published: April 17, 2023 - last updated: April 17, 2023
A core problem of any organization that is "building something", whether it be software or buildings or artworks, is the question of deciding exactly what should be built and how precisely it should be designed. The usual answer is for organizations to perform market research and surveys to understand what people want before building it.
This arrangement is simple, but can easily produce bad outcomes when the organization fails to understand needs or has corrupting incentives, such as when products are built to encourage actions that aren't in the best interest of immediate users (opens new window). Design is Governance (opens new window), so it is better when power over a design is held directly by those effected by it.
But democratic coordination of such tricky problems as good design can be difficult and inefficient (opens new window). This is a core problem that would be faced by any Open Project Cooperative: how to democratically decide what gets built and how?
In any design process there are "wanters" (those effected by the design whose problems we hope to solve) and "creators" (those creating the design and executing it). It's possible for those two roles to be inhabited by the same person, such as when you select and cook a meal for yourself. But this isn't always the case. Often wanters and builders don't have the same information or incentives.
This is true in the case of democratic cooperatives. Members are more like customers, who don't work inside the cooperative and so don't have contextual information and understanding of what the cooperative can practically achieve. Builders have that contextual information, but don't necessarily understand members problems precisely enough to guess what they want. Our goal is to create a design methodology that allows wanters to democratically exercise control over designs and execution even when they lack the contextual knowledge or expertise necessary to understand every aspect of execution.
The Shape Up methodology (opens new window) provides a sharp tool to solve this problem. It's typically used by for-profit companies, but it can easily be adjusted to make sense in a democratic context. Read the Shape Up site linked above to deeply explore how it works, but as a broad overview I'll describe the three essential actions people take within it:
Shape up is extremely flexible and yet rigorous. It focuses on the completion of useful work rather than trying to predict precisely how the future will play out, or adopting a myopic obsession with making any kind of progress no matter if it's in the wrong direction.
To fit Shape Up to a democratic context, we just have to assign the work of shaping and building to the creators working inside the cooperative, and betting to the voting members of the cooperative (who might also include the builders (opens new window)). Here's a more precise flow:
This process is very simple and assigns the different responsibilities and powers to the right people. Since it is implicitly underpinned by Persistent Democracy, it could also be evolved and changed as needed.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or input, especially if you'd like to experiment with this methodology and would like to talk about finer details. I'd also like to hear if you think even this process is too complicated! Perhaps it's better to simply democratically select a president who can exercise power to drive toward a unified vision?