We organise ourselves in order to cultivate response-ability and care. We think that distributed power and decision making can help us achieve these organisational goals. We do not think decentralisation is an end in itself. Our mission is not efficient production, it is to learn together. Please keep this in mind when considering if this pattern is applicable to you.
Kernel hopes to be a hospitable organisation. The idea is based on years of work on Distributed Collaborative Organisations, beginning in 2014. It is inspired by insights from Networked Improvement Communities, Swarmwise, Holocracy, Sociocracy, Spiral Dynamics, and Integral Theory.
We are indebted to David Graeber and David Wengrow, from whom we draw specific anthropological insights about what the freedom to transform social relationships has looked like, such that we can imagine together more liberating heterarchies. We premise everything we say in a relational understanding of reality.
While this pattern pays homage to a rich intellectual tradition, it privileges practice and simplicity over theory and "meta". Research into the work and life of Alexander Bogdanov may help discover even more practical applications of the relational thinking presented here.
Personally, I hope Kernel will always mean something more like a way than a place, a verb more than a noun, a process more than a product.
Leadership as Hospitality
Despite distributing power, leadership remains critical. Power becomes distributed not by denying the import of leaders, but by setting cultural precedents - mirrored by operational practices - which make it clear that leadership is role-based and changing; not given once by (divine) authority or temporal order and then never altered.
The idea that to lead is to serve, or that it is primarily janitorial (the Swarwise understanding), is an old and powerful one. It acts against the ego inflation that roles of power often cause. However, this can take the form of subtle displacement, rather than a genuine decrease in egotistic modes of relating and organising. This can manifest in interactions like, "Don't you know how much I've done/sacrificed for this?" or "No-one ever sees all that I do! I am never appreciated or recognised for how everything 'just works' around here."
We encourage a culture of leadership as hospitality for a number of reasons.
- The host is noticeable and acknowledged. However, a party where the host hogs all the attention is a very boring party.
- The host is responsible for the space: is the food nourishing, is there some water by the dance floor, is the music moving, is the punch well balanced, are people mixing with others they're likely to hit it off with, is the DJ well looked-after, is everyone reasonably secure?
- Good hosts are not neurotic. They enjoy the party as much as everyone else and they don't bother people by constantly hovering over them: it is the middle way between responsible care and trusting autonomy.
- It's worth repeating: a host is a response-able steward. As host, you are familiar with the space, often intimately so. That familiarity is what enables you to invite others in with meaning, purpose, and beauty.
- When leadership is hosting, the role can change far more fluidly and easily. Whoever hosts the space (be it irl or url) is the leader. It's that simple. Being the host means that you get to pick the theme and decoration for your own party, but you have to make sure - as far as is possible - that the others have fun too.
- Being a good host requires a deep attention to detail, and wide spread awareness, simultaneously. This is indistinguishable from what makes an extraordinary leader and it is a skill we can all practice by putting ourselves in positions of responsibility for others and the quality of the time they spend together.
Hospitable Organisation: A Method
The pattern is simple. How people enact it in context varies endlessly.
- Create invitations to functional spaces.
- "Functional spaces" enable any participant to leave lasting traces which allow for indirect coordination across times and roles (known formally as "stigmergy").
- As people spend more time in functional spaces leaving marks, they begin to identify patterns and trends. Invite these people to curate the creative and unstructured work done by others.
- Produce good public interfaces from these curated trends and patterns. In order to make good public interfaces, you (the host) need to be current with the latest ideas coming in from the loose edges of your network. This requires that you spend the most time of anyone in those functional spaces helping newcomers orient and make sense of things.
The final point "closes the loop" rather than creating a ladder. You don't rise through some knowledge hierarchy as you get better at recognising patterns and trends in particular domains. You come back down into the heart of the dance floor to learn that move all the cool kids just made up so you can combine it with the mature patterns identified by people more familiar with the domain and create something truly worth sharing with the world.
We create functional invitations to playful spaces. Think about it: you need to set up your house to host a dinner party. The table must be laid, the couch moved, the floor swept, and a million other little details attended to. The same thing goes for hosting anything: whether it is a shared document, a whiteboard (physical or digital), a team mural, a code repository, an online event or anything else relevant to your organisation.
Invitation is a sacred concept and, as such, it must be grounded in shared reality. We do this by paying attention to how people can accept it (what does the calendar invite say, is the link prominent, are any requirements clearly listed and so on) and what it enables them to do (can people view, comment or edit; if so where and when?), or who it enables them to meet and what context surrounds such doing or meeting (will participants know who is attending, or just the number of people, or nothing at all? What do these different options imply about the state of mind of people as they join the space?).
