Working in Decentralised Environments

By Jun Ming Yong, Blockchain for Social Impact Intern at ConsenSys.

One of the great promises of blockchain and ethereum is decentralisation. From a technical perspective, this ensures that we do not have a single point of failure, facilitate open community development and higher reliability. On a cultural perspective, working on blockchain enables teams to create new governance and economic systems that allow anyone to participate on their own terms. In this post, I shall be sharing what working in a decentralised remote-first environment is like, with emphasis on the challenges and the adaptations I experienced.

Over the summer, I have been fortunate to be working at Kauri — the community knowledge network for emerging technologies. I am based at the London office and we currently have 10 members on our team, of which, at least 4 of them are based in other cities or are digital nomads. We are a global team. Special mention to the Kauri Team for their mentorship: Nelson, Kendall, Andreas, Greg, Craig, Wil, Joshua, Davide, Eric.

I also took part in the intern-hackathon. Our team had six members from 3 different continents, 5 different time zones, all working remotely with no previous interaction with each other to deliver a project over 24 hours. We collaborated remotely to build our project, Alta-Arma, an NFT wallet integrated with social media and trading marketplace targeted at the luxury goods space. Shoutout to my teammates: David (Chicago), Jofo (Toronto), Harry (Toronto), Swarnima (Singapore), Emilie (Paris) and myself (London). To describe the magnitude of our collaboration-problems — between Swarnima and David, was a 12 hour time-difference. We had to innovate.

When I first joined, I understood that we had a spoke lead but by and large the team was flat and everyone including myself, the intern, had an equal voice. The lack of strong and distinct leaders presented a mental conundrum for the inexperienced me when I first joined the team. As Andreas Antonopoulos commented — ‘we are wired to find leaders and discover hierarchies’. In the absence of strong hierarchies, one has to adapt our traditional way of thinking and appreciate the benefits and challenges involved, and more importantly adapt to ensure we function as an effective team.

Benefit

  • Autonomy: Working in decentralised environments means we are granted a lot of autonomy. We are able to work on our own terms. On a practical level, this means, we get to decide how we work and from where we work. E.g. There were days when I worked at home because I did not want to commute because temperatures were soaring in London. My remote presence did not impact my work though. I could still participate in meetings through video-conferencing, etc. I had mastery over my own time.
  • On a philosophical level, autonomy is instrumental in that it enables us to find fulfilment in our lives. Autonomy presents to us many choices on how we want to work. Autonomy can be bad and good. Bad in a sense, that we can abuse it. On the flipside, it can be good if we exercise our choice. Autonomy without the exercise of choice is meaningless. Following Royce’s work, on loyalty- when we make a conscious choice on the way we work, to decide to have loyalty to a cause and a community, we are making a morally significant decision that enables us to lead morally significant lives. It is by exercising choice in an autonomous environment that we express our true selves. Everyday when we work in this decentralised environment, we exercise our loyalty to better it, and fulfil the organisation’s aims. This is what holds intrinsic value, and what makes working fun and meaningful.

Challenges

  • Free-Rider Problem: It is easier in an autonomous organisation and tempting to contribute less, as team members are not managed by a specific higher authority. One could devise a lot of work that makes them appear as though they have contributed much but in reality see them contribute nothing of intrinsic value.
  • Scalability: Decentralised teams suffer from the same challenges as a blockchain. As the team grows larger and larger, it becomes harder and harder for team members to keep everyone apprised of what is going on within the team. E.g. It is rather pointless to have a daily standup with 40 people. It takes a lot of time and finding a common time slot across the globe can be hard. The risks of silos and team members breaking off into separate circles start to emerge.
  • Self-Paralysis: The starting assumption of being granted autonomy in a decentralised organisation is that an individual is a self-starter that understands how to organise their work activities with little supervision, in alignment with the team vision, and has the requisite skill execute the team’s plans. However, if one does not have adequate experience, they might suffer from paralysis and feel lost. This can lead to low productivity and slow the team down.

This was something I experienced initially. As the most inexperienced member on the team, I often felt as though I was wandering aimlessly in a vast desert. I did not know what to do because no one was giving me much direction; and my inexperience meant that I did not how I could really contribute. It took a good 2–3 weeks of understanding the team’s work before I felt more confident to express the ways that I wanted to contribute. The learning curve is very steep in a highly experienced team. I had to work hard to continually learn about our work to understand what my team was working on. I made mistakes and made some presentations that were off the mark. Fortunately, I had good guidance and I could iterate on plans to make more meaningful contributions.

Another challenge is that new members might feel a profound sense of inadequacy. People in decentralised work teams tend to be extremely capable and adaptive. They are comfortable with change and know what they are doing most of the time. A new hire without prior experience on such a team can get overwhelmed by the sheer capability of everyone else on the team.

To overcome this, one should look internally to the team’s mission and convert that sense of inadequacy to humility. To recognise where we need to grow and develop ourselves, to become better as individuals and for the team. Humility, as I have discovered can be a powerful driving force. One should also accept that rapid change is going to be a constant and learn how to live with it. We cannot control everything around us, but we can control our response to it.

Adaptations:

  • Baton Pass Ideation: Having small global teams means syncing up with different timezones. On practical terms, this means that when someone is waking up, another team member is about to go to bed. Couple that with remote work — this was an obstacle to collaboration. To overcome this, my internship team worked on our project using a baton pass method. This means that members who were awake at reasonable times would work on the idea and iterate accordingly. When it was time for the next person to take over, they would sync up briefly with the previous team member and carry on. Often when I re-joined the project after a break, the project could be updated significantly. The main success factor for this approach is having full trust in your team mates. All of us understood that change would happen and we embraced it. We trusted our teammates to make the right decisions for our project and have the skills to implement it. Where we had a skill deficit or time pressures, we would iterate and run with it. The result was that my intern-hackathon team pivoted our idea three times over 24 hours, delivered a fully functional front end demo, working smart contract code, and a highly developed business case.
  • Open Empowered Team-Culture: Being on global teams means that sometimes we have to work at odd hours. To ensure that the team can work effectively in the long term, it is important to recognise the limitations of time. E.g. it would be unfair to request a team member from another time zone to make it for a meeting at 3 a.m. local time. We hope that everyone on the team can have good rest and personal time. The team also has to have a culture of openness, so everyone on the team can contribute their views. Through authentic discussions, our team is able to find better solutions to the problems that we are trying to solve.
  • Everyone is a weight lifter: Being on flat teams means that everyone is recruited specially for their roles and specific skill sets. This means that everyone has to pull their own weight. Being without a strongly defined leader means that everyone has to be leaders in their own field and build the company in the best way they believe works. One potential risk of high levels of specialisation is that we might sometimes be blind as to how our work can affect our team on a macro level. To overcome this, our team has daily standups and catch-ups sprinkled across the week according to the team’s needs. At these meetings, we discuss about our deadlines and our work. When one of us spots a gap, we are proactive in addressing it so that we can solve it as a team.

In conclusion, working at Consensys has been a deeply humbling learning experience. I was exposed to many new technologies and communities. I got the autonomy I desired to build the company as much as I wanted and reasonably could. Most importantly, I got work on something that is intrinsically valuable to people. I was tap-dancing to work. It was great!

Jun is a Singaporean undergraduate student reading politics philosophy and law at kings college london. He’s also the president of his schools blockchain club. He’s passionate about building and sharing the possibilities of a decentralised future with companies and the people around him. He is currently a ConsenSys intern with the social impact team.