Last year we published Informal Organizations, describing our initial corporate structure and a summary of our background research on worker cooperatives, ESOP-owned S-Corps, and more sustainable financing and incubation for organizations. In this post, we provide an overview of our emerging internal organizational structure at Informal, and the theory behind it. Our goal with Informal is to create a new kind of organization, a democratic structure that aims to rebalance the power dynamics between capital and labour towards something more sustainable and non-extractive, something that nurtures long-term employment and real wealth creation through R&D, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

However, a corporate structure is just a scaffold on which to build; achieving these aims takes more than a corporate structure in itself. It requires focus and intention on how you work together to achieve these goals. After years of experience running companies, and tons of blog posts and books, we’ve concluded that, despite a rich body of organizational theory, the practice of organizations is a big mess. Many random concepts, ideas, tips, tricks, heuristics, “systems,” etc. Lots of trauma, power struggle, failed expectations, unaccountability. Lots of “Google does this” and “Netflix does that.” Lots of deference to Silicon Valley’s dominant narratives and ideologies. But what’s often lacking is a meaningful yet practical way to reason from first principles about organizational structure and accountability.

In 2021, we found the fundamental building block we were looking for - a basic primitive for reasoning about organizations that was manifestly practical. We were introduced to a simple language called “Workflow” by Melissa Angeli and Laura McKinney of Jacquarden Consulting. Laura and Melissa were previously the CEO and Head of People for Galois (respectively), a successful R&D company in the US with an acclaimed organizational design, known as the Collaborative Web. Their paper describes common dysfunctions in management and leadership and how the collaborative web structure resolves them. It is well worth reading.

The Workflow language comes from Fernando Flores and his Conversations for Action; his seminal thinking and guidance made Melissa and Laura’s work possible. Since their discovery, Laura and Melissa have helped bring these ideas forward and demonstrate how to use Workflows to build resilient organizations.

The concept of Workflow is simple and elegant and is a basis from which the daily operations of an organization can grow. It provides a common language and basic primitives for describing, diagnosing, and constructing organizational patterns.

We can describe Workflow as a language for navigating promises between individuals within an organization. A promise is a dynamic relationship between what we call a “Customer” and a “Performer”. The Customer is someone who holds a concern, an objective regarding some outcome they seek in the world. Through negotiation with the Customer, the Performer makes a promise to fulfil that concern, to deliver results that satisfy the objective. Throughout the relationship, the Customer is responsible for the Performer’s success. It is important to note that “Customer” and “Performer” are terms that help to clarify the workflow relationship between two or more individuals, and should not be thought of as hierarchical terms that connote some inherent power structure.

There are four stages to a workflow between Customer and Performer, forming a loop: listening, negotiating, executing, and assessing.

At a high level, the steps are as follows:

  1. Listening: A customer articulates a need, making request for help achieving their objective. A performer, hearing the need, makes an offer that proposes to meet that objective. They listen to each other to develop a shared understanding of the objective and decide if they would be a good fit to work together.
  2. Negotiating: The Customer and Performer negotiate on some results (the “conditions of satisfaction”), culminating in a promise from the Performer to deliver those results within some time frame.
  3. Executing: The Performer executes on the promise they made. Sometimes, during execution, you discover new information or something happens that requires a renegotiation, so you go back to step 2, negotiating.
  4. Assessing: The promise is redeemed, the work is reviewed, satisfaction is determined, and the cycle repeats.

While it seems like a simple idea, the workflow language unlocks a lot of powerful new ways to think about organizations and the work within them. It builds empathy and relationships between individuals, as work is no longer enforced through opaque and non-negotiable power structures but is always a negotiation between consenting adults. Customers and Performers are both responsible for setting clear expectations on the outcomes they are working towards. This makes it a collaborative process for enhancing clarity and communication between people and manifesting the cooperative principles that are core to our organization at Informal.

We’ve been applying Workflow at Informal for just under a year now with fantastic results. The language is useful for small tasks through complex partnerships, from individual meetings to multi-year organizational evolution; everything is a workflow. In the end, it’s about facilitating trust. The language is straightforward to learn and can be put into practice immediately. Its value is experienced cumulatively over time, as it is used consistently and becomes part of the organization’s language, culture, and story. You can read more about the mechanics of Workflow and how we apply it in our new guide.

By providing a language for talking about promises and the stages of promise-making and redemption, Workflow helps eliminate a lot of the ambiguity and awkwardness that comes from managing accountability. Doing so illuminates opportunities for improved organizational practices and designs, rather than defaulting to hierarchical management or falling prey to a tyranny of structurelessness.

The organization, then, can be thought of as a collaborative web of workflows, engaging all of its members as both Customer and Performer over varying scopes and time horizons. We’ve found Workflow to be a clarifying light amongst the mess of organization design tips and tricks, a fundamental language to empower the collective evolution of the organization and its members.

For a deep dive into the Workflow language, visit our guide. This guide will be updated over time to reflect our continuous learnings.

Thank you to Jelena Djuric and Shon Feder for providing invaluable feedback and review on this post!

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