Design Led Governance

I’ve long been a fan of Impact Hub Brum since their Kickstarter over 2 years ago.

They want to empower a collective movement to bring about change in Birmingham, embracing a diverse range of people and organisations with a whole host of experiences and skills. Until recently, without even having visited the space itself, the energy online and in person when I’ve met some of the directors have been infectious. I’ve long believed this collective of people is up to something good. For those who don’t know, they created a massive online splash two years ago with a brilliant Kickstarter and a collective of Directors who felt passionate about making Birmingham a better place to live. Having met at various events across the city, they believed they could come together to form a collective that could take on this challenge
Impact Hub in their own words

I received an out the blue DM on Twitter about 4 months back from Immy Kaur, asking me if Snook would like to work with them on a project, a ‘special’ kind of project.

I was excited and intrigued to find out what we could do with the hub.

After a fast paced 2-hour whirlwind trip to Brum, I found out where they are at.

They’re growing. The last two years have been a successful blur (in a really good way).

They need to smarten up, stabilise and prepare for the next stage of their journey as they grow into Hub 1.5.

They need to review their governance, T+Cs, a rigorous business plan, a strong and solid mission for their funders to back and feel confident in what they are doing.

They could have just got any other HR agency in, knocked up some policies, created some processes for things like ‘taking holiday’ but they didn’t. Instead, they called us.

In part, it was down to a blog I wrote. I talked about how developing our website last year had brought up lots of other questions which we answered and convened on our approach and values as an organisation. They also like what we do, which given we’re fans of them, was pretty humbling.

So finally, two organisations that respect each other get to work together. And I couldn’t be more happy about it.

The issue is, the hub is special. Really special. I can’t quite describe it, but it’s built on a distinct set of values that can’t easily be replicated. And this doesn’t just sit with the directors, it’s across the entire organisations from staff to members. Their values live in the decisions they make.

Humble. Joy. Collective. All the positives. An open and optimistic approach to the future of Birmingham and it’s citizens.

Where do they sit in the world of Systems Change?

Hub Brum is an organisation that straddles the middle space of showing what the possible future could look like (they’re trialling forms of radical childcare) whilst supporting the now and issues that exist. They’re not at the picket line per say, but they are the facilitators, the team who bring people together collectively to share perspectives, build new initiatives from a systems perspective and launch them, with the conviction that the models they create will be picked up, contorted, replicated or show the art of what is possible in an alternative reality to how things are done now.

They are a collective that would be happy to eventually fade out without reference if their impact and ideas lived on.

You see, they are special. They carry a particular kind of humility which is rare today.

But Governance? That’s a really boring project. Well, that’s what some would say.

Except it isn’t.

Culture is a living organism based on your unconscious design

Having run an organisation for nearly 8 years, I’m fascinated by the culture. In my experience, culture can fluctuate quite rapidly from various internal and external forces. Very small things can make a difference from the way we act to how we set up the rules of engagement within a structure. Governance, the stuff that goes around your culture is a material like wood or metal that can be bent and shaped how you want it to be. It forms the hard and soft rules that a culture lives within and can dictate behaviour, which in turn has an impact on how these values are enacted.

Organisational culture is a unique and very delicate thing. It is formed and owned by people within a structure, and it never stands still. Sometimes the owner of that culture is dictated by one, in other scenarios, by many. What we can’t ignore is that culture is a living organism that cannot be ‘designed’ but can be consciously cared for with tangible actions and touchpoints that indicate or can persuade preferred behaviours.

The thing is, in both new and long-standing organisations we often don’t design the touchpoints for the preferred behaviour we want to see. If you think as a leader, ‘Why doesn’t anyone pick up fixing the small problems in this business except me?’ you have to look at what motivations there are and how this is documented, how this is communicated, how people have autonomy. It links to your business plan, your job descriptions, your leadership style, how you manage capacity and more. A business is a living organism and everything is interrelated to everything around you.

