Double-loop Organizations build policies from the bottom up: here are 3 ways to make policies that work

bottom up

Your virtual organization will work harder and better when everyone has a say about policies, and not just about procedures. Policy setting happens best in the second loop of a double-loop governed organization. That way the policy can respond directly to the vision of the organization.

A friend, a sysadmin at a major research university, was on his way to DEF CON when I ran into him on the street. He enjoyed hearing about the new security hacks he would be facing, and, as usual, he was not happy about the security measures on his campus. After describing how schools, departments, and centers had managed to grab the right to host their own Internet content—with predictably inconsistent results—he concluded that even his own department could use some new policies.

“Unfortunately, I can’t make policy,” he said, “I can only recommend procedures.” Faculty make policy, he explained. Staff implement this as well as they can. “I can talk all day, but some new PhD who thinks he knows enough will want to run his own server and connect into the department’s databases on my servers.” My friend has far more knowledge about computer security than he can implement, and he sees trouble ahead against which he cannot defend by making and enforcing better policies. When the system fails, when data are stolen or lost, he will be asked to explain and tasked to repair the damage. When the fan and the feces collide, he only hopes the precious work of graduate students is not collateral damage.

I could just recommend that you do not follow the model of a large academic department in a research university when you create your virtual organization. However, I doubt any of you (particularly those of you who have worked in a large academic department) had plans to do so. My point here is that every member of your organization can contribute to its policies and help defend it from failure.

Here are three ways you can make policies more effective for your organization:

1) When you create an executive panel or committee to make policy, be sure that this body is well connected with the larger membership.

2) Use a federated election process to preserve the voices of minority factions and edge groups, and empower contributions from across the membership.

3) Get additional feedback from the membership before you implement a new policy.

As a bonus, you will find that policies that are enacted with these practices are likely to be followed with greater rigor and care than those that simply appear in an email from the top.

Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by Bobcatnorth

Who says that “agile” is just for software? Architect an agile online community!

If you’ve familiar with object-oriented coding using any agile methods, you understand that the customer is at the center of the software development effort. The customers problems, her needs and goals, laid out in stories that the programmers return to every day: these keep the software from feature creep and UX failure. Delivering working software in small increments helps the customer reveal the moment they don’t need or understand something. The programmers can toss out that new feature and go back to the customer stories again with fresh insight.

They are testing all the code every day and releasing every week. So there’s never a time when the changing the software costs more than the last time. They are free to pivot toward some new capability that just might provoke delight in their customers; something they would never have tried if the cost of change was growing. Finally, they are solving their customers’ problems and building into the software new opportunities that might not have existed anywhere else in this way ever before. OK, so it rarely works out that well. But the philosophy of agile code development is sound and it offers valuable lessons beyond writing code.

Virtual organization community leaders would do well to consider how the Manifesto for Agile Software Development might be tweaked to be a working Manifesto for Agile Community Development:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software (working volunteers) over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration (member collaboration) over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan.


Let’s look at these one by one. Individuals and interactions are the daily work of the community leader. Staying in touch with members is more important than whatever tool (email, forum, listserve) is picked to accomplish this. Working volunteers build value and direction for the virtual organization. Having a grand, detailed volunteer guide is less important than having a team of members who want to move the organization ahead. Member collaboration means giving the membership as much ownership as possible. Staff are around to take care of day-to-day business, but budgets, planning, and the real work of the VO belong to the members. The staff are the sails, the members are the wind. Responding to change means having a full double-loop governance system and pivoting this to stay ahead of changes surrounding the organization. If you’re only following a plan, you are already lost.

Agile: it’s not just for software anymore!

photo credit: From flickr user magia3e

Sharing Creativity: Talk given at 2012 ESIP Federation Summer Meeting.

Here is a talk I gave at the recent (Summer 2012) ESIP Federation meeting. Sharing Creativity:

I am hoping that this talk will lead to some conversations over the potential for virtual organizations to achieve, with more efficiency and effectiveness, a capacity for creativity and predictable innovation. This capacity—in large part due to Internet-enabled capabilities for coordination and collaboration— can, I believe, rival (at various scales) the capabilities of dedicated R&D facilities/programs such as Bell Labs and Xerox PARC on the corporate side, and the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program on the government side.

Bohr, Oppenheimer, Feynman, and Fermi: Key requisite variety of knowledge assembled for the Manhattan Project.

