How are decisions made in a distributed organization?
This is a question I often get asked when talking about our emerging organization and network OuiShare. The closer people look at how we work, the more their confusion and intrigue around our decision making practices tends to grow. What coordinates the actions of all these independent people to let them appear as a coherent whole?
Since we recently re-affirmed how we make decisions in OuiShare, this seemed like a good opportunity to shed some light on the inner workings of our organization. We have designed it to address the problem that many people today feel smoothered, demotivated and unfufilled in traditional organizations. In this series of articles, I will share learnings on how we have tried to change this over the past 5 years by creating a space (metaphorically speaking) where people can find purpose, be pro-active, autonomous, and — most importantly — themselves.
Today I’d like to start by outlining how this aim is embedded in our governance principles.
To start, some context
As our organization has grown in size and complexity — more legal structures and a larger diversity of activities in different countries and cultures — one of our biggest challenges has been to balance the need for structure with the need for agility and adaptability. We’ve had to create processes that are clear and transparent, without creating too much bureaucracy, enabling us to maintain the spontaneity and “chaotic” nature of OuiShare.
With the help of collaborative online tools developed by the Enspiral Network and a focus on developing the right practices and culture to use them, governance in OuiShare is finally becoming increasingly fluid and transparent. But as an organization in permanent beta, we will certainly never complete the chapter of ‘defining our governance’ — it’s an eternal learning journey.
OuiShare’s 3 Governance Principles
Decision making in OuiShare has been based on the following principles since 2013:
# 1: Subsidiarity & Autonomy
Local communities and projects are autonomous, as long as they respect our values and governance principles. They should, however, ask for feedback and advice from the rest of the community when they feel a decision could significantly impact the organization as a whole, financially and from a branding perspective. We rely upon the good judgment of our Connectors — a community of our 80 most active members who are official representatives of OuiShare — to make the call when this is the case.
# 2: The “3 — Connector-Rule”
This rule was inspired by a rule explained by Rick Valkvinge in his book Swarmwise about the Pirate party — the “3 Pirate rule”. This principle says that all day-to-day decisions (that are not project related) without considerable impact on budget or the OuiShare brand can be made by any 3 Connectors together. Example: a OuiShare meetup in a new city, or starting any new OuiShare project. This principle relates strongly to OuiShare’s nature as a do-ocracy, which means that by default, those who “do” the work have legitimacy and also take responsibility for it, in comparison to an elected official.
# 3 Only vote when absolutely necessary
Voting divides a group into winners and losers, which is not favorable for a collaborative environment. That is why in OuiShare we choose to discuss topics collectively (in person and online), but only put them up to a vote when absolutely necessary. And when we do vote, we use lazy consent, which means that you do not need a specific percentage of people to vote on a matter for the result to be valid. Silence is the equivalent to supporting a decision. In comparison to voting by consensus, when you vote “no” on a decision made by consent, you are saying that you don’t necessarily agree with the decision, but you can live with it and have not valid objection (veto).
The tools for making it happen: collaborative decision making & funding
The right online tools have been key in supporting us put these principles into action across our international network, which is why we are now helping other organizations implement these as well.
Since 2014, we have been using the collaborative decision making tool Loomio for what I would like to call “structured” discussions and consent-based decision making. What has been great for us about Loomio in comparison to using Facebook or Slack for decision making is that it has enabled us to leave a trace of discussions that we can use as permanent references for the future, which is key for the ongoing process of documenting and open sourcing of our work.
As our experience with Loomio has increased, we have found smart ways to embed its use into our decision-making practices. For instance, we used to make many decisions at physical meetings and at our bi-annual gatherings with the international community called OuiShare Summits. Since our implementation of Loomio, we spend our face-to-face time to discuss, connect and craft decision making proposals, which are then posted on Loomio and agreed upon online. One advantage of this is that people who could not be present physically can also participate in decision-making.
To facilitate information flow, transparency and participation, we aim to keep Loomio discussions as open as possible to the entire community and only limit access to Connectors when discussions contain sensitive information or relate to strategic decisions on branding, finances and governance.
When it comes to decision making around finances, we have tried a number of different tools and practices over the years, from value accounting, to an experiment with decentralized technology and a brick-and-mortar version of participatory budgeting with an excel spreadsheet. Since 2016, we have been rolling out the collaborative funding tool Cobudget in our network, which is making it easier for us to visualize money flows throughout our ecosystem and fund projects collaboratively (more on this soon!).
Experiment — Share — Spread
How do these tools and our governance principles go together? Since each of our local communities and projects have autonomy on how they organize themselves (in accordance with principle #1), we are simultaneously implementing these tools and practices in different configurations. Though this lack of standardization can be confusing, it also enables us to experiment in parallel with different versions of our governance model.
The best practices that emerge from these parallel experiments can then be shared with the rest of the community at OuiShare Summits, enabling us to learn more quickly and adopt the models across the whole network that we see working well in individual groups. Here a simple example: local OuiShare communities have different setups and rules for their Loomio groups. OuiShare France recently adopted the setup of OuiShare Spain, because they saw it working better than their current one.
For more examples and insights on the challenges of putting our (permanent beta) governance principles into practice, stay posted for upcoming articles!
*Thanks to everyone who contributed insights, motivation and editing support for this article!