Monday, May 11, 2015

On how to conduct open and peer to peer ventures

In the Batman The Dark Knight Rises movie there is a scene, called the social experiment, where people in two boats need to make a decision to avoid an imminent catastrophic explosion. In one boat, they form a democratic system and they debate about the problem in order to make the best decision. The second boat is filled with prisoners and their guards, forming a hierarchical, army-like system. The movie shows these two situation in parallel, with a clear preference for the hierarchical situation, essentially trying to convince the viewers that in times of crisis, when things need to get done effectively, we don't have time for democracy. This movie was made during America's military operations in Afghanistan and in the Middle East, justifying the need to bypass democratic processes and even take illegal actions in the name of national security. We can now go back in time and judge if these decisions have had a more positive or negative impact on the US and on the world.
I live in Canada, a so called democratic country, where people spend most of their time in a totalitarian setting, the workplace, where they get things done. If we do the math, we spend most of the time executing or giving orders, depending where we are situated within the hierarchy, Once in a while, very rarely, we are called to vote on community or social issues, and even that is most of the times reduced to chose a representative from a short list that is presented to us, to delegate our decision making power.

Our concept of democracy is affected by our very reduced experience with democratic processes. We seem to appreciate our minimal involvement in shaping the social power structure. We demand transparency and accountability form those in power. But we don't seem to trust a wide open involvement of the public in making granular decisions. We don't even seem to understand how that can be done.

The multitude, or the p2p movement prescribes methods for wide open processes for problem solving (value creation) and decision making. This is known as open (source) development (peer production) and open governance. These methods have been shown to be very effective, but very few people are accustomed to them. Those who don't know them don't trust them, and find them risky.

I have participated in many collaborative projects in the past, which started with the intention to develop as open peer to peer projects and when the panic set in to meet the deadline many of these projects defaulted back to hierarchical/centralized and closed. The argument was always the same, we don't have time for openness, we need to deliver with the expected quality, and fast, which implies that open processes cannot be effective enough.

Can open and peer to peer processes be effective and efficient? I have been involved in such processes for over 7 years and I can say with certainty that they are. But we have to agree on what we mean by open and peer to peer. Gathering together on the basis of good will is not enough, without the proper infrastructure, methodology, governance, and culture. Like with any other process, we need structure or at least a proper environment for structure to emerge, as needed, in context. Open and peer to peer doesn't mean no structure.

We often hear that we need to let the process self-organize. That is fine, but the next question is self-organize into what? As soon as you ask that question another one pops up, how do you do that? How do you set up the environment to foster that self-organizing process so that the system transitions into a state that has the desired characteristic? Emergence will happen, but you might end up in an undesired state. Lock a bunch of people in a room and come back two days later. You may find them divided into two teams, playing a competitive game, or in a circle, trying to solve a problem in a collaborative way, or everyone else listening to one person giving a presentation, or everyone fighting against everyone else like in a bar scene of a classical western movie. All that is possible, and more. But if you give them some initial suggestions, or even some rules, if you put some boundary conditions on the system and prescribe some processes, you will restrict the array of possible outcomes. You can drive this group into a more collaborative or a more competitive state for example.

Groups that are setting up to do something in an open and peer to peer way, and that don't have the proper culture and knowledge about it don't know how to create the conditions to self-organize into a desired state, one that preserves the characteristics of openness and peer to peer. Some of the features of this desired state are to deliver solutions in an effective and efficient way (and yes, it works), along with empowering the participants, giving participants the opportunity to lean something new, increasing the level of participation, etc. As soon as the panic sets in, their familiarity with hierarchical and closed processes feels like a comfort zone for them, and that pulls them back into their default dynamics.

So what does it take to conduct projects in an open and peer to peer way, effectively and efficiently? There are various recipes that apply in different contexts. Scale is an important factor, which is about the number of participants. The type of project is another one, related to the type of resources needed, to the nature of the deliverable, to the type processes involved, ...

