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The highs and lows of working in a decentralized organization

The highs and lows of working in a decentralized organization

In this blog post, we're delving into the good, the bad, and the ugly of decentralized contribution.

How would you define a decentralized organization from the point of view of the contributors working within it?

Great question!

It’s probably easier to explain in terms of what’s absent from a decentralized organization. We’re not simply another company where everyone works from wherever they want. We’re a network of contributors that doesn’t make use of a hierarchy nor any centralized decision-making/authority. If you think of a classic centralized company as a pyramid structure, with a concentration of power at the top, a decentralized organization is a network of peers collaborating openly, transparently, and without a formal hierarchy.

A decentralized organization encourages permissionless participation (anyone, either within the organization or outside, can get involved by contributing their skills).

What are the key people challenges facing decentralized organizations (that centralized ones perhaps don't face), and how do you mitigate them?

Being decentralized is not for the faint of heart! It takes a lot of belief in the core values of autonomy, privacy, personal liberty, and open source.

A big challenge is that there are only a handful of similar communities out there doing this, so it can feel like pretty new ground for many contributors entering this world. It can be hard to change thought patterns and start thinking in a community versus company way (for those of us from more traditional backgrounds!)

Being a values-led community also means being willing to make trade-offs to honour what we believe is right, e.g. trusting the chaos and letting the organization develop according to principles versus being tempted to fast-track progress via creating leadership structures. Working by consensus (e.g. by voting on proposals) can look slower, but we need to be comfortable with saying that’s ok, and it’s how the organization should organically evolve.

Transparency becomes super important - every stakeholder is an autonomous participant, so they need to be equipped with information about what’s going on across every corner of the organization. This means having open and accessible instant messaging, long-form discussion, and documentation. We’re still trying to get this piece right, and have been experimenting with various tools to get us there. In practice, each decentralized organization will find its own stack that works well within its unique context.

If there is no one in charge, how do you make sure work gets done? :)

People who are passionate about what they do, are empowered to participate, and share a common set of values, will pretty much always hold themselves accountable for results. We’re very lucky to have these kinds of people here at Status.

In practice, there can be bumps in the road, but hiring good people and placing a large amount of trust in them is a great starting place for the best outcomes.

What are the drawbacks of working in decentralized environment?

One person’s bug is another’s feature! It really depends on personal preference.

Autonomy has many benefits but the flip side is that you need to be able to self-manage and set your priorities. Working remotely implies you’re alone most of the time. Deciding by consensus instead of top-down requires more time and more ability to listen and be able to disagree but commit, and so on. It’s a new adventure, with all that comes with it - the potential is huge, but nothing is ever only unicorns and rainbows, and it’s good to be honest about the hard parts.

How can these drawbacks be alleviated?

It takes conviction, openness to experiment, willingness to try (and often fail!), and an innate curiosity to keep innovating. We support our contributors along the way by offering coaching, mediation and support (technical and non-). We also suggest that people take the time off they need, which at times is exactly what is needed to go back to the problem with a clear mind.

How do you handle inevitable conflict management amongst team members with a horizontal organizational structure?

Being decentralized gives us an edge here over centralized organizations - two parties come into the conflict as equals, and there is no power dynamic at play.

In a consensus-driven organization, vigorous debates can spring up around all kinds of things. Conflict can be completely healthy and normal (e.g. when it doesn’t create harm to any team member, and results in a productive outcome).

Where conflict bubbles over into unproductive disagreement, having a neutral third party to act as a mediator can be helpful. We offer our help dealing with challenging interpersonal situations. It’s not our place to take sides, make a judgment call, nor try to force a resolution, but having an independent third party can help in identifying the mismatch of needs generating the conflict. Once needs are out in the open, they’re visible, and can be fully understood by the other person. This facilitates finding a compromise that allows both parties to walk away feeling like they had their needs satisfied from the exchange.

If you’re curious to read more about this, we can totally recommend Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication principles.

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