Large research and development operations such as these were built as national laboratories, with hundreds or thousands of employees and forefront facilities. They were designed to assemble a critical mass of talent and direct this toward innovation. They were also enormously expensive: the Apollo program had cost more than $25 billion by 1973 (in 1973 dollars). The successful ones are rightfully famous.

Today’s top technology companies (Apple and Google, for example) often add to their innovation potential by buying forefront start-up companies, as much for their talent as for their technology. Their goal in a highly competitive market is to own enough talent, enough intelligence, enough creativity, to stay ahead of their rivals.

The basic business-school rule for improving the odds for successful innovation is to assemble a requisite variety of knowledge: a range of knowledge at least as large as the problem being tackled. The three ways to do this are the following: Hire it (add to your team); Grow it (reeducate your team); and, Buy it (purchase a rival company/team). All of these methods assume that you need to own the requisite variety of knowledge.

Science, on the main, has only one rival: the unknown. Scientists are relatively free to seek out new collaborators from anywhere. And, through Internet-based services, they are now enabled to become collaborators everywhere. This is one reason why the NSF has been promoting virtual organizations and research networks as the future of science collaboration (instead of building new centers at institutions). A good part of the potential that virtual organizations offer government and private funding agencies comes from a new logic for innovation: assemble and share the requisite variety of knowledge.  With the right sort of organizational governance and funding, a virtual organization can achieve what the older “think tank” R&D centers could: predictable, successful innovation.

There are some social aspects of the ESIP Federation that might be key to this capacity for creativity. These aspects are not secret, however, and can be fully copied and applied in other arenas. They are also not expensive (the Federation budget is remarkably small), but they are of great value, in that they have been worked upon by dozens of volunteers over the course of more than a decade.

Virtual organizations (VOs) come in many forms and sizes. The science of building and managing VOs is still being explored. There are many examples of early failures, and only a few examples that herald their potential success. Members of virtual organizations need to be sufficiently engaged to build collective intelligence. Take a look at the YouTube video and let me know what you think.

On becoming an organization

Carl Rogers, congruence and double-loop governance

In 1961, the psychotherapist Carl Rogers compiled three decades of papers into the book On Becoming a Person. While the main frame of the book describes his client-centric approach to psychotherapy, how he arrived at this and what he learned as a practitioner, many of the articles—which read very much as blogs do today (and were unpublishable in the scientific journals for this reason)—link this frame to other human endeavors. In particular, he looks to education and personal relations in organizations.

His main therapeutic process involves the psychoanalyst as a person, developing her own personhood by becoming more congruent (more about this in a minute) and then using this congruence as a communication tool to open up the client to the process of becoming more congruent. The therapist is really only someone further along the same road to becoming a person.

The process of becoming a person, of achieving more and wider congruence, and so having fewer and fewer defenses, brings the client to a better life, with less tension and fear, better communication with everyone, and new opportunities to explore each moment fully.

Congruence happens when one’s real self (the one we all start out with—all infants are congruent) fully resembles one’s ideal self (the one we acquire from interactions with others). The lack of congruence leads to the need to defend the ideal self every time the real self behaves differently, or when people respond to the real self instead of the ideal self. The real self becomes hidden and, indeed, often unknowable; which forms the reason for therapeutic intervention. The therapist’s more advanced facility with congruence allows her to be less threatening and so to tease the client’s real self out from the shadows, to where the client can repossess this and model their ideal self on their real self. Once they do so, they no longer need to be defensive and they also can speak more honestly from their own minute-by-minute experiences. They communicate better and, in their interactions with others, create the same therapeutic situation they had experienced.

For Rogers, building congruence creates a positive feedback that will foster better communication in an organizational setting; communication where honest reactions and unedited information can lead to more reliable outcomes. These outcomes build more trust into the subsequent situations, which also help all involved become more congruent as persons. The opposite is true for incongruent communication, which leads to fixed limits on what can be said, a growth of miscommunication, an increase in emotional stress, and overall dissatisfaction with the interaction environment. Rogers’ “Tentative Formulation of a General Law of Interpersonal Relationships” (Rogers 338-346) reads very much like a Web 2.0 manual for creating a high-trust, flat-management start-up company in 2012. He was 50 years ahead of his time.

