Collaborating with the Occupy movement enabled our business to develop the tool we needed to acheive the truly flat, transparent, empowered structure we'd always wanted.
Management doesn't have to compromise between decision-making being fast and effective, and being inclusive and participatory - it can, and must, be both.
Enspiral supports an interconnected network of social enterprises - companies with a social mission who achieve that vision through doing business. We've grown from zero to 150 people and a dozen companies in the past 3 years.
We are competing head to head with traditional businesses in a range of areas, from software development to legal and accounting services, so we can't afford to sacrifice efficiency. At the same time, we're a values driven business, with employees and clients who work with us specifically because we work collectively, eschew traditional management hierarchies, and ultimately focus on positive social impact above profit.
Our major strength is our strong values commitment, and the diversity of professional skills of our people, whom we attract because they can follow their passion and values and maintain their autonomy in their work here. We can jump on a huge variety of opportunities, putting together stellar cross-functional teams in no time flat.
Wrangling 150 diverse people across different time zones, without resorting to traditional command and control structures, or less traditional (but just as insidious) "faux-flat" processes, presented a constant challenge.
Breaking down heirarchies is no easy task.
Power tends to accrue like natural, emergent phenomona - a lot of small things adding up to a system no one consciously designed.
In our case, we were committed to being truly flat, and empowering all of our employees to be autonomous and involved in real leadership and decision-making. But without the right platform, the overhead of consulting a lot of different people simply made it unfeasible to deliver on this grand vision. In practice, only a few people were making most of the important decisions.
A group of key organizers of the encampment in front of City Hall in our city in 2011 heard that we were "good with technology" and came to see us. They described their challenges trying to make consensus decisions with a large group of people - loud voices were dominating the discussion, and people who didn't have a lot of time to commit were being marginalized. They were missing out on the power of including a truly diverse range of perspectives.
Could we develop a tool to solve the problem of collaborative decision-making online?
We were shocked, and excited - a bunch of protesters had the same problems with decision-making that we, as a business, had! As soon as we realized we were facing the same challenges, we knew that if we could develop a solution that would work equally well for them as for us, we'd really have something.
We told them we couldn't do it for them, but we could do it with them. So, we gave them a desk in our office and got to work.
Occupy and Enspiral joined forces, and the result was a tool called Loomio - an open-source, user-friendly online tool for collaborative decision-making.
Loomio is for anyone who wants to make effective decisions collaboratively. It’s for people frustrated by long meetings and confusing email threads with no clear outcomes. It creates real, measurable value in the form of money and time saved on meetings, and increased quality of communication and decision outcomes. Loomio breaks down the barriers to participation in decision-making at every level. This increases real diversity, transparency, and engagement, without sacrificing efficiency.
How Loomio Works
When people first hear about Loomio, they immediately want to know how the software works - is it some previously unknown and complex functionality that magically makes collaboration happen? Not at all - actually, it's deceptively simple.
Think about what the ingredients are for a great decision-making process in a traditional, in-person meeting: get the right people together, set the topic and context for the discussion, get all the relevant information on the table, hear different perspectives and concerns, facilitate communication, offer up potential solutions, then come to a shared understanding about the best way to go, and complete the process in a timely manner so you can get to work.
Loomio takes the best of what happens in a great decision-making process, and moves it online.
Unlike a lot of project management tools, Loomio is very simple. Users can create groups (and subgroups) of people who collaborate. Anyone can start a discussion with a clear topic and context (which does not have a set time limit). People can leave comments, and interact with them like they do on Facebook and Twitter - like, @mention, and including links and pictures.
Out of the discussion, potential solutions arise, and once one is clear enough, anyone can start a proposal (which has a clear time limit). People can indicate how they feel about the proposal: yes for agree, no for "I think we can do better, but I'll live with it", abstain for "I delegate my voice to the rest of the group", and block for "I have very serious concerns". They can leave short, twitter-length statements about why they feel the way they do, creating a quick summary of where the group stands on the issue.
It's easy to enter the discussion at any stage and clearly see what the main issues are, and the background and reasoning behind where the discussion has headed. If some people in the group are against a proposal, it's very clear why, and the whole group is motivated to swarm and address their concerns. Often, an initial proposal failing can be a constructive step that leads to a better solution.
Unlike a typical voting or polling app, Loomio is not a conflict-based, majority-rules system where minority concerns are not addressed. Instead, all perspectives are invited to meaningfuly contribute, leading to high-quality final outcomes. By the end of the process, everyone has deep shared understanding, meaning they are ready to take collective action right away, with no one dragging their feet or left out of the loop.