Often, the pieces of paper, the contracts, the holiday process, the way we onboard, our business plans don’t reflect who we are, who we want to be and carry the values we want to embody. They become the same as everyone else. A downloaded template from the internet hacked together with your org name. A process that wasn’t really designed, it just ‘caught on’ and now everyone does it that way. Or the process doesn’t even exist.

The Hub is growing, and I’d say luckily, they don’t have too much governance or cultural history to look back on, which means they have the time to pause, reflect and build the touchpoints and platforms of their governance that mirror the ambitious culture and mission they want to retain and grow.

This couldn’t come at a better time. Given that the Hub has the time to reflect on governance and structure, which is unique to most organisations I work with, they can consciously design their culture and future.

Our response to the Hub Brum’s needs

I’m going, to be honest, I’m nervous about this project. It’s not easy, it is complex and I want to help the Hub get this right. This was our response to our initial understanding of what they need:

“Impact Hub Birmingham are prototyping a new ‘us’. A 21st-century town hall is a place to collaboratively re-imagine and remake our shared future, together. To design the tomorrow of spaces, places and services a new design of institutions, their structure, practice and governance need re-imagined. This needs to be modelled on entirely different forms of governance from traditional models we recognise from the 20th and early 21st century. The difficult task of tightening up organisational governance lies ahead whilst ensuring that the values, so deeply interwoven into the setup and fabric of the hub remain not only intact but drive this next stage of development. Some of these values are documented, whilst others exist in the respect and reciprocity of a growing community and their behaviour within the hub. It is important to recognise that these values set some of the conditions for today, and any ‘change’ through a process of design will be guided by them and dually consider how these will manifest into tangible documents that underpin the governance of the hub”

So how are we going to do this?

In the most agile way possible. And a little bit of making it up as we go along.

When we met them, we loved that they said, ‘We don’t expect you to have all the answers’. And we don’t. We have a framework to approach this but this is a journey of discovering what works for them and building processes and skills across their team to continuously develop this.

We’re building out from some of the Effective Organisation work, areas of holacracy and other frameworks to look at every area of the hub from sales plans, HR processes to taking holiday and attracting new members.

Some of our core mental models and approaches on top of this include:

Co-designing the Governance framework

We’re working with the team (and members) to ensure everyone has a say in shaping how the hub works. This isn’t being shaped just by the directors, we’re fully opening up all development work, conversation, design to everyone.

Building a sustainable approach by creating methods for building governance

We can’t do everything within this project, so we’re building design methods to tackle project by project. This means after we’ve gone, the hub can repeat the process for focused pieces of work. We’ll be talking about that further down the line.

User-centered and design-led approaches applied to governance

We’re taking an approach to put people at the heart of governance. We’ll be borrowing methods from our design toolkit to journey map scenarios, articulate governance as touchpoints from policy documents to software platforms and putting a testing framework around concepts.

Governance as a platform

If we’re thinking of governance as a living organism, then we must build a platform that allows us to track the connections.

We’re setting up open platforms that support the interlinking of areas of governance. If a policy changes over here, it must be recorded and the impact on other elements altered over here. We’re building a suite of documents and master Governance platform that will show where and how the organisation functions, how the journeys for each user of the hub works, where that cultural rule or norm is documented and importantly, how it is enacted on a daily basis. We’ll be opening this up later on in the process, but it’s the epicentre of the organism that allows us to document how the organisation functions and to continue to ask questions around every element.

Open sourcing it

We’re going to open up everything we do, in the hope that more organisations can learn and utilise this process. It’s not a cookie-cut set of outputs, it’s a framework for a journey and capacity an organisation must embed within itself to continually evaluate its stance on how it’s governance operates.

What comes out of this?

There are some absolute critical must-haves for the project. Revised business plan, quarterly goals, clear responsibilities and core legal policy and processes in place. But around this, is everything else and they inter-relate. We’re going to be leaving the hub with more work than when we started, but with the hope, we’ll get them to a place where we’ve undertaken development together on some trial projects that they can continue long into the future.

We’ll be continuing to document how we do this using the #governancedesign, if you’re interested in knowing more, drop me a comment.