Rogers’ general law maps directly onto double-loop governance, with the real organization being the first loop, and the ideal organization being the second loop. Instead of hiding the ideal organization behind the intentions of the founder, or top-down rules and regulations, double-loop governance makes the ideal organization available to every member. Each member has the same view and purview of the rules and roles, the values and the vision of the organization, and also an obligation to make these congruent with the everyday activities of the organization.

The notion that your organization can also be a therapeutic setting where members can learn to become more congruent may seem peculiar. Remember that the interactions are really a series of conversations between two people. Your organization is only setting the circumstances where members can communicate effectively. We all remember meeting people whom we knew were open and honest, trustworthy people. We tend to forget that when and how we met them framed their ability to reveal themselves and so help us learn. You can make your organization a place where each member can become more a person. In return they will make your organization a better place in which to get things done.


Rogers, Carl R. (1961) On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Part 2: Immunize your virtual organization from institutional guilt

Image from Flickr. Used under CC license. Photo by USACE

The 5 ways that double-loop governance can save your organization from itself

Institutional guilt (see Part 1 below) is routinized violation of your organization’s values, vision, rules, or policies. It is symptomatic of dysfunctional communication strategies inside an organization. It leads to distrust of staff and disengagement from the organization’s vision. Staff and volunteer disengagement/disenchantment is a prime reason non-profit organizations fail (Duckles, et al 2005).

Institutional guilt is something that will ruin your virtual organization. It poisons the culture and it drives away volunteers while it demoralizes your staff. Implementing double-loop governance is a good way to build in protection against institutional guilt. You also need to be sure that your employees and volunteer committees do not fall into the trap of violating your own values and policies for some immediate purpose. Double-loop governance opens up learning capabilities and communication channels to help limit and repair occasions where volunteers or staff do stray from your organization’s vision and values.

1. Double-loop governance makes every member a caretaker of the vision and values for the virtual organization. 

Your values are not just a bulleted list on your website nor a poster on the wall. They are the deep logic of why your organization exists. When you create the knowledge loop that includes questioning and reaffirming your values into every decision, then your staff and volunteers can celebrate these values. Membership includes embracing the values, and entering into the ongoing conversation about them that keeps them current and vital.

2. Double-loop governance makes a virtue out of transparent decision making.  

Transparent here means available to all members (not necessarily public). Practically, transparency includes time and place availability. Members are told when and where a decision is being made. For a virtual organization, this might be a set period of time to edit a certain wiki, or a set period in which to vote online. The management of critical-path decisions may (and usually should) devolve to active subgroups charged with delivering the outcomes. These subgroups need to maintain their own transparent decision process. A great example here is Wikipedia, where each entry contains the edited text, a history of edits, and a discussion page about the text and its edits.

3. Double-loop governance brings conflict to the surface. 

Conflict avoidance is a major source of “unusual routines” (Rice and Cooper 2010) in general, including those that create institutional guilt. Conflict can arise in many forms. Personal issues surrounding time commitments, responsibility and authority, and expectation management cannot be avoided through double-loop governance alone, but they can be openly addressed and resolved in a manner that promotes reflective learning among those involved. Evaluation conflict avoidance happens when tests of deliverables are either postponed, curtailed, or done in private. Double-loop governance supports open and thorough testing, and the disclosure of competing interpretations. Conflict is rapidly promoted to the surface of discussions, where voices of dissent become available to all members. Resolution is commonly achieved through a working consensus, not 100% agreement, but something more robust than a simple majority. Conflicts over the underlying assumptions of the organization can result in new values and a new vision: the organization is free to pivot toward a novel direction at any time.

4. Double-loop governance accelerates failure to ensure success.

Remember that double-loop governance supports double-loop learning. Single-loop learning focuses on avoiding failure.  Double-loop learning focuses on using failure to recalibrate the underlying assumptions of the activity, this promotes the act of failing as a learning device, and a logic of rapid iterations of activities with open testing.  In software development efforts, double-loop governance actively supports agile development decisions. In all endeavors, the ability to fail quickly and recover takes the fear out of trying new strategies.  This almost guarantees a better final result.

