1000 days of dwarfs and Giants: A radically honest look behind the scenes of a self-organization lab

dwarfs and Giants celebrated its third birthday this September. To be precise — that means 1157 days of rewriting the future of organization until today — but the other title felt more convincing :-) Like a 3-year-old toddler we spent the last 3 years full of joyful and painful learnings, setbacks, frustrations and overwhelm while discovering a new world full of possibilities. We had great projects with wonderful clients. We had tough conversations, shed tears and hugged afterwards.

One thing we learned about the evolution of wholesome organizations is that it needs radical honesty and the willingness to face your own shadows. So if you want to get a glimpse of what’s happening behind the scenes in our dwarfs and Giants lab, where we’re coming from and where we’re headed, keep reading.

How does it feel to be part of an innovation lab for org design? © Maria Noisternig

Purpose rules! Why we do what we do

dwarfs and Giants was founded out of the strong desire and belief that there has to be a different way to run organizations. A different way to use the unique potential of humans and the creative power of teams for the good.

dGs purpose captures this essence for us: “Rewriting the future of organization. Catalyzing the evolution of wholesome organizations“. Our bigger “why” is to leverage the power of organization to evolve the way we relate to ourselves, each other, the natural environment. Wholesomeness describes organizations as a healthy, vital and nurturing space. The assumption and vision behind is: if we manage to create different organizations, it will dramatically impact how we evolve as a society, how we deal with competition, conflict, diversity etc. Organizations are among the most powerful forces in society and brought forward amazing progress, technologies, and wealth. But also many unintended side-effects not at least through the very nature of organizing and dealing with power in organizations. That’s why we see them as our lever into society to shift and transform the way we relate to each other.

How our purpose manifests in our setup

dwarfs and Giants as an organization is intended to be a lab, that eats its own dogfood on various levels.

  1. Legally (we aimed at having no formal employees, but entrepreneurial partners, yet a real organization and not a network of professionals),
  2. Financially (we distribute profits across all dG members and capital ownership does not yield any dividends, contribution matters),
  3. Organizationally (we use Holacracy as our operating model to distribute authority and support ownership and self-responsibility for best expression of our purpose). and
  4. Tribe related (since our start we have invested and still do a remarkable amount of collective time and money to work on our relations, team dynamics, conflict resolution and feedback skills).
“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.“
 — Brené Brown

dG is an Organization Design lab to prototype a wholesome organization through a practice of failing, learning and distilling. Sounds exciting, but honestly, is pretty tough and hard sometimes. We intentionally embrace the imperfect (beta) and focus on learning. We are committed to trying things out, embodying them, and sharing our learnings with clients and the community. And with this, we do acknowledge that dG is a catalyst for personal development and growth for its partners. That’s challenging — individually and organizationally. Radical honesty can be painful sometimes, but we rather go for tough conversations than being nice and polite, covering up triggers and tensions. And we strive to create and provide safe spaces that support that process.

Keeping a balance between tough conversations and hugs. © Maria Noisternig

Facts & Figures: How far we have come

Meanwhile dG has grown from 4 founders to 16 core partners and 7 very closely coupled level 2 partners (they fill internal roles, are invited to participate in any internal days, and are prospects for future core partnership).

Our core team consists of 8 women and 8 men from 4 different nationalities. We gather people with diverse backgrounds, among them design, social media & communications, sociology, psychology, economics, information technology, social work, finance and psychotherapy. This diversity has been of importance to us ever since. In the course of these three years 7 people who joined have already left again.

In the past three years we have spent on average 40–45 days per year for internal exchange and learning and quite some money into external guidance. That includes different formats for different purposes:

  • Council Days twice a year (2–4 day retreats to sense into our purpose and collectively develop a sense of direction for the next period)
  • Campfire Days (at least 1–2d per quarter harvesting learnings from project work, codifying methods and tools, building competencies and skills — “keeping the fire burning”)
  • Harbor Days (regular bi-weekly “office days” to run circle meetings, share company updates and financials, and use half a day in Open Space format to tackle topics relevant for dG as organization, e.g. introducing new technologies, brand reshaping, peer supervision for projects, feedback processes)
  • Caseworks (1d every quarter involving partners from our broader community to do peer consulting and case-based learning and support)
  • Team Supervision (5d per year of externally facilitated supervision with the entire core team to surface and tackle dynamics below the surface and reflect on our state of development and related challenges)
  • Clear-the-air meetings (partly externally facilitated, typically 0,5–1d as needed to provide space (and learn) to tackle relational conflicts and irritations with Non-Violent Communication.)

We know that’s quite an investment. Yet, we are still convinced that it is needed in this phase of dG’s development. A phase of creating a joint fingerprint as a lab by developing and codifying our approach. And a phase of further shaping our DNA as organization and the common ground of our tribe as we grow.

Another important aspect of wholesomeness for us is reflected in the fact that partners at dG are expected to take 8–10 weeks of holidays a year. We consciously encourage each other to dedicate enough time to cultivate other important elements of our lives apart from work, gather new inspiration and recharge for the exciting projects ahead.

“Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
— Dolly Parton

Our revenues currently account for EUR 3 Mio per year. All remaining profits are distributed among all partners based on a certain algorithm that accounts for different levels of expertise and contribution. If dwarfs and Giants is doing well, all of us prosper. No-one gets rich on the back of others.


