The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Richard Bartlett. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Rich Bartlett, one of the leading thinkers and tool developers in the domain of self-organizing work and living.
Rich: Thanks for having me, Jim.
Jim: It’s great to have you. You’re a guy that I really enjoy following. Rich is one of the founders of Enspiral, a work and live cooperative. We’ll be talking about more. The Hum, an educational and consulting group that teaches others how to self-organize. He has a very interesting newsletter I subscribe to that’s available at richdecibels, decibels as in the sound units, dot substack.com.
Jim: Personally, I love his Medium posts, Richard D. Bartlett on Medium. His tweet streams is one of my favorites @richdecibels. As usual, all the resources we mentioned will be available at our episode page for this episode on my podcast website, jimruttshow.com. Rich has also written a book that’s not yet finished, Patterns for Decentralized Organizing. It’s best found by just googling the name, Patterns for Decentralized Organizing, Richard D. Bartlett. Again, the link will be available on our website.
Jim: Richard, lots that you do. Let’s start with Enspiral. How does it work? What is it? It first came to my attention back in the early GameB days 1.0, 2013 when we investigated Loomio as a possible organizing tool. We kind of looked a little bit at Enspiral, probably not as deeply as we should have. We ended up not picking Loomio, ended up using Basecamp instead. Tell us about Enspiral. Where’d it come from? What does it do? Where’s it today?
Rich: I have to always give this disclaimer that Enspiral is a very complex system and so everyone you ask will have a different story about what it is. I can tell you my version of the truth and you sort of have to take many samples to get a full picture. It’s a couple hundred people that originated in New Zealand and so a lot of these people live in New Zealand. Now, I don’t know, maybe a third or more of them live in other countries around the world.
Rich: We are supporting each other to do more meaningful work, whatever that means. We haven’t defined what meaningful work is, we say it’s stuff that matters. That implies that if it matters to you, it matters to us and we don’t have to put a very tight definition on what it is. It’s a community of friends who trust each other a lot and do a lot of experimentation with different ways of organizing and making small cooperatives and businesses. Just a huge variety of different little small businesses that all have overlapping brands and overlapping people.
Rich: Yeah, we do a ton of experimentation with like, how do we prototype the organization of the future where we’re working together on relationships of trust and equality and freedom and autonomy and those sorts of things and move away from the way of organizing, which is this top down coercive, hierarchical control system where people are … My experience before I worked at Enspiral, I always felt that work is supposed to suck more or less. That’s why they pay you to go there.
Rich: Whereas with Enspiral, we’re trying to do a kind of work that’s really life giving, really fun, really meaningful, really purposeful and to get paid decent money for doing it. That’s the grand experiment. It basically came out of this guy, Joshua Vial. He’s a deep dude, another one that you might want to interview one day. He’s an engineer and a programmer so he’s got quite an analytical brain.
Rich: He came to the conclusion one day that he had something like, I forget the numbers, I think he said he had 80,000 hours of … he could expect roughly 80,000 hours of productive life in him. He’d already used up some fraction of that during his programming work. Then, he did some sort of modeling of like, what’s the most positive impact that I can have in the world with the remainder of those hours? In the moment, it became very obvious that one man working as hard as he likes on any program project is not going to get very far compared to mobilizing a community of people that are all working on stuff.
Rich: He set his mind to, yeah, how do we recruit a collective of people that are all working on systems change? How do we do that in a way that’s actually prototyping the new systems that we want to live in from the start?
Jim: Very cool. Could you give me an example of some of the businesses that have spun up under the Enspiral umbrella?
Rich: Sure. There’s a real variety. It tends to have a tech side. It’s like we’ve got a lot of tech people in the community. You mentioned Loomio. I’m one of the co-founders of Loomio. That’s kind of interesting, it came out of the Occupy movement where we had this experience of self-organizing and collective decision making. I was part of the Occupy movement and then I met the folks at Enspiral. It was from that overlap of those two communities that Loomio emerged as a TICK platform that’s run by a worker owned cooperative that’s trying to do business for good.
Rich: It’s ongoing project. Then, there’s the Developer Academy. That’s a programming school essentially, it’s like a boot camp for teaching people how to be excellent programmers with a Trojan horse mission of actually teaching programmers about relational skills and emotional intelligence. Then, there’s quite a few of us because we’ve been doing all this experimentation with different ways of organizing, there’s an increasing number of what I would call insultingly management consultants like myself, who have views on how to design organizations in a new way.
Rich: Greaterthan is a really nice one. They do a lot of work, especially around collaborative funding and financing like if you’ve got a membership organization with thousands of people in it, how can they participate in setting the budget for that organization, for instance? They do a lot of work around that. There are a lot of little software shops, usually it’s three, four, five, six people working together as software consultants and just making a little temporary brand so that they can work together. Sometimes, these brands coalesce to a bigger project.
Jim: Very interesting. Together, does that make a full time living for 200 people? Or are some of these people still keeping their GameA jobs?
Rich: There’s definitely a real mix. After the call, I can share with you an impact report that was done recently that will actually have the numbers in it. I don’t know them off the top of my head, but there’s at least a third of us would be full time living in this new economy. Then, probably a third that are part time. Then, probably the last third, more or less, are earning their living in traditional jobs and traditional organizations, but they’re getting something else from their connection to the community, whether that’s inspiration or friendship or connections or opportunities or something like that.
Jim: That’s actually good to my mind because it shows a ramp, right? People can engage at various levels. We think about this a fair amount in our GameB world that people do not jump off a cliff in general, or few maniacs do. I will. Probably you would. Most people don’t, right? They want to minimize their risk by taking a small step at a time. Being associated, in some sense, in which my living isn’t on the line is a lower risk way to start. Then, doing part time work is the next natural evolution for some of the people. Then, becoming full time and actually living it is the third step.
Jim: I actually like the fact that you guys have fallen out that way. It seems to be congruent with human nature and the way that the majority of people, the vast majority of people, actually would prefer to proceed rather than suddenly going from A to B, shall we say?
Rich: For me, it’s like a transvasement strategy. I come from this background, which is basically anarchists and anti-capitalist and this oppositional kind of activist identity. I think I’ve grown out of it somewhat. Now, I’m in this place where I love the strategy of transvasement. Taking money out of one system and putting it in another, not being oppositionally anti-capitalist but getting your hands on the capital and putting it to good use and mobilizing it on a different set of principles so that it’s going to do something better in the world than just make money for venture capitalists.
Jim: Yeah, it’s funny. That’s great because we have the exact same concept for our GameB movement, even though we’re not as far along, which is we call it parasitizing GameA, right. It’s interesting you mentioned management consulting. We currently are having a discussion about what are some of the GameB ventures that we believe would allow us to actually outcompete GameA entities?
Jim: Oddly, we’ve come up with things like auto repair garages, which are famously corrupt, at least in the United States. Management consulting, which is high priced low value in many cases. Even ad agencies that are sort of full of the worst kind of predatory sociopaths. We think we can do better job on all those things. It’s interesting that you guys found management consulting also.
Jim: To what degree is there some kind of shared economics amongst these various working groups like for instance, Enspiral itself have a central account where it can provide some startup capital for these other working groups. Is there some payment back from the working groups? Or are the working groups just stand on their own bottom and do their own thing?
Rich: I guess, the important principles here are we’ve done a ton of different experimentation. Whenever someone asks, is this startup capital available? Is there a collective fund? Have you tried exchanging equity? The answer is always yes, because we’ve just done so many experiments over the last decade. The other important principle is what we’ve learned is what matters most is the quality of the relationships that you’re maintaining. The trust and the openness of communication between all these people, regardless of what experimentation you’re doing.