5. Double-loop governance supports do-ocracy and emergent leadership. 

While not all double-loop governed organizations are strict meritocracies, the best find ways to recognize and reward achievements and contributions. One of the benefits of the network effect is an ability to reach out beyond the founding team and find people who have similar interests and valuable skills. As the network expands, the chances of encountering tomorrow’s leadership improves. When these people become engaged in activities and outcomes, they need to have a clear path to leading subgroups and then larger groups, and ultimately the organization.

Final Thoughts: Double-loop your organization and forget the guilt

Remember that decisions that don’t get made by the people who are supposed to make them get made anyhow by the people who need them. Even the decision not to decide today is made by someone. When decisions are guided by the values and vision of the organization, when the process is transparent, when the conflicts appear on the surface, when failure is just another chance at success, and when leadership opens up in front of those who have proven their worth: that is when institutional guilt has no purchase on the logic of your organization.


Duckles, Beth M., Mark A. Hager, and Joseph Galaskiewicz (2005) “How Nonprofits Close: Using Narratives to Study Organizational Processes.” Pp. 169-203 in Qualitative Organizational Research: Best Papers from the Davis Conference on Qualitative Research, ed. Kimberly D. Elsbach. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Rice, R. E. & Cooper, S. (2010).  Organizations and unusual routines: A systems analysis of dysfunctional feedback processes.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Double-Loop Learning as an outcome of Double-Loop Governance

The concepts of double-loop governance and double-loop learning (Argyris and Shön, 1978) share a common ground in the communicative acts required to support these. Double-loop governance puts into practice what Argyris calls a Model II style of theories-in-use. A Model I “theory-in-use” for Argyris (1982, 8) represents the set of assumptions that a person puts into everyday practice without reflection. A Model I theory-in-use greatly resembles what Pierre Bourdieu calls a individual habitus (1990, 56). What a Model II style adds is a critical reflective moment. A Model II style is characterized by valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment (Smith 2001). Model II supports double-loop learning: an ability to question an “organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.” (Argyris and Shön, 1978, 2-3; quoted in Smith 2001). This ability—which all nimble online organizations require to keep up with changing codes and capabilities—needs to be established as a cultural goal of the organization. And for this, it needs to be a visible part of the organization’s governance scheme.

This is what separates a double-loop governance effort from a single-loop governance structure linked to a management plan (or tied to a charismatic founder). “Governance is almost entirely based around values,” notes Jono Bacon (Bacon 2009), community manager for the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. “You need to not only understand your values, but celebrate them,” he concludes. In terms of double-loop governance, I would add that an organization needs to reflexively control (c.f., Giddens 1994: 122-123) its values, interrogate them regularly, and celebrate how robust they are. They are robust because there is an active process to reform and renew them as needed.

Single Loop Management

Organizational management provides at least a single loop of internal communication and learning. Goals, strategies and techniques are attempted and their outcomes evaluated. On the basis of this evaluation, new goals, strategies, and techniques are attempted. The desired outcome of the single loop is an improvement in efficiency. This is essential Twentieth Century business management guidance. How business was done.

This is also, in part, why so many Twentieth Century corporations are no longer here. Disruptive innovation and other rapid market changes cannot be addressed through efficiency alone. John Kao (2002) describes it this way, “We all want benchmarks to get the job done more efficiently. But this does not lead to disruptive, game-changing innovation, the stuff of which organizational renewal and competitiveness under conditions of uncertainty are all about.” (Kindle Locations 2686-2689).

Government agencies are also good examples of single-loop governed, problem-focused, service-delivery organizations. They work under externally mandated goals and priorities. Even their single-loop quest for greater efficiency is sometimes constrained by legislative demands and regulatory road-blocks. These constraints provide a motivation for for agencies to partner with double-loop virtual organizations where disruptive innovation capabilities can be built into the working culture and governance framework.

Clayton Christensen (2002) describes how the capability for innovation, and particularly for disruptive innovation, “…lies in the resources-processes-values (RPV) framework…” of an organization. (Kindle Locations 1962-1966). What Christensen found was that single-loop organizations (organizations that cannot reflectively question their underlying assumptions, values, and vision) create incremental, sustaining innovation that increasingly values high-margin results and high-budget customers. These organizations do not have the capability to pivot to take advantage of a disruptive innovation.

