organization. Mentor Cyrill even taught us in the ‘In Focus’ workshop that you might want to have two types of values: a set of values that relate to the way you work together and a set that positions the organization. For us as an open organization, we have the ambition to combine these, practicing that we preach. This manifesto doesn’t have to be rock solid by the way. Enspiral has them under review every half a year, or if there is any reason in the mean time to do so, because they otherwise can’t live up to their manifesto.

Next to the manifesto, it is good to have bylaws. If the manifesto is there to make sure everyone is on the same page, the bylaws are the headlines and body of that page. It gives the team members the needed definitions and guidelines on how you work together. Eg when can someone become part of the core team? What does it mean to be a contributor? How will decision making take place? These are essential questions to be able to get in the flow of working together. Chat Whitacre of Gratipay took this to a next level. For him, to be able to organize in a decentralized way, every team member should be able to take on the job that has to be done. They therefore wrote down the core processes of Gratipay and put them online and even every discussion is accessible on Github. Onboarding of new team members has never been easier.

Why, how, what?

Why, how, what? Exactly: ‘Simon says…’. It might seem a little outdated, but as we experienced it is still so important to do this Golden Circle exercise. Cyrill had us write down our Golden Circle. Of course we didn’t do this for the first time. With a background as an organization consultant I even used this method over and over again at our clients. But then it turned out that the three of us (participating in the workshop) wrote down three different answers to this apparently simple questions. Why? Because as a startup (but also as an running organization) the world around you is changing and so is your perspective. At Cyrills organization they therefore have a four hour Golden Circle session every six weeks. When everyone in the organization knows what the answers to their ‘Why, How, What’ are, there will be no question about what’s the right decision. And because of that, every team member will be able to make it. So, note to self: make sure every team member will have the same answers (and lives by them).


Ralph at our booth during OuiShare Fest

From core team to community

Once it is clear what is in the manifesto and who is in the core team, you can start growing your community. The core team (like it or not) is at the start always in the middle of the community. In the sessions with MakeSense we learned how they create a vibrant community of 30.000 people worldwide. They basically work with circles. Next to the core team they have contributors called ‘Gangsters’. These Gangsters get it going. MakeSense facilitates them with instruments to grow local communities. They facilitate the first meetup with drinks, have a easy to copy training for new Gangsters, let them meet other social entrepreneurs and give them a practical manual on how to grow their community. From there the core team stays involved, but the Gangsters are growing the outer circle with ‘SenseMakers’. Something we as a platform have to facilitate as well, but not much different for any organization that wants to spread an innovation.

Stay focussed

So we have quite some challenges. Does it scare us? Of course not. We’ve got a great vision on what the future of organizations should look like and are making big steps in realizing this. Hailey Cooperrider helped us to stay focussed and prioritize our challenges. She did so by using the metaphor of the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly. In the ‘egg’-phase you just have your idea worked out in a concept. After that phase you develop into a larve, the concept evolves into a proof of concept. The next phase is that of the caterpillar that is growing and eating, to evolve to the last phase of the butterfly. A simple structure, to make explicit what your vision is for every phase: how many people are in your core team, when are the manifesto and the bylaws needed (answer from our experience: larve :)) and what goals do you have for every phase? If you know this, just focus on what’s needed for that phase, without letting the grand vision out of sight. You’d best do this together with your core team. Ones everyone knows what the goals are there will be focus and clearness about the (near) future. Not only for the founders, but for the whole team.

At Part-up we like to think big and even added the ‘butterfly effect’: the phase in which we have a critical mass that chooses to work with people they love on projects they cannot live without. We are happy to have met a lot of like minded people that work hard every day in order realize their butterfly effect and have a positive impact on the world.

We want to thank all our mentors (also the ones not mentioned in this blog) for taking the time to help us out. And a special thanks for OuiShare Fest to have us in their Fest Forward program! See you next year!