We leave lasting traces. That is, anyone may modify the environments from which we all draw value/sustenance. The cultural precedent we emphasise is the fundamental insight of game theory: we are each other’s environment. The goal here is to cultivate indirect coordination across time and roles.
Physical spaces are actually the hardest to get this right in. We'll often leave cards or post-it notes or other media around and encourage people to use them during the course of an event. However, physical interaction often overwhelms that particular impulse in most people, so you need to pay particular attention to it if you want lasting traces from irl events.
In digital environments, the problem is often the opposite. People can overwhelm spaces not crafted with care such that any information in a FigJam, Miro, Mural or other shared documents quickly becomes more difficult to navigate than the use-value the information in it provides. This means that careful thought must be given to who has what roles and rights and how those can be managed on-the-fly. Of course, you also don't want to spend all your time changing permissions for people, so be very intentional about this.
Our experience is that Mural boards, with a skilled facilitator, allow for the easiest flipping of contexts from locking the board and following the facilitator to full on 100-people-at-a-time working on a shared area. That said, this is where it is critical that you don't let meta get in your way. That is to say: everyone always has a different preference about what tool to use. If you lose too much time debating tools, you never get to any of the fun stuff. As host, pick something you are deeply familiar with and can manage clearly and well - like your dining room table - and stick with it.
We use Mural, Figma, Miro and more for different aspects of our shared exploration and learning. It really doesn't matter and it actually doesn't become overwhelming if people are communicating well about the work they're doing and the core insights they glean from each context. These can then bubble up from individual and disparate tools into more coherent and standardised communal spaces.
There is a tension in most organisations between honouring those who have participated for the longest time, and ensuring that there is constantly room for newcomers with fresh ideas and perspectives, as well as skills the old-timers might lack. As humans, we value both loyalty and novelty, so this tension is one we are all familiar with in both personal and collective contexts.
Loyalty breeds intuition about what really connects and how things are related within particular contexts. Novel or more skillful perspectives see unexpected or unlikely connections and relationships where those with more set predictive models might have become blind. We need room for both these things: intuitive experience and fresh eyes.
In Kernel, as we spend time learning together, people move across a “knowledge landscape”. As you spend more time becoming familiar with the topology, you can begin identifying trends and patterns based on your own experience. As you become more familiar with the landmarks in any given domain, you can start producing more tailored or curated “trails” for others: marks which help them understand potentially useful paths to follow that will speed up their own learning process and help them avoid dead ends you have already been down.
This is another old idea, probably best expressed by Vannevar Bush. The leaving of lasting marks in any of the playfully functional spaces we create helps everyone in the community perceive what Bush called “user trails” through our shared informational space. We don’t really require a unified toolset for doing this: part of the fun is that people identify different patterns based on what landmarks they’re using to navigate by and this generates interesting debate and more potential learnings for everyone involved (especially if the places where people’s trails cross are well hosted).
Identifying patterns is like learning how to float a little bit above the mud of sense-making. It reminds us of an old saying: “Before studying zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. During your studies, things get confused. After studying zen, men are men and mountains are mountains.” What is the difference? No difference! Only, the feet are two inches above the floor.
You’re not any different from the newcomers: it’s simply that you can choose where to place your feet.
Produce Good Public Interfaces
Hosts invite, participate, and make public.
It is the final step which is most critical. As outlined above, crafting good public interfaces requires that you are the one who spends the most time in those functional spaces, making sense with other people. This is because building good public interfaces requires that you are aware of the latest ideas and trends and that you are capable of combining those with more mature patterns already identified through longer-term use by known actors in the community.
Moreover, building public interfaces is a forcing function that puts you in direct contact with people who are not yet hosted by any one, event, or space associated with your network. When leadership is about this kind of work, it both keeps you current and it encourages you to pass on the role regularly. It is deeply engaging work, and it is therefore also very demanding. You will not want to do it forever, and that is by design.
You do not get to be top of the ladder. If anything, you are the back of the loop from your organisation’s perspective, working in public with patterns and trends identified by people you know, which have been pulled from the work of those you have recently invited to play in functional spaces.
This way, we do not create knowledge hierarchies, but community gardens. The garden is a wonderful place: able to respond contextually to each season as a result of the care we garden with. It is no mistake that it bridges both noun and verb form.