Rich: With those providers, the way it currently works, everyone in the collective is contributing at least a tiny little membership contribution, so that could be $5 a month. Some people are doing a lot more than that. If they’re in a position where they’re earning a lot of income and they attribute some of that income to Enspiral. For instance, if you’re doing management consulting work and you’ve got a really high day rate and you know that you’re benefiting from the Enspiral brand, then you might be in a position where you’re going to share 10 or 15% of your income with the collective.
Rich: All of that money goes into a central fund. Then at the moment, I think, roughly half of that income just covers some of our essential stuff. We’ve got a few community managers, someone’s writing a newsletter, we’ve got our technology. There’s some sort of basic administration to run a network of 200 people. Then, on top of that, the rest is discretionary spending. We essentially run a kind of internal crowdfunding, where anyone can propose to spend the collective money.
Rich: Usually, once we have sort of 10 or $20,000 in the collective bank account, then we’ll open up a round of proposals so anyone in the network is able to say, “Yeah, I’ve got this new idea for a product and I need $5,000 to get started with it, could you fund me?” Or it could be, “I want to go to a conference and talk about Enspiral.” It gets really creative. Sometimes it’s like, “We’re having events and I want to pay for childcare,” or “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a fund available for people who need counseling or conflict mediators,” and so on.
Rich: I’ve got a fund called the Fairy Blog Mother and I’m the fairy blog mother and I run around dispensing $100 bills on people for writing blog posts on the Enspiral blog. It’s just a huge amount of creativity and what we do with that shared economy. There’s that layer, which is not a huge amount of money given you’ve got 200 people, most of whom are earning reasonable money. Then, there’s a layer underneath that which is more at the small scale.
Rich: We’ve got different language for it. We call them crews or pods, livelihood pods. They’re basically small cooperatives where you’ll have maybe five or six people who are consultants that could go out into the market as independent freelancers and make a living that way. They coalesce into these small groups where they get the solidarity of working in a team and the ability to take on bigger jobs. Also, we do income pooling in those small groups so that you take out the peaks and troughs out of your income and you can just have a stable salary.
Rich: Where if you’ve got good trust between four or five consultants who know each other well, it turns out you can share all of your income. Some of them are doing it in a full communist way where it’s like all the money goes into one place and then everyone takes what they need out of it. Then, the other ones, they’re a bit more towards more of the capitalist end of the spectrum. They’ll have some kind of allocation formula where it depends on how many hours did you put in and what’s your hourly rate and so on. You have some kind of complicated algorithm for determining how much money to share with each other.
Rich: That, to me, is the more interesting part is the kind of financial solidarity that happens at a really small scale.
Jim: I like that, very interesting. What I also like and would commend is the pluralism in how the smaller groups are organized. I see implicitly that some people, as you said, full communism and one extreme some kind of contractual sharing economy, capitalism at the other and probably lots of things in between. At least my take is we don’t yet know what really works in this what comes next world. We got to do a bunch of experiments to find out.
Jim: It sounds like you guys are doing several experiments in parallel on things like financial sharing within your own organization.
Rich: What we do know that works, at least this is my strong opinion so far from the experience for the last decade, is this emphasis on small groups. There was an earlier phase of Enspiral, where the main activity was basically a large freelancers’ collective with 100 plus people in it. They were all sharing the brand of Enspiral services. There’s essentially one or two people in the middle of that system who were actually the business owners, who actually understood the overall system, whereas most people were just playing their part as an individual and didn’t really have a sense of the whole.
Rich: It didn’t work. There were some real problems with their model where we have problems. For instance, this is dysfunctional setup with risk where one person out of that collective of 100 could tarnish your brand by having a bad interaction with a customer, right? It’s like, we learn over time that instead of having this one enormous collective of people who are trying to do the sort of peace, love and sharing money thing, distributing it into many small pools, where there’s independent brands for each one of those, there’s an independent legal entity, people have to understand the ins and outs of running a business at that scale.
Rich: Then, there’s a lot of collaboration that happens across those borders. People are coming and going between those borders all the time, but there’s the right sort of cell boundaries there to keep the incentives square.
Jim: I like it, sounds like you guys have learned some things from your experiments and are now converging towards a replicable model. I’m actually going to skip ahead there because that sets me up for a later topic on my list of the several Medium posts that I read. In this case re-read to get ready for this podcast, one that hopped out to me as almost central to your thinking is titled, Microsolidarity Number Two. That’s the one where you talk about self dyad, the crew, et cetera.
Jim: You talk about, and I think an extraordinarily practical way and one that at least got my attention, an idea for how we organize at multiple layers. Do you want to go over that and talk about that a little bit and why that’s important?
Rich: Sure. The way that I think about it and like I said at the start, my take on Enspiral is just one of many and other folks will have a different approach. I don’t want to be the end of the story, but I am chatting at one particular ascent up the mountain. That’s just to own my subjectivity on that piece.
Rich: The thing that I’ve articulated there somehow is having resonance in a lot of different context so it seems like it’s doing some good. The way that I look at it is it’s all about how do we practice a kind of relationship that is built on different premises than the one that I was raised with? On the on the top down, hierarchical command and control, isolated, distant, atomized, individualized, neo liberal, et cetera, et cetera. There’s like a way of being that I was raised in that me and a lot of other people don’t want to be a part of, you would call it GameA.
Rich: We want to be in GameB, which requires a different way of relating to others, where we’re no longer having one person in charge of everyone. We’re not trying to have these top down relationships. We’re trying to work together with some degree of equality, whatever that looks like. We don’t actually know in practice. We’re trying to grow into this GameB way of being in the world. To my way of thinking, that requires us to change how we relate to other individuals. It’s a big learning process about how do we relate.
Rich: The reason I emphasize this is because most of the people that I encountered that are interested in restarting civilization or something, they tend to come in from a perspective of, most of the ones that I know coming from it, oh, we just had the right technology. It would be a bit like Airbnb and a bit like Uber, but it would be owned by the drivers. They have this whole technological plan about how if we just had the right systems and structures and agreements, then we’d have a new way of being.
Rich: Whereas, I think it goes a layer underneath the technology into the culture, into our psychology and so on. That’s why the writing that I’m doing on this topic is a lot of it’s quite touchy feely. It’s about intimacy and vulnerability and connection and these sorts of things, because that’s just what I’ve seen. It’s like it required necessary prerequisite before you get to the really great stuff of, yeah, having all of these shared brands and shared money and freedom and connection and so on.
Rich: The layers that I articulated in the macro solidarity proposal, it starts with the self. I found it useful to even think about the self as a group. There’s a therapeutic modality called internal family systems, which I don’t know well, I haven’t studied well. I feel like I kind of independently started articulating some of the ideas that are in that and now I’m rapidly trying to catch up and learn because they’ve got a lot more depth than I do. They treat the individual as a group. In their language, they call them parts.
Rich: The idea is, like, I have my confident part and my anxious part and my silly part and my happy part. All these different characters that have the shared custody of me. There’s always work that I can do to bring those parts into greater harmony. For instance, for me, one of the ways this has showed up to me really obviously in the last couple of weeks being here we are in the middle of a pandemic, and I’m a migrant in a country where I don’t know the place and I don’t know the language. Some of my parts are very fearful. There’s a lot of anxiety and I’m frightened about how things could go wrong.
Rich: For the first couple of weeks of that experience, I was really trying to disown that part of myself, just ignore it, just clamp down on it, don’t look at it, don’t think about it. It didn’t work. It really didn’t work. It put me in a state of cognitive dissonance until I could just treat that part of myself as a member of the family, as a member of the group. Hey, one part of me is fearful. What does he need? If I can just treat him with some tenderness and respect, maybe it’ll be okay. That’s a practice which is about, I guess, deepening my own maturity and my own competence and my own ability to deal with … you’d say in the GameB space, you talk about sovereignty a lot.
