Community Style Business – An introduction

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I first started asking the question two years ago.

How do I work in an environment where all my contributions are valued?

The problem I faced at the time was that I was working for a professional services software company and had just secured a multi-million dollar contract. After working with the customer and rebuilding ties I had my review, where I was given a small increase in pay, and no promotion, even though I was being billed as multiple titles above my current pay grade.

At first I thought it would be enough to step up in the corporate ladder. That’s when it was driven home to me about how much of “middle” management was corporate politics and posturing. That was definitely not what I enjoy.

I then tried both joining a couple of startups as well as creating a business of my own. It was surprising to me how different organizations varied, both in skill sets as well as personal philosophies. But there was an underlying trend of scarcity and in some cases wild financial bets where one wrong step would mean I would lose my house and my finances would be shot.

The one good thing during that whole duration was that I was continually studying. Business, people management and even psychology books became part of my daily routine. Eventually I started working out what I really was looking for in a workplace environment, and titled it Community Style Business.

What is CSB (Community Style Business)

The simplest definition of CSB is:

A group of individuals working together as peers to create value, with the rewards of that value distributed to the community members based on the extent of the individual’s contributions.

This style of business borrows heavily from the organizational structure of agile, in which the members executing define how work gets done, and the inception members (product owners and researchers) work to identify what customers value and how much.

I personally come from a software background, and so the following will be heavily focused on the definition as it pertains to software, but that doesn’t mean a variation can’t be applied to other domains.

Distribution of rewards

Members of this system are rewarded based off of efficiency and completion of work. These pieces of work are given point values based off of risk, complexity and effort in relation to what it would take a competent individual skilled in the craft. This value is then voted on by the community of individuals on the team, much like agile’s planning poker.

Once a unit of work is finished, it is reviewed by the team and at least one member of the inception team. If the work is approved then the points associated with the work are rewarded to the individuals who worked on it.

It is generally considered a good practice to define lead measures as part of a unit of work. Lead measures are measurable behaviors which when done tend to ensure high quality results.

As the product is purchased, and value is transformed, all non-contributor based expenses are paid first. Items such as rented servers, or the power bill and Internet, at face value. After that any community agreed finances are taken care of, such as putting together a rainy day fund. Finally the remaining is distributed based on the percentage of points an individual has as part of the whole.

Leadership

This is one of the main differences from this style of organization to others. The way leadership works in this style is through evangelizing ideas, and gaining community buy in, although depending on the size this could be as simple as convincing a team to consolidate around the idea.

Often times this will come from the inception team, but any member of the community has the ability to become part of inception, even stepping outside of their current role to do so, although it’s important to note that they shouldn’t do it in a way which will cause their current team to fail on the current iteration.

A fundamental principle here is that an idea or vision by itself is worthless, and shouldn’t be directly rewarded. The true value of the idea comes through the researching, flushing out and implementation of the idea. Usually this means many people are involved, from the high level vision all the way down to the details. To that extent those who want to lead with vision become part of an inception team, and are given the opportunity to gain support from others.

People management

Since value is created by each person which should be directly relational to that created, there isn’t a need for the typical oversight of individuals. A member who doesn’t want to work that much will be rewarded with little, and the more workers creating value leads to more value created. If there is limited value which can be obtained, more value created leads to a faster realization of that value, allowing the team to move more rapidly towards more valuable goals.

Those who do not feel they receive enough value for their lifestyle will tend to leave a group on their own. These individuals are often referred to as dead weight in other organizations. In this regard reviews, performance management and classic hiring/firing practices do not apply to the CSB. If a member is not performing enough value, others can be added without detracting from the community.

Pay scale and peer to peer pay comparisons also becomes a moot point in the CSB. Since the system rewards based purely on value contributed, individuals can achieve any pay amount they’re capable of, either through efficiency, talent or brute effort.

Individual responsibilities

In the community model the individual is given a lot of leeway as to how they want to work. The only requirement of this model is that individuals are required to self educate and take part in community obligations. It is up to the community to decide what these obligations are. Examples of items which should be discussed are: insurance, time off, office space, etc.

Individual Community Obligations

A good rule of thumb should be that obligations directly benefit all members of the community equally, if that’s not the case then it’s a good idea to ask if that’s an individual’s responsibility.

An example might be offices of different sizes. If one individual prefers a larger office to himself but others double up on office space then the office space doesn’t directly benefit whole community. In this case, it might be a good idea to allow individuals determine how much of their own distributions they’re willing to give for their working environment. This would allow those that need larger offices the ability to get them, but does not create a pecking order as there is no downside for those who it doesn’t directly benefit.

Self education

In this style of business it is up to the individual to stay informed in order to create the most value possible. This can be done through self education, team discussions, and a suggested high level cross training which gives the individual a concept of other areas of responsibilities and research which is ongoing.

This high level training of research and concepts will allow the community to better understand how to help each other out. Due to this nature there should be an increase in the volume of applicable value across the community.

Community iterations

When I was a manager one of my direct reports told me something to the effect of, “In agile you should be okay if we fail”. While this can sound bad, what he was trying to imply was that in an environment where the group is expected to self improve, harsh accountability regardless of the circumstance will drive away the willingness to try new things.

In the community model, mistakes are expected to happen, people aren’t perfect. The community should pick durations by which it can review and change the way it functions, even trying out new ideas to see if they will work. This iterative process allows for course correction as the community evolves and the business evolves or individuals in the community’s priorities change.

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3 thoughts on “Community Style Business – An introduction

  1. Alfred Sturges

    As a QA analyst working in an agile environment I’m not sure how this system would work for me. Would I expect to receive the same value for QA points as developers do for Dev points?

    Another problem that agile has is a tendency to overvalue low point stories and undervalue high point stories.

    Perhaps a bidding system could be employed. Each person in the organization would have the opportunity to bid on tasks. If one developer says he will do a task for 4 points then another developer can bid to do it for 3.5. It would help direct work to those best suited to do it. Of course if all tasks end up being pointed lower because of bidding then the monetary value of each point at the end of the project will be higher – it’s just a way of using market forces to try and direct labor to where it is most efficient and needed most.

    • Good question.

      First I want to comment about the over/under value of points. The agile point method is a way of determoning what prioritization should be worked on, trying to get the most value for the least amount of effort. If a story has relatively few story points but extremely high value, then it should be worked on. This prioritization is done by taking the overall value provided by the product owner (who does the product research on how much estimated revenue/value the story would bring) and dividing it by the story points (or the effort it would take to make it). In this way we devalue those stories which require a lot of effort which is in-proportional to what we expect to get from it. This is also the area where poor product owners tend to have the most problems, as determining the revenue/value of a story is not a science.

      As to the QA points, those should be discussed and determined by the community. It could be that the community might want to split points between a development and QA if a predetermined level of bugs are found, or if none are found a basic number of points given to the QA individual. This is one of the aspects which I hope to discuss in a future blog post which will dive into some of the principles and thoughts around point based rewards. But generally there are no hard fast rules, its more about what the community values and what works in order to entice workers with the skills they need.

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