5 Steps to Building an Organisation

What are the essential steps to seting up and maintaining coherent, purposeful collaborative work? How do you build an organisation?

Giving a talk to participants of Berlin’s Climate-KIC accelerator program last week helped me clarify my thinking on this. I will attempt to sketch out a systematic way to to get from “a bunch of people wanting to do things together” to a working and evolving organisation. There are many ways to do this – this is one, that, in our experience, has often worked well. It is informed by the work we did with Nenásilná komunikace group and our practise of Holacracy.

This will most likely be incomplete or unclear in places – please do leave questions and comments below so that it can improve!

1) Clarify Purpose

Goal: Arrive at a shared expression of purpose.

Method: Story Circle Conversation with Convergence.

'The Circle Way' Book Cover

Get all founders together and host a circle conversation on purpose.

Let people tell stories: Why did they come to the meeting? What connects them to the other people? What connects them to the stated purpose of the meeting? Look for an underlying pattern.

After an initial direction has been found, check in with the individuals’ life goals: What are their “Big 5”: their big life goals, the things they want to do, achieve or experience? How do their personal goals connect to the purpose of this meeting and this organisation that is forming?

John P. Strelecky helps people find their personal purpose and their “Big 5 for Life”.
In this video he asks: “Could you die today and be ok with that?”

Settle with a purpose that all agree on and feel called to work on. Slightly lame purposes are allright. Establish that this very same group will later refine the purpose. Capture the purpose in explicit words in a language that everyone speaks.

You will find that the process works best if a neutral person hosts it: This allows the founders to fully dive into their personal passions without running the risk of drowning out each other’s voices or overlooking important, unspoken aspects. It also usually makes for faster convergence and sharpness in the purpose wording with lesser risk over “talking-things-to-death”.

(We host and facilitate such meetings / conversations on purpose.)

2) Define initial Roles

Goal: Build a structure that creates capacity for action.

Method: Simple Governance Meeting

Organise the work, not the people.

Now that the purpose is defined, what work needs to get done?


Role Structure of R&K (now: S&P)'s Company Circle as on January 5th 2014
Röll & Korvenmaa’s Company Circle, as of January 5th 2014

Work from the purpose: if [purpose] is the goal, what needs to be done? Create a “Role” for it: A role is a specific function with a name, a  purpose and accountabilities.

Start with simple roles and purpose expressions – they will change later. Don’t make this process too long or complicated: Create roles for work that clearly needs to get done now – don’t anticipate too much of future work. Make sure you also create roles for work that nobody wants to do right now – but that is clearly necessary for the organisation.

Have one person facilitate the process of role-creation: The facilitator ensures everyone understands the proposals for roles and asks for objections. It is not necessary to agree on all roles proposed: it is enough when there are no objections to creating a role for it to be created. Don’t worry if not all roles make sense to you right now – they may change later.

Capture the roles explicitely on paper or a digital tool, and make them available to all.

(One framework to develop such structures with easily is Holacracy. Glassfrog is a useful tools to capture and develop roles with. )

3) Assign Roles to People

Goal: Bring life into the structure, create personal responsibility for action

Method: various. Decide on one.

With roles defined, you now need to fill them with life – which comes from people.

Agree on a process for assigning people to roles and removing people from roles.

Consensus decision making of the founders can work here, as can consent-based methods, or a creating a role wich takes care of assignments and electing this role.

Assign all roles.

If necessary, more than one person can fill a role – we recommend to avoid this as much as possible though, to keep accountabilities clear.

(At this moment, anyone is permitted to do any work: not holding a role does not prevent you from doing any work. Holding the role merely gives you an accountability (responsibility) to work on this role’s purpose. It does not grant any special power.)

Capture the process for role-assignment and the actual assignments explicitely. (Glassfrog can work well for this, but a document in Basecamp, on a Wiki or Role-Cards on Trello also often do the job.)

4) Capture Projects

Goal: begin purposeful action in clarity

Method: Project capture

With a basic structure in place, and people in responsibility for all the currently necessary business functions (even the unpopular ones), it is now time to move to action:

Capture all projects that people / roles are already working on, and solicit for new projects that people want to work on. Only accept projects that a person filling a role takes on personally: “I will…”

Do not accept projects that “we should do”. People may request projects to be taken up by other people, but they shall only be captured when a person explicitly takes them up.

Capture all projects explicitly and make them visible for all using a paper or a digital board.

(Check out our own project board on Glassfrog – it’s public! You can see the actual projects that we are working on (minus some hidden for privacy). We use Glassfrog for the large public overview and Trello for more detail on the backend. If any of that intrigues you, we are looking for people to join us!)

Have people request projects from each other: “As the marketing person, would you take on a project to build a website?” Only accept projects that a person takes on. If a person refuses to take on a project, accept it for now.

Any person can take on any project. If it does not match any of their roles, capture it as an “individual project”.

Capture projects as their outcomes: “New website published.” “Seminar scheduled.”

Build a visual overview of all projects that are going on and make it available to all team members.

(We help facilitate these project captures – it’s the first steps of our planning and strategy workshops. We can also help choose a tool to build the overview and set up digital tools for teams that need them – checkout Trello and Glassfrog. )

5) Establish Tactical and Governance Work Processes

Goal: Ensure continuity

Method: Definition & Agreement on Work Processes

With purposeful work now beginning, you need to establish two ongoing conversations: One about the work, and one about how the work is being done.

Commit to

a) a regular “Tactical Meeting” in which anyone can bring anything to the agenda and process it  until satisfied. (Check the bottom of this post for more on Tactical Meetings.)

b) a regular “Governance Meeting” in which existing roles can be refined, new roles created or obsolete roles removed. (See this blogpost for more details on governance meetings.)

Especially the governance meeting is fundamental: it effectively holds the power to change anything in your organisation. Make sure you are clear on how the governance meeting decides things. Its decisions shall be binding for all members of the organisation. (You may also want to use the governance meeting to assign people to roles, depending on what process you agreed on in step 3.)

You may want to separate out the “founder’s governance” – the conversations that  set the purpose of the entire organisation – from matters of how the work is  being structured (within the constraints given by the purpose). The specifics of how to do this go outside the scope of _this_ post, but may come up in a separate write-up at a later point.

Full Role Structure of our company, with founders represented on the Board and working roles on the (lower) Company Circle (January 5th 2014)
Full Role Structure of our company as of January 5th 2014, with founders represented on the Board and working roles on the (lower) Company Circle. The Board sets the organisation’s purpose, the Company carries it out.

(We facilitate tactical work meetings and hold the space for governance conversations. )

Much of this work is captured in the Holacracy collaboration framework. Consider learning more about it – we have found it extremely useful! (We run public Holacracy Trainings on demand and can arrange company-internal events too.)

What else?

Any open questions? A story to tell of how you built an organisation and what worked and what failed for you? Anything missing here? Please share your interest in the comments!

Thank you to: Holger DieterichLeonie Gross and all participants of the August 8th event in Berlin for kicking off the structured thinking on this, and Kata Kovacs for reflections after the talk.

– Martina Röll

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