Archive | March 2012

Brave new (flat) world

Update: I also wrote a more detailed version of this blog for the Guardian website: Non-hierarchical structures: could it work for you?

Lately there’s been some buzz about how us kids today are working in very different ways than more established entrepreneurs, leaders and campaigners.

According to people who write about these sorts of things, we’re more collaborative, less comfortable with hierarchy and top-down decision-making, more likely to change jobs and more ready to embrace creative chaos of collective working. And as we change how we organise ourselves, we’re slowly shaping the landscape around us too.

From my personal experience, this rings absolutely true. The places I’ve loved working most have been where everyone got involved in decision-making and had a stake in the success of the project, and the ones I’ve struggled in the most have been rigidly hierarchical. I would far prefer to embrace a little uncertainty and even confusion than feel like I’m not an equal partner in whatever I’m doing.

The organisation that I founded five years ago, the Otesha Project UK, has spent the past year transitioning to a flat structure. We were always pretty collaborative, but decision-making authority and hierarchies of responsibility definitely existed.

During this process we’ve learned a lot about what needs to be in place to make collaborative working healthy and productive, rather than simply chaotic.

What does it take to make this work?

Will the caveat that we’re in an ongoing process and haven’t nearly finished learning, here’s what I see as crucial to the success of any collaborative venture:

A commitment to process. Developing & refining internal processes can seem long, tedious and beside the point. When held up against the incredibly urgent and important work of fulfilling your social mission, figuring out how meetings should be held or salary structures decided can seem like a distraction from the ‘real’ work. And yet, if you don’t spend time and energy thinking about these things, any collaborative venture is likely to become rife with miscommunications and misunderstandings, and won’t have the systems in place to function well over the long run. Reading this article from the founder of a non-hierarchical company (Bill Witherspoon of The Sky Factory) you can see how often he mentions team meetings, decision-making and training policies.

Everyone on board. Everyone who matters needs to be involved from the start, and everyone needs to be committed to investing the development time needed to ensure smooth working later down the line. In my experience, every single member of staff needed to have immense amounts of trust for other members of the team, enthusiasm for our collective experiment, and love for our work. Trustees and other key stakeholders (including investors or funders if applicable) should also be involved as early as possible.

Patience and flexibility. It will take time. And things will go wrong. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between something that’s not working and something that simply needs more time. If you’re transitioning away from a hierarchical structure, have lots of patience with yourself and other team members. Much like other times of organisational transition, it takes time to adapt to new ways of working.

Clarity in decision-making.  Especially important for when tricky decisions come up and the team just can’t agree on what to do. In these cases, without a clear process there will be a tendency for some team members to pull rank or exercise informal influence, which just leads to invisible power structures. At Otesha, we know that if we can’t reach consensus as a team after several tries with different facilitators, then we pass the decision-making authority up to the board. This hasn’t happened yet and we hope it never will, but it’s essential to know that a lack of consensus won’t ever be able to cripple our ability to get our work done.

Clarity in roles. Since shared responsibility inevitably leads to more bleed amongst roles, the more clarity you can embed from the outset the better. Especially when it comes to the ‘boring’ administrative tasks. At Otesha, all co-directors have a core administrative role, from HR to finance to office management, that rotates around every two years. We also have a rule that no voluntary or paid role will ever be purely administrative.

A team of great communicators. Prioritize team training in anything that builds communication, listening and facilitation skills. You will all need them.

A strategy for growth. Collaborative working is easy when teams are small. At Otesha, as we’ve grown from 6 staff members to 10 total (5 co-directors and 5 learning roles without administrative responsibilities), we’re already starting to see the need to adapt our decision-making model for more efficiency. As we continue to grow, we’ll need to find ways of sharing information and ownership without involving every single person in every single decision.

Overall, our transition to a flat structure has been a really exciting adventure, one that’s aligned our working style with our ethos and values. The whole team feels a much stronger sense of ownership for not just their direct work but for the organisation as a whole. And for me, as the former Executive Director, it’s been amazing to share the workload, celebrate successes and talk through challenges with 4 other co-directors, knowing that we all take equal responsibility for the outcome of any decision, big or small.

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People power meets pedal power

Cross-posted from the Otesha Project UK blog

It’s no secret that at Otesha we love bikes. It’s also no secret that we think green & decent jobs are super important if we’re going to find a good way forward out of this whole ecological/economic collapse situation (let’s face it, it’s kind of a mess right now).