Double-loop organizations will have processes that resemble those of the single-loop organization (trial and error, experiment and review, etc.). Efficiency and linear, sustaining innovation for progress to a desired goal: these are not abandoned. But they are embedded in the larger discussion of their relative return on an investment in their outcomes based on a larger vision that includes disruptive innovation opportunities. All of the thousands of PPTs with arrows connecting the end of a process to its evaluation and then back to the start of the process can still be used: with some necessary modification. These must include another loop out to “review assumptions and rethink and reapply values”.


Double-Loop Organization Membership

The ESIP Federation Assembly meets every year to decide on a range of issues.

Double-Loop Organization Membership

Double-loop governed organizations place significant value on the rules and roles of membership. Whether the organization is a “purpose-led” corporation, such as Zappos, an open-source software community, such as Ubuntu, or a collection of research projects, such as the ESIP Federation: membership (or employee-ship) is important because members are tasked to create and celebrate the values and the vision of the organization and to work to fulfill its mission and goals. Members are inspired (rather than required) to commit to this vision. Membership is openly acquired and acknowledged, and its responsibilities are plainly spelled out. Somewhere in the shared rules and roles, an ability to rewrite the shared rules and roles is provided to all members.

This ability creates and supports a mode of reflexive learning. At the same time that members are working to solve certain problems—the solution for which is the mission of the organization—they are also evaluating this same mission. They are responsible not just for incremental success, but also for opportunities to pivot the entire organization into a different mission, one that resolves not just the problem at hand, but some underlying condition as well.

At Zappos, an internet shoe store (now a part of Amazon), employees in their first days of orientation are given the option of taking a $2,000 check to simply quit and walk away. “We want employees that believe in our long-term vision and want to be a part of our culture.”(Hsieh 2010; Kindle Location 2549). At winter ESIP Federation meetings all of the members present gather at Assembly meetings where fundamental issues (including the organization’s budget) and executive positions of the organization are brought up for discussion and a vote.


Single-loop organizations may also support membership, but membership for these is often perfunctory (e.g., a log-in account on the organization website), and may be loosely defined or changed without members having a say. The organization may simply use its membership as a list to broadcast (or request) information.

Here we might remember that the U.S. Government is (at least in spirit) a double-loop governed organization. Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution gives the Senate and/or the States a method to create a constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution. (After two hundred years since the first one, a constitutional convention would certainly produce some interesting new text.) A related power is given to amend the Constitution, a process that has been performed several times.

Similarly, Article 9 of the Constitution of the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners gives the membership the right to rewrite or amend its constitution. Because members can re-vision the organization, membership rules and roles are taken very seriously by the organization, and consequently, by its members. The governance charter of the Ubuntu organization provide precise rules and roles for managing that software development (See: ). Charters, statements of values, and constitutions are all indicators of double-loop governance, although the amount of double-loop capabilities rests in how much reflexive authority they give to the membership.

The vision statement, as Sinek reminds (2009) us, is the public statement about why an organization exists. Mission statements/business plans are Loop 1 outcomes. The mission statement tell us how the organization “intends to create [the] future” (Kindle Locations 2035-2045).  The “how” is firmly in Loop 1. This is further articulated in business and strategic plans, and then in policies that direct activities. The “why” lives in Loop 2, and is embodied in the values expressed through the vision statement. The why—the vision, expressed as values—is often described as the “culture” of the organization.

Tony Hsieh is famous for saying “your culture is your brand.” (2010, Kindle Locations 2529-2540). Your vision statement, including your core  values, is the center of your organization: “We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to. And by commit, we mean that you’re willing to hire and fire based on them.” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 2545-2566).  In a community-based organization, just as in a purpose-led company, double-loop governance—as difficult as this may be to bootstrap—forges a congruence between the words on the vision statement (whatever these are), and the quality of learning and knowledge management in the organization. When “your governance is your culture,” the members can more fully commit to the organization. This makes many subsequent (and consequent) tasks that much easier.

Done well, culture is not just an asset, it is an engine for double-loop learning within the organization, and that, in turn, is the foundation for knowledge management. Lehr and Rice (2002) make the following observation; “Double-loop learning is where knowledge is generated from information: more specifically, where the process of implementing information is evaluated, validated, verified, and adapted (p. 1062). Done poorly, “culture” becomes either decorative or punitive (something that employees are required to memorize, rather than something that could engage an active volunteer-base). Vision statements can and should be early Loop 2 outcomes. Single-loop organizations also have vision statements. What they lack is the built-in capability to question the underlying assumptions of these.