Rich: I think that’s a lot of what that’s about is knowing what are the parts of myself that get triggered or that get pulled into fantasizing ideas about how we’re going to transform the world or that get freaked out about the wrong political idea. There’s lots of different reasons that I lose my sovereignty. I have a lot of focus on this thing about developing the relationship in the parts of yourselves. That’s one piece.
Rich: Then, the second step up the ladder from there I call the dyad. That’s just about two people, two selves coming into contact with each other. For argument’s sake, I think, it’s useful to borrow from Riane Eisler’s work on what she calls the partnership domination lens and she’s brilliant. Maybe it would be useful to read her book Nurturing Our Humanity or another one, The Chalice and The Blade. Her frame is looking at world history but then also looking at family dynamics and societies and so on and evaluating them on this polarity that she’s named the partnership domination lens.
Rich: Are we relating to each other more as partners, where we are two equally important but different people? Or, are we relating to each other in the spirit of domination, where one person is trying to exert their will over the other one. It’s trying to exert their subjectivity over the other. I think that’s a really useful heuristic, a really useful lens for looking at all kinds of relationships. The way that I understand what we’ve been doing with Enspiral is we’re trying to learn how can we get a few hundred people together and have them all relate to each other in the spirit of partnership?
Rich: The reason that I call out this dyad is because that’s a great place to practice. You know what it’s like to be in a relationship with one person and have a conversation with them, where it feels like there you are equal. Not the same, they’re different, but that you are relating to each other horizontally that you’re not trying to dominate me or tell me what’s the right way to think and I’m not trying to do that to you too. I’m witnessing you. I’m listening to you and observing and we’re in this exchange, people know what that feels like.
Rich: That’s part of the practice is just learn how to … notice when you are coming out of partnership into a domination posture and see what you can do to come back into partnership. I should also say, domination is only half of the story because the other half is submission, right? It’s domination and submission, that’s like two-player game. It doesn’t matter which side of the equation you’re on, there’s still maneuvers that you can take to get you close to the partnership.
Jim: Indeed. Sounds like you’re describing a good marriage of course it’s a dyadic relationship. I’ve been fortunate to have been married 39 years to a wonderful person. I think we’ve always managed to see each other as complete peers, though different. Yeah, I think that’s the secret to making a dyad work. I was frankly fortunate and unlikely to have had good parental model, my working class parents, my dad dropped out of high school when it was after ninth grade. My mother left home when she was 14.
Jim: I grew up in a neighborhood where half the adults had dropped out of high school. This was not what you’d call socially advanced. Nonetheless, my parents had a marriage of a complete peerdom, which was very interesting. I never saw them seriously argue. I never saw them take a serious decision other than by consensus. Their marriage lasted till the death of my father, 54 years, I think, it was like that.
Jim: Yeah, your dyad sounds to me like very similar to healthy long term marriage.
Rich: Yeah. It’s also like a best friend or a mentor or a coach or there’s a lot of different places that these relationships come up. Then, the step up from there I call the crew. I chose that word because it’s a bit like the crew of a sailing ship, where, again, you’re all doing different … when you’re sailing a boat, you all have different roles. You play to those strengths and you achieve something as a whole that you couldn’t on your own.
Rich: I really focus on the smaller scale. I’ve seen it’s up to eight people, but I kind of regret that. I think it maybe even should be kept at six people. I usually say, the number of people you can get around a dinner table and have one conversation with. That scale is really important because, what’s the name, Margaret Mead has got this theory often overused quote about never doubt the power of a small group to change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing it ever has.
Rich: We hear that quote quite frequently. I wonder if people really take that to heart that the only thing that’s going to change the world is a small group of committed citizens. Therefore, to me, our job is to learn how to be one of those small groups of committed citizens. For anyone that wants to do some kind of change in the world, the first principle should be, okay, where’s the small group that I’m going to work with? That means it’s not just about me with my heroic ideas, but it’s the little crew. It’s the four or five of us that are really going to take on some serious work.
Rich: You mentioned Loomio. That was my first crew, I think, where we started that with six people. We raised, I don’t know, we raised a couple of million dollars in ethical financing and we’ve built a piece of technology that’s been used by a few hundred thousand people. I don’t think it’s this amazing change the word project, but I think it’s made a useful contribution to the world. It’s definitely orders of magnitude more of an impact than I could have ever had on my own.
Rich: There’s this real sweet spot where you can achieve a lot with a small talented group, with people that all have skill that they all have trust that they all know how to collaborate with each other, and they’ve all got different superpowers. You can really just get a huge amount of work done in that group. The reason I focus on the small bit is because once you get beyond 8, 9, 10 people, you’re going to need a whole bunch of architecture to hold that group together. You got to have to start making a lot of stuff explicit and having like, yeah, you get into the difficult stuff of governance.
Rich: You need to have a lot of agreements about what’s happening and conflict management systems and checks and balances and all these kind of things. Whereas, if you’re doing it at the small scale, you can develop a kind of shared context with five or six people using not much more than dialogue, just having a call once a week or something where you sync up with each other. That can be enough of an organizational structure.
Rich: Once you go beyond that scale then you need to pull all this architecture and that tends towards inefficiency, it tends towards drama, it tends towards debate. I’m really focused on how do we produce a world full of really excellent crews, really excellent small groups of people doing meaningful stuff supporting each other to play with their strengths and move the world in the right direction. For most people getting into this, that means you need to practice because you’re not going to get it right the first time.
Rich: The first time that you bring a team together and you try and do your project, you’re probably going to fall out.
Jim: Make sense. We’ll push back a little bit on the size range, or maybe there’s two different things here. As you may know, I was a entrepreneur in my early career, started several companies and then later helped many other companies start. I’ve had exposure to maybe 17 startup companies, of which 13 or 14 ended up producing positive results for their investors. The model I always used is that was 20. That was the magic number in this size.
Jim: I will say, and I think about it here, it’s somewhat different than your crew of three to six, because three to six would correspond to the loose groups within the 20. I still remember a couple of my startups where we’d have, yes, we had a tech team and we had a sales team and we had a marketing team say and a customer service team, each had a few people in it. Yeah, there was a nominal head. The truth of the matter was, we ran the company around the lunch table.
Jim: Every day, we got together for lunch and it could be up to 20 people on a big table. We somehow managed to run it to 15 or 20 around the table, even though we were sort of past six or so, which is a good number. We were loosely grouped into nominal teams with nominal heads. Maybe there’s something in between the crew and your next level up, which is sort of 6 to 20 were thinking about at least.
Rich: Yeah, for sure. I think there’s a really important piece in here when you say these nominal heads. I’m guessing that most or all of these startups, they did have some degree of centralized ownership and leadership. That’s a really familiar model that we know. I think in some contexts, people are just more familiar with that way of working and so you can go further. Whereas if you’re trying to do something where you have completely decentralized ownership or decentralized leadership, it’s much more experimental. People don’t have such clear models of how to behave. That’s why I focus on the smaller scale where people get to practice.
Rich: If you have 20 people and you’re trying to organize without a central point where there’s one person who owns it or there’s the three co-founders in the middle, you’re going to spend a lot of time in debates about what our structure should be.
Jim: Yeah. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. We managed to do it even though we were GameA, we had stock and investors and there was concentrated ownership upwards towards the earliest senior players, but everybody had stock in the company. It’s always been one of my rules. Even the receptionist has stock in the company from day one. I think we acted as if, in general, and this has always been one of my business rules, radical intellectual honesty, that anyone who could say something useful and intelligent had exactly the same standing as anybody else.
Rich: Yeah. I’m thinking about the context of, say you get into a difficult deadlock, there’s a conflict. There’s probably one or two people in that group of 20 that everyone is going to look to to solve that conflict.
