Wellington’s Enspiral is a difficult beast to describe in traditional terms. For a start, there’s very little to compare it to.
The two-year old collective of developers and designers and other connected people, is a work in progress, which its founder Joshua Vial considers to be more closely akin to an organic network than a regular business.
What it isn’t is a hierarchical company model of being. Decision-making is very flat and inclusive, and the Courtenay Place based business (but going global) has even released an ‘alpha’ version of software to help develop consensus conclusions. (See here for loom.io)
From half a dozen people, it now has over 40, and Vial’s yet to find a similar overseas model for how it works and operates.
Vial’s been an independent contractor (back end web development) himself, and was influenced by the thinking behind Richard Semler’s book, ‘Maverick’ and ‘Seven Day Weekend’ (see a Wikipedia version here ).
“Part of the ideas there is that if you treat people like children, they’ll behave like children,” he says. “If you treat them like adults, they’ll behave like adults.”
“From that, we figured we wanted a business in which there was no distinction between who works and who owns.”
Hence Enspiral’s model, in which members share the same information and have the same level of autonomy as a business owner would have.
Enspiralites also set their own salary – what they think they’re worth – but have to bring in work and show they’re justified in receiving it.
For Enspiral to achieve its ongoing success, “we’ve had to evolve a strategy that involves all, for which we have an emergent shared values and vision,” he says.
“That’s why it is as important how we get to a decision [bringing on new members or companies, spending shared resources] as to what the decision actually is,” Vial says. Also, hence, the development of loom.io – loosely derived from loom as to weave.
Along with the extensive use of work-focused intranet ‘Yammer’ and Google Docs, loom.io has been developed “because it would be impossible to run Enspiral without it. There would be too much noise to make decisions.”
loom.io is built around the concept of a motion or proposal – should Enspiral do this or that?
The participatory process seeks to build consensus. “It forces us too to front load the decision-making with conversations to get everyone onboard, obtain perspectives from different people.”
“It also forces a level of trust and communication within the teams.” Under this model, a person may not necessarily agree with the final decision, but can generally run with it says Vial.
He’s also the first to admit that Enspiral’s very much learning about the process of how to make decisions, and how people engage with each other and their level of contribution that “isn’t normal in an ordinary company.”
Part of the non-ordinariness is how Enspiral has organically grown, and acquired much of its work and clients.
Much, if not most of this has been through word-of-mouth and social networks. That is, people knowing people, businesses knowing about Enspiral through other businesses, and a general awareness within the community of what Enspiral offers.
“Every time a new person comes into Enspiral, they release untapped potential within the organisation and their own networks,” says Vial. “It is one of the laws of networks; if you double the size of the network you haven’t doubled its value, you’ve increased it by much more than that.”
“When you envisage a company as a network then, you have more value as the size increases….though you do have a natural ceiling.”
As Enspiral has increased in size, Vial’s also noticed that smaller groups are naturally coalescing into their own teams. This too requires a balance between Enspiral’s role and the individual’s autonomy and freedom.
“We are mostly learning by doing,” Vial says.
From Enspiral’s point of view, ‘growth’ sees new Enspiral entities springing up in Auckland and Hong Kong (already 30 people under its banner) and a soon to be established node in Berlin (as former Wellingtonians set up shop in the German capital).
Using a network analogy, this will expand Enspiral’s ability to “do things”.
Because though the collective is partly a business play in the traditional commerce world, it also has a larger purpose.
Some of the biggest issues of our time – think climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, food security – have only had a trickle of human energy thrown at solutions.
“Enspiral’s as much a capacity play, where people, having provided for their own living requirements, have the skills and time to work on some of the biggest issues of our time,” Vial says.
“Our people tend to have a much deeper purpose, want to make a tangible impact on the world and make it a better place. The only rational strategy for the world, is to increase the resources allocated to finding solutions. What holds us back in a global sense, is not a lack of good ideas, but a lack of people working in those spaces.”
From that point of view, Enspiral is a resource play, and more specifically a human resource play. Its strong sense of looking to provide better social outcomes and making the world a better place is THE underlying ethos.
This is part of the reason that the Enspiral developed BuckyBox (software for better food distribution) and Loom.io.
As an organic network, Enspiral is and will always be a work in progress.
“We have no perceived perfect model,” says Vial. “The world’s always changing, and so will we.”