I’m writing this story for Mozaic, our newborn common space for colearning through cotelling. We hope you’ll share yours too.
I work in an amazing organization. Since 2011, when she was born I’ve never ever written about her. I strongly believe that the value you create must speak on your behalf, and it always does one way or another. So, instead of celebrating how blessed I feel for being part of this amazing story, I’ve focused on working, on doing what I love, with people I respect, to have the best possible impact way beyond the “boundaries” of our organization. Nevertheless, this month has been the 7th anniversary of Cocoon Projects' activity and I think that the time has come to write about her. I think that our story can be a powerful catalyst for more to come and for many people out there. It was September 2011 when we started working together as Cocoon Projects, with a very strong purpose, true and deep relationships, a definitely unclear vision, and 7 brave hearts. These 7 years have been an unforgettable journey, so incredibly full of things to share. But let me just start.
This is going to be a quite long article, don’t worry though: you can read the first paragraph and then jump to the last one, if you want. You’ll still get what matters most.
TODAY AT COCOON PROJECTS: HOW I FEEL.
I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. In fact, I’ve been attending a job interview just once and just for the curiosity of experiencing one, I wasn’t interested in the job at all. I’ve had many different entrepreneurial experiences in my family as well. I’ve had the chance to experience directly and indirectly the weight of loss, responsibility, conflict, delusion, as much as the euphoria of win, recognition, collaboration, achievement. I’ve seen, touched, and suffered the limits of what we’ve been taught for decades about how work should be organized, managed, ruled, and even lived. And in 2010, way before the hype of the new fancy boss-less, non-hierarchical, teal, you-name-it organizational whatever, I was truly tired of all this nonsense. Work devised as war, to conquer and to tear apart, to inflate your ego, rule on people, command and control, cage people in titles, boxes, offices, suits, social definitions. It felt pointless, fake. It felt irrelevant.
And yet, people of every age kept telling me that “this is work”, this is how it is meant to be. You have to work to earn money and then you can live your life with that money, after work. The mainstream entrepreneurial ethos stated, or at least implied, that you need to work by and for efficiency, minimizing costs, maximizing earnings. That if you are a good entrepreneur you can be quite rich, meaning you can buy expensive stuff, and people will “respect” you for your social status. It is not possible to allow for weakness at work, for emotions, for feelings. At least it is not possible without losing performance. It is not possible to employ people without controlling what they do and telling them what is expected from them, and in as much detail as possible. Actually you have to define very well the (human) resources you want to hire, and then manage them very carefully so that they execute the strategy you have decided. You have to be smarter than the others, to eat or get eaten. It is not possible otherwise, they said.
When in 2009 the economic crisis hit Italy, we saw everything collapse. The company I was running saw most of its big and important customers paralyzed in fear and rigidity, freezing all the budgets, laying off tens of people. In 2010 my company imploded. I sold my house to pay our employees, and then I stopped and took a moment to step back, to mourn, to breathe. What a strange moment of my life. Deeply painful. And yet, real. After years, I felt reality again. It felt relevant.
Fast forward to today. 2018. My work feels right. I get to work every week with people I respect and care about. Each of us is completely free to choose, try, evolve. I can touch the impact we are having together in the work we do. I have seen some of our customers literally crying out of emotion more than once as a result of the work done together. I have seen organisations that have blossomed and organisations that have survived deep crisis, also thanks to our work. We truly hold people at the center of our culture both in the work with customers and within our company. We are free to be ourselves, without fear. To have fun and use our emotions as a means to resonate with the ecology of our work. There is no “career”, there is a personal growth journey that each of us is surfing and sharing with the others. There is time and energy for learning, not just executing. Efficacy is more important than efficiency. We really focus on the flow of value in what we do, and we can get rid of anything that results being a waste in its stream. We have developed real mastery in some of the things we do, contributing with our tools and approaches to the wider international community evolving the world of work. We keep learning everyday, seamlessly blending our personal and professional growth. And we earn a good living out of it. I wake up in the morning full of energy. It is the energy of my passion, enabled by the organisation I work in, and it is the energy I exchange in a dense fabric of relationships every day I work this way. Now, this is how work is meant to be. Isn’t it?
MEET COCOON PROJECTS.
Since I’ve already started telling about Cocoon and I’m going to do it quite a lot in this article, let me not be rude and introduce her briefly! Cocoon Projects is a last generation organization, born to help evolve the world of work. What we do is basically helping organizations in becoming their “best possible self”. We help people work better with other people, both internally and externally, both on the strategic and on the operational levels, improving how they create value today and helping them in being fit for what they want and need to be in a few years from now. We work with orgs of any size, both for-profit and not, and in very different industries, currently mainly in Europe.
