Breathe in Leadership, Breathe out Leadership: Enspiral’s Organisational Refactor

Alanna Irving
Enspiral Tales
Published in
19 min readMay 19, 2016


The story of how we upgraded core systems and processes in a distributed network without bosses.

Enspiral is a collective of peers that aspires to generative, continuous, systemic improvement through self-organisation. But by late 2015, it had become clear there were a number of interconnected issues holding us back.

“Refactor” is a metaphor from software development. It’s something programmers do after they’ve been working on a piece of software for a while and they’ve developed a better understanding of how it should be working. They clean up how it functions internally to make it simpler, more readable, improve performance, and make it easier to change and improve later — usually without radically changing its functionality or reason for being. In software, refactoring is a way to fix technical debt.

What we needed was a network refactor to fix our organisational debt — to make it possible for Enspiral to evolve itself into the future.

Part One: Context

One of the challenges of working in a highly innovative environment is the speed at which processes, policies, and structures become unclear, out of date, or irrelevant. Things change fast.

The Refactor Goals

Enspiral is intended to be shaped by everyone in the network. It’s a collective. But we found it had become too difficult and ‘expensive’ in time, money, and effort for people to improve systems and collective assets. We had few explicitly agreed processes to support people to do systemic work.

In order for Enspiral to live up to its values and aspirations around participation, transparency, and distributed leadership, we needed to simplify and clarify.


Enspiral Foundation Ltd holds ‘the commons’ of the Enspiral network. Meeting this responsibility entails a lot of work that had historically been done largely behind the scenes. The Foundation does not have a CEO, or any employees, so the directors had in the past done a lot of unpaid and unseen operational work, which had negatively impacted their ability to perform their main governance role.

Letting things land on the directors was also inconsistent with a core value of Enspiral: to distribute leadership, information, and power. It is hard for people to be involved in decision-making about work they are not even aware exists.

The intention was always for the Enspiral Foundation board to play a minimal role, but this was not the case in practice. It was unclear how people joined, what the board actually did, and what the responsibilities actually were. And without a corresponding executive function in the network, the very nature and purpose of governance was unclear. What good did it do anyone to develop governance-level points of view, if there was no one there to act on them?

So, the directors made a proposal to the Enspiral members:

Our goal is to make our own roles as directors less central. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, in order to do that we are temporarily getting even more involved. We are ‘breathing in’ in order to ‘breathe out’ — consolidating leadership in order to distribute it better. We recognise the inherent tension in this approach, but feel it is the right one.
— Refactor Proposal to Enspiral Members

Distributed Leadership

Enspiral has been trialling solutions to the challenge of decentralised leadership for over 5 years. In 2011 we created the role of Member, and gave them the responsibility and mandate to take distributed acts of leadership. In 2012, we adopted a consensus decision-making process and legally granted Members ownership of the Enspiral Foundation. Members became the ultimate holders of power in Enspiral.

From 2012 to 2013, we had a ‘Support Crew’, who performed a mix of administrative and leadership work. We didn’t find centralising these functions on only a few people to be the right approach, and worked to distribute more of the administrative functions using collaborative processes and software. We didn’t have the answer, but we knew the Support Crew wasn’t it. So we dissolved that team. We created the collaborative funding process (which eventually led to Cobudget) to make distributed financial decisions, and continued making collaborative decisions on Loomio.


Despite consistently improving collaborative tools and processes, we felt a lack of leadership at Enspiral.

At the end of 2014 a network-wide consultation and decision-making process was undertaken, resulting in the first iteration of the Enspiral Catalyst programme in 2015. This initiative introduced the idea of a small group (three people) working one day per week doing ‘core Enspiral work’.

Following a formal retrospective on this first iteration of Catalysts, we learned that this approach had significant potential to support more people from the network to work on the issues that most needed attention. We also learned a lot about ways the design of the first Catalyst experiment fell short, and what could be different in a future iteration.

A Step Change

By the end of 2015, many felt Enspiral was at a crisis point.

Enspiral was not self-organising to create the new processes and systems it needs for further self-organisation and growth. A ‘step change’ was needed.

  • Our Members were overloaded with venture work, and too few were actively initiating projects to improve the Enspiral commons.
  • Our first Catalyst programme had generated a lot of good learning, but it needed a redesign and wasn’t able to self-sustain without further interventions.
  • Contributors didn’t have clear pathways to help improve things, and progress their own journey toward becoming Enspiral network leaders.

