A self-governance starter kit

Frustrated with seeking unanimous agreement? Climb the mountain of self-governance nirvana!

You’ve heard of self-governance right? Read the Holacracy Constitution?

Tl;dr 1) Self-governance without explicit, written process is a frustrating search for universal agreement guided by benevolent leadership. 2) Test out more formal self-governance by identifying decisions the team makes and write/practice specific processes for making those decisions. 3) Adopt a simple framework that allows the self-governance processes to grow and adapt with the team. 4) Avoid the decision making swirl through one final act of centralized decision making by a high authority figure.

Self-governance with no explicit process is exhausting and frustrating

Here’s the story I see. Team wants to be flat (yay no managers!) Team wants to promote creativity and autonomy. Team grows to 6 or 7 people and finds that their default model of talking it all out and achieving unanimous consent on all decisions becomes infeasible. Team devotes an ever growing share of time resources to achieving unanimous agreement. Team grows frustrated with making no progress. Team defaults back to a power hierarchy, shadow or official. Team members who joined because they wanted a flat hierarchy, autonomy, and creative control leave.

Time to break out of that old routine.

I’m a facilitator at ConsenSys and here’s the model I use to guide teams from frustration to self-governance nirvana. I built this model by testing it with my team of design thinking facilitators.

frustration → self-governance nirvana

Step 1: Team members make a list of all the types of decisions the team makes. Common items are: hiring a new team member, dismissing an existing team member, prioritizing work items, and spending a budget.

Step 2: Each team member chooses one (just one!) very specific decision the team makes. Describe a fact pattern that is highly specific and preferably real that illustrates the decision being made. Avoid the temptation to be general! Have a brief conversation around each choice so there is a common understanding of the decision and fact pattern.

Step 3: Go do research! The team steward should step in and provide starting points for the team. For example, Enspiral, Loomio, Valve, Iroquois, Liquid Democracy. This phase is literally limitless. Y’all want good and effective self-governance? Go see what it looks like elsewhere.

Step 4: Each team member writes an Enspiral-style handbook page describing how the team would make the decision they chose to cover. The process can be anything from a carbon-copy of an existing process all the way to something completely new. The only requirement is that the decision must be made using only what is written in that process — minimal outside knowledge is assumed.

Step 5: Team members convene to practice. Each team member leads the rest of the team through the process they describe. Feedback should be noted and saved — but don’t make changes to the process yet. Google docs is helpful for this. Put feedback in the comments section.

These five steps will give the team practical exposure on how self-governance might work for them. They can also see which processes they liked and which ones they didn’t. A free form conversation about that is well warranted at this point.

Now onto the constitutional convention!

We are lucky. We live in a digital age. Communication is near instantaneous and at practically zero marginal cost for many people. We can write documents, edit them, and track changes in real time. These are advantages the writers of the American constitution didn’t have. Therefore, we don’t need to setup an entire governance system from the get-go. Instead, we only need a skeleton governance structure that is built to adapt and change as the team learns what works for them.

Here is my recommendation for what a team should adopt first:

The three core clauses for self-governance

1) The advice/consent/agreement clause — this requires team members to communicate with people who will be impacted by their decisions before making them and to consider their advice and input. (http://reinventingorganizationswiki.com/Decision_Making)

2) Significant decision process — this lays out how team members will make significant decisions. At the beginning, that’s likely to be formally adopting the rest of their handbook or governance guide. (http://reinventingorganizationswiki.com/Decision_Making, search Consent-based decision making)

3) Legacy systems — this means everything stays the same until is affirmatively changed via the significant decision process. (https://www.holacracy.org/constitution#art5, search Legacy Policies)

That’s it! I recommend bolting on two non-binding agreements. A preamble to state intent and an experimental process which describes how the team will conduct experiments that can then be graduated to the constitution via the significant decision process. (I use handbook and constitution interchangeably to refer to the core agreements a team uses to govern themselves.)

The caveat: Making the self-governing decision about how to make decisions about how the team wants to self-govern

While researching self-governance and working with teams moving towards self-governance, I kept stumbling across the same problem.

How can a team officially adopt self-governance (with a written handbook or constitution to guide their decision making process?) Where will this adoption process come from? It seems to create an endless recursive loop, which I refer to as the “decision making swirl.”

For example, how did ~13 states come together at the American Constitutional Congress and decide the Constitution would be ratified with 9 votes (instead of unanimous consent as specified under the then existing and legally binding Articles of Confederation)?

Find this topic interesting? Take the deep dive! It’s wild. And in short, what the framers of the Constitution did was likely illegal at the time.

From George Washington: “The legallity of this Convention I do not mean to discuss, nor how problematical the issue of it may be. That [federal] powers are wanting, none can deny. Through what medium they are to be derived, will, like other matters, engage public attention. That which takes the shortest course to obtain them, will, in my opinion, under present circumstances, be found best. Otherwise, like a house on fire, whilst the most regular mode of extinguishing it is contended for, the building is reduced to ashes.”

http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch6s5.html and http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_723.asp and http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/convention-and-ratification.html#obj18 and http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/convention1787.html and https://constitution.laws.com/ratification-of-the-constitution and http://teachingamericanhistory.org/ratification/stageone/ and https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlevii.

To cut through the decision swirl, my hypothesis is that a group of people needs someone with high moral authority (perhaps a team lead or wartime hero) to set the requirements by which a skeleton process for making other decisions can be adopted.

For example, George Washington or James Madison suggested that if 9 out of the 13 states adopt the constitution, it will apply to all 13 states.

Or with respect to ConsenSys, a team lead may say if 5 out of the existing 7 team members adopt this self-governance handbook, the other team members agree to abide by the rules of the handbook or leave the team.

Or, in the case of my facilitation team, I used my moral authority as first hire and director to unilaterally decide (with the advice process) that the four of us would agree by unanimous consent to adopt a skeleton handbook with the three core clauses referenced above (which will guide our future decision making.) Sidebar: New facilitator team members will be required to follow the design thinking facilitation governance handbook as part of the process of joining our team, with no say on the original formation of the handbook.

Try it out!

Interested in running your own self-governance workshop or constitutional convention? Let me know how it goes! Any feedback would be useful in iterating on and improving this model.

Thanks to https://undraw.co/illustrations for the open source illustrations