TODAY AT COCOON PROJECTS: A FEW FACTS.
When we happen to meet people interested in the evolution of work around the world and to talk about how we feel working in Cocoon, many questions come out of curiosity or, sometimes, out of skepticism. Some of them are definitely recurring, and I think they are blazing up in the head of many readers here. So let me give you some facts about us.
We are about 35 people, distributed over 4 countries and about 15 cities. We have a steward ownership approach and, even though for the moment Cocoon Projects is a “regular” limited liability company, we invest all of our profits both in our growth and in nurturing the wider ecosystem. We manage Cocoon with an open governance framework that we have called LiquidO, which stands for Liquid Organization. Nobody is anybody else’s boss, meaning nobody can give orders to anybody and, beyond that, we don’t use job titles, only roles. Basically you can’t trace a meaningful org chart of our company, unless you’re willing to make a very detailed one to explain the context of the roles in any given scope and moment, and then update it every week. Decisional power in our company is gained proportionally to the contribution made in the governance, through a continuous flow of small activities, in which all of us interact freely and continuously with different people on different topics. This contribution is evaluated by the other participants to each activity through an adaptive organizational dynamic that we call contribution accounting. It is not a peer-based performance assessment as it is in no way related to any business result or metric. Instead, it is a continuous flow of feedback that each of us receives any time we decide to engage ourselves in a governance activity, a feedback on how much the others have perceived value created by us. In this way, each of us can dynamically find a unique personal growth path in and through the governance of Cocoon Projects, in an iterative journey of both value creation and learning.
“Cool, so you get stuck in the very bad efficiency of collaborative and democratic decision making. Don’t you?!”
Part of LiquidO is a decision making toolbox that, way beyond a democratic headcount-based voting, allows us to choose how each decision is best taken. We range from single-person decision making to fully cocreational multi-step processes (and tools). We tend to use the “smallest” possible decision making effort for each decision, following a good-enough approach that prefers having feedback from reality as soon as possible over using massive energy up-front, whenever reiterating a decision making cycle based on this feedback is a viable option. Every 6 months we all gather to cocreate our focuses for the next 6 months, sharing and considering what each of us knows about our identity, context and trajectory. And then we get back to work, aligned on where to look first and to put more energy on. Every month we host a catch-up distributed meeting where to talk about how things are going in the governance, what’s happening or not happening, who’s in what, how reality is evolving. These meetings, like all of our other governance rituals, are not mandatory. You show up if you want, you contribute if you care to. You build your operational reputation in Cocoon freely and in your unique way.
“How on Earth do you hire people that are fit for this way of working? You must have designed a very different hiring process, right?”
We don’t do job interviews at Cocoon Projects. We have found them to be mainly a waste of time and energy. Instead we let people into the company through its very brain: the governance. So let’s say you want to work with us, you have an idea of what we do and how it is to work with us, and contact us in any way you like. The next step is an interview, yes, but one in which you are the interviewer and a member of our governance will answer all of your questions, and make sure you get a very good idea of what you are about to enter. After that, if you are convinced that you want to try, we just let you in. We grant you access to everything we are doing, have done and are working to do. We make sure you have a person of reference to support your initial efforts with answers and suggestions. We also make sure it is crystal clear to you that you will never have to ask for permission, including in talking or working with anybody in Cocoon. We do our best to help you understand if you want to stay, for all the time you want. In the meanwhile, Cocoon is designed so that you can’t break anything, so relax, do your best, and enjoy the ride. And if and when you decide to leave, we hope you’ll keep this experience in your heart.
I’ve seen more than 100 people enter Cocoon in these 7 years. Some have disappeared almost immediately. Some have stayed with us for very long or are still here. Many have been in Cocoon for many months or a couple of years before leaving. I’ve seen very very different people, with a lot of different backgrounds, intentions, seniority. With most of the people that have shared part of the journey with us there is still a caring relationship, respect and pleasure to meet and hug each other around the world. This flow of people, experiences, cultures, stories, is a huge enriching blessing.
“I see, but with anybody able to enter your governance in this way, how do you protect your knowledge and competitive advantage?!”
Transparency is radical at Cocoon Projects. In order to restrict access to any information we need to have a good reason. And by “good” we normally mean that it is for our customers’ needs. Normally, you can access any info, or simply ask any question, and you’ll get what you’re looking for. Even though we have not “selected” you, we trust you just as we trust any other human being that has not given us reasons for not doing so. We care about trust at Cocoon, we truly do. Of course we’ve seen many people entering out of curiosity, some even for “stealing” what we do or how we do it. Well, we are convinced that what matters can’t be “stolen”, it can only be shared. And by sharing it, it multiplies. We work in a market in which competition is a weak force, definitely way weaker than collaboration. Thus, we can afford not to worry at all about “protecting” our knowledge or know-how. On the contrary we want it to be shared, challenged, tested, evolved as much as possible.