Recently I wrote a blog enthusing the power of worker-owned cooperatives because when the jobs aren’t there, why the heck not make them ourselves, right? This time around, I wanted to follow up on my mostly American example by showcasing some homegrown people-powered projects.

So, enter Brixton Cycles and the Edinburgh Bike Co-op – two lovely places that between them have created hundreds of jobs, including more than 120 co-op owners, since they opened their doors. Both of them operate on the same basic system – if you’re a co-op member then you’ve got equal rights, equal responsibilities and equal ownership. No member is higher up the food chain than another, and no member is immune to the risks that come along with any kind of businesses. Both shops take on workers on a trial period, where after a year of employment they become eligible to join the co-op. Right now, Brixton Cycles has 13 co-op members and the Edinburgh Bike Co-op (which has also opened shops in Aberdeen, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield) has around 100.

If you want to know more, I’d recommend reading up on the Brixton Cycles history and checking out this article on what it means to Edinburgh Bicycles Co-op to work cooperatively.

And this year is the UN’s international year of co-operatives, which aims “to raise public awareness of the invaluable contributions of cooperative enterprises to poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.” Hear, hear!

Power to the people

I originally wrote this in Dec 2011 for the Otesha Project UK blog

Are workers’ cooperatives the way forward in creating green & decent jobs?

As Hanna mentioned in her recent blog, one of the biggest challenges our Greener Jobs Pipeline project faces is convincing employers to take on young and ‘untested’ apprentices.

So of course the obvious solution is to take on job creation ourselves by becoming employers, preferably creating jobs where the employees have a real stake in the business, are paid living wages and have opportunities for career advancement! Easy peasy. Ha.

Before you call me an unrealistic idealist, this model does exist. It’s out there and it’s actually working. And yes, it’s even working in the middle of a recession. It’s working in Spain, in Venezuela, in the UK and in even in TV-land.

I recently came across a really inspiring American example, Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio. The explicit goal of this inter-linked set of cooperatives is to employ local people while building thriving, profitable businesses. Evergreen is based in a poor, mostly black area of Cleveland, where the median income is less than $19,000 (£11,800). In 2009, they launched two worker-owned businesses: Evergreen Cooperative Laundry and Ohio Solar. They’re also in the process of breaking ground on a year-round hydroponic food growing project, Green City Growers.

Basically, I love everything about them. They’re employee-owned, profitable, green and all about spreading wealth rather than just creating jobs. In mainstream business-as-usual, that’s subversive stuff.

Why does it work?

  • Money talks. Evergreen received a big cash injection to get going. For example, the start-up costs for Evergreen Cooperative Laundry were $5.7million (£3.6 million), contributed from national and local government bodies, tax credits, a community foundation and two banks.
  • Contractor buy-in from the start. Several of the project’s ‘anchor organisations’ that helped get it up and running are now large contractors for their services, including the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. The laundry business scored two big nursing home contracts pretty quickly, and Ohio Solar has been busy weatherizing and installing PV panels on buildings belonging to almost all the anchor organisations. In fact, the whole project was convened by the Cleveland Foundation when they set out to answer the question “why is it that so few benefits and so little wealth from our most profitable local institutions are flowing to local people?
  • Well trained staff. Evergreen recruits their workers from a local charity called Towards Employment, which provides all sorts of job readiness training for local residents. They also hired expert management and technical skills from outside the community to help get the cooperatives up and running.
  • Big ambition combined with realistic short-term goals. They want to seed a network of inter-related cooperatives, eventually employing around 5,000 people, but they’ve got the good sense to start small and test things out. As far as I can tell, so far they’re employing around 22 people (15 at the laundry and 7 at Ohio Solar) with plans to grow to around 50 per cooperative. Each business has also committed to put 10% of its profits back into a Cooperative Development Fund to help launch more social enterprises.

That’s not to say that they don’t have their challenges as well. It’ll be interesting to see how well these businesses thrive and grow over the long run, especially when they start looking for clients beyond the initial anchor organisations, and whether they eventually manage to hand over the management to community members instead of the outside experts who were initially hired.

But no matter what, Evergreen has been successful in creating green and decent jobs for Cleveland’s residents. On any scale, that’s a success in my books!

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