First, we need to evaluate if the initial group has the open culture. This post is not the place to describe what that culture is in detail. Let's just say that the individuals involved need to be comfortable with sharing early, working transparently, collaborate and even co-create, which involves being non-territorial and non-egoistical, accept and provide constructive criticism, be independent, be respectful, be inclusive, be helpful and attentive to others' needs, understand the value within the network or the community, protect and nurture the commons, have a sense of purpose, etc. The better the culture the less governance is needed, because people instinctively know how to conduct themselves. I have worked in groups with the proper culture and it feels like honey. Everything runs smoothly, people find their place rapidly, they know how to take initiative without stepping on anyone's foot, decisions are made effectively without alienating many, ... I also worked in groups with a poor culture. It feels like rolling a stone ball up the hill, dropping it from time to time and starting all over again. People are in for their individual benefits, they fight to occupy prominent roles, they are focused more on having their ideas accepted rather than having the best idea shaping up, they can't share early or collaborate and produce poor results for which they cannot take constructive criticism. When it comes to benefits, they would like to have it all. Instead of helping others they try to outperform them to gain more visibility, ... Sometimes we are forced by circumstances to work with people that don't have the proper culture, and in that case we need norms and rules, we need to install open governance.

Open governance is about decision making processes, conflict resolution mechanisms, norms and rules of conduct. There are many recipes for this too, and we are not going to provide a complete overview here. If you want to dig more, search ''peer governance'' on
Examples are: define ''membership'', frame ''initiative'' and describe how to make incremental decisions, describe how broad scope decisions are made (see consensus building and lazy democracy for instance), describe rules for accessing, modifying, and sharing content, describe representation rules, describe expulsion rules, etc.

Third, we need to put in place methodologies, which describe how new members are integrated, how meetings and other tasks are conducted, how to deal with documentation, how to allocate different types of resources, how to conduct research and development, how to do outreach, etc.

Last, but not the least, we need to put in place some infrastructure, which is a system of tools used in processes. These are internal communication and social media channels, content management system, resource planning system, project management tools, perhaps a reputation system and a value accounting system, etc.

It is important to note that the tools and methodologies used affect the culture of the group. For example, if the content management system is a public wiki and the methodology around documentation is designed around this tool, the group will most probably inherit a collaborative and open culture. That is because the tool and its associated processes are inherently open and collaborative. First, they act as filters, attracting predominantly individuals with the proper culture, which will form a critical mass and induce a change in the not so accustomed minority, which will tend to conform. Second, being exposed to these tools and processes allows one to experience and learn the open ways, and perhaps to even appreciate them.

We also need to mention that the culture, the governance, the methodologies and the infrastructure need to form a coherent system. If the group adopts an infrastructure with limited access for the majority of its members, for instance if the content management system allows only a few members to edit content, these privileged members will effectively have at their disposal a lever of power by controlling the content. This situation can spoil other processes, but it can be addressed by putting in place rules for content management, allowing the group to democratically elect those who hold the key to the content and to remove them from this position in case of abuse. Small groups that also have the proper culture can probably function even without these rules, but the situation can be unstable.

Even before we put all this in place to increase the resilience of an open and peer to peer endeavor, there is still a big hurdle to pass. I can say that this is probably the hardest one, even for someone with a lot of experience. If the forming group doesn't have the proper culture, it might become very difficult to create the proper conditions for the project. That is because those with little experience with the open and peer to peer are not very good at recognizing talent and skills, and at stepping aside to let those with experience set it up for them. Most probably, you will find at least one in the group who, for various reasons, will oppose or marginalize those who show initiative and fine skills, who could set the ground for a successful venture. Sometimes, the initiatives of the skilled individual are rejected because they are simply not understood, and since in the beginning there is no governance in place to frame initiative or even to make decisions, the chance to even put that in place is reduced. In these situations, most often than not, the skilled individuals get frustrated and quit.

In conclusion, open and peer to peer ventures can be very efficient and effective. If you want to experience their benefits you need to understand that in order to run this types of ventures successfully you need people with the proper technical skills, experience and culture, which can create the proper initial conditions. If you succeed in attracting some of these people, make sure you keep them close and happy.


By AllOfUs

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