“Ok, transparency and freedom are nice concepts, but you still need to regulate people in order for the work to happen and be sustainable, otherwise it is total chaos, isn’t it?!”
All this freedom in our company is made possible by an adaptive organization design that has proven to be truly self-regulating in every aspect. LiquidO is an amazing framework for open-governance, allowing to really experiment the beauty of collective intelligence, collective intuition and collective creativity. I’ve been surprised time and again by the ability of Cocoon to choose her direction with a will that I can only define as an emergent property of our shared governance. Even when I thought Cocoon was going in the wrong direction and we could hit a wall, she proved me wrong every single time, deeply performing instead, in ways that no one of us alone could have imagined, let alone decided. In the scope of customer-projects, which are the iterative journeys of value-creation with our customers in all of our service areas, a cellular structure of independent and self-organized teams has proven its effectiveness and antifragility. Each team has two main facilitating roles, and self-organizes in any way deemed useful in everything from the customer relationship to the tools used. All the teams share two main performance indicators: customer satisfaction and marginality. All the teams share the same very flexible intervention framework, that we call Evolution Flow. All the teams have a deep connection with our shared identity and know-how through the presence in the team of at least one person that in that moment is playing the role of member in the governance. Last, but definitely not least, our Labs are beautiful and playful experimentation contexts for evolving our know-how, improving our tool-box, and crafting the value proposition that we’ll be able to put in action tomorrow. Participation to the Labs is voluntary, and anybody can propose a new Lab, which will be activated if the proposer is backed by at least one other person in starting the Lab. Every Lab has to produce some kind of sharable value every six months or it gets deactivated.
“And when it comes to money? Who decides on budgeting and resources allocation? That can’t be done in ‘open governance’, I guess!”
We do not do budgets at Cocoon Projects. In fact, we believe that also budgeting is a wasteful activity in terms of time and energy. But, even worse, it hinders your ability to effectively interpret the emergent opportunities that will come, while you are intent on trying to have reality stick to your plan. Instead of creating budgets, we focus on dynamic resources allocation, which means that we use the available economic resources by real-time prioritization and decision making. Of course this is possible because of how our governance works in leveraging our collective ability to navigate complexity thanks to LiquidO. Moreover, it is made financially possible by design thanks to a flexible costs structure with a strict limit on non-billable fixed costs and an adaptive organizational dynamic dedicated to making financial management info available to the governance in real time and in the simplest form we can devise. Within this way of managing our money, we have of course also created some separated allocations, but they are dynamic. We call them “pools”, they are little stocks of money that get continuously replenished each by a different fraction of our earnings. One pool, for example, is for compensating the governance activities. Another one is for our personal growth, and each of us can use as much as it is needed for her growth activities from it. Be it a training, a travel or anything else, you can pay it using this pool without asking for permission, just declaring in a shared ledger how much you are taking and for what. You know that money is limited, and that what you take for yourself you’re taking from all the other people. At the same time, you know that if you grow thanks to that money, it will also benefit all the other people. And you decide. As I said, we trust people. And, by the way, it works beautifully.
“You guys are crazy, and it’s a miracle you are still in the market. I’m sure that’s because you keep all of this inside, but when it comes to customers you work traditionally, because no structured big organization would otherwise accept to work with you.”
When we work with our customers, we do it iteratively with a commitment to deliver actionable value at every iteration. Like most of the practices I’ve described here, we’ve done this since the very beginning. We do not do project quotations, we do not have contracts to sign. The way we mean the word “project” is a journey with a purpose. We would never trick our customers into believing that we know how that journey will go and that we are thus able to define its duration and pricing. That would be a lie, and anybody doing that is lying. The evolution of human systems is emergent. Unknown unknowns are our daily job, and humility is crucial to observe and understand identity, trajectory and context in each unique organization. Therefore, while our quotation is only for the next 1 to 3 iterations, depending on the situation, our assessment capability grows with the path already walked in each project, and after a very first iteration together we can already tell our customers how the journey looks like in terms of timing and resources needed. As for the contracts, well we believe that “no code is faster than no code”. We don’t have contracts. If a customer believes that our work is not worth paying us, we won’t ever sue them, we take the feedback, lose that money and move on. This has never happened so far, by the way. On the other hand, if your company needs us to sign your contracts to work with you, no problem in signing whatever paper your lawyers have imposed you to impose us. And this is because we trust you and our relationship with you: once again, we trust people.