Part Two: An Opinionated Proposal

In theory, no one needs permission to try to improve Enspiral. Anyone can propose decisions affecting us all on Loomio. If you want to host a meeting or workshop, you can call one and people will probably come. If you need funding, you can ask for it on Cobudget.

However, in practice making systemic improvements wasn’t as accessible as it should have been to everyone.

To some extent, the Refactor was an act of desperation.

We saw significant risks that could sink the whole network, and Enspiral wasn’t evolving fast enough to address them. Meanwhile, the way we had been working thus far — burning out the most active people and not creating effective pathways for less engaged people to get more active — was not sustainable.

The Working Group felt the work they wanted to do would be best accomplished in a focused sprint — not bit by bit, and not by many hands. They made a pitch to the Enspiral Members, that they were the right people to carry out this work because of their particular perspective, experience, and skills, and that this was the right sort of thing to spend Foundation resources on at that moment.

Leadership or Facilitation?

The chosen tactic was an exercise of leadership more than facilitation. Both elements were present, but there was a clear idea of the sort of interventions required.

We needed to consolidate leadership temporarily, to implement systems for distributed leadership to flourish going forward.

The plan was to do a piece of consultation and design, and host a decision-making process with the network to see if the proposals would be accepted. The first proposal to Members was rejected for being too specific, so a second proposal was iterated that was more high-level.

We will actively engage with stakeholders, who will contribute to, discuss, and sign off on any decisions. But this is not design by (huge) committee. It requires focused capacity and leadership. The design will be collaborative, but also opinionated. It is an opportunity for us to prototype new systems to make Enspiral better for all of us.
— Refactor Proposal to Enspiral Members

The Members approved the funding, and the Refactor Working Group commenced.

Social Capital

This Refactor would not have been possible without years of ‘social capital’ that had been built up in and around Enspiral. This point is crucial to understanding not only the Enspiral Refactor, but what makes self-organising communities function.

We simply would not have started this project without knowing that the social capital was in place.

I was one of the four members who put their hands up to do this work. We four had known each other for many years. As a group, we were not just directors of a company together, we were close personal friends who had consistently supported each other in both our personal and professional development. We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, trusted each other’s motivations, and spoke a common language.

We also brought four very different views on Enspiral itself, and four very different personalities and approaches, which helped us see the issues from a range of perspectives. The four of us each hold a different lens, and have a different communication style.

All of this made it possible for us to scope and take on a large amount of work, and to effectively reach agreement on the ‘big moves’ in a very short period of time. We could trust an emergent creative process within the working group.

Even more important than the Working Group members trusting each other, they felt they had the trust and support of the Enspiral network, and they trusted it back.

We believed that Members and Contributors would not only back the Working Group in doing this work, but that they were more than capable of engaging with a large number of complex issues at once, they would give honest feedback, they would forgive when we made mistakes, and they would hold us accountable to the long term interests of the whole network.

We also knew we could count on people in the network supporting each other, both practically and emotionally, as we all did this work. This Refactor process may have been initiated and led by a small team, but it required the skills, knowledge, and generosity of the whole network in order to be successful.

Project Timeline

Having seen other organisations go through lengthy restructuring processes that cause significant disruption, we wanted to keep the Refactor timeline tight.

This ambitious time frame worked well for achieving a focused and productive sprint, but feedback after the fact was split. Some were invigorated by the intensity, while others would have preferred a slower, more spread out approach.

Don’t do a stop the world refactor, as the world does not stop. Use the “campground rule”, making key things better, slowly over time.
— Enspiral Contributor

The situation we were in was that we needed this burst of intense refactoring to make sustainable, ongoing, systemic improvement possible into the future.

Part Three: A Creative Process

The Refactor Working Group met weekly, at first spending considerable energy trying to understand the complex combination of issues to navigate. There needed to be a balance between ‘let the path emerge’ and ‘just do it’. Somehow, we were able to create a highly generative space, where many new ideas formed. Only some of these made their way into the Refactor.

The early stage involved many conversations, some wild goose chases, and a proliferation of white boards.

As the project developed, we started to see some patterns forming and gained a sense of clarity about how to proceed. Lists and timelines emerged from the chaos.

Refactor Workshop

After a period of internal collaboration, the Working Group hosted a workshop at Enspiral Space in Wellington and invited people to participate in person and online via video link. We also filmed the session so remote contributors in our international network could watch it later.