Jim: Yup, that is true.
Rich: Those concentrations are out, they’re always there.
Jim: Yup. Even in ape culture we know, right? One of my favorite guests has been on the show a couple of times. Jessica Flack. She’s written a lot about policing in ape cultures and to some degree, monkey cultures. Yup, there’s always somebody who, when there’s a deadlock, figures things out. Perhaps that’s emergent. It doesn’t have to be the same person. If you go back and look at hunter gatherer governance, very, very good book called Hierarchy in the Forest by Chris Boehm. It actually should have been called anti-hierarchy in the forest because it talks about how hunter gatherer people kept formal hierarchies from forming.
Jim: They had a concept called role based management. Obviously, they didn’t have management consultants to give a nice fancy name like that, I don’t think. In reality, that’s what they practice, which is they sort of knew who to look to for what. Maybe it was Ugg for hunting questions and it was Ma for gathering questions and it was Zoo for weaving questions. If there was a deadlock amongst the community about one of those three domains, “everybody” knew that these were the best thinkers on those three topics. The role based leader would typically step forward in that domain and break the deadlock.
Rich: Yeah. I totally buy that model. Sometimes we call that a competency network. The joy of that network is that there will be a rough consensus about who was the best at weaving. It’s not a formal consensus. You can actually have an overlap. Everyone has their own terrain of who they trust on which topic. There’s a bit of wiggle room in that terrain and a little bit of messiness, which is actually really resilient and really productive. As opposed to when you have the formal structure where you have departments and everything’s very clearly, this is the person that you report to and this person is the smartest one on this topic.
Rich: If you can organize as a network, you’re much more resilient and efficient, I think.
Jim: Exactly. It turns out Lulu who was the expert on weaving is starting to lose it a little bit. Maybe she’s drinking too heavy, but her younger cousin, Lala, is gradually arising as the most knowledgeable weaver than Lulu gradually loses her authority to Lili in a way that’s not brittle, right, that you would see in GameA organization. I’ll give you a real world example in my own companies. I might have been the CEO or the COO or the founder CTO. I have all kinds of different roles in different companies.
Jim: I would always make sure that I would announce loudly is don’t expect me to ever make a decision about anything that has to do with aesthetics. I have no aesthetic sense at all. My aesthetic construction crayon on grocery bags, so don’t ever ask me my opinion about which logo is better, or what color we should have for our letterhead. I am entirely incompetent. In fact, I have anti competence if I choose it, it’s almost certainly wrong.
Rich: Something tells me that’s not a false humility coming from you either Jim.
Jim: Nope, it’s not. I am just incompetent. You all saw me draw. If you ask me to draw a person it looks like rather untalented five year old. I think that a pronouncement of that sort provided room for role based competency to arise.
Rich: This does sort of illustrate why I’m interested in looking at the self as well, because there’s some people that wouldn’t be willing to say that about themselves that they can clearly delineate, here’s my competencies. Over here, I’ve got no talent. That takes a certain maturity to even be able to admit that. It’s an essential principle of being able to collaborate effectively with a group of people if everyone knows what their strengths are, and you have a sort of shared map of who’s good at what.
Jim: Yeah, that’s a very, very good point. Think of it as kind of an inverse Dunning-Kruger, right? Dunning-Kruger syndrome, which a certain leading political figure in the United States is an exemplar of, is the class of people who think they know a shitload more than they actually do. Much better to probably overestimate your incompetences than to overestimate your competences.
Jim: Anyway, let’s move on in your hierarchy. Let’s go from the crew up to your next level.
Rich: You name this level of 6 to 20 people, I’m sure there are more stages, but just the ones that I named for my own purposes, the next stage I call the congregation. That’s basically a Dunbar number, more or less. I think the jury is still out on what Dunbar’s number actually is, because it’s so culturally dependent, so context dependent. In any case, there might be 100 people in some cases, and it might be two or 300 in others. It’s the number of people that you can have who basically know each other, where you can basically assume that there’s no strangers.
Rich: That if a stranger shows up, everyone will be able to spot them right away because it’s like, “We don’t know you.” I mean, the reason I call it a congregation, partly it’s because it’s funny because it sounds churchy. I’ve got this churchy background and I’m excommunicated from a Fundamentalist church. It’s kind of funny for me to use that word. Also, it’s because the main job of the congregation is to congregate. It’s the verb, it’s about the gathering. It’s about the coming together.
Rich: In Enspiral’s case, the congregation is about 200 people, and we get together once a year. Not everyone can get there but a critical mass of people will come to a gathering once a year for about a week. In that time, it functions like a dating pool for all the crews. It’s a space where you get to meet new collaborators, you get to update each other on the projects that you’ve done. You might be sitting around the campfire late at night and exchanging stories about near misses you experience in your crew. There’s a lot of mingling there.
Rich: It’s about all the crews kind of blending together for a while and developing the sense of there’s something bigger than just my little startup, which is focused on Loomio, this decision making tool. That’s nice on its own, but it’s much more compelling to me to be connected to this bigger thing, where it’s like, oh, there’s 30 different ventures all doing different related projects. That gives me an enormous sense of pride and belonging. It’s really encouraging to be in that network. Again, the congregation of say, 150 people, if we want to choose an average is a lot smaller than most of the groups that people are working in.
Rich: If you think about Burning Man and all those related participatory communities slash festivals that are happening around the world, that people get really excited about, they usually have thousands and thousands of people in them. It feels good for a short time to do that. People go to those things because they feel like they belong, they feel like they’ve found the others. The fact is a group of that scale, most of the people are going to be anonymous to each other. They might have an imagined community where they sense like, “Ah, you’re one of those people and I’m one of those people.”
Rich: If you’re in a group that’s larger than 150 people, you can’t actually count on anyone to know you. You can’t count on anyone to actually care about you when you get sick say or like when you have some real needs, you can’t really count on those people to come through for you. Again, it’s a smaller scale than most people are used to thinking about organizing it.
Jim: I was going to expand your concept of the congregation a little bit. This, again, comes from my own business career, where we can think of the congregation not only as a dating service for crews, but also there are some problems and some opportunities that take a lot more than a crew to solve, right? There are some businesses you just can’t build without 100, 200, 300 people. It was something we discovered at the Thomson Corporation, a billion dollar at the time multinational, but I work there in the ’90s, now, Thomson Reuters.
Jim: We tried hard, couldn’t do it in all of our businesses. In many of our businesses, we had identified a size of about 300 that is the most people we wanted to have at one facility. Even if a business unit itself was bigger than that, we tried to not have more than 300 of them at one street address. Those 300 people acted together as a coherent congregation. They had their Christmas party together. They’d order pizzas. They’d have quarterly addresses from whoever the leader of that congregation was.
Jim: My wife helped me with this, we jokingly named all the ranks in Thompson, from pope on down. You had cardinals and archbishops and bishops and monsignors and priests and deacons and all those sort of stuff. Typically, a group of 300 would have been about the equivalent of a bishop. There would be four or five priests below that with groups around 100, between 50 and 100. The congregation, we discovered it to be 300 and I think that was in the context of a relatively highly networked world with lots of email, lots of voicemail. Video conferencing didn’t really work very well in those days.
Jim: Anyway, it’s the Dunbar number plus or minus. In the GameB world, we talk about a group called a Dunbar which is somewhere between 100 and 300 with a mean maybe of 150 that might be responsible for a certain set of things. For instance, housing, making sure that nobody in a GameB Dunbar is ever homeless under any circumstance, which means if you vote somebody into your Dunbar and they somehow lose their home, they’re going to be sleeping on somebody’s couch because that’s a commitment we make at the level of the Dunbar. It seems, to me, an appropriate commitment to make at that level.
