This document shares my opinionated explorations so far into discovering patterns in a participatory organization practices, starting mostly with a taxonomy and inventory of existing practices.
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Participatory Organizations, Patterns, Processes & Tools — An Overview & Taxonomy

By Christopher Allen — — Licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0

I have been both a practitioner in, and an observer of, participatory organizations for some time. This is my very opinionated guide as to some the best practices of participatory organizations based on my experience, and some to offer some possible shared language about those practices so that we can talk about them further.

First, why do I use the word "organization" rather than a broader word like "group" or a more specific word like "corporation"?

The definition of "organization" is "an organized body of people with a particular purpose, especially a business, society, association, etc.". As the word doesn't define how groups of people work together, only that they have a purpose--I find it suitably generic. I also think it is important to differentiate between groups of people that have a purpose as opposed to groups that do not. A mob does not have a purpose, nor do many affiliations who share something in common such as being red-headed or living in the same neighborhood. A community, an open source project, a non-profit, a corporation, are groups that all have a purpose. I want to focus on groups with a purpose.

Next, what do I mean when I qualify a subset of organizations by using the word "participatory"?

The definition of participate is "to take or have a portion" and the root of the word comes from the latin ‘participare’ meaning "to share in". Participation, more specifically in our western culture, also implies fairness in such sharing.

Thus a "participatory organization" is a group of people who share a purpose and share, in a fair fashion, the effort and the results of achieving that purpose. Organizations can come in many forms and sizes, can have a wide variety of purposes, work together in wide variety of ways, and can achieve many different results, but participatory organizations share.

There are a wide variety of terms for related practices: self-managing organization, flat organizations, cooperatives, collaboratives, etc. however, I've often found these terms too narrow — often focusing on a specific kind of group, a specific process or method, or share the work without fairly sharing the results of that work. However, there are many valuable things to learn from these related practices.

The advantages of involvement in participatory organizations are numerous, but there is a cost. In order to fairly share the work and the achievements from the work, there are a wide variety of practices (skills, knowledge, communications, methods, processes, and tools) that must be learned and used by the members of organization. These require both investment of time & energy to learn, as well as time & energy on an ongoing basis to function.

There is one particular personal bias that I have about participatory organization practices — I favor patterns over specific processes or tools. I feel too often practitioners get lost — a process that worked in one specific case causes problems in another, a great tool is too much effort or becomes a distraction, or either a process or a tool is manipulated by someone to cause unfair results. Focusing on patterns allows for flexibility to make sure that fair results are achieved.

Discovering common patterns in processes and tools is difficult — it requires learning differing shared languages and approaches, energy for real-world practice to experience them, time to deepen understanding & analysis, and sufficiently different examples of different disciplines to see what patterns they have in common.

This document shares my explorations so far into discovering patterns in a participatory organization practices, starting mostly with a taxonomy and inventory of existing practices. It is an opinionated guide--however, most of these practices I've not had sufficent time and experience with them to say that my early opinions are correct. Thus I welcome your own experience and am quite willing to change my mind.

A Taxonomy of Participatory Practices

At my highest level I divide participatory practices into 3 broad areas: Participatory Systems, Participatory Equity, and Participatory Governance.

Participatory Systems

These practices are typically more "meta" — about the design or patterns of participation, and often thus apply to more than just participatory organizations. However, having a group understanding of them can result in better outcomes.

Pattern Languages

A pattern language is a systemic method of describing good design practices or patterns of useful organization within a field of expertise. The term was coined by architect Christopher Alexander and popularized by his book "A Pattern Language" that defined a pattern language for the field of architecture. Others have since applied the term to economicssoftware designliberatory communicationwikis and more.

A Pattern Language is an attempt to express the deeper wisdom of what brings aliveness within a particular field of human endeavor, through a set of interconnected expressions arising from that wisdom. Aliveness is one placeholder term for "the quality that has no name": a sense of wholeness, spirit, or grace, that while of varying form, is precise and empirically verifiable.

For participatory organizations, I particularly like the Group Works Pattern Language, and in particular the card deck based on the language that they sell:

Why is it that some meetings bring life to your soul, while others leave you wishing you'd never stepped in the room? What happens at the best ones, that makes them productive, fulfilling, sometimes even magic?

The Group Works deck of 100 full-colour cards (91 patterns + 9 category cards) names what skilled facilitators and other participants do to make things work. The content is more specific than values and less specific than tips and techniques, cutting across existing methodologies with a designer's eye to capture the patterns that repeat. The deck can be used to plan sesssions, reflect on and debrief them, provide guidance, and share responsibility for making the process go well. It has the potential to provide a common reference point for practitioners, and serve as a framework and learning tool for those studying the field.

The cards were created by more than fifty volunteers (the Group Pattern Language Project) from diverse organizational backgrounds who collaborated over three years to express the core wisdom at the heart of successful group sessions. The cards are accompanied by a 5-panel explanatory legend card and a booklet describing the deck's purpose, story, and ideas for suggested activities.

In many ways this pattern language is what I aspire to for this work to eventually achieve — go above the specific methods, processes and tools that are often proposed as "The Way" to work together, into a pattern language that we can apply more dynamically to how participatory organizations function.

Systems Thinking

Participatory organizations and the ecosystems they exist within are complex systems, with some non-linear and often paradoxical results. Systems Thinking is "the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure." As a methodology can be a powerful tool, and when organizations deeply understand their use, