What have we learned while building Ouishare
This article was originally published in French | Translation by Stina Heikkilä
Ouishare’s nature is multi-faceted and ever-changing, just like one of our core values: "permanent beta". This is how we, since 2012, have been able to build our organization in a unique way while our ideals have been confronted with a complex reality of sometimes contentious situations.
Years of experimenting with new organizational models, collective decision-making practices, organizational tools, etc. have brought us both great successes and embarrassing failures. After six years of conceiving Ouishare as an organizational laboratory, I’d like to share some our lessons learnt, and to envisage the challenges that we still have to face.
Since the beginning of this collaborative adventure, for each individual journey within Ouishare, we find a certain path of convergence; young people whose position in big corporations have led them either to burnout or bore-out, or competent people left disillusioned by their “bullshit jobs” in the corporate world (Ces jeunes qui partent en courant, March 2015, Marc-Arthur Gauthey). Since the conception of Ouishare, we thus find one common aspiration: to find meaning in our work and have a real impact on society (What Ouishare means for me, November 2014, Francesca Pick).
This is how Ouishare was born, based on strong ideals: an organization without hierarchies in which decisions are made collectively, and where everyone is autonomous and free to be entrepreneurial.
To achieve this, the first pioneers of Ouishare conceived the organization as a collective of independent workers, in response to what they called the crisis of the salariat society (La crise du salariat aura t’elle lieu ?, October 2015, Diana Filippova). In(ter)dependent workers came together in a collective project that gave them meaning and allowed them to imagine a post-salarial society. This is how Ouishare was born, based on strong ideals: an organization without hierarchies in which decisions are made collectively, and where everyone is autonomous and free to be entrepreneurial.
This collaborative organization has now given rise to projects and around 30 active communities in nearly twenty countries (L’organisation collaborative: et si nous imitions les abeilles, April 2014, interview d’Henri Duchemin par Marie-Anne Bernasconi), where close to 1,500 Ouishare members participate in having a positive impact on society.
Ouishare is first and foremost an “association”, a type of French non-profit organisation, which carries out activities in the general public interest, including the production of intellectual outputs and the organisation of awareness-raising events that are open to everyone. Moreover, in 2017 we created a limited liability company in France (“SAS”) to carry out commercial activities, which is fully owned by the association in a shared governance model. Creating this legal form has allowed us to build a more viable economic model, extending to each of our independent workers in the French community. And what’s even better: a non-negligible part of the turnover generated through the commercial branch is reinvested in our association acting in the general public interest. And while we still need to find the right balance between the two, this complementary structure represents a significant step forward in making our association’s mission sustainable.
Opal, sociocratic, holacratic ... no matter which model ... the organizations of tomorrow will offer autonomy and freedom!
The literature gives us plenty of governance models aimed at improving the ways in which organisations function, including the “opal” company (Vers une nouvelle ère managériale : rencontre avec Frédéric Laloux, January 2016, Marc-Arthur Gauthey), and sociocratic or holacratic companies (L’holacratie décryptée, November 2015, interview de Bernard Marie Chiquet par Arthur De Grave). Collaborative, or so-called “liberated” models (from the french term “organisation liberé”) suggest the possibility of managing an organization with less hierarchy. These models thus conceptualize the organization of daily activities with a flat structure: decision-making, coordination of services, management of conflicts, etc. Ultimately, they tend to bring autonomy and freedom back to the individual, unleashing their creative and action-oriented potential (How to build a collaborative organization?, April 2013, Ahmad Sufian Bayram).
Within Ouishare, we didn’t opt to choose one organizational model over another. We decided to trust ourselves and, when faced with a problem, tried to design the ground-rules together based on our shared culture. So, while leaving room for chaos, we agreed on some “minimum viable” common rules (Maximum viable chaos: a recipe for emerging organizations, December 2017, Francesca Pick), which we have subsequently documented in an open source way in order to use and communicate internally, as well as to inspire external communities to reflect.
We decided to trust ourselves and, when faced with a problem, try to design the ground-rules together based on our shared culture.
