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A Manifesto for the Open Participatory Organization

Bonnitta Roy
Feb 18, 2016 · 11 min read

principles for the future of work

On February 11–13, 2001, at The Lodge at Snowbird ski resort in the Wasatch mountains of Utah, seventeen people met to talk, ski, relax, and try to find common ground…

thus begins the story of how the AGILE MANIFESTO came to be. In this brief history the authors write

But while the Manifesto provides some specific ideas, there is a deeper theme that drives many, but not all, to be sure, members of the alliance.

Today we have agile teams working inside conventionally tiered organizations, which imposes multiple constraints on what is possible. Now it is up to us to write in more explicit terms, about “the deeper themes” that are operating in our collective imagination — themes that have to do with new forms of organizational life which bust through those constraints.

In a previous post I introduced an open architecture for self-organization that is based on principles of open participation. These principles reflect a new zeitgeist that is already transforming our workplaces. We are reinventing what it means to participate, by experimenting with self-organizing teams that continually renew their passion, ignite their enthusiasm, and activate their imagination in collaborative ways of working together. While the troubling economy puts increasing pressures on organizations to change, the key influences of power in the workplace are being overturned by new generations of people who value autonomy and connection over ambition and status. This is the birth of the new economy, taking place in the transformation of the social fabric at the heart of the organization. We are seeing social, economic, and governance being transformed in the loci of production — where smart machines and social media are accelerating transformation.

This new zeitgeist is less interested in the old social influences of authority and social obligation, and more concerned with demonstrable legitimacy and guaranteeing universal access to the common wealth. Today we are more interested in opt-in/out ways of participation than with committed and consistent roles. We are empowered by communities of practice and peer-to-peer connectivity rather than social status and statutory reputation. We are a generation exploring real abundance in nature and ingenuity that flows from human spirit when it is set free. This shift in attitude signals a reckoning with old ways of power which instrumentalizes the earth, and institutionalizes and bureaucratizes human activity.

Just how far we have already shifted, can be seen by contrast with one of the most respected studies ever conducted on organizational life. In his book Influence and the Psychology of Persuasion, which was published in 1984, Robert Cialdini presented his findings on the six principles of social influence that were operating in the workplace.

Reciprocity: people tend to return a favor, thus the free samples in marketing

Commitment and Consistency: If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or gal as being congruent with their self-image

Social Proof: people will do things that they see other people are doing

Authority: people will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts

Liking: people are easily persuaded by other people they like

Scarcity: perceived scarcity will generate demand

If you are reading this, chances are you recognize how these “principles” actually operate and constrain the everyday activities of organizational life and obstruct the deeper possibilities of human interaction. Just reading them gives you the heebie-jeebies. The “heebie-jeebies” is your body telling you that something new is already playing in your imagination. We are somehow living forward, into the future of work, yet we still have to contend with the social tactics and power structures operating in most workplaces.

The purpose of a manifesto is to manifest, by naming, in order to make explicit what is already emerging, to speak with the voice of the people we are already becoming. In keeping with the spirit and style of the AGILE MANIFESTO, I am proposing this, as a manifesto for open participatory organizations (OPO)

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Access over reciprocity

Participation over commitment and consistency

Reputation over social proof

Legitimacy over authority

Connectivity over liking

Abundance over scarcity

Access over reciprocity. We don’t want “tit-for-tat” transactions that accumulate social obligation, which is merely another form of debt. We want open, universal access to the social network, to be able to receive from it whenever we have a relevant need, and to contribute to it whenever we have a gift or skill to give. We are receiving upon need, and paying it forward. This free give-away and take-away is constructing a new common wealth that depends upon opening up new portals of universal access: to the internet, to information, education and training.

Universal access in the workplace means deploying an open communications system where information is stored in the cloud where it can be “pulled” into your inbox or interface when you need it or just when you are surfing for serendipitous connections. It means that information is made available to everyone, including adequate transparency around salaries, profits, and performance. It means that everyone has access to the technology and knowledge base of the organization to fulfil their personal or professional needs and interests. It means universal access to personal space, time needed for well-being and family, including opportunities to learn new skills, time off to adventure and explore, or time needed to rest and heal.