At the workshop, we briefly introduced the major issues as we saw them, and outlined our proposed direction. We then asked for clarifying questions and moved into an open discussion. The workshop lasted for two hours and was attended by around 20 people in person and 3 people remotely.

Enspiral Retreat Sessions

In January of 2016, Enspiral had a first Members Retreat in lead-up to our annual network-wide Summer Retreat. We held in-person sessions at both events, as an invaluable opportunity to discuss the Refactor face-to-face. Unless people are in a room together, it is really difficult to ‘feel into’ complex issues. These sessions provided valuable insights and feedback, and began to build shared understanding across the network.

Getting Into a Rhythm

We knew there was going to be a lot of material for everyone to process, so we did our best to get into a steady rhythm of posting discussions about each component of the Refactor on Loomio, most of which centered on Agreements.

Agreements are documents which define important processes at Enspiral. They are the legislation which govern the rules of how we operate.

Each online discussion was supported by a draft proposal that people could comment on, with an open discussion phase lasting for at least one week. The Working Group then met to process new ideas, respond to specific concerns, and incorporate feedback. They then created a final proposal for the network to make a formal decision, which was also given at least one week for responses.

In all, six new Agreements were adopted by the network in a little over six weeks.

External Support

As a team, we were also supported by several meetings with Herbert Wolpert from MIRA Companions for Development. Herbert is a very skillful organisational development coach and facilitator who generously offered to contribute his time to Enspiral.

Having a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ on the project helped us to see some of our assumptions and blind spots. It also affirmed the importance of the work and the unique approach that Enspiral is taking to creating positive change in the world. Herbert’s frameworks and reflections were invaluable in getting us started, and again at the end of the process in helping us understand what we had done and how to report on it to the network.

Part Four: Deliverables

The Refactor was composed of a large number of elements — documents, online discussions, workshops, events, people-hours. Here are some of the tangible outputs and metrics.

Preceding discussions

  • “Is a thought emerging from the collective brain?” — a wide ranging Loomio discussion about various network issues, resulting in an emerging consensus among members about the need to take action.
  • 2015 Catalyst experiment retrospective — learnings from our previous attempt at building capacity for distributed executive leadership.
  • Refactor Proposals — (the first rejected and iterated, the second approved) request to members to use Foundation funds to support the Refactor process, and outlining the Working Group’s intentions.

Discussions on Loomio

  • Working group reporting — short updates on working group progress
  • Leadership/governance — discussion about the interconnected nature of the People, Board, and Catalyst agreements
  • Enspiral Handbook — announcement of and discussion about the Enspiral user manual, and how it might be understood and worked on
  • People — clarifying the roles of members and contributors in the network
  • Board — specifying the responsibilities and powers of the Enspiral Foundation Directors
  • Catalysts — implementing an initiative to have distributed executive leaderships
  • Decisions — clarifying decision making policies and protocols, especially around how we use Loomio and create agreements
  • Finances — how money works at Enspiral, especially collaborative funding and Cobudget
  • Ventures — clarifying how Enspiral Ventures relate to the Enspiral Foundation and the network as a whole
  • Stewardship roles — clarifying the roles for members deriving from the new agreements, and surveying capacity and interest
Refactor Loomio Stats


Enspiral Handbook, People Agreement, Board Agreement, Catalyst Agreement, Decisions Agreement, Finances Agreement, Ventures Agreement, Three Catalysts recruited, Sixty Three ‘stewardship’ roles created.

Consultation Engagements

We made a special effort to cater to different situations, personality types, and communication styles, from people who need face-to-face interaction, to people located in remote locations, introverts and extroverts, written and visual, large group and small.

  • Email sent to all contributors outlining engagement opportunities — 300 recipients
  • Numerous online discussions — 300 group members
  • Leadership/governance workshop (video)— 15 attendees, 91 views
  • Facilitated session at the Members Retreat — 30 participants
  • Open space session at SummerFest Retreat— 15 attendees
  • Refactor Hangout — 2 participants
  • Refactor lunch — no one attended
  • Anonymous Feedback form — 1 response

We received feedback that people wanted diverse engagement opportunities, but in the end only some were taken up.