“Well, at the end of the day, all of this is possible only because you are a startup, but when you will be growing up you’ll have to get structured and let go of these principles of yours…”
We are a small company in terms of traditional metrics, it’s true. But we are definitely no longer a startup. We’ve been taking our time to define our value proposition, business model and organizational setup in the first 2 or 3 years of Cocoon. While we’ve always been cash positive, it is indeed not correct to count those 2 or 3 initial years in terms of business performance. Yet, here go a couple of interesting facts about Cocoon and how we are performing. From 2014 to 2017 we have experienced a turnover growth of 260%, closing year 2017 with more than 20% of gains, which we have reinvested. We have never used any form of debt so far, not with the banks nor with investors, not a single buck. A bid we’ve won with an Italian Ministry forced us to anticipate costs for more than half of our entire turnover in the years 2014 and 2015, creating a huge 9 months cash-flow problem that we have overcome with the sole strength of our organic growth. Our best engine of growth so far have been the recommendations of our customers both to other internal customers, for example within multinational companies or groups, and to new customers from other companies they’ve addressed to us. Last, but not least, I’ve personally asked many contributors why they’ve entered Cocoon and what is the best thing they’ve found, and the answer has almost always been: unparalleled professional and personal growth. And we’re with John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison when they affirm that, as a consequence of the Big Shift the world is undergoing, our organizations should and will be “shaped to provide platforms to help individuals achieve their full potential”.
A couple of years ago the time had come to ask ourselves what scaling-up means for us, what growth means for us. We’ve been talking about it for almost 2 years. I’ve learnt a lot about and from the people in Cocoon in those two years. Our final answer was simple and powerful: we want an organic growth and we want to scale-up mastery to the size of maximum impact. What this size is, we do not know. We know that in complex systems impact is not in a linear relationships with any of our “dimension” variables. We know that our mastery in finding leverage points and dancing with them counts way more than our “size”. We know we still have so much to learn about our journey. But for sure we are not in a hurry. We like to think of Cocoon as Bo Burlingham has once defined her: a Small Giant. We are growing organically. We are definitely scaling-up mastery in what we do, both in terms of depth and of breadth. We have just had the courage to open a brand new strategic quantum leap of evolution devoted to ecosystemic work. We are preparing ourselves for a major structural evolution in 2019, towards our size for maximum impact.
TODAY IN THE WORLD (OF WORK): WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
After all I’ve told up here, you might be thinking that this article is about Cocoon Projects. Now, besides the fact that if you want you can enter Cocoon anytime and make her also about youself, the real point here is that this article is about you especially if you do not care about Cocoon Projects at all.
For every time, while reading this article, you’ve found yourself thinking “this would never work in my company”, I repeat once more that this article is for you. For every time in your life you’ve stopped just before truly and completely believing that a different way is possible, this is for you. And I do not mean just in how you work, I mean in anything that matters to you. In your passions, in your dreams, in your affairs. In fact, when something does not feel right, it usually isn’t. Now, I’ve seen people really suffering for not being able to change the reality around them and inside of them. I’ve seen them feeling powerless to death, literally. So I will not trivialize this point here in a fortune cookie about going for your dreams. I just ask you one little thing, but one that could make a huge difference: don’t tell yourself a lie in order to forget about it. Don’t tell yourself that it is impossible.
In my entrepreneurial path I’ve had to lose almost everything before being able to see things with the eyes of those who are not afraid of losing anything (else). If only I had not believed the lie that has been perpetrated for decades, I’d have likely seen it way before. My feelings, my intuition had been whispering for years, and screaming for months, but they sounded “impossible” and got ignored.
Our story is true, in every word. In a moment of deep systemic crisis, in a country with strong cultural inertia and rigidity, having also lost a great deal of self-confidence, we had to stop and ask ourselves what we wanted to do: shall we settle for less, or go for more. In those moments your identity is your only compass. Who you are deep inside, in spite of all the added beliefs and social conventions. We decided to go for more, to sincerely ask ourselves “what if?”. What if a different way is possible? How would a completely different and radically better organisation look like? What if we could actually realize it? What if it could then impact the world with her ripple effects?
So, finally, here’s my point for you.
For anything you deem impossible, there’s a story you need to know. Look for that story, and let her remind you a simple truth, upon which you’ll then choose where to go: that it is possible.
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Stelio is a curious and active contributor to the global community evolving the concept and practice of work in this decade. If you’d like to know more about him, start here.