So, you want to start a new virtual organization. Perhaps you have been awarded some funds to do so. Here are Seven Key Suggestions.
First Suggestion: Read Jono Bacon’s The Art of Community. Bacon has more good advice than you will find in a hundred blogs. Governance is not the same thing as management. “Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that governance is merely about decision-making. There is no reason why you can’t constrict it in this way, but you will be missing out on a wealth of opportunities to excite and energize your community.” (Bacon, 219). What Bacon will also tell you, and it’s very important, is that you need to build your community and its governance first thing. This is not a “phase 2” activity in any plan.
Second Suggestion: Connect with the community on the issue of membership. Who gets it, what levels there are, who gets to vote, who gets to lead, and how to manage conflicts: getting some early conversations done with the community, and particularly those who will be asked to volunteer, will help to draft that part of the initial governing documents. Remember that you are setting up the initial conditions for your member-led organization. Double-loop governance means that your members will be able to rethink membership rules and roles.
Third Suggestion: No matter how much you want to implement a plan with your team, and no matter how you have researched effective governance, you will only be creating a temporary framework for your membership to use as a first go-around for a governance system. Because you are giving your members the ability to make changes in the documents you have drafted , you have to understand this: they will make changes, probably right away before even an initial vote is taken. And then remember: this is a good thing. So, put the texts up on a wiki and let them have a go at it. The sooner they come to own the text, the sooner they will start to celebrate its vision.
Fourth Suggestion: Put some budget into play if you have this, but not to pay volunteers for their time (Here is some advice about money and volunteers: https://cybersocialstructure.org/2011/08/10/staffandvolunteers/). Help support communication, pay for students to do some background research for a draft business plan (the “how” of your organization), bring in some key community members for a workshop, but open this up through video conferencing, and support some others who express and interest to also be present.
Fifth Suggestion: Always work toward a rough consensus, and never erase “minority reports.” Let conflicts rise to the surface and deal with them quickly. Leave their content open for others to see. Show your members that their time, their skills, and their opinions are honored, even if they are overruled. Jono Bacon has great advice for conflict resolution.
Sixth Suggestion: Ignite some preliminary teamwork by having the initial community vote on two or three small, “low hanging fruit” efforts and then support ad hoc teams (clusters) to address these. By this you begin to show an initial innovation ROI the virtual organization will build upon.
Seventh Suggestion: Hold face-to-face meetings, but keep them from being PPT centric. Plan for small-group discussions and multiple breakouts, and hold the meetings in convivial neighborhoods, not airport hotels. Gather as many members as are there and read over the founding governance documents paragraph by paragraph (but only once, and then set up a process to edit the text online until the document goes up for a final vote), and let the group speak their concerns. Open up the entire budget for the membership to give their suggestions. If possible, let the membership vote on the budget after suggestions have been taken and changes made (a real vote).
These suggestions are just a starting point for boot-strapping a double-loop governed virtual organization. Once the hard work of building in double-loop governance into the culture of the organization is over, the rewarding work of seeing how this accelerates volunteer engagement can begin, and the creative work of husbanding this engagement into your organization’s business and strategic goals can be fully supported through the culture and the values, and the celebrated vision you own as a community.
Walking the walk is only hard when you haven’t tried it
For many organizations, the rush to market and the lure of some short-term exit strategy might make all this focus on congruence and culture and values and vision seem superfluous. And if your goal is to start-up and sell your business in the next 24 months, you would be wise to stick to a single-loop management plan (with a hefty stock option, because you will not have much love or glory). But if you are tasked to build a virtual organization that can stand on its community-based resources, you should seriously consider building in double-loop governance from day one. What you are offering your membership (or your employees, or your customers) is a congruent experience: whatever your brand (or your vision) will become, it will emerge directly from your culture. When you put double-loop governance at the heart of your organization, you might want to stand back. Because ideas will definitely be having sex here.