Jim: Anyway, that’s just a radiant expansion of your concept, which I think is bang on. I think we’ve all learned a little bit from Robin Dunbar and his work. We’re all a little skeptical that we don’t think 150 is a magic number, but something in that range is saying something important. Now, beyond the congregation, what do we have?
Rich: Beyond that, I just call it the crowd. Because the point is, once you get beyond that scale, you have an expectation of anonymity. It doesn’t matter if it’s 500 or if it’s 5 million. Most people are not going to know most people in that context. I’ve just decided not to have too many opinions at that scale. There’s plenty of people that are really motivated about this, how are we going to change the world? Or how are we going to change this country? Or thinking in terms of millions of people at once.
Rich: I’m happy to leave them to it. I’m much more interested in how do we develop relationships of excellence at a scale that’s, yeah, Dunbar or lower? That’s my area to focus on.
Jim: Yeah. I would agree. If we don’t solve the lower problems, we won’t solve the higher problems correctly. Though we do have a concept in GameB called ProtoB, which is two to N Dunbars, who collectively or by affiliation, agreed to a certain set of principles. The ProtoBs can have different sets of principles. The principle set should be small enough to allow considerable diversity amongst Dunbars, what we call coherent pluralism.
Jim: ProtoB might have here are nine principles, right? If you want to be a Dunbar in ProtoB cactus, then you should include in your principles this set as a core and there should be competing ProtoBs. That’s one of the ways we think of getting to a somewhat higher number, aggregate around coherent pluralism using multiple Dunbars and let the ProtoBs differ in how they choose what their coherent core should be. Whether that works or not, I don’t know. It’s all theory at this point. A lot of it is written up in my paper, A Journey to GameB, available on Medium.
Jim: I’m less confident about that level of organization than I am some of these lower levels we’ve been talking about.
Rich: I’m writing a related hypothesis, but it’s different. I think, you just put a name on it just to see how it plays out, which is you’ve talked about principles. I’m trying to see how far we can get without naming principles, without naming purpose, without naming values and just stay explicitly focused on the practices, like keep it really close to the verbs, to the action to the doing, like, what are the methodologies we use? What is the stuff that happens and see how far we can go without naming these abstractions, these nouns, these principles, these purposes.
Rich: I mean that’s a reaction, potentially an overreaction for me to seeing, first of all, how much time groups put into articulating these nice abstractions. Secondly, how there’s always a large gap between the stated principles that you all agreed to and the actual behavior that you see. I’m doing this experiment of just like, let’s just explicitly focus on the behavior and try and keep it as concrete as possible and leave the abstractions to manage themselves.
Jim: I’m totally open to that. By the way, I will fully confess that I am an old fart with lots of GameA heritage and malware. My own use of the word principles should be taken as somewhat atavistic. If we can get away without them so much the better. I’m not convinced I’d have to see it, but I’m certainly open to it.
Rich: I do like principles the way that Ray Dalio uses them, which is like, what category of scenario are we in in this moment? Have we seen this type of scenario before? What did we do last time? He’s got a very coherent framework for thinking about decision-making and thinking about how to respond to novelty. I think that’s really, really useful. The use of the principles as in like, we love transparency and honesty and inclusion, it’s like, give me a break.
Jim: Yeah, it’s interesting. Though, I found that they’ve worked for me over the years. Because I said, the number one principle in all my company is intellectual honesty, right. We actually point to it. You never shoot the messenger, right? You never steal credit. You always bring forward that which is important to the company, even if it’s embarrassing to you or your work team. I have found that one principle in particular to be extraordinarily useful.
Jim: The other one was our Thompson principle, which we would articulate as you should push responsibility down as far as you feel comfortable and then one level lower. While I will say that there was, of course, lots of hypocrisy about that, because humans love to aggregate power. We would call that one out if we saw people who were not pushing authority down.
Jim: I still recall at a company meeting, which we’d have every year with the top, I don’t know how many it was, two or 300 executives. In this highly decentralized company, those two or 300 executives had a lot of authority. I remember a talk I gave when we were trying to mobilize this historically print in CD-ROM based publisher to move into the internet. I said, “One huge competitive advantage we have in this transition is we have in our company 500 people allowed to waste $50,000,” right? I looked at my CFO while I was saying this, he was up there on the stage with me, and he winced.
Jim: He was a great CEO, but he agreed. I said, “Our number one competitor head-to-head competitor McGraw-Hill, there’s only three people allowed to waste $50,000.” Having 500 people who have the delegated right to just make an arbitrary crazy decision on $50,000 will give us a huge advantage in out evolving McGraw-Hill, and sure enough, we did. Principles can be useful.
Rich: The sense of my kind of company.
Jim: Yeah, it was at those days. Unfortunately, a new management team came over blah, blah, they fucked it up. Oh, well, now it’s purely financial driven money on money return such as life. Those kinds of principles they should be small number, and they have to be really taken seriously, right. Yes, hypocrisy is the price that virtue pays the visor. The other way around, I don’t know what the fuck it is, but your people won’t be 100% compliant. If they take it seriously, I think they could work.
Jim: On the other hand, I would love to see how your approach works. I am fully confessed to being highly over formed by my GameA experiences and listening for the younger generation to prove me wrong, motherfucker, right?
Rich: I have to fully confess that I’m an extremist. I always swing too far off the deep end. The right way is probably somewhere in the middle.
Jim: Yeah. We’ll figure it out over time. Yeah, thanks a lot for that. Let’s hop back now a level that review of your number two in the various levels. Actually when I read it was the reason I reached out to you to come on the show was a very interesting higher level Medium article called How to Weave Social Fabric. It calls out and links to the Microsolidarity series but it operates at a higher and maybe simpler level for people to get started with, where you talk about initiators, gatherings and crews.
Jim: You maybe want do a quick run through on how to weave social fabric?
Rich: This is funny because I wrote that in January with a plan for how we were initiating a couple of different congregations. One was about taking the Enspiral congregation, which I said is centered in Wellington, in New Zealand, and seeing if we can establish a cell division there. Establish a new core somewhere in Europe. There’s that budding new congregation. Then, there’s a couple of others that I’m involved with in different ways.
Rich: One of them is a group for community builder facilitator type people. Then, there’s another one, which is a network basically of political leaders and activists and so on. There’s a bunch of different congregations that I’m helping to establish. We wrote this in January, and the plan was … the first thing you do is you have a really great gathering. You have a really awesome meeting where you get everyone face-to-face for the three or four days. You make them fall in love with each other, and then you fill them with a vision, and they go off and do a lot of stuff.
Rich: Then, of course, the pandemic cuts in and our plans of having everyone face-to-face are up in the air. We don’t know about travel, we don’t know about gatherings. We are now in the re-hypothesizing, re-experimenting phase with can we weave social fabric without having face-to-face time? This is really uncertain. It’s a puzzle. We’re doing a bunch of experimentation. I’ll keep reporting what I’ll learn along the way.
Rich: Still, I think a lot of the principles that I named in that blog post will still translate fairly well into a virtual context. The first one I named the initiators. To think about who is going to be in that role of calling people together? Who’s going to say, if it’s a face-to-face gathering, “I’m going to book the venue and invite the people to come.” Or if it’s online, similar, who’s going to send out the calendar invite this is happening.
Rich: I found it really useful to think of that within the frame of hospitality. A lot of people are familiar with hospitality and the expectations and the roles that happen with hospitality essentially being hosts and guests. That the host has some special responsibilities, they have some kind of empowered role there like, we’d say, my house my rules. There’s also a sense that the hosts job is to tend to the needs of the guests and to really give the guests a great experience.
Rich: I find that a really useful frame for thinking about how to address leadership in this community building context, which is a quite a vexed question. I think it’s really essential that you have this, yeah, hosts or co-hosts in the middle, and that the first people that they call to them. The ones that are closest to the core that you really think about what kind of qualities you want to see in your community and invite people that already exhibit some of those qualities.
