Creating a Bossless Business and Helping More People Work on Stuff That Matters with Joshua Vial of Enspiral

A photo c/o Enspiral of some of the members of the Enspiral team, posing in their office. Bossless business at its best!

How can we work together in a way that balances our need for cooperation and community, with our need for autonomy?

How can we do all this, and create meaningful products and services that meet a real market need and make a positive social impact?

In episode #7 of the Working Together Podcast I talk with Joshua Vial, co-founder and catalyst at Enspiral about how this little New Zealand cooperative has taken the time to really focus on creating a bossless business model that achieves their vision:

“More people working on stuff that matters.”

Our conversation reminded me of  a time (over a decade ago now!) when I was an undergrad student in university.

My professor, Dr. Geoffrey Whitehall, was fond of dropping little theory bombs in the form of aphorisms. One that I remember well was this little nugget:

“In a game of soccer, it doesn’t matter which team wins. The game of soccer always wins.”*

The rules and processes that structure the movement of players on the field is what wins.

Not team red or team blue.

And by reproducing itself again and again, the game continues to win.

So too with the conventional, business-as-usual approach to starting and running a company.

We play the economic game like we play a sport. Team captains. Coaches. Competition. Etc.

We think that the only way to practice entrepreneurship is as a full-on, no holds barred, match of excellence against excellence.

But no matter how often the players win, the game always wins.

Enspiral is trying to change the game by creating a bossless business with a deeply collaborative culture. And they are keen to share the tools and mechanisms they use to achieve this.

In Joshua’s own words, they are an entrepreneur support network, or a “entrepreneur cooperative”. If you think this sounds like a contradiction in terms, have a listen to our conversation and find out how Enspiral strikes a truly amazing working balance between individualism and collectivism.

*After the release of this episode, I learned from Geoff that this quote is attributed to Stuart Hall from the video “Representation and the Media” (available on YoutTube here: part 1 & part 2.)

Some Big Ideas Exchanged: The delicate art of collaboratively running a bossless business; “Organizational DNA”; the power of sharing business model innovations and more!

  • Can software, information systems and the internet be used to make a bossless business or a cooperative more efficient? How do we keep (and strengthen) the values of democratic ownership, peer production, “power with” rather than “power over” online? Rather than designing digital systems for when people do not or cannot trust each other (like the so-called “trustless” blockchain ecosystem), what does it look like to design digital collaboration systems for when people do deeply trust one another?
  • On creating and maintaining a healthy culture in a bossless business: establish relationships in person, and then maintain them digitally. (This is Enspiral’s model for team-building and it’s how they ensure that their cooperative culture stays alive, even across big distances. Every few months, the Enspiral team gathers in-person to establish and maintain their relationships with one another. After the face-to-face gathering, everyone distant from the New Zealand group of core people, feels more connected online.)
  • At Enspiral, there is an ongoing, healthy tension between individual freedom and collective action. (In many ideologies, freedom is valued over collaboration, or vice versa. How do you create systems that try to strike a balance between these opposing human drives?)
  • How can a group of entrepreneurs provide care for one another in their mutual endeavours? (Hustle and grind, competition, winning, “crushing the competition”, etc. These are some of the constant themes in the discourse of entrepreneurship. They apply really well to talk about businesses competing with one another in their niche, but not necessarily to businesses that operate outside of one-another’s niches. If there is conversation around mutual support between entrepreneurs, it’s usually in the frame of mentorship and Masterminds. But support can look like so much more! There is a whole world of mutual aid to explore beyond the Mastermind group: as Enspiral demonstrates, entrepreneurs can also support one another through a common treasury or foundation. The trick is to think of mutual aid on a gradient from loose and informal–like a Mastermind group–to more structured and formal–like a cooperative foundation that provides a governance structure, and process for deciding on how to allocate funds.) 
  • Designing systems that are responsive to who human beings are. (In practice, this looks like a lot of conversation, reflection and questions, like: “how will this process impact personal freedom?” “how will this process impact community?” and so on.)
  • “Organizational DNA” like the “two-tier membership” or “the minimum viable board” to name a handful (see Enspiral Handbook below). (Using principles and concepts from biology to talk about organizations! Organizational innovations should be prototyped, experimented, and shared widely.)
  • Big “C” Capitalism versus small “c” capitalisms. (Talking about a “Capitalist System” misses the way that different markets are regulated differently in different countries and between countries. Rather, there are multiple capitalisms operating in patchwork systems of rules, and depending on what level you are designing at, you can do lots of interesting things with the simple produce/consume relation.)
  • I really liked Joshua’s fast answer to my question: “If you could write a 5,000 word paper on your three favourite books, what would your central thesis be?” Here it is:

“Open source your business and if you share everything you’re learning about organizing with technology, and if you copy other people who are sharing what they are thinking, you could speed up the pace of innovation in this whole sector… We can start to match the pace of innovation we are seeing with technology… By open sourcing our business practices and actively building community around them, we can see an explosion of innovation in the terms of how we organize.”

  • Joshua on trying out new things:

“Make small bets and decide for yourself… Look at an opportunity to try out the thing that interests you in the smallest safest way, give it space to be a valid experiment and measure the result… keep trying things… constantly put yourself in the persona of the scientist, who’s constantly researching something… and when you research something, publish it, share it with others.”

  • And so much more!

References, allusions, and mentions implied:

People mentioned:

Credit where credit is due:

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