‘Ordered anarchy’ delivers creative projects at better value

By Peter Kerr 01/03/2012

At first blush, a business with no bosses as such, run on a democratic basis where participants opt in on projects would seem a recipe for a disaster.

Yet, 30-month old Wellington collective (if that’s the correct term), with an Auckland hub, Enspiral is thriving and a poster child for the supposed coming wave of social enterprise.

So, how does a non-hierarchical, democratically run business operate in the age of the internet? In fact, it is possibly only because of the internet that it works as well as it does.

Throw in the fact that its founder Joshua Vial, decided recently that he wanted to go and do some other things in his life, and told the rest of his team simply to get on with it.

Enspiral is a loose group of mostly web/computer developers, along with designers, visual communicators, branding and animation experts. The 15-20 core members of what is effectively a collaboration aren’t run in a top-down manner.

“Most business models are stuck in the 1880s, with a hierarchical control and a centralization of knowledge,” says Enspiral business development manager, Josh Forde. “The focus of our work is that teams are formed around a project, disbanded, and maybe come back together, or it might be a different team altogether.”

There may be six or seven projects on the go (at the moment) at any one time says Forde, and though the BDM’s may be maintaining the relationship with the client, “we try not to have it too tightly controlled.”

That said too, the company project creation and delivery is still a work in progress.

It has been greatly aided by discovering BetterMeans.com, an open and democratic decision making tool built around a collaborative workflow.

For example a project may be put up on BM’s platform, and ‘Enspiralers’ (though Forde’s still to come up with naming/descriptor) vote the project up or down, somewhat depending on its importance and value.

As a governance and organisational model BetterMeans.com provides an open and democratic approach to projects – and enabling each contributor’s (who may be in Sydney, the U.K. or Canada at this stage) input to be kept.

For example a client will present a challenge to Enspiral, and will receive an agreement back that attempts to break down the expected project’s stages.

Enspiral uses open software sources as much as possible, often coding through Ruby on Rails, mostly because this means the client isn’t locked into a company because of proprietary code.

“We want to be as open and honest as possible,” says Forde. “We’re after a longer game with clients, a long relationship where they receive the best value they can.”

Sometimes this includes the frank admission that the collective team doesn’t have the skills, say in moving graphic animation at the moment, and Enspiral will suggest others that the client could work with.
The Enspiral model allows a great deal of flexibility, and staff can choose the hours they work, how long for and at what rates.

“It is inherently lean and efficient,” with the benefit that staff may have a particular affinity for types of projects, Forde says.

Project groups could come together around a geographical location for example, or values – such as a specific environmental project.

As a work in progress and a stage beyond a start-up, Enspiral doesn’t have ingrained systems or legacies; “we’re on the shop floor of what is going to be,” he says.

An increasingly large part of the company’s work is around science innovation, cleantech, social enterprise and a number of not-for-profit organisations. Part of the social enterprise ethos is about giving something back, and Enspiral is part of its worldwide movement says Forde.

Without centralised control, there can be free sharing of information, and much more openness and transparency of how things work.

The company is not undercutting its business competitors’ prices, as it is sustainable at a rate that is 25-30% less than others.

“We’re a fully functioning business, with a different way of going about things,” says Forde. “The fact that we’re transparent about how we operate, and where the costs lie, is of tremendous benefit for most of our clients. We go out of our way to develop relationships with who we work with. It may not necessarily be the quickest way to make a dollar, but making money quickly isn’t really our intention.”

Forde says the whole social enterprise model is loose, ill-defined and growing. With that, Enspiral’s method of doing business doesn’t really have a name.

Perhaps its best description could be ‘ordered anarchy’ – as contradictory as that sounds!

0 Responses to “‘Ordered anarchy’ delivers creative projects at better value”

  • Peter said…
    ordered anarchy

    Friedrich Hayek further refined a similar (if not the same) concept which is the mechanism as spontaneous order in complex system. Statistical physicists, then realized Hayek’s spontaneous order falls in the non-equilibrium dynamic self-organized complex system. There are small number of physicists who believe that Hayek’s spontaneous order concept (in a social system) was the pre-cursor to complexity theory. There have been a number of publications from the econo-physics community that showed that bottom-up approach (in society or organization) is better than central control/command, be it economics system (laissez faire), biological system or business (as your example here Peter) and so forth.

    The key mechanism is that interaction between system’s components in a close neighborhood or coalescing (agents in a social sense or particles in a physical system) can lead to spontaneous emergent behavior. Adam Smith’s concept of invisible hands has been identified by physicists as the same process.

    PS: I argued on the other thread on free-markets economy which is much more efficient than command & central control economy or mixed. My argument is based on my philosophy libertarianism, backed by modern researches in economics, complex system theory (CST) , econo-physics (EP). I didn’t want to start citing published papers in CST or EP, since it would have taken the discussion on that thread way off-topic .

  • I thought that some of the following may be of interest to some scientists here about certain dynamics of a (complex) system.

    One of the popular model today that originated in statistical physics for studying complex system dynamics (spontaneous behavior emergent & order, competition, cooperation, etc,..) which has spread into other areas (economics, finance, biology, computer science, mathematics, physics) is called MG (minority games). The first paper appeared on MG, was published in 1997.

    Emergence of Cooperation and Organization in an
    Evolutionary Game

    Although, there have been many publications on MG topic with different variants since the first one came out, here is a recent one.

    Cooperation amongst competing agents in minority game

    The MG model has outperformed the neo-classical economics models of today in terms of describing the correct behavior (economists called them stylized facts) of an economic system. Traditional economists are starting to take note of the work that physicists are doing on economics theories.