The Vital Ingredient to Enspiral’s Success
Enspiral’s mission of More People Working on Stuff that Matters, the unique non-hierarchical structure and the digital technologies like Loomio and Cobudget we’ve developed to support this collaborative way of working has received a lot of attention in the past couple of years.
I’ve been part of the network since early 2012 when we were just 50 people. Now, at the start of 2016, the network has grown to include almost 300. None of this growth has been sought by us - it’s just a function of more people being drawn into this bold experiment of how ‘work’ could be a regenerative vehicle for ourselves, society and the planet we live on.
Our growth strategy - Open Sourcing Enspiral
In 2014 it was becoming clear that we were making some real breakthroughs in how to work in ‘collaborative autonomy’ - that is, combining radical freedom at the individual level whilst having greater impact together than we could ever have alone. Our mission of ‘more people working on stuff that matters’ meant we needed to find a way to scale this work. And so the job of Open Sourcing Enspiral as an organisation began.
Through interfacing with groups who wanted to pick up some of Enspiral's ways of working, I learned a lot about what makes Enspiral work. Though our digital technology, organisational structure and processes were what these groups were excited by, adopting these wasn’t enough to guarantee good collaborative outcomes. What it came down to was the quality of human interaction. Culture, essentially.
While many of us in Enspiral had instincts about how important culture was to what we were able to achieve, it wasn’t until the Namaste Foundation gave us a generous grant that we were able to dedicate resource to investigating, understanding and creating resources to Open Source this part of what we do.
There are distinct challenges in being able to create Cultural Technology resources:
- When culture is embedded, it becomes totally implicit and almost invisible. We needed to begin to make conscious again the ways we were behaving that were different to other, less successful collaborative networks.
- Culture can’t be transmitted through just writing things down, it needs to be experienced. And everyone will experience a culture slightly differently. In the network our 6-monthly retreats have been a significant vehicle for this.
- Culture exists in both behaviour and in beliefs or mindset so these need to be combined in easy-to-understand ways for people to be able to pick them up. The nature of culture is that it’s a system of practices. So whilst individual practices can be useful, it’s the combination of them that is powerful.
Through the Namaste Foundation grant I was able to spend time in 2015 with groups around the world, understanding what we were practicing and ways we were thinking that allowed our social fabric to be so strong.
Cultural Immersion in an afternoon
Working with the hypothesis that ‘How to Enspiral’ would most powerfully be conveyed through an in-person experience, I ran my first experiment of an Enspiral Immersive Workshop in Montreal in June. In an Immersive Workshop the group comes together mostly unknown to each other. I give them a short presentation about what we've been working on at Enspiral and then group the co-creates the rest of the workshop through a facilitated process of group deliberation called Roomio.
Over the 3-4 hours, participants get a personal experience of Enspiral’s generative and caring culture through practicing our style of collaboration, while learning about the organisational innovations we’re working on. Often what surprises them is how quickly the transformation from a bunch of near-strangers to a coherent and caring group can happen. This is met with a sense of increased agency and hope for their work in the world.
Unpacking the Enspiral cultural mindset
Through the first four iterations of these workshops, five cultural principles emerged about the mindset Enspiralites have baked into our culture:
- If you are operating in a group decision-making space then you are thinking in the interest of the group - a key frame here is not ‘what do I want?’ or ‘what should we do?’, but instead ‘what makes sense here?’ This of course doesn’t mean that we become self-sacrificing, but that you blend your interest with that of the group.
- Difference as a resource - if someone disagrees it’s because they have found a legitimate problem with the proposal that they want to be part of solving. Difference is a strength not a weakness. Dissent is valuable. At Enspiral the expectation that comes with disagreeing with a proposal is that you become invested in finding a better solution that works for everyone.
- Creative reconciliation - compromising is a lose:lose situation. Instead reach for creative reconciliation. This potential that comes with effective group work — to create new possibilities that no one person could have come up with on their own . This means a different definition of success - you don’t win when you’re the one who comes up with the great idea, you win when the group becomes authentically generative.
- Feelings are information too - create explicit invitations to express feelings — even if they are inarticulate, they are a valuable source of intelligence. We’re conditioned in the workplace to pretend like “I haven’t got feelings. I left them at home! I’m at work now and I have my special uniform on that says No Feelings.” But this forces people to become less than human, which is detrimental fostering the care and high trust that lubricates group work.
- Humans flourish in flexibility - a real community is not a monolithic thing — it is full of contradictions and there are no solutions that are going to fit everyone perfectly. Humans need flexibility to be able to flourish and show up with their full selves. Working in group intelligence is as inherently messy as any other human endeavour.
Immersive impact - Aman Ahuja
I’ve had a number of people feed back to me about the impact that attending an Immersive Workshop has had on them. A couple gained the confidence to quit their jobs and start entrepreneurial collectives of their own, some have started using Loomio and Cobudget in their communities and workplaces, others gained confidence to implement greater democracy and direct collaboration in groups they’ve been part of. An inspiring example of this is Aman Ahuja.
Aman is a data consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area who has been on a learning journey into collective leadership and organisational democracy. As well as working on solving global challenges with The Data Guild, Aman has been heavily involved in the San Francisco chapter of DataKind. He came to the workshop looking for practices that would help him get new groups of people working better together and for insights into how to effectively distribute leadership.
Using the confidence and principles he gained from the workshop, Aman has now dramatically increased the leadership base of his Datakind chapter from 4 people to a much larger group of core volunteers engaged in a much deeper and more strategic way. It’s now thriving as a function of many more people investing their initiative in the success of the Chapter and they feel like they’re really living their empowerment model now. The impact goes a degree further with them incorporating practices like the Project Kitchen methodology at their public events.
In this way, through one afternoon workshop, dozens of people have been able to learn Enspiral’s secret sauce through an in-person experience. This kind of social contagion is what the Immersive Workshops hope to achieve as we start running them in more places.