Participation over commitment and consistency: We live in the fluidity of global time, the flux and flow of attention span, the overlap of work and play. Every day it becomes harder to preplan and commit, and easier to join in and participate at the last minute. We are becoming more spontaneous and improvisational. People love the option of dropping in, of discovering something serendipitously or through synchronous events. We love interruption of all sorts — from flash mobs to selfies. But then we also can suddenly drop out and offline and disappear from sight. No one will mind. We will be back.

If P2P (peer-to-peer) denotes parity, then it is not the same as participation which allows for parity as an option, but rejects it as a given. Participation is concerned with equality, where the meaning of equality excludes parity-as-a-given, but includes values such as equal opportunity, and unconditional regard of the personhood of all individuals. Participation is a realist attitude, not an idealist position, which means it involves and includes (rather than claiming to exclude) the asymmetrical relationships between people, with respect to power, need, experience, identity and skill.

We can also talk about open participation and authentic participation — terms which point to broader and deeper means of participation. Authentic participation perfects work by integrating personhood with professionalism, aligning personal values with collective aspirations.

Participation opens toward a broader scope of possibility in relationship, such that more and more of reality is allowed in and appreciated with the kind of loving acceptance and equanimity we call unconditional regard. Participation deepens in authenticity as it becomes more spontaneous, which means we let go of pre-judgment (prejudice) or any kind of strategizing orientation toward what might happen.

Open and authentic is a state of mutual interplay, allowing everything as self or as other, to participate in the co-creation of emergent experience. In the workplace this means actively and consciously participating in the on-going interplay of intention, interaction and identity, in a field of participation where people are continuously opting-in and opting-out according to shifting needs, conditions and relationships, across a spectrum of values with obligation and necessity at one end, and spontaneity and improvisation at the other. In the workplace, obligation and necessity create patterns of stability which comes with the sense of safety; whereas spontaneity and improvisation are the drivers of novelty, innovation, and transformation, and comes with the taste of risk and surprise.

The shift from social proof to reputation continues to grow in importance and will have dramatic consequences for the emergence of a participatory culture. In The Reputation Society, Craig Newmark writes

By the end of the decade power and influence will have shifted largely to those people with the best reputations and trust networks and away from people with money and nominal power.

Reputation differs from social proof in the kinds of networks and relationships that maintain them. Social proof is maintained by institutional methods of validation, such as licenses, accreditation, official standards, etc. These methods aggregate regulatory power into the hands of the few, and therefore social proof comes to represent the value set of the privileged and those closest to centralized power. Reputation, on the other hand, is sourced from the crowd through the cloud in the many many ways we “like,” “up-vote” or “down-vote,” and as we rate, review, recommend, and share what is presented or offered to us. Already today, reputation effects what we purchase and where we purchase from. In other words, reputation is becoming a major driver of resource allocation, steering goods, services, energy, and money in some directions rather than others. Reputation is becoming a powerful distributed decision- making process in society, turning representational forms of democratic decision-making processes into participatory ones. As evaluative processes become more distributed, reputations will come to reflect the spectra of values in the rich and diverse ecology of human interests that emerge through the complex processes of human interaction.

Legitimacy is earned, over and over again, through adequate participation in the work, field or discipline involved. Whereas authority is associated with expertise, legitimacy is associated with mastery. Because authority is granted by the few who hold and preserve the existing power structures, it depends upon the recommendations of experts who abstract from the local and particular elements of experience, to come up with a generalized “whole” which functions as an ideological basis for evaluation by authorities. As societies becomes more stratified and complex, then, authority becomes more and more an outcome of ideology and theory, and less and less a measure of praxis.