Other sessions

  • Handover day with the Refactor Working Group & incoming Catalysts
  • Retrospective with Loomio team about the tool and how it worked for Enspiral in this process.
  • Two sessions with facilitator/consultant Herbert — one to help us set up the work in Dec, another to help us figure out how to report back and conclude it in March

I love that we’ve simplified and clarified so much of the core fabric of our community, while also moving to open source it! I also love the deep conversations we’ve had about power and influence. We’re so much further along in our understanding of non-hierarchical organisation.
— Enspiral Contributor

Part Five: Emergent Learning

When undertaking this work, we knew that we would discover a lot in the process that we did not know going in.

What do we know now that we did not know before?

Importance of Stewardship

The systems we’ve agreed on only function through distributing support and accountability. Possibly the most significant innovation to emerge from the Refactor was the extension of the ‘stewardship’ role (first adopted at Enspiral by the Loomio team). The Refactor proposed that Enspiral Ventures and Enspiral Catalysts each have three stewards, who commit to supporting and holding to account those organisations and individuals. We now see this as a deeply important emerging concept at Enspiral, and a lynch-pin of distributed power. Since completing the refactor one of the Ensprial Ventures has organised a retreat specifically to learn more about the idea of Stewardship.

Seeking Strategy

When we first began, we thought we were going to iterate the ‘Mastermind’ collective strategy-setting process that we’d run in years past, which involved collectively agreeing strategic focus points once a year. We decided early on that this did not seem right, and instead proposed the “issues list” and “rolling strategic narrative” concepts, relying on the future Catalysts to create ways for people across the network to interface with it on an ongoing basis.

We feel this is only the beginning of unpacking and deconstructing the very concept of strategy and learning more about how it functions in our context. In many ways, the Refactor work showed us just how much we have to learn about collaborative strategy setting.

Since the Refactor, the new Catalysts have created the Enspiral Improvements system, using Github issues to track and prioritise things that need to be worked on across the network.

Anyone can add issues to the system, discuss and work on issues raised by others, and get a picture of and influence emerging strategic priorities.

Leadership Through Documentation

We knew we wanted to pull together a bunch of existing documentation in one place, and that Gitbook was a good tool. What was surprising, however, is how the Refactor process became guided by the documentation effort. It was the process of simply figuring out the right chapters and headings that really illuminated the shape of the work. We expect the new Handbook will grow in importance and emphasis, both for internal and external audiences.

Understanding Scaling

The question of what growth would mean to Enspiral’s culture and processes has been on the horizon for a long time. We’ve been slowly feeling more pain as systems designed for a much smaller group struggle to keep up. In many ways, network leadership is about how a person can have healthy and constructive influence beyond the reach of their own immediate work.

How can we grow beyond what a ‘do-ocracy’ can accomplish (everyone being limited to work they can deliver themselves), without implementing a command and control system?

We hope that the Catalyst programme and the increased clarity of Agreements will prove useful when dealing with emerging issues like network-to-network collaboration, onboarding new contributors into a much bigger playground, and international Enspiral hubs.

The Limits of Online Communication

Enspiral has a strong online communications culture — lots of Loomio comments, Google docs, Slack discussions, and emails. But the Refactor process hit the limitations of that. We felt keenly how online communication can give preference to a certain kind of voice — people who are more comfortable with online communication. Sometimes relying on written communications was not useful, or representative of diversity of thinking. Sometimes we need to increase the bandwidth of conversations — from Loomio comments to real time chat, to a phone call, to a video link, to a face-to-face meeting. We feel further focus on collective understanding and maturity around network communication modes would be healthy.

Pathways to Membership

A clear issue that emerged in this process is the need for more clarity around pathways to Enspiral membership. This was a known issue, but its importance has been highlighted. We have managed to get this far in a system primarily based on interpersonal trust, but the future calls for something more robust. We don’t know what the answer is, but the question is more clear. If we are going to vest ultimate power over Enspiral in its members ethically, this pathway must be transparent.

