PostGrowth: Founding an organization remotely via Skype chat

11/15/2016 | Christian Kreutz
Example chat

Christian Kreutz: I'm here at the Peer Value Conference with Donnie Maclurcan? I pronounced it right. That's very nice. I was very intrigued about the work you're saying you're doing. Tell me a bit about what you're doing?

Donnie Maclurcan: Six years ago, with 10 individuals, we co-founded a global economics institute called the Post Growth Institute. We look at what comes after capitalism. What was fascinating to me -- and relates a lot to the processes that we've engaged with since then -- is some of the lessons we learned about starting our organization, and what really motivates people to continue being part of the organization, and builds trust within our group.

Two things here emerged, and they relate largely to the very first experience we had. Imagine 10 people around the world from six different countries, who are all being connected via email and the Twitter hashtag #postgrowth.

Christian: How did you get to know each other?

Donnie: Yeah. Via setting up a hashtag #postgrowth.

Christian: Did one person set up the hashtag?

Donnie: Yes. Other people we connected via blogs. But it was all electronic connections. No one had met with each other. We had our first meeting planned on Skype, a video meeting. Of course within the first few seconds, the video crashed. All of a sudden we go over to typed format -- the instant messaging form.

For the last six years we never deviated from that. All of our meetings other than every second month where we have a personal check-in, which is visual. Every other meeting that we hold is all just typed.

Christian: Is it chat? You had to chat, wasn't it?

Donnie: We had to chat. What's amazing about chat -- the reasons which we learned later on -- is that it's extremely participatory, extremely efficient, and extremely supportive of all the people in the team. The way that happens is as follows, in Skype for example when you write a message and you're watching someone else write a message, you'll see the little pencil moving.

Let's say I'm chairing a meeting with a bunch of people here. I have an agenda item which is to discuss the time that we suggest or what we feel about raising money through certain means? Then we have a discussion about that. As the moderator of that discussion I don't move on until I see that pencil stop moving, disappear for example.

Christian: You had to moderate it. That's probably for the presentation part?

Donnie: Yeah. There's always a chair but that's an interesting point we can get to in a moment. The crucial thing here is that, in a voice meeting, let's say, typically someone will say, "All right. Any other views on that?" If someone doesn't speak up in the next one second, or two seconds, it's over.

But in Skype, you wait until the pencil stops moving and even if you start to move on, if the pencil starts moving again, on the screen, you know that someone wants to say something. In other words the conversation isn't over, until it's really over. Here is the most crucial thing we learned about this.

The research shows that 25 percent of groups or more are introverted in attendances. As an extroverted group meetings, I know how much people like myself control meetings. We take over. We do that by having a lot of talk, and not much silence in the meetings.

When you have Skype meetings or online instant message meetings, all of a sudden your meetings are in silence. It gives people who have visual and written communication forms, who favor those forms of communication it gives them a chance to actually participate in ways that they can't easily participate in spoken meetings.

Christian: Or they wouldn't have to do it?

Donnie: Right. Our team is probably I would say 50/50 or maybe even slightly introverted in its nature and yet those people are some of the most vocal in our team, because it gives them a chance to see text and respond by writing. Before they click, send on a message, they can see what they've written, which you can't do when you speak.

You can't plan always what you want to say and then say it and revise it. You can even edit messages in instant messenger, if you want to change it. You also have the added bonus of...Communications in western world we're not very good at. We get hurt by lots of things that people say at meetings. We take them the wrong way, etc.

In instant messenger, it's not that online communication isn't froth with difficulty in terms of the things we say -- it is. We mistake an email for meaning something where it doesn't.

The emoticons that you can add at the end of messages can totally relax people, because you can say a line that might look like it could be interpreted in certain ways and be mostly provocative and then you put a smiley face or a wink and it would take the edge of that message, if there is already a base level of trust within the group.

Christian: I want you to discuss that.

Donnie: Now that base level of trust is so interesting. We set up this institute and we're looking at what comes after capitalism. Big, big questions. We get together and the Skype meeting happens and it crashes with the video link, so we go to type, then I say to the group -- because I was the one who convened this first group.

I said to them, what would you think a group like ours, that's looking at the biggest issues that exist in the external world, what would you think we will focus on in terms of how we might start our process.

Christian: At this point you didn't even know the people?

Donnie: Didn't even know the people. They said, "OK, we would look at what we want to do? What we want to call ourselves? How we want to do it and getting to know each other a little bit."

I said." What if we do things a little differently?" They trusted me enough that we did. For the next three months, not once did we look at issues of economics, technology, population. Any of the things that were the work that we wanted to look at. We didn't look at the work at all. Instead, all we did was work out what kind of strengths we wanted to identify in each other.