This distinction between expert authority and legitimate mastery is important for the future of work. It helps explain why a commission of experts is likely to become embroiled in endless argument and debate, since theories and ideologies are endlessly incommensurable. What any particular expert abstracts from the local and particular and what they leave behind, itself depends upon the many different identities, intentions and interactions that are constantly being negotiated among other experts. The problem with evaluative discourse that depends upon experts, is that the identities, intentions and interactions among the experts are not part of the very work that they are supposed to be evaluating. Whereas expert interactions happen elsewhere, the interactions that mastery depends upon, happen in the very places and in the actual experiences which is relevant to evaluative discourse. Mastery is always an outcome of the skills, adequate participation, and practical judgement that are involved in the many location and context-sensitive interactions of a particular discipline or field of work, and therefore is a legitimate source of evaluative discourse.

The participatory attitude is one of radical inclusion. Imagine all the people in the world we are connected with, and contrast this with the subset of people we know on a personal basis — people we have come to “like in real life.” Our attention is being broadly cast over myriad connections and relationships, allowing us to engage with opinions and experiences from people who we might find hard to actually “like.” “Liking” is probably the quality of human relationship that is most limited by the Dunbar number, whereas the number of potential connections is unlimited. In 1929 Frigyes Karinthy theorized there were only six degrees of separation between any one person and any other person in the world. In a recent post facebook announced that the average degree of separation between its members had dropped from 4.74 in 2011 to 3.57 today.

Just think about that a bit. You are closer than ever to the people you admire, the celebrities you adore and the rich, famous, wealthy and powerful people you esteem. You are also closer than ever to the people you fear, rival, loathe, as well as possibly, those you deeply and passionately hate. It is always a shock when someone we know, someone from our neighborhood or workplace, turns out to be a violent offender. Today, every violent offender is more probably than not, only 3 or 4 degrees of separation from you.

And yet, the participatory attitude is not one that is particularly interested in this kind of thinking. Rather, it emphasizes that broadly shared connectivity represents a new common wealth and serves us as an emergent possibility space for freely acting humans. As we continue to become more connected, we will struggle with making sense of how close we really are to each other. Our habitual ways of reacting, with anxiety, distrust and fear, will be intensified until we adapt and learn how to make new meaning of our connectivity and interdependency. We will come to see that we need each other — that everyone needs everyone else, and realize how much more significant this is than who we like.

The participatory attitude is one of abundance which recognizes the tremendous wealth in human interconnection, as well as our interconnection with the natural world. We see that the living world is constituted by interconnection and relationships; that all growth, development and evolution is predicated on the richly textured and deeply interwoven mutuality of all beings — human and non-human. We have come to realize that scarcity is a false construct maintained by societies that have organized themselves to benefit the few at the expense of the many. We have begun to see that the tension between the individual and the collective is a false dilemma, as the individual emerges from the many many local interactions and relationships which we call “the collective” and “the collective” emerges from the many many local interactions between “individuals.”

Abundance doesn’t mean having more and more things at our disposal. Abundance refers to the very possibility of connecting and relating.

Atoms connect to each other and create elements, mass relates to mass and creates the fabric of space-time. Persons connect and engage each other, inter-relate and co-create the social fabric. “A person,” said the philosopher Alfred North Whithead, “is a society of cells.” Animals and plants, rivers and tides, sunlight and atmosphere — relationships upon myriad relationships from which emerges the participatory ecology we call “earth.” Abundance is all about remembering we are born of relationship, and as interconnected participants we co-create our future through continuously shifting patterns of connecting and relating.

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is a declaration intended to reveal our past actions in order to clear the way for our forthcoming actions. A manifesto is an announcement of our readiness to act in these new ways. It is a sign of a tipping point in our collective imagination. This manifesto of open participation, I believe, is declaring the future where our organizations have transformed from being merely instruments of capital production, to loci of social and economic experiments steering us toward more open and participatory forms of democracy, by exploring new forms of organizational life.

Our Future at Work

open participatory organizations at work

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