The battle is not for the end of hierarchy
Ouishare was built on ideals of horizontality. The ultimate goal is that everyone is responsible for the organization and that people are equally implied in its development. But not everyone can do everything. Indeed, our shared culture was built around the concept of do-ocracy, literally giving power to the ones who “do”. Rather than deciding collectively who does what in the organization, do-cracy means that whoever decides to assume a role (e.g. finding new offices) becomes responsible for it. In this regard, it has to be said that, over time, competence has become an indispensable asset when taking on a certain role, reinforcing the do-ocratic model through competence-based leadership. We’ve therefore seen leadership emerging through the collective structure, allowing people to gain influence and, ultimately power, very quickly.
This do-ocractic, competence-based leadership model has made forms of hierarchy re-emerge within Ouishare (Cut the bullshit, organisations without hierarchy don't exist, March 2017, Francesca Pick). However, these are very different from hierarchies found in traditional companies, because of their temporary in nature. In Ouishare, we talk about distributed leadership in this way: one day a follower, another day a leader; for project A, we use approach B; for project B, we use approach A.
Over five years, this do-ocratic, distributed and competence-based leadership model has helped to bring forth strong individuals within the organization. Yet, while leadership has indeed been renewed, the emergence of new leaders has been uneven and, as of today, the organization still relies on too few people.
Over five years, this do-ocratic, distributed and competence-led leadership model has helped to bring forth strong individuals within the organization.
Collectively deciding everything is an illusion
Following the ideal of a horizontal organization, Ouishare has always wanted to make collective decisions. First, we laid the groundworks for collective decision-making at our real life gatherings (the Ouishare summits). But, being a distributed network by nature, we have grown the use of digital tools for this purpose. Specifically, using the tool Loomio, we have developed a decision-making process based on autonomy, subsidiarity and consent (How are decisions made in a distributed organization, January 2017, Francesca Pick).
In fact, the organization increasingly needed to make quick, everyday decisions (e.g. allocation of budget for an event, remuneration of a person, etc.). Consequently, a group of highly active members came together in a spontaneous, bottom-up way to make such calls. In 2018, this group of people was entrusted by the community to become responsible for making daily decisions (follow-up from summits, onboarding, temporary roles, reporting obligations, etc.) and safeguards were put in place to make sure that governance remains shared.
Making part of our processes self-operating?
Ouishare never ceases to self-organise: in each complex or controversial situation encountered, new operating rules are conceived, often agreed, and sometimes documented.
The first imperfection of this organisational culture is that it relies on two finite personal resources: energy and time!. Therefore, many people have been exhausted by the organisation and have decided to leave, starting with most of Ouishare’s original founders. Few organizations would have survived such a situation. Yet, the resilience inherent in the Ouishare model means that new leaders emerge and continue to make the organisation evolve.
The resilience inherent in the Ouishare model is enabled by new leaders who emerge and continue to make the organization evolve.
Second imperfection: our organization would benefit from being more of a learning organisation. Systematic documentation of our internal processes and ways of operating is currently not achieved. In addition, the continuous entry and exit of members, as well as the informal and largely verbal tradition of Ouishare, considerably weakens our ability to learn as an organisation (Organisational transformation by design, January 2018, Manel Heredero).
Given this fact, the challenge for Ouishare is indeed how to scale; to prove that it is a distributed, horizontal, and open organization that can continue to evolve, increase its impact and be more resilient. Here are two lines of reflection and action that I feel should be prioritised: (1) To shape our organization as a physical platform (The future of ecosystemic design, February 2017, Simone Cicero), drawing inspiration from Simone Cicero's Platform Design Toolkit, and to build a real ecosystem around Ouishare; (2) Making some of our simple internal processes self-operating. We have already tried to use decentralized technologies in the past, with mixed success (OuiShare decentralization experiment : chapter 1, March 2016, Francesca Pick). Today, it is first of all key to better document our processes. Tomorrow, it will be about automating some of them, and especially putting greater value on what is being created internally and thus distributing value more equitably.
Numerous challenges remain. The main quest for Ouishare is not so much about finding the best internal organization - it’s rather about making it more and more resilient and continuing to experiment with new practices and tools. It's about nourishing our ability to carry on with this ambitious project to further increase our impact.