Why Colony

I’m with Harrison Owen, the inventor of Open Spaces: the key is the “law of two feet.” If you’re working with people and they step on you, whether they are aware of it or not, you not only “can” but you have the duty — not only towards yourself, but to the system as a whole — to move your “two feet” and leave that abusive context.

Abuse should not be rewarded, ever, and the system wins if it is naturally resistant to abuse by design. If you can do that, then logically there will be no abuse left in the environment, as it will be disconnected from the flows of work and rewards.

Office Space is a movie about systemic psychological abuse that is rampant within “knowledge work.” Companies use knowledge worker’s minds as storage and to assemble virtual, predictable machines (“workflow,” “processes”), and the fact that all of the companies’ processes (and the “bosses” and their careers) rely so much on investing on something they don’t really control (other people’s minds!), leads to all kinds of patterns of abuse and attempts at control.

The “law of two feet” cannot work if people commit automatically to things. Every single thing a person commits to cannot be coerced. The organization cannot ever depend on a single person to deliver a specific task. “Hierarchy” in the negative sense is a chain of abuse where social conventions of “expectations” and of “reputation” are gamed to remove people’s ability to say no to a “command.”

Of course companies need to perform routine, concerted work. But the way these harmonious flows emerge cannot be through fear; they cannot be assembled by assuming people are objects to be psychologically abused into the roles. Instead, the company must assume people share the co-created story of those flows, and that they will rush to fulfill these roles — not in competition, but in harmonious cooperation: true collaboration, true love for the environment and the projects, making sure everything necessary gets done.

It looks like you’re on to something, but I would be careful with “reputation systems.” I would be careful to make it explicit that “reputation” does not mean “character” or any sort of moral judgment, otherwise you will end up with the “5-star morality” person and the “4-star morality person”, and what does that even mean? Everyone is moral (you’d think that would be the case of all those PhDs that are going to work in those companies) and everyone wants what is best for everyone else, and the only thing that sabotages that is toxic, objectifying environments that don’t know how to screen abuse.

If you want to detect actual malicious intent, pathological or fundamentally-incompatible behavior, you can stick to an explicit, binary “red flag” vote, and then you can decompose “reputation” into “perceived abilities” (or “power level”) so people can at a glance have some idea to whom to submit tasks that have some critical aspect to them, and into “perceived workload performed”, which you can use to measure a person’s profit share. That is just an example; the point is, make sure people don’t confuse “ratings” with moral judgment. That is a fundamental part of the indignity you detected in your post: have one’s moral character fuzzily, indirectly, publicly quantified — that is the raw material of psychological abuse in workplaces! So stick to metrics that are fun, e.g. “lol I suck at estimating deadlines! (1 star)” or “people seem to love the documentation I write (5 stars)”. Because even if people can switch between projects or tasks to get away from toxic pairings, but some global aspect of the system itself is toxic, then the only place they can move their “two feet” to is outside of it.

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