For a member/community-led organization the vision is what brings together all of the disparate intentions and backgrounds into one common, shared future. This vision should be visionary, it should announce with conviction the higher purpose that the organization will embrace (higher than profits or technological success). It needs to inspire the membership, and incite the impulse to leadership.


Building a Double Loop for Liquid Innovation

Building a Double Loop for Liquid Innovation

By relying on transparent decision processes, open information flows, and shared—and celebrated—values, double-loop governance can power a virtual organization to hold together large collections of otherwise independent, and even conflicting, groups (for- and not-for profit organizations, widely scattered science disciplines, suppliers and end users, etc.). They can also house large numbers of self-organizing subgroups, each one of these working teams (the ESIP Federation calls them “clusters”) is committed to specific action points.  This creates what Hagel and Brown (2011) call a “creation net” for open innovation within a virtual organization.

This creation network is enabled by a certain quality of learning within interactions, a greater quantity of information flows (and/or a greater attention to these), an availability of interpersonal trust (based on demonstrated skills and commitment), and an environment of reflexive involvement: all benefits of belonging to  a community-led double-loop governance. When members are given license to form working teams based on their own informed insights into where the adjacent possible is found, creative interactions and new knowledge become predictable outcomes.

The “adjacent possible” is a notion that comes from biological theories of coherent change. It describes how an environment between static and chaos provides a repertoire of available changes. Adjacency is a helpful way to describe how a virtual organization can use a combination of well-designed face-to-face meetings and Internet-based communication/collaboration technologies to create the spaces where, as Matt Ridley ( calls it, “ideas go to have sex.”  If you can point to your organization and truthfully say: “this is where ideas go to have sex,” (or something like that), then you’ve built a place where the idea makers among your members will be happiest and most creative.

Steven Johnson, <>, uses the metaphor of “liquid” to describe the optimal network environment to enable innovation (Johnson, 2011). “Solid” networks are too stiff to pivot toward “the adjacent possible” where new ideas sprout. “Gas” networks are too chaotic. “In a solid, the opposite happens: the patterns have stability, but they are incapable of change. But a liquid network creates a more promising environment for the system to explore the adjacent possible. “ (Kindle Locations 611-614).

More specifically, liquid networks—and the virtual organizations that create these—enable individual members to explore the adjacent possible; “When the first market towns emerged in Italy, they didn’t magically create some higher-level group consciousness. They simply widened the pool of minds that could come up with and share good ideas. This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 677-680). The liquid network is another way of talking about network diversity, the optimal mix of strong ties, weak ties, and strangers in direct communication (See: Ruef, 2002) that is a strong predictor for innovation.


Volunteer Engagement in your Double-Loop Organization

Lamp lighters at Burning Man. Burning Man requires 2000 volunteers (Chen 2009)—almost all of whom also buy tickets and pay their own expenses—to run Black Rock City.Photo by Trey Ratcliff. CC licensed.

Volunteer Engagement in your Double-Loop Organization

How does double-loop governance help engage volunteers? What is different about the “culture” of a double-loop organization, how does this difference matter to volunteers?


Community-led virtual organizations work every day to engage volunteers and develop leadership from the member community.  There is no governance solution that can put this process on autopilot. The loss of commitment by volunteers was reported in more than seventy-seven percent of narratives about the failure of non-profit organizations (Duckles, Hager, and Galaskiewicz, 2005, p. 190). To use a nautical metaphor, we can say that member investment in the values and the vision of the organization is like a tail wind, and double-loop governance is a spinnaker that catches this. Extending this metaphor, the staff still needs to keep rowing, and someone needs to hold the rudder. But a lot of valuable velocity is acquired by capturing member investment.

Malone, Laubacher, and Dellarocas (2009) describe three elemental motivations for participation in an organization: money, love, and glory. In virtual organizations that rely on volunteer experts, the “money” motivation is specifically unavailable. In fact these experts often have full-time work elsewhere. Love and glory are the two remaining sources of the motivation for investment by members.

Above, we noted that double-loop organizations base their governance on values that are owned, shared, and celebrated by its members. While members may not totally love these values, the fact that they own them and cherish them, celebrate them regularly, and modify them with care is as close to love as any organization can accomplish.  By supporting meritocracy, the double-loop organization opens an arena for glory. How effectively this arena is articulated will impact the success of the organization. Leadership needs to be cultivated, captured, and recognized. Much of the work of a large double-loop organization may be done in self-organizing subgroups, and so some transparent process to recognize this work needs to become an integral aspect of how the larger organization, and the entire membership community, measures value.