Loomio has utterly transformed the way we work.
Previously, people in management and coordination roles would have to compromise: either they could move quickly and efficiently, or they could consult with a wider group (and get the benefit of diverse contributions and shared understanding). Now, we no longer have to compromise between efficiency and engagement.
Example: investing time up front to create lasting solutions
One of the most involved Loomio discussions we’ve had to date was about an internal piece of software critical to how we work every day. Everyone wanted something different, and everyone had an opinion. Over the course of a long discussion, a succession of four proposed solutions emerged – three ideas had to fail before the group came up with the right answer.
While this seemed to some like a large investment of time initially, ultimately it helped us reach a better decision that saved us both time and expense in the long run. The result was that a controversial issue ended up with a solution everyone deeply understood and agreed with.
In fact, when the policy was reviewed a year later, everyone was still happy with it, because they could see the development process. Having the history documented meant that anyone who didn’t recall, or wasn’t in the network at the time, could easily see why the decision went the way it did. Then, when another 6 months later the situation changed, we were able to move together as a group to change the policy - since everyone understood the context and the factors in the decision, the transition was seamless.
From our office to the world
Loomio began as an internal project at Enspiral to solve an in-house problem. Having a real world user base to test on from day one meant we were "eating our own dogfood" and making a software tool that had to work in pactice immediately, and be designed with users in mind first and foremost.
But soon others were beating down our door to use it in their own groups - businesses, government agencies, community groups, political movements. So, we let them in. We had thousands of users before we even released out of alpha.
Loomio has since spun off into an independent company within the Enspiral network. It's incorporated as a worker-owned cooperative, and lives its values internally, making decisions about the development of the Loomio app and company using Loomio. It continues to pursue its vision of a world where everyone can participate in the decisions that affect them.
Enspiral continues to use Loomio to make all its core decisions. Recently, we've been innovating processes around collaborative funding and budgeting, using collaborative decision-making to make this traditionally top-down area truly participatory (a topic for a future story!).
We simply could not do business the way we believe in without Loomio.
Command and control, top-down, hierarchical management structures do not come about because evil geniuses and corporate overlords get together and decide to punish workers (despite popular charactertures in political cartoons). They come about because managers have a lot to get done, limited time and resources, and decide to prioritize efficiency and legibility.
But in the contemporary business climate, where supporting knowledge workers to have the freedom to be creative, agile, and autonomous can be the key to success, often those command and control tendancies can run counter to business goals, and humanistic business practices.
So-called "flat" organizations are not immune from these inherent challenges. Simply taking away a hierarchy does not magically create a functional distributed leadership system. It creates a vacuum. Real empowered, effective, distributed leadership comes from careful, conscious process design and nurturing the right culture.
A software tool is never the whole answer
Loomio was an instrumental piece of technology for Enspiral, but the true transformation is in the cultural change that has to go with it. For Enspiral, this meant putting in place the transparency and effective information flows that support high quality decision-making. How can someone be expected to contribute to a decision if they don't have the information and context?
It also meant developing a culture of respecting people's chosen level of engagement. If someone feels others in the group are better placed to make the decision because of expert knowledge, or they simply don't have capacity to educate themselves on the issue, but trust the group to make the right choice, they can abstain. However, each individual retains their right to a voice in the discussion - they can abstain from 9 out of 10 decisions, but on that 10th one where they are especially passionate and knowledgeable, they can come in with the key comment or solution that changes everything. And if anyone sees the group about to make a fatal mistake, they can wield the power of a block to trigger everyone to swarm and solve their key concerns before moving forward.
This is powerful. A salient example: we were far down the track toward signing a contract on a new deal. Because we posted the contract language on Loomio, a colleague who had not been closely involved until that point was able to read it with fresh eyes and point out a critical clause that needed to be renegotiated.
By making decision-making accesible to people in different locations, and with different time availability, we've managed to get a truly diverse mix in the (virtual) room - when you have the company founders and directors, the interns and newest hires, lawyers, accountants, and everyone in the discussion, you will catch the mistakes, hear the innovative new ideas, and keep the company tracking on its core mission.
Case Studies and Stories
Loomio has now grown far beyond Enspiral, and we have been inspired by stories and case studies from all kinds of user groups. Every single organization collaborates differently.
The Adobe Books & Arts Cooperative in San Francisco uses Loomio to keep everyone in the co-op up to date with important decisions, reduces email overload, and expand decision-making beyond just the co-op members to the wider community.