I found myself deeply caring that those who put forward disagreements or counter-arguments felt supported in their act of going against the grain of discussion. But I didn’t realise until later that those putting forward the proposals needed the same support, perhaps because it’s perceived as a more secure or authoritative position.
— Enspiral Contributor

Other things we learned…

  • Self-organising is only possible when good systems are in place to facilitate it. Once those systems are in place, it’s much easier for the system to iterate and improve itself.
  • Bootstrapping into systems where people can self-organise to create and adapt self-organising systems is hard. We have to invest in setting up the foundations so others can build on (or completely change) them.
  • There is a real difference between consultation and co-design. We thought we were really clear about the fact that we were offering the former not the latter, but it still ended up being confusing.
  • One of the main outcomes from the Refactor was creating a bunch of stewardship roles that we see as critical to accountability and support for people and projects in the network. But to achieve this required that the Refactor Working Group essentially steward itself, to pull our leadership up by its own bootstraps.
  • The Refactor Working Group members wore a lot of different hats, which could be confusing: Enspiral members, Foundation Directors, and individuals.
  • We don’t really have systems for conflict resolution. When conflict arises it often takes a huge emotional toll. Better and clearer systems could give us more support.
  • We kind of can’t believe Enspiral survived for 4 years using consensus decision-making with no agreed decision-making protocol, most people having very little training or experience with the process.
  • Limited time-frames made things much tougher. We often found ourselves rushing discussions and decisions because we felt pressured. At the same time, we had only managed to resource a certain period of time, and had to try and get as far as possible within it.
  • Some participants seemed suspicious of assertions that nothing was being written in stone, and that everything we were deciding now would evolve again in the future. They were anxious to make sure we got it right (even though much of what we were proposing was experimental), instead of feeling a first step in the right direction was good enough. This was perplexing, since our experience with Enspiral has often been the opposite (that it’s really hard to make things stay where you put them).
  • The current directors had been playing a role that’s more like what we’ve now set up Catalysts to do. So in the case of one director stepping down to become a Catalyst, he’ll gain a mandate and title but his work may not change that much. While the remaining directors are stepping into a role that’s actually new for Enspiral, focused purely on limited governance concerns.

Part Six: Checking Out

Completion is important. How best to wrap up such a process? When we can’t all meet in person, how do we individually and collectively “check out”?

At the conclusion of the Refactor, the Working Group very deliberately de-rolled from this work and ending their identity as that group. Individually, they are each stepped into new roles within Enspiral.

As a parting invitation, the Working group offered the network some channels for closure, such as a feedback survey and a sharing food and thoughts at a wrap-up event. The question: What do you need to feel closure, and openness to a new phase?

Catalysts: three Enspiral Catalysts stepped into their new role April 1, 2016.

Directors: the ‘minimum viable board’ commenced April 4, 2016.

Winter Retreat: Enspiral venture EXP are hosting a retreat in July 2016 around the theme of Stewardship.

Personal Reflections

As the work of the Refactor wound up, the Working Group members offered their individual check-outs. (These are the collective authors of this Refactor report).

By 2015, I found myself feeling responsible for a range of ill-defined, un-resourced, and demanding work at Enspiral, and I reached a moment when I felt a strong need to shift the dynamic. The position I was in was not sustainable, but I didn’t want to just abandon it either. A bunch of house cleaning needed to be done in order to step back gracefully. I was very relieved to realise others were prepared to support such an initiative. Success of the Reactor, to me, will look like many more people having the opportunity to work on systemic change and improvement at Enspiral, and feeling a true sense of collective ownership and responsibility.

Being involved in this project has been a privilege — especially as a relatively new member of the Enspiral network. I feel like I have come to know the organisation at a deep level and hopefully have been able to add some value. I think this is a huge endorsement of Enspiral’s collective culture, and the skills and knowledge of the people who make up the Enspiral network.

My reflection is to really acknowledge how much we all care about Enspiral. And to recognise that through that collective caring the work of the whole is carried. But I’m also sitting with just how hard this work actually is, when so many people care about different parts. Let’s not always look at changing the future — let’s also see how we are changing the present. In our workshops with Herbert, he asked us to lean into the uncertainty and chaos, and really see what we are doing as world-leading. And asked us a question: “How will you cope with the level of your ambition?”

I am delighted with the outcomes and would love to jump into a time machine for a quick peek twenty years into the future to see how it all turns out. This project was one of the hardest pieces of work I have tackled at Enspiral. There were times when I doubted the viability of the very concepts Enspiral tries to manifest, and I wondered if our principles were sound. While tested, my faith in those principles has been renewed. I am deeply excited to be stepping into a Catalyst role for Enspiral and, while we still have so many challenges, I am confident in our ability to face them.

If Catalysts and Stewards and Members are doing their do, I’d be surprised if we ever need to Refactor again!
— Enspiral Contributor



Alanna Irving
Enspiral Tales

Exploring bossless leadership, collaborative tech, and co-op systems —