How to slowly lose control: decentralization experiment 2
Decentralizing a project is easier said than done. But no matter what, it will teach you a lot about your psyche, group dynamics and the value system of your team.
When we met with the Backfeed team for our 2-day workshop in Paris to kick off our collaboration and design the details of our experiment together, we knew we were in for a challenge. Energized by the (overly) ambitious aim of exploring new ways of distributing value within our network and enabling our contributors to build reputation, we hit the ground running. None of us expected just how intellectually demanding it would be to rethink your processes in a decentralized way.
From the abstract to the concrete
Unless you’re great at grasping highly abstract concepts, the best way to understand a complex tool is to see it and use it – and that’s exactly what happened during our workshop when we finally installed the Backfeed Chrome plug-in and starting playing around with it (see screenshot below).
But understanding the tool was only the start. We already knew it would be impossible (both technically and practically) to start using Backfeed to coordinate all areas of the OuiShare Fest organization from one day to the next, which includes the program design, communications, event production and partnerships & sales, so we chose to start with the decentralization of the program. Easier said than done.
Deconstructing and rebuilding
After several hours of exploring different scenarios and dissecting the processes we had used to construct the OuiShare Fest program over the past 3 years (such as our open call for proposals), our brains were fried. What does a fully decentralized process even look like? It was only when we got into the details of this question that I realized what this might really mean.
I was taken aback by how rigid and centralized my own thinking was
I was taken aback by how rigid and centralized my own thinking was, despite having been part of an organization for almost 4 years that strives towards distributed leadership and challenges traditional hierarchy. It is as if our brains have been in some way wired towards centralized control. In addition, decentralizing existing processes that are partially or fully centralized is much more challenging than starting from scratch. One may need to fully deconstruct and rethink how one has been doing everything: and that is a pretty scary thing, especially at first.
An endless chain of questions
This process raised more and more questions, very few of which we could find answers to. It’s not surprising then that the most valuable insights gained through this experiment are the often uncomfortable and complex questions it has confronted our team with, many of which we may have not discovered otherwise. The questions raised were not only practical but also ideological in nature, and as such they go deep, shaking the very foundations upon which we stand. Here are some of them.
The most valuable insights were the uncomfortable and complex questions we were confronted with
1. Will we be spending all our time evaluating people’s work? One of the core features of the Backfeed application is that each time a task is completed, others can evaluate it by giving out tokens. For the system to properly work, a critical mass of reputation-holding members must evaluate all contributions. But how much additional work will this new process generate? How can the tool be integrated into an existing workflow, to avoid creating more overhead for the team? This has been one of the largest concerns of team members. Making the step to a new system of organization takes extra effort, especially in the beginning. This is an investment that will hopefully pay off in efficiency later on, but there is no way to guarantee that it will.
2. How do you integrate on and offline coordination? There is the tendency to view tech as a replacement for offline social interaction, seeing it as parallel but separate world. We often forget that just because we are using an online tool for coordination, this does not mean we cannot coordinate offline. The missing link is how to integrate offline actions with digital tools in an organic, fluid way, an aspect that has been overlooked in the discourse around decentralized organization so far.
1. Is it a good thing to evaluate everything we do? If we do in fact start continuously evaluating everyone’s work as described above, do we risk putting too much performance pressure on ourselves? How free are we really if our every move is documented, assessed and quantified? Will we start seeing people more as numbers than humans?
2. How should reputation be distributed? To start using the Backfeed system, you need to define two things; 1) who are the people who will hold the initial reputation (referred to as founding members), and 2) how will that reputation be distributed among them. Over time, the founding members’ reputation will be transferred to other contributors, based on how the founding members evaluate others’ contributions. Power is in the hands of few at the beginning and is distributed over time, a process of reputation transfer Backfeed also described as “losing control”. This raised a huge amount of debate within the team: what entitles someone to receive reputation? What warrants one person to receive more reputation than another? How far back in your organization’s history do you go to look for evidence of contribution?
Backfeed describes the process of reputation transfer as “losing control”
3. What kind of behavior do we want to incentivize? Could this system change our behavior in ways we do not want? How do the constraints of the system limit our potential behavior? What motivates different people in our team? Will people really respond to the same incentives in the same ways?
4. To what extent can code impose a certain world view? Should we be implementing a system that is so complex that we do not fully understand it, or the values embedded within it?
5. What is “value” for us? What criteria do we take into account to evaluate tasks? How do we establish the relative value of tokens (which is what people receive when they are evaluated) in a consistent way? If this is not something we collectively pre-establish, how long will it take for a common sense of value to emerge among the group
Beyond questions raising more questions, what left the biggest impression on me was the fact that the workshop generated strong reactions in my team members and me, often of fear, the unknown, losing control and of constant evaluation.
More about this coming up in the next chapter!
Special thanks to Elena Denaro for the thinking together and editing.