Rich: People that you already think have wisdom or courage or that are very caring or very generous or very competent or whatever the qualities that you’re looking for, like calling those people first. Yet, getting that smaller first stage core to some degree of harmony, some degree of coherence, like bring them together first, maybe you’ve got 10 people or 20 people first before leaping ahead to going let’s get 100 people in the room or 300 people in the room.
Rich: Let’s start with just establishing some sense of a shared baseline like, this is us. This is what we do. This is how we feel. This is our direction that we’re heading in. Then, yeah, then the blog post, I go on to talk about how we run gatherings at Enspiral and how I think that the practice of that gathering is absolutely essential to what we’re doing. This is the bit that now is super experimental and we don’t know.
Rich: One way to think about it is the right kind of gathering will have this balance between freedom and form. I think at least the kind of people that I’m connecting with, they don’t want to have a huge amount of structure and control. They don’t want to feel like they’re going to go to a gathering and every hour is planned out, and there’s an agenda from start to finish. There should be a lot of freedom for spontaneity and people to do whatever they want and lots of different things that happen in parallel and so on.
Rich: The other principle is to think about the different relational spaces that you’re creating. There’s one space, which is the whole of us, like the whole group. If it’s a small enough group, you can do that sitting in a circle. Sometimes at Enspiral, we’ll have a really deep kind of dialogue circle or a story sharing circle where everyone’s sitting in the room together, looking at each other, seeing the whole of us. One a time, people will share a story and everyone else is just going to listen. You cultivate the sense of wholeness.
Rich: Then, spend some time into smaller groups, so breaking off into crews. Any gatherings that we run we’ll always have usually we call them home groups for some reason, but you could call it a pod or whatever you want to call it. Just four or five people that are having some kind of repeated connection with each other throughout the course of that event. Then, we have the pairing. Finding opportunities to put people face-to-face, sometimes we do things like walk and talk.
Rich: You pair up and you go for a walk for an hour. It’s just the two of you going for a walk and talking. It might be as simple as that or you can do some more sort of intentional communication practices about active listening and speaking from a place of authenticity and so on. Also, I think it’s helpful to make sure that there’s plenty of time for people to spend time on their own which is like I said, the smallest group, the self.
Jim: The self and the dyad, because when I go to conferences which I don’t do anymore, except as a speaker but I used to go to conferences fairly often. The best parts for me were the one-on-ones right, where you’d pick somebody out of the crowd or they’d pick you out of the crowd and you’d go off to a corner during the break and have some intensely deep conversation, right. It’s a truism that poorly organized conferences essentially all the value is in the side conversations.
Jim: At least for me, those are often dyadic. I would put that in there as well, when we’re thinking about such things. Let’s move on to something closer to this podcast actually. Something you and I have been chittering about on Twitter a little bit and I’m starting to do some work on. I think you and I and Jared are going to have a conversation about it offline. We’ve both been seeing Peter Limberg’s Stoa, which seems a nice example of building community around podcasts.
Jim: As I said, we put together a little project plan of our own, needs to be tuned and expanded. What are some of your thoughts on how some of your principles can be applied to turning podcasts into essentially expanded events that build community around them?
Rich: This is a really fun question because it’s so live, it’s so emergent right now and four or five different conversations simultaneously all with people that are running podcasts asking how do they make them less about broadcast and more about peer-to-peer community building? It’s fun. I don’t have a strong sense yet of what’s the right plan. There’s a lot of experiments happening in parallel.
Rich: One piece of the puzzle, I think, is that there’s an anti-pattern of podcast, especially in the GameB space and related sense making intellectual philosophical spaces, which is I’m concerned about overdoing the intellect and under doing the action. There’s all of the people that you interview on your show, they’re brilliant people. It’s like, every time I can get a new episode of my favorite podcast and listen to this person, I’ll be like, “Wow, they’re so smart.”
Rich: It’s really stimulating to listen to these smart people that can communicate really clearly. The concern that I have is that people get into a habit of just consuming knowledge. Just Listening to more and more different people and assembling this pristine map of how they think reality works. Maybe they start a little bit to think about how they might initiate some kind of community or some project or something that they’re interested in.
Rich: Still, they do this thing of like way over engineering it and overthinking it and under practicing, under experimenting. My energy is to try and interfere with that tendency and push people more towards the agency more towards their initiative, their entrepreneurship, their get up and do it kind of energy. I’m seeing Peter Limberg’s platform, The Stoa, as a really effective example of someone who had a podcast and now is doing everything interactive all the time. I think that’s really brilliant and he’s going to be prototyping a lot of stuff.
Rich: Yesterday, I had a conversation with a podcast that had some really serious, large audience. They have many thousands of people that are very actively engaged already in some of their community building efforts. They came to me with the question of, we have these 5000 people that were super engaged, and now they’re asking about mutual aid funds. Especially in the US, you’ve got people who are suddenly out of work, or they’ve got these unexpected expenses with the pandemic. We want to support each other by sharing money around, how do we do that?
Rich: My instinctive answer is the same that I give to all these people is like I keep saying, focus on the small scale. Also, to focus on experimentation and learning. In their case, my recommendation is instead of trying to address your 5000 people, is there a way that you can divide off 100 or 300, or something like that. Instead of designing the perfect system for a mutual aid fund, where people can exchange money between each other tax free or however it’s going to work, don’t aim for perfection, just aim for something that’s going to teach you something, that entrepreneurial attitude of just release something and then make it better next week.
Rich: What I’ve recommended for them is that they run a weekly or two weekly cycle where, okay, we’re going to do a funding round. Then, at the end of that round, we’re going to stop and we’re going to have some kind of communal reflection process where we go, what was good about that? What was not so good? What are we going to do differently next time? Use that agile iterative learning process to just develop the structure that’s right for the context that you’re in. Because this is the thing, like I have some degree of expertise in self-organizing groups, but I don’t have any expertise in your context. I don’t know, who are the people and what kind of relationships and what kind of culture they’ve got.
Rich: The right organizational structure is not going to come from my ideas, right? It’s going to emerge from the local context. Really instituting that practice of being very rigorous around the learning and the experimentation, like these are the experiments we’re running for this month. Then, this is the point where we stop and reflect and see what’s going to go better. Yeah, like I say, it’s probably looking for opportunities to focus on the small scale.
Rich: In Peter’s case, they’ve got one thing now that’s just added, they call the Metagame Mastermind and it’s like a little crew. It’s like find three people that you’re going to check in with every week on your personal development goals. I think that’s just like an excellent initiative, where they will have a shared sort of structure, a shared template like this is how we do our mastermind process and anyone can initiate.
Rich: If you’re listening to this and you like it, then just call out to two or three of your friends. Here’s the run sheet if you want to try it out. I like the idea of having lots of people doing that very small gesture of hospitality, that one of saying, “Hey, I want to do this little group thing, do you want to do it with me?” Then, coalescing those small groups together into progressively larger groups. I don’t know how that applies in your context with your incipient community.
Jim: That’s certainly a question that will cause me to think, right. I can’t give you a good answer off the top of my head but I do believe that if I approach it from that perspective that may help illuminate some good things to do. I also like your towards action. In fact, one of the things I call out is on the journey to GameB is that we need to develop a bias towards action. Particularly, in the social change movement, we do seem to attract too many people who just love to fucking talk, right, and people who do not love to act.
Jim: While talking is good and moves certain kinds of endeavors forward at the end of the day, you got to pull the trigger motherfucker, right. You got to go out and do something. I strongly try to encourage a bias towards action. One of the most recent things we’ve done in the GameB space is the Home GameB Facebook group, gotten overstuffed with too much philosophical bullshit and such. We’ve now spun off, I don’t know, a dozen or more independent subgroups, which have their own mod team, which set their own rules and are typically focused on a much more narrow topic like parenting or building sovereignty or education, community building, et cetera.