The more subjective status-quo

End of August we had our Council Days — a 4 day retreat in the mountains where we connect as a tribe, sense into our purpose and ask, how it could be best expressed and manifested within the forthcoming year. And it was during these days that I for the first time in dG’s history had the strong sensation that all the planted seeds start growing and showing effect. I could see people stepping up as entrepreneurs, driving their things forward, thinking for the collective and not about how to maximize their individual benefit. I witnessed skillfully held challenging conversations on very hot topics or interpersonal tensions. And it was personally delightful to see but also insightful with regards to the work we do.

Collective morning practice during our Council Days in August 2018 © dG

Even for dG, an organization very consciously designed from scratch around different ways of organizing and relating to each other, it’s been a struggle for years now to really embody what it means to collaborate self-responsibly and autonomously for a higher purpose. It is so obvious and systemically easily explained that many dynamics reflecting current norms and beliefs of our Western society cannot be held outside of an organization by any means, may it be with best intention, clear purpose, structures and processes. Norms such as “appreciation for performance” or “the glorification of busy” will still sneak in through the backdoor.

Another element that we continue to get better at is more consciously and carefully “picking our battles” through evaluating purpose-fit. We have serious conversations among us, whether client requests are fitting to our purpose — or not. We want to invest our energy and passion in projects, where we truly believe in impact. In order to execute this with more rigour we have a Do-or-die role that is accountable to constantly challenge if we pick up on new requests or not. And we managed to carefully withdraw (means, in a way that is not harming the client relationship) from projects that turned out not to meet this criteria of purpose-fit for us. And we want to be explicit on what purpose-fit is as well: We do not put our talents in service of organizations that serve a purpose we don’t support (e.g. military, weapon industry, tobacco among others).

What’s up for us? Our challenges ahead…

Managing the organizational dynamics of growth

We are dedicated to leverage our skills and know-how to distill and/or create (new) practices to transformation and organizing (shaping the future of organizations). We strive for a conscious and sustainable pace of development and growth. However, in order to experience dynamics of “scale” in our own organizational lab, we need a minimum size (~30 people). This now leads to the question of how to sustain the quality of deep relations and openness on a broader scale. Scaling the mentioned tribe elements that worked for us until now beyond a group size of 10–12 people is also not that easy. So we started to experiment with new ways to relate and collaborate, such as bi-weekly rotating buddy calls to check-in with different people frequently. Or split up in small agile creator teams to drive content development forward. It’s totally predictable and logical and yet it’s somehow painful to feel the need for sub-systems and smaller “home-groups” emerging. It feels almost like letting go something that we fell in love with: experiencing the luxury of sharing in the entire team, having close relationships with each and everyone, driving things as a collective and easily reaching full commitment and buy-in with that.

Embracing and leveraging diversity

We remain committed to integrate diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and methodology (systemic, agile, group dynamics, ancient wisdom, design, brand, technology) under a shared purpose. By this we believe to increase the likeliness of impact of our work. Yet, we face difficulties to a) find people outside of our closer community that add to our diversity and b) if we find some, we are partly struggling to integrate them properly. Some belief systems — of what dG and what it is not -, are getting in the way. We just recently recognized during a review of our profit distribution system that the internal systems do not account for the differences we want in our lab. We conceptualized many of them from a narrative of “we are a consulting company”. And created according currencies of what we value. Even though we intentionally chose in the beginning to be an Organization Design lab integrating manifold disciplines and competences. Time for a profound revisit, obviously.

Another aspect of diversity for us is to allow for many different setups that account for changing individual needs along our life’s journeys, like integrating the needs of our families, sabbaticals among others. As long as both sides see a good purpose-fit, we strive to develop different forms of linking individuals with dG. Although that has proven very tricky when it comes to the question of felt fairness and attractiveness to be all in dG vs. a more loosely coupled partner with many benefits but little overhead efforts. A specific role is dedicated to keep a vivid connection between dG and absent partners. All in all, I’d honestly say with regards to creating and leveraging the desired diversity, we are by far not there yet. But we keep striving for it.

Bringing people up to speed and slowing us down

It’s been a challenging ride to onboard new people into a self-management context, developing all of us further and codifying existing know-how so that the quality of our services is secured or ever increasing. Given the ambition to pioneer among others in our field, a major learning for us was that we need to build competencies to master continuous overwhelm rather than avoiding overwhelm. And at the same time developing a level of patience that holds us in that process. And we recognized that purpose-driven work comes partly with some side-effects that we need to be aware of. People become extremely engaged. It’s a high-performance environment and it’s challenging to overcome dysfunctional patterns that go along with that. “Workhorse mode” or “it’s never enough” being some of them.

Changing the way we create impact

Our core work at the moment are what we call agile systemic transformations. Supporting clients in transitioning from a conventional setup to a more responsive and self-organized organizations and encoding the DNA of a desired future state in the way we work. On a further distant horizon we seek to develop an impact model that covers the resources to explore the future of organization to a larger extent (free up time for research, experimentation, hiring additional digitalization expertise, etc.). We strive to distill our core practices into more scalable products and services in order to reach more client organizations and our own time resources don’t remain the bottleneck for broader impact — like creating a growing community of like-purposed change makers and entrepreneurs through our learning lab next:pedition 2019 to reshape the future of ever-more organizations. Share and it will grow! And yet, all that is still in the unknown, so we are holding the questions as we go.


Let’s rewrite the future of organization! © Maria Noisternig

So that’s where we are at. All these topics are tensioning our system at the moment. It feels painful and incredibly joyful at the same time. Highly dynamic and super slow. And it’s the fuel that keeps as moving and developing.

For the next 1000 days at least…