Then we created a survey that we filled in over those months. At that time I think an eight-page survey that looked at, what you're passionate about? What knowledge and skills do you have? What excites you? What are you interested in? in this field, etc. At the end we then looked at each others and got to know each other that way, had conversations about what came out in these forms.

It was unbelievable because all of a sudden these people felt like a family and so we were able to write our charter in a couple of hours, key documents so quickly because we were very trusting, and in fact in the years that came after that we very rarely had ideological differences about key issues. This is stuff that's like the big picture stuff, money, debt, interest, fractional-reserve banking. All these sorts of things.

When typically people have very strong views if you're in this field around stuffs, we haven't found that to be the case and I put that down to a lot of the trust that was built into our processes early on. The crucial thing here though, which is what I recommend to so many other groups that are working in digital space, connecting in ways but they're not face-to-face, but even for groups that are meeting face-to-face we began with the hot stuff.

What I mean by that is we began with people's passions and interests, not their knowledge and skills. When you begin with the hot, you value people in a way that is very humanizing as compared to our typical approach, which is we value people for what knowledge and skills they have, which is very cerebral.

That fits very much with the power-plays that we reproduce in society where we ask people at an event what do you do? Rather than what are you passionate about? When we start with what we're passionate about and new people who come into our team we always begin with what they're passionate about.

Christian: I mean that's a lot of profile and their preferences.

Donnie: Exactly. They get to read other people's profiles. When we begin with what people are passionate about, it creates a leveling process where we're treating everyone equally in the practice of what we do.

Christian: Can you tell me how does such a profile look like? Is it just tags?

Donnie: Google form.

Christian: In tags, people write about their passion or there are just key words?

Donnie: It's a semi-structured interview, with mostly open-ended questions that allow them to explore things about themselves and then share those with the group. But then we also every two months hold these face-to-face personal meetings where we make it a particular point of not talking about our work at all.

I know so many groups do this. Normally the personal side of things is -- even if you go on like a group day where you do a sporting activity it still happens that in my experience that people in a company will end up talking about work a little bit on that day. You'd be out rafting with other people or kayaking and someone will mention something about work.

Christian: In contrary in the majority of organizations that's the other way around. All focus on the workshop. Everything has to be soft that day. The governance and all the big strategy issues.

Donnie: Totally. So we hold meetings where -- we never even have said this but it happened this way -- you're not really allowed to talk about work. You have to just talk about you. We give each other questions. Whoever is chairing that week has questions that they put forward for people to reflect on a few days earlier about themselves.

The kind of ones like to who would you take to dinner, if you could choose anyone. That kind of questions. It's very humanizing process for people who don't work alongside each other.

Christian: How is the operational side then? How do you operate and manage these other, your work and tasks? Is it that all in these chats?

Donnie: Yes, all of it. We have a reporting mechanism at the beginning of our operational meetings where after a few key things like asking people of time constraints, welcoming them, etc, checking in about the agenda. We then give everyone a chance to feedback what they've done since the last meeting, what they plan to do before the next meeting, and any help that they need.

They have the template they fill in for each meeting and so that way we get a very, very quick checking-around approach at management and then we move into discussions, which often then relate to task management, we use view sociocracy as a method for our decision-making process.

Christian: I know holacracy, which is very close to it. You all work voluntarily or you...?

Donnie: No, I'm the Executive Director. I'm part time paid and we have a few of our team who are contractors and the rest are volunteers.

Christian: Where are you based?

Donnie: I'm based in Southern Oregon, but our team is across six countries.

Christian: That's absolute an impressive story. How do you to contrary belief make it happen that the corporation works without knowing each other but not talking any physical presence and by getting trust through different means? That's amazing.

Donnie: One thing I'll also add is that this method of silent meetings can be so powerful and the evidence of this is that we've had people that after two meetings that they've attended, the next meeting, the third meeting with people that they only have just recently met, they chaired the meeting.

Christian: There's so much trust and they needed to prove that they're trustworthy.

Donnie: So much trust and this method is so much easier for people to take on that role.

Christian: Thank you so much for sharing the story.

Donnie: Sure. I am delighted.

More information on that method.

Donnie Maclurcan is passionate about all things not-for-profit. He is an Affiliate Professor of Social Science at Southern Oregon University, in the U.S., from where he runs the Post Growth Institute: an international group exploring how we can flourish beyond capitalism. As a consultant he has helped more than 350 not-for-profit projects start, scale and sustain their work, while his own initiatives include co-founding: Free Money Day, the Post Growth Alliance, the (En)Rich List, Cascades Hub, and Project Australia. Donnie holds a PhD in social science that explored the impacts of nanotechnology on global inequality, and is currently completing his third book, titled: How on Earth: Flourishing in a Not-For-Profit World.