Meet This Kiwi Bunch Of Organizational Hackers
New Zealand is a fertile country—and not just for agriculture. It is also home to a decentralized network initiative called Enspiral. This has attracted attention in “Future of Work” spheres—which is reason enough for us to take a deep dive into this ‘organizational experiment’.
Enspiral is the brainchild of Joshua Vial—an Australian software developer who settled near Wellington, capital of NZ. We spent time with Joshua and colleagues in one of Enspiral’s workplaces, the Dev Academy.
In their early days, Enspiral was the business domain used by Joshua for his personal consulting services. Joshua quit his job at a web development company in 2008, to split his time between paid consultancy and volunteer work. Inevitably, he met other people like himself—people interested in social and environmental issues but lacking a steady source of income.
By 2010, Joshua had turned Enspiral into a vehicle that allowed others to do the same. In short, it was a collective of socially minded professionals who split their time between paid gigs and volunteer work.
“At that time I thought, if I can help others get higher-paid contract work, maybe we can do interesting things together. So, I accepted every contract that came my way and looked for like-minded folks to join us.”
Soon, Enspiral was a collective of people used to freelancing, who now chose to collaborate only on “stuff that matters”. This enabled them to share resources which, in turn, gave them the flexibility to contribute to social projects and charity.
A collective of passionate professionals
Now, some years later, Enspiral’s mission and appeal have spread around the world. The “loosely coupled bunch of passionate freelancers working on stuff that matters” has evolved to a “global network of socially-minded individuals and small start-ups.”
But the fundamental mission hasn’t changed. “We still want to support more people spending their lives on stuff that matters, whatever that is for each of them. Now we are an active network of more than hundred contributors and friends from New Zealand and the rest of the world.”
“We want to support more people spending their lives on stuff that matters, whatever that is for each of them. Now we are an active network of more than hundred contributors and friends from New Zealand and the rest of the world.”
This community has grown, matured and developed. Enspiral has launched all kinds of products, start-ups and social initiatives. But at its core it is a group of people – many of whom are techies or facilitators. But anyone is free to apply.
There are two categories of people within the community—contributors and members. One needs to be invited to become a contributor or member. Becoming a contributor is the first step for those who want to participate on a regular basis.
The next level of commitment is real membership. Contributors that become members are usually involved with the community for at least a year, first. They are expected to participate in running the collective and attending important in-person events.
Disrupting the status-quo one by one
Advances in technology inspired this community to evolve a highly decentralized network of independent people and free-flowing information.
“The way we work is inspired by the internet and radically decentralized organizations. We started dreaming about what a company would look like if it adapted an approach of radically distributing money, information and control—while using IT, culture and purpose to create an environment where people and teams are able to self-organize.”
“After several years, a pattern emerged. First we have a problem we need to solve in order to work the way we want to. Then we experiment with alternatives until we find a good process. We try it. We fail. We test. We iterate. We improve. Once we feel we’ve hit the solution, we systematize the process and open-source it.”
In this way, Enspiral’s organizational hackers have challenged the status-quo, thrown out the old top-down way of doing things, and come up with new collaborative processes, one by one.
Enspiral’s organizational hackers have challenged the status-quo, thrown out the old top-down way of doing things, and come up with new collaborative processes, one by one.
Alternative legal structure
Members of the community are the ultimate locus of power, and the shareholders. Every member owns one share. These cannot be sold to anyone else. The organization pays no dividends.
This gives rise to an alternative legal structure. Enspiral is a limited liability company with a charitable constitution. It means Enspiral is legally a profit making entity, but all the funds are reinvested into the organization and its members.
Members voluntarily donate money to the community. Together they decide, with the help of open-source software programs, how to use this money to improve their business and their social impact. Collectively they use the brand ‘Enspiral’ to promote their individual services towards the outside world.
No formal authority allowed
Formal authority and power hierarchies are neither desired nor allowed. There are no bosses at Enspiral. That’s why Enspiral is formed as a community of people working in a flat organization, and focused on collaboration.
The collaborative culture and mindset of its members was often mentioned as the substitute for the missing hierarchy, and therefore the most important element of the community. The Enspiral folk we encountered seemed to deeply respect and trust each other.
As you can imagine, Enspiral is not the place for creating a traditional leadership role. The community is strictly non-hierarchical (except for the contributor-member distinction). It is run by people with high social capital acting as natural leaders. Leadership positions carry no formal authority.
Pay what you want
From the very beginning, Enspiral has not paid salaries. Instead they have a marketplace model for resource distribution. This led to the development of an alternative way of allocating people to projects. The financial model is simple and straightforward; pay what you want.
“In our marketplace there are people with skills and many projects. There are no clear budgets and no clear deliverables.” Believe it or not, this is how they get things done.
The newest organizational hack
Because of the strong non-hierarchical nature of the community, no one has the right to tell someone else what to do. Only people with high social capital seem to be able to introduce permanent or structural changes to the community.
Since 2013 Joshua started to gradually step down from his leadership position, to become just a member of the community again. This process, described as 'slow and gentle', forced other influential members to take centre stage.
Enspiral is an organizational laboratory. They are good at trying new things—failing early, learning quickly and continuously evolving.
It became clear that it has taken the other members a serious amount of time to build enough credibility to be able to replace Joshua. It seemed like the main struggle the community is facing at the moment.
But don’t forget, Enspiral is an organizational laboratory. This leadership rotation seems to be just the newest organizational hack they are working on. And they are good at trying new things—failing early, learning quickly and continuously evolving.
We are eager to see how they will successfully hack this one.
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Really interesting article and case study! I am super interested in participatory organisation models, but my research does question whether formal structures hold organisations back as much as we might be led to believe. I thought the following comment from the article was particularly interesting: "Because of the strong non-hierarchical nature of the community, no one has the right to tell someone else what to do. Only people with high social capital seem to be able to introduce permanent or structural changes to the community." My read of this is that whilst there is no formal hierarchy, there is in fact an informal one - people with high social capital have greater decision making and influencing ability - no different to what a leader has in a formal structure. So does having "higher social capital" make them better? I'd love to know! is there not a risk that influence is gained via a popularity contest, or even via means of who has the most charisma or natural social skills, or who have been founders? My research indicates that culture shapes and influences leaders behaviour more than structure. It's not that structure doesnt matter, but actually culture matters more - a highly enabled leadership culture in a traditional hierarchical organisation will out perform a corrupted leadership culture in a hierarchy-less organisation. Despite my interest in democratisation and enabled cultures and work environments where people can be their best and generate real value, the Inspiral concept triggers alarm bells for me - But I'd love to hear whether my read of this is right - maybe I am not really understanding it enough....
When I was asked to speak at a University of Michigan symposium on the subject of humility a few years ago, I honestly knew little or nothing about the subject. Beyond a general understanding of what the word meant, and that it was probably a good thing to have, I wouldn’t have had much to say about why it would matter. In the intervening months of inquiry, I’ve learned a lot.
How to survive a major crisis in an organization? How to thrive after? These are relevant, even crucial, questions. Especially today. Recently, I found valuable answers to these questions, as I was developing a case study for our Online Academy. This case is about Panelfisa, a NER Group company.