I Want a Different Organisation

Reporting from a two-part workshop in Seoul exploring non-hierarchical organising with people from Enspiral.

Enspiral contributor Songyi Lee addressing the group

This was split between two events: an “open table” on Thursday and workshop on Saturday (see the event listing on Facebook). On Thursday we gathered this great list of questions about Enspiral. My fellow Enspiral member Rose and I answered a lot of those questions in that document, and continued the discussion at the Saturday event.

To me it felt like there were a few overlapping objectives in the event design:

Building a community

These events placed a strong emphasis on community-building, with plenty of time to hear from everyone, mix in different small groups, and discuss people’s hopes and challenges. I was struck by the diversity of participants, e.g. academics, undergrad students, social impact investors, artists, consultants, freelancers, entrepreneurs, etc.

We spent less time talking about Enspiral, and more of the time with people discussing their own experiences, and how they could support each other.

Changing mindsets

It’s easy for people to assume that organisations are static, to take them for granted and assume they will always be competitive, constraining, coercive, etc. By sharing our experiences from Enspiral, we hope that people will start to imagine that we can reshape our organisations to suit the people in them.

Another thing I heard a few times is that people tend to blame themselves when things don’t work well. With these events we’re hoping to illustrate how the structure of an organisation determines the outcomes, not just the individual people.

Experiencing a different culture

Enspiral produces tools and processes for self-organising groups, e.g. Loomio for decision-making, Cobudget for collaborative funding, and the handbook explaining all our systems. These tools are very easy to share, but they only work with a particular culture: a unique set of values, behaviours, language and expectations.

Many of us are deeply embedded within overlapping hierarchical structures: family, school, work, gender, race etc. These experiences leave a deep impression on us. To develop truly non-hierarchical groups, we need to grow a new culture, which challenges all those norms we have inherited.

Culture is very difficult to define, to share, and to design. It seems to be produced through collective experiences. This is why retreats are the key to Enspiral: a small group of people spending a few days together can produce a powerful kind of intimacy. In this intimate space we start to undo our old habits and grow new ones.

A short workshop is like a preview of a retreat. We can’t go very far together but we can have a small taste. We use a set of practices to introduce people to the experience of being in a different culture.

Another event, another check-in circle

For instance, at the opening of the event, we have a “check in” process, where we briefly hear from everyone in the room: who are you, how are you feeling? Next, we agree together a ‘communication protocol’ — some shared expectations for how we will relate to each other. E.g. with openness, assuming positive intent, with fun and movement and touch. In addition, we introduce some hand gestures that create a different communication environment. Instead of clapping, we use ‘sparkle fingers’ to show appreciation, or to indicate we’ve been moved by what someone is saying.

These are very subtle processes, but they show by experience that we can consciously design a culture to suit our values. They show that different structures create different outcomes. For instance, you can’t clap and listen at the same time, so if we want to appreciate someone, you have to wait till they have finished speaking. With sparkle fingers, we can show appreciation all the time, not just at the end of a talk. The result is much more mutual encouragement, without interrupting someone you can say I hear you, I support you, you’re doing great!

The customary Korean group photo, featuring the customary Enspiral sparkle-fingers

Finding similarity across difference

In the last phase of the workshop, we broke into small groups to discuss three questions. I’m very aware of how the Korean context is so different from my home in Aotearoa New Zealand, but I felt that these answers could have come from anywhere in the world:

What is the different organisation that I want?

Alignment between individual and collective. No formal titles, just personal names. Trust, love, open dialog between members. Shared experience. Shared principles, values, vision. Support for members. Values-oriented. Communication. Acknowledging members as people: humanity. Good process: listening, get to know each other. Open to negative feedback. Candid sharing of feelings. I can be myself. Intrinsic motivation. Accept diversity of perspectives. Find common ground.

Why is that difficult right now?

Decision making happens at the top. Talkative member overrides others. Different backgrounds make it hard for people to collaborate. Rigid focus on just efficiency. Can’t be candid in expression. Not enough experience. Org doesn’t allow for members’ free will. Leadership doesn’t function well. Lazy listening. Internal politics. Fear of change, fear of failure. Conflict with existing systems. Little consideration of others. Fear of being strange, other. Experts think they have the right answer. Focus on performance and efficiency. Never experienced an alternative to vertical organising.

What can I try to start to change it?

Listening, sharing, open mindedness. Quit your job, reduce your salary, experiment with new things. Education, sharing lessons. Develop habit of collective decision-making. Soul-searching. Understanding others (put yourself in others’ shoes). Support for up-skilling. Sharing experiences. I can offer my expertise to others. Dialogue and listening to others is most important. I quit! More discussions. Gathering the like-minded people inside an organisation to change it. Use tools to elicit consensus about the problems and dreams in an organisation.

Finally we shared post-its in two categories:

  1. How could others help me?
  2. What can I offer to others?

This is an early stage in a long experiment, but we hope by matching the offers to the needs, we’ll see this fledgling community continue to grow.

Feedback and improvements

After any event like this we always run a feedback process to learn how to improve. We heard a lot of positive experiences, and some negative feedback too. I met with June, one of the people who were dissatisfied with the workshop experience. Together we came up with some intentions for how we might make the next one different.

The feedback I heard was that we were too abstract, not concrete enough, e.g. talking about transparency or participation or respect or safety is not easy to engage with theoretically.

People can engage more readily with stories: ‘this is a challenge we faced, this is how we responded, this is how it felt’. Then people can interpret the event for themselves. Perhaps after people have had a chance to assimilate the stories, then I can share my own interpretation, as one of many possible perspectives.

Another way to make the information more tangible and less abstract is to create more participative experiences. Not just talk about a bossless organisation, but run a bossless event. So perhaps next time we can try an event with a smaller group, targeted at a more ‘advanced’ level: people with some experience trying new forms of organising, and an appetite to go further.

The event design might be something like: 12 people gather for a day. We start by sharing intentions: this is what I want to achieve. Then we have a menu of options: here are some practices we could use to self-organise and learn together. Ideally we’d have some combination of telling (giving them information), showing (demonstrating and modelling), doing (let them practice), and testing (let them check how well they are doing). We make a collective decision together to decide the format, then we get to work. At regular periods throughout the day, we stop and check in with everyone: how satisfied are you with this experience? Then we can practice improvising together to best meet the needs of everyone.

I look forward to iterating this format as we continue our workshop tour across the States. I’ll keep you posted :)


Read more about my recent trip to South Korea. If you want to support me to write more things like this, you can contribute here. 😍