Generation Zero, New Zealand's youth climate solutions network uses Loomio to brainstorm, test ideas, make decisions, obtain feedback, post FYIs for future activities and discuss issues that arise. Decisions that are made on Loomio inform their national campaigns and events.
The Newtown Ethical Lending Trust, which makes interest free community loans to help people in need get out of debt, uses Loomio to enable its board of trustees to make decisions together without having to coordinate their busy schedules (one is even in another country). They have a process for posting, commenting on, and ultimately approving applications, all online.
The international Non-Violent Communication Convention in India coordinates on Loomio. After finding it impossible to coordinate a committee disbursed across India and Europe on Facebook and email, they moved into Loomio for both decision-making and information management.
Wellington City Council chose Loomio to handle the online side of a large public consultation exercise - developing an alcohol management strategy for the city.
"One thing which I think is truly unique about Loomio is not only the diversity of participation, but how this range of people of quite different backgrounds took each other seriously and communicated constructively. Loomio has a particular strength at bringing out a wide range of ideas from the community at the very beginning of the process." - Jaime Dyhrberg, Wellington City Council
There are dozens of public groups on Loomio. You see for yourself how they are collaborating!
Enspiral has made hundreds of decisions using Loomio. We have saved countless hours in meetings that didn't need to happen and emails that didn't need to be sent. Because Loomio automatically generates an archive of our decisions, who was involved, and why things were decided, we can track our exact levels of engagement and how we've evolved over time.
Perhaps the most striking metric is we were able to downsize the core organizing team (managers) from five people down to one part time person, while at the same time increasing effectiveness and efficiency, as well as real engagement and participation.
The areas those five previous people were managing haven't disappeared - they are now skillfully held by people and processes distributed all over. The one part time "manager" now focuses exclusively on innovating processes for better delegation to everyone, better information flows, more transparency, and leadership being held by all.
Loomio By the Numbers
At the same time, Loomio has grown far beyond just Enspiral. As of this writing, Loomio has over 10,000 registered users in over 30 countries. Loomio has now been released in more than a dozen languages, including Spanish, French, Portuguese, Greek, Romanian, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Dutch - and with more being added all the time. Over 7,000 proposals have been raised across 12,000 discussions in 4,000 groups.
Letting go of control can be scary. Most people who hold on too tight do so because they care about meeting high standards of quality. It's hard to trust others to get it done right. But even the most brilliant leaders can't think of everything themselves.
Even if your organization isn't trying to be "flat" and maintains a managerial hierarchy, remember that managers hire their staff because they believe in their intelligence, skill, and potential. Leaders want to hear from and collaborate with their employees, or they wouldn't have hired them in the first place. They just need a way to do it efficiently and effectively.
By using the right tools and supporting processes, any organization can become more participatory, and end up making much higher quality decisions across the board, by including diverse perspectives, and all the information. This is a big win for everyone.
A Crash Course on Collaboration
Through using Loomio, we have learned important lessons about how to effectively collaborate, and how to support processes that underpin empowerment and distributed leadership.
"Culture eats strategy for breakfast" - Peter Druker
Great collaboration does not come from nowhere, even with great tools at your fingertips. Truly high-quality decision-making cannot occur in an environment of groupthink, yes-men-and-women, and fear of conflict. Inviting a diversity of perspectives can only happen if you do the work to have real diversity in the room, and empower people to be honest. This is profound work, and most people who care about continuous improvement in management already think deeply about it. But it's a neverending challenge.
Using Loomio makes it painfully clear if those making the decisions are breaking along demographic lines. Are people with small children finding it hard to find time to engage? Is there a gender imbalance? Do introverts feel like they have space to think things over and have input? The first step in improving diversity is having the information to see where the challenges lie.
Everyday practices can unintentionally marginalize people. For example, if you have a culture of changing schedules at the last moment, you will instantly make it harder for certain people to participate - people with disabilites, people who work remotely, people with children. Do a certain group of people always go to lunch together, maybe at a restaurant that doesn't cater to vegetarians or gluten-free, leaving some people out? Decisions will get made over lunch without including those people.
These are all examples from Enspiral's learning journey about inclusion. Even though it's not always possible to stick to the schedule, and even though people should be able to have lunch wherever they want, bringing the final decision-making onto Loomio means when it counts, we include everyone's voice.