Jim: Even there’s still somewhat talk shoppy but some of them at least are moving towards action. I do think that those of us who are action oriented and I see you as a person who’s very action oriented, need to make sure that we level up these radical change organizations away from being talk shops or navel gazing and get on with building the goddamn thing, right?
Rich: I have to add the other side of that polarity though, because I’m also connected to a lot of activists, which I will sometimes call actionists that are just obsessed with doing action and actually don’t have the process of learning Engaged is not a process of reflection. There has to be a balance between those things. That’s why I’m always emphasizing this institute some kind of rhythm of retrospective, of reflection, of learning. Make those learning loops really explicit and say, every week or every month, we have this moment where we stop and we reflect on the action that we’ve done.
Rich: Certainly, most of your energy is going into acting because that’s the way that you learn the most. You also have to stop for a second. Stop doing for a second to look around and go, “What did we learn from that?” and then move again.
Jim: Yeah, I agree, for sure. Let’s move on to another topic. This is one of your lesser known essays on Medium called I Will, If You Will, which is this very interesting idea of making a conditional commitment. If enough of us agree to do X, like a debt strike or something like that, then it will trigger our mutual commitment to go forward. If we don’t get a critical mass, it won’t. What more can you say about that? I think you actually called out some tools and things of that sort that might be useful for people who want to self-organize around conditional commitment.
Rich: This is funny because I’m an absolute amateur in this field. I’ve done some stuff with technology for social movements. I was invited by some folks from Extinction Rebellion, who were planning some various conditional commitment initiatives. They said, “Would you have some opinions on us on what we’re doing?” I spend the day doing some research and pulling together some links and seeing what’s out there and talking to my contacts and so on.
Rich: I did the thing that I do which is post that all into a blog post so that I don’t have to keep it in my memory and just lift it out there to say like, this is the state of the art as far as I can tell from one day of research and some good conversations with people in the field. It’s so far outside of my day-to-day expertise, I think. Or not so far, but it’s not core to what I know about. The essential principle to me, it feels pretty sound. There’s been some good examples of people pulling it off well.
Rich: Yeah. A rent strike is a really good example. Those are currently happening especially in the US, all over the place where people are at least organizing in their building or in a neighborhood complex where there’s one property owner. If you can go around the neighborhood, whether that’s in person or online and get them to pledge, I need to have this conditions changed or else we’re not going to pay the rent. It’s very easy for someone to say, “I will, if you will.”
Rich: That really lowers the threshold of their commitment. Once you’ve got that critical mass, then you can initiate. There are some tools. The reason I was doing that research because there were plans for a really significant debt strike in the UK. Then, they backed away from that, I think, because I’m not sure exactly. It’s a bit foggy, but I think it’s because the legal implications of doing this kind of stuff start to get really serious when you’re talking about people intentionally taking on debt just so they can default on it, just so they can try and throw a spanner in the works of finance. It’s some really risky territory.
Rich: I think they backed out of that. I know that some of the people that have been involved with Extinction Rebellion have run smaller scale conditional commitment campaigns with some success. Definitely, yeah, I think it’s a field that’s right for more experimentation.
Jim: Great. I will reveal here now for the first time that there’s a document being prepared by one of the leading figures in the GameB space, not me, that will be proposing a conditional commitment for a radical reform or jubilee, you pick which one. We’ll have more to say about that soon. This is, I think, very timely. I would point people to Rich’s paper at least, there’s a primmer. I’m glad you qualified, how far along you were in that. I found it useful.
Jim: We’ll see where this idea goes. I think it has huge potential. It corresponds sort of using technology and networks to the old idea of the anarchists, the general strike, if you remember that from your anarchist literature.
Rich: I mean, it just has this kind of a beautiful idea about it. You can coordinate all these people to anticipate some kind of shared action and they don’t have to expose themselves until there’s a critical mass where they know they can win. I think it’s really devious and I really love it. I’m excited to hear that GameB people have got something in the works.
Jim: Yeah, it’ll be interesting. You’ve been playing, working, living in this world of self-organizing work, life and culture for a number of years. I don’t know quite how long but how do you see it progressing? What do you think we need to speed up the transition so that it’s just not a few of us maniacs out on the fringe but it’s large numbers of people?
Rich: That’s a great question. It does feel like there’s momentum on the way. I have a sense that there’s a growing portion of people in the world that are really dissatisfied with the status quo. We’ll see what happens with this pandemic with everyone taking a break from their business as usual. I have a sense that that might shake a few more monkeys out of the tree, that people have a moment to stop and reflect on their life and look at their… what are they spending their time on and how does that relate to their values? Maybe, it’s not so satisfying.
Rich: The main obstacle that I see and this is really core to my work, I think, is that doing the self-organizing group thing, for starters, it’s kind of new, maybe it’s ancient and we’ve lost touch. Most of us have lost touch with the old ways of doing it. For most us modern people, it’s new and experimental. My view is that there is no blueprint that you can copy and expect it to work well. I hold the contention that we don’t have to start from a blank slate either.
Rich: I really believe that there are design patterns that work transcontextually that you can take from one place and implement in another place. You can’t take an entire organization with all of the rules and regulations but I think you can take some of the practices and some of the modules. That’s why, the book that I wrote and now which we’ve developed into an online course, we call it, Patterns for Decentralized Organizing, is to try and name some of these patterns.
Rich: Some of the obvious ones are like decision making. If you’re going to work in a group, you’re going to have some way of taking decisions. We have compiled, look, these are some decision making methods that we’ve seen worked really well. These are our way of doing it. We named four different methods and say like they’re good for four different contexts and mature group. There’s probably going to be at a switch between those different methods and different context, but you need to have that shared language.
Rich: Like, if you’re in a group where everything is done by consensus or everything is done by just what they call, democracy, like a free for all, where people do what they want. If that’s the only decision method you’ve got, it’s not a very resilient system. If you have multiple decision methods, you are likely to be able to deploy the right tool for the job.
Rich: Then, we talk about conflict, is another really classic one, like new group start and they’re having a great time and it feels like they’re changing the world and they all love each other. At some point, the honeymoon runs out, and then you have some conflicts and very, very common that a group will falter or terminate because of a deep conflict between some of the core people. This is the kind of thing that you can anticipate. If you anticipate it while you’re still in your honeymoon and names and agreements about, what are we going to do when things get tough? Who we’re going to call on? You would have guiding principles.
Rich: If you can name some of those things before it gets tough, then when you hit the difficult time, you’ve got something to lean back on. If you hit the conflict and you don’t have any preexisting structure for dealing with conflict, it’s a very difficult time to invent one. There’s lots of these kind of patterns that we’ve been articulating in our work. The big frustration that I have is that people seem to intuitively understand, if they want to do something self-organizing that they can’t really copy a blueprint.
Rich: What happens is, everyone is out there in their own groups failing for the same reasons. They’re learning everything the hard way. A lot of these kind of obstacles and problems that we articulate, they’re sufficient to terminate a group. I think maybe 8 to 10 of these core challenges of working with humans. If you hit any one of those without the appropriate structure in place or the appropriate culture or without having prepared for it, it can be enough to terminate your group.
Rich: So many of these new initiatives get underway and they go really well for six months, and then they just disintegrate. Then, to me, it’s essential that we’re learning from each other. I’m doing my little piece of that with my partner, with our little company, The Hum, trying to produce training material. There’s more to it than that. It’s not just about us having the one true curriculum. I think it’s more about learning how do we share experience of what are we doing in our groups and what’s going well, what can we learn from each other? What’s difficult? How do we support each other? This is one of the critical success factors of Enspiral is that we have all of these small groups and everyone cares about everyone.
