Enspiral Workshop - My take-aways
  October 04, 2016

I've never liked working in hierarchical organisations. One of the reasons we were all drawn to work on Cucumber the open source project, I think, is that we all enjoy that beautiful combination of autonomy and community. As we set out to build a company of our own, I've been searching for ideas about how to structure our organisation so that we can keep the spirit of the original open source project alive in everything we do.

One source of inspiration I came across on this search was Enspiral, a collective founded in New Zealand. They use collective decision-making, and fund ventures from within the collective using a collaborative budgeting method. Started as a small group of friends in a co-working space, they have grown to 40 members and over 250 contributors, with successful ventures like Loomio.

When I learned that Enspiral were opening their doors to share their culture and methods in a series of half-day workshops, I had to be there.

So this morning I went to their workshop, run by Susan Basterfield and Kate Beecroft.

What follows is a fairly haphazard list of things I learned, and references I'd like to follow up on.

Enlivening edge

On my way in, I met Pam, who seems well connected with the local London network of other people interested in these ideas. She pointed me towards Enlivening Edge online magazine and the Teal for Startups working group.

Check-in / check-out

A practice used in the workshop, which Kate and Susan told us are also widely used at Enspiral events, is to briefly check-in with everyone in the room before starting the planned activity. It felt good to do it, and I recognised Kate's story about how it took her a year of working with Enspiral before she relaxed enough to listen to other people during a check-in, rather than just worrying about what she was going to say when it was her turn.

The Dark Economy

This term was used to refer to the work that goes on "behind the scenes" in self-organised groups. This work is done by people who have enough context to know that something needs to be done, and get on with doing it, but it's often under-appreciated by the rest of the group, perhaps even unseen.

Enspiral's reaction to this was to use their co-budgeting system to help the whole group decide how resources should be spent, so that more of this important work could be seen and properly valued.

The tyranny of structurelessness

At the workshop we used the collective experience of the group to list all the problems or pain-points that can happen in non-hierarchical organisations.

Here's what we found:

  • a lack of accountability (starting things and nobody checking whether you've finished them)
  • free-riding (taking without giving)
  • giving power to those with the loudest voices / greatest social capital
  • lack of coherent behaviour, when people don't have enough context to make good decisions
  • decision paralysis
  • lack of emotional competence
  • overhead of emotional labour
  • budgeting
  • invisible leadership structures / cliques

Several people mentioned the seminal 1970 paper by Jo Freeman, The tyranny of structurelessness.


Enspiral, who have some roots in the Occupy protest movement, seem to mostly use a consensus-based approach to decision-making. Loomio, one of their ventures, was built directly to service their need to make consensus decisions across a distributed group.

So on occasion, if an online discussion in Loomio is getting difficult or emotional, people will just pick up the phone and speak to each other. As Susan eloquently put it:

We build tools around our culture, not a culture around the tools

Liberating structures

Some of the workshop sessions used formats taken from this website. They were fun and engaging, and look like useful tools for running any kind of workshop. Something I'd love to dig into more when I find the time.


Kate and Susan talked about a recent retreat where they'd investigated the concept of Stewardship, defined as:

a form of leadership which is not coercive or controlling. It is different than mentoring, coaching, or managing.

They are experimenting with a "stewardship circle" where every member stewards another member. This sounds a lot like our own experiments at Cucumber with one-to-ones, and I'm interested to learn more about how this experiment works out for them.

I learned about a book by Peter Block on the subject.


My main goal for this workshop was to connect with Susan, who I'd met online, and to meet more peers who are grappling with the same problems as we are. I only had half an hour at the end of the workshop before I had to dash for the train, but I was inspired to meet so many people who care about the same things, and are making it happen in various ways.

I hope we'll be able to keep in touch. If you were there, say hello in the comments!