In Enspiral's case, we have recognised that we need to be continuously improving in these areas, and discussions on Loomio have led directly to outcomes like more resources for childcare at company retreats, an internship programme welcoming a class of 12 young female social entreprenuers, and a collaboratively developed diversity policy.
Some Nuts and Bolts
You may be wondering, how does culture get formed day to day in this kind of environment? Here are some practices we have developed, evolving our culture in conjunction with using Loomio as a tool:
Check-ins at the beginning of meetings and events, focused not on your work tasks, but on how you're doing as a human being. If you're going through a rough patch at home, or you're sick, or you have exciting positive news, understanding your state of mind will help the entire group have the right context to interpret how you're communicating, on Loomio or in person.
Explicitly empowering everyone to take acts of facilitation, online and offline. An act of facilitation is action taken from the perspective of what's best for the group (as opposed to only your individual perspective). This can take many forms, like noticing ("I'm sensing tension in this discussion, do we want to talk about where that's coming from?"), giving feedback ("I hear what you're saying, but the way your saying it might not being landing well for some people"), and reflecting back to the group ("We seem to be bikeshedding on this - what if we left that aspect of the decision to the working group to determine, and we used our time now to focus on the core issues?"). These skills come from practice, and normalizing these kinds of statements through repetition and example. Acts of facilitation are not just for the manager, or the person who called the meeting - they are for everyone.
Setting the context and making the right invitation. This means being clear about what the purpose of a discussion is, who needs to be involved, what the time frame is, and what people can expect. Sometimes on a Loomio discussion there would be very little engagement, or everyone would abstain. For a while this seemed mysterious, until we learned the importance of real, active transparency. Often, lack of engagement doesn't mean people don't care, it means something's keeping them from real participation. Transparency is about information not being secret, it means that the people closest to the information do the proactive work to make it accessible - physically and conceptually - to everyone who needs to understand it to participate in a decision effectively.
Signal vs Noise - collaboration doesn't mean everyone is involved in everything. Loomio is designed so that everyone affected by a decision can participate in making it. But not everyone is affected by every decision! We have discovered a concentric-circle model of stakeholding, where high-level decisions are made in the biggest circle (turning the traditional pyramid upside-down), but detailed decisions about implementation, and background research, are done by smaller circles (a few people in a working group or committee). Empowered delegation is critical for distributed leadership to be effective, or everyone gets overwhelmed. If you put in functional systems for reporting back, and make the final decisions in the largest circle, you can support a high-trust culture of delegation without silos or exclusion. Loomio subgroups are perfect for creating, tracking, and utilising these circles.
Don't forget meatspace and facetime. One great thing about Loomio is it lets you make a lot of the (frankly boring and dry) practical decisions online, quickly and in your own time. But that doesn't mean meeting in person or talking on video chat is any less important. In fact, by moving a lot of the practical discussion online, it means that precious social time can be freed up for actually conversing and bonding with friends and colleagues. Enspiral has 6-monthly retreats where we all go away together for about 4 days. In the past, these were intensive working retreats where we all felt like we had a lot to get done - not relaxing! Since we've moved most of that on Loomio, we now spend this time decompressing, having fun together, and getting to know one another more deeply as people. This helps us work together far better throughout the year.
All of this adds up to a profound reconceptualisation of the role of management, to essentially being about creating and facilitating the space where all of the above can occur. At Enspiral, we don't have managers. Instead, we have a few people whose role it is to support everyone else communicate and collaborate most effectively. They are there not to be anyone's boss, but help people step into empowerment and continuously improve processes that support everyone to be leaders.
A final lesson Enspiral learned in the process of developing Loomio is that sometimes trying to solve your own, internal problems can lead you to a solution that serves all kinds of other users. We're proud that Loomio has become a startup venture in its own right.
In the month of March, Loomio will be running a large-scale, international crowdfunding campaign to respond to user demand to upgrade and expand the tool. Loomio 1.0 will have exciting new features, like an intuitive mobile version, accessibility for the vision impaired, increased multi-lingual support, and many other features like white-label customization and full email integration. Loomio has developed these new designs directly in response to user testing and user demand. There's been great success with the initial prototype - now it's time to build a truly inclusive platform.
Loomio is striving to make the world a more democractic place on every level, and working to make decision-making truly inclusive and collaborative, enabling all kinds of groups to organize more effectively around the world.
See Alanna talk about this story, and the meaning of distruptive leadership.
See Ben Knight tell the Loomio story in this TEDx talk.
Enspiral is a network of social enterprises out to change the world. Hear some of the stories from the Enspiral network.
Case studies and media articles about Loomio here.