Rich: If your group is in trouble, I’m going to come over and help you out. Having that community of peers where we are invested in each other, but we’re not completely tightly bound together. There’s a little bit of distance there. It creates an excellent environment for learning and support. I think that more peer-to-peer exchange between these collaborative groups would go a long way. That’s my best guess for now.
Jim: Yeah. Let me throw out something else to you to think about because I absolutely agree with you and that’s actually my next topic. My sense, assuming that this COVID-19 pandemic thing does not actually crash the system and I don’t believe it will, but I think it’ll be a big shock. I don’t think this is the revolutionary moment yet. What I do think is happening based on talking to a lot of people over the last six weeks is that the number of people who have ears to hear about something different has been very substantially increased, perhaps by a factor of 10 or maybe even more.
Jim: You described dissatisfied with the status quo or maybe you just took a break from the rat race and realized, “What the hell have I been doing for the last 15 years? What ridiculous shit going to these stupid meetings, dealing with morons who don’t know how to operate a meeting, making no or bad decisions that don’t really matter, why do I live this way? This is absurd. There’s got to be a better way.”
Jim: The action item I’m taking from this in our GameB world is to perhaps artificially accelerate the creation of artifacts and to get them in circulation outside of the inner community for these ears to hear. Perhaps in your space, a natural action, if I’m correct on my hypothesis, I might be wrong. I often am. As I say, my ideas are strongly stated but weakly held, the results will tell us. Maybe take your Patterns for Decentralized Organization and get it done, god damn it, and publish it.
Jim: There’ll be probably a 10 times bigger audience for this in the next 9 to 12 months than there was in the last 9 to 12 months. Does that make sense?
Rich: It totally makes sense. I know I have to finish the book. I redirected my energy to doing an online course because that felt more alive. They have a space where people can meet each other and learn together in groups and whether they can do it together in groups or they can do it on their own. I know I have to return to the book and finish it. I have a tendency of moving on to the next thing. I like the shiny-shiny.
Rich: I have to say though, this emergence of new, potentially at least, the potential emergence of new groups does double click on why I’m focused on practices because you can enable a lot of different groups to use the same practices even if they have a different way of describing their values or their purposes or their principles. That’s a real shared resource, I think, that we can curate together. Whether it’s nonviolent communication or authentic relating or circling or stuff that I’m putting through Microsolidarity, there’s a lot of different behaviors, frameworks, structures that we can use that will replicate very well into different contexts.
Jim: That’s actually a very good point. I had not really focused on that, that practices ought to be more contagious, to use an appropriate word of the moment, than principles. Even if we have opposite principles, we can use the same practices. All right, let’s go on to our last topic here. We’re getting near our time, which is, this has been something that was in the GameB playbook from the very beginning, but we never had time for it. We’re trying to build our own little movement, but I am now getting outreach from other people, and I’m reaching out to them.
Jim: This is what we called the big change movement. To your point, there are lots of groups now that are interested in serious social change. They’re not the same. The regenerative ecological people I’m quite close to, is that the same as GameB? No. Is there overlap? For sure. I’ve gotten to know recently the Hansi branch, at least of the metamodernists not the same, some overlap, some serious goals, some differences on method, et cetera and there’s lots and lots more.
Jim: I love to know your ideas about tools, protocols, and to your word, practices on what do you think should be in place for this big change movement? Because we know that we don’t want to corral people into some common set of doctrines but we want them to be able to share things that they’ve learned, insights, et cetera without anybody dominating the other. It’s a truly collegial sense that all together are more than each apart.
Jim: Yet, there’s no dominance or attempting to divert anybody from their own trajectory. What thoughts do you have for how one might go about crafting a big change movement at this point in time?
Rich: I think with a question like that, I can only answer from my intuition. It’s kind of too big a puzzle to solve rationally. My instinctive position is that, we need to drill on the fundamentals. That means, I think, all this focus I’m putting on small groups. It’s like, I think, we need to have millions of people in the world that are ready to mobilize a group of people to work on their little patch and that feel competent to do that and feel encouraged and supported to do that well, and that they learn from each other.
Rich: Because what I see at the moment is like you see it, way more talk than action and this feeling that there’s a huge threshold before someone gets activated. I want to lower that threshold and make it more of a ramp. It’s like this move from being a podcast audience to being a podcast community of peer-to-peer action and mutual aid. That’s the gesture that I’m on. That means, doing the basics.
Rich: Like you said, learn how to host a meeting. Learn how to organize people and make decisions together and get some actions going. It can be the smallest thing. I think the first phase isn’t about how do we turn the economy upside down? I think the first phase is like, how do we make sure the elder people in our neighborhood are not going hungry? Or, doing the shopping for them? Or doing small gestures, the purpose doesn’t have to be transformative. I think the practice can be transformative.
Rich: Just discovering our agency and our ability to work and function as a collective. I think, if more of us were more competent on that, then I wouldn’t be so frightened about the future as I am now. Because this is what’s motivating my work, is there are so many utopians, so many activists, so many people who are willing to take a break from the status quo. If you look at them, a lot of them are not very inspiring what they actually achieve. A lot of them fall to pieces. I mean, you just look at what happened with the communes from the ’60s. Most of them disintegrated into really horrible places.
Rich: We’ve got to take that seriously that the intention to start it fresh and do something good and do something new is not enough. We actually need to have the competencies to do it well. My sense is we should be practicing today and developing those muscles and getting more and more competent to look after ourselves and our neighbors without institutional support. That’s the way that makes sense to me. I guess, the other part of what I’m doing is working out loud.
Rich: Really, making a practice of documenting everything I’m learning as much as I can, recording conversations in public and leaving those laying around so that other people who are on a similar quest can learn from me as I’m learning from them. I think open sourcing what we’re doing. I think GameB has been reasonably good at that. There’s a lot of surface area now online about what’s happening in the GameB space. I think that’s really good.
Rich: The stage beyond just open source is thinking in terms of modularity and identifying what are the component parts, you call them piece parts, that we can ship and say, “This is ready. This is good. You can use it wherever you are.” I mentioned this podcast manager that I was talking to yesterday, who has this 5,000 people who want to share money. I was really happy to say to them, “Look, there is a piece part for that. It’s called, opencollective.com and it’s like a charitable foundation as a service. It’s a really excellent way of people pooling money together and handling all of the taxes and the administration and stuff in a transparent way.”
Rich: That piece is done now. We don’t need to replicate it. I think that takes a particular approach to strategy and to movement design to think in terms of modules and make sure that we are checking them off one by one and not duplicating too much work.
Jim: All I can say to that is, Amen, brother. I agree with you 100% of what you just said there. I think that shows you why Rich is one of the two or three most interesting people I follow on the net. I’d encourage you to do the same. I’d like to thank you, Rich, for an extraordinarily interesting 90 minutes here or thereabouts. I think our audience will find this very, very useful.
Rich: I just wanted to tack on the end that just today we’ve decided we’re going to launch a thing called the Microsolidarity Practice Week. I mean, this is experimental because it’s brand new, but it’s happening. From May 11th, we’re going to bring a bunch of people together online and practice some of this relational stuff that I’ve been talking about. You can go to the hum.org to find about that.
Rich: I also wanted to say thank you, Jim, and not just thank you for interviewing me, but the work that you’re doing, I think, is really essential and the way that you’re showing up. You could be in the phase of your life where you’re retiring and quietly shuffling off to one corner, but instead you’re raising your voice and giving a platform for others and I think it’s really, really, really excellent contribution. I’m really grateful to be part of it.
Jim: Thanks. I think we’re all in this together and we’re all doing what we can.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller modernspacemusic.com.