Single-loop organizations also attempt to capitalize on love and glory. Reputation systems and “communities of practice” can be added to any organization. Social media savvy online stores such as Amazon and eBay have built strong reputation systems for sellers and reviewers. Premier reviewers can see their reviews show up at the top of lists. Airline and hotel companies build “loyalty” (a substitute for “love”) by offering rewards for repeat purchases. But for volunteer-based organizations, these interactions fail to produce the level of member investment that a double-loop organization can provide.  That investment is time and talent they give to your collective goals. It is a resource that most budgets cannot buy. Double-loop governance gives your member community good reasons to trust the efforts of your staff, to contribute to governance tasks, and to care for your vision and your values.


Earth Cube as a Double Loop organization

I’ve been listening in on the opening discussions at the Earth Cube governance meeting, and I’m impressed by the level of passion and amount of expertise at the table. I’m also interested in how the conversations seem to whiplash from notions of democracy and community to ideas for data standards. People have come to the table with divergent notions of what governance means, although they are also aware that governance can mean both democracy and data standards. I would like to argue that they are looking at the same organization, but they are each describing only one of the governance “loops” that will be needed for Earth Cube.

Take a look at this Keynote talk by Clay Shirky (DrupalCon 2011)

about 45 minutes into the video Clay is talking about organizations that not only fix problems, but that simultaneously can solve the larger issues that created the problems. In these “double-loop” organizations, the members agree to governance rules that solve common problems for their interactions (e.g., data sharing). At the same time, they agree to own these rules, that is, to govern their governance system. And so, when someone talks about building community, protecting expressive capabilities, voting, officers, and working consensus, constitution and bylaws, vision statements and goals: they are approaching Earth Cube governance from the second loop. This is where the members of Earth Cube agree to be its owners. And when someone talks about data sharing policies (enforcement, compliance, standards, etc.) for Earth Cube, they are also bringing to the table issues integral to governance. These are the activities, the goals, and the outcomes of Earth Cube as a distributed/virtual organization.

First loop governance fixes problems for the Earth Cube member community. Second loop governance creates what sociologists call “agency.” This agency is the ability/capability to govern how the community will fix its problems. Does there need to be a committee? Who gets to be on the committee? Who is involved in a decision? Who do you talk to if you feel your voice has not been heard? Second-loop governance is responsible to answer all of these questions. In a typical NSF project, this is called “management.” PI and Co-PIs are charged to create and implement an effective management plan. But who should create and implement an effective second-loop governance plan? The current vision for Earth Cube puts the community into this role. Members of the community are stepping up to guide this process. But a much larger community-wide conversation will need to happen before any second-loop governance plan can be implemented.

What about first-loop governance planning? When should this happen, and how? Initial discussions about the scope of the problems to be fixed and the solution spaces for these fixes will help articulate the amount of (loop-one) governance activities needed to effect the fixes. The model that emerges will guide the second-loop governance planners to better solutions for their level of governance. For example, if community buy-in to a strict set of data standards is needed, then the second-loop governance effort will need to plan to build a strong community. If the main requirement is better communication, then a much weaker community will suffice.  But again, these discussions will need to be revisited after the second-loop governance effort is agreed to by the members. So the governance boot-strapping process will resonate between the two loops until the initial governance plan is accepted by the Earth Cube members. At that point, the second-loop governance is empowered to address new fixes, and to fix itself whenever this is needed.

A good example of this can be found in the history of the ESIP Federation. The Federation spent more than two years, and included direct participation by several dozen members before it finalized its constitution and bylaws (the main second-loop outcome). When the final vote was taken, and these documents were accepted by consensus, then the various committees, and emergent working groups and thematic “clusters” were supported to begin to fix problems faced by Federation members: data interoperability and stewardship being chief among these.

Building a governance model for Earth Cube will require looking into both loops: the first loop describes a number of fixes planned to address common problems (mainly around data use and sharing), while the second loop describes how the Earth Cube community can acquire ownership for the decision processes to determine which fixes are most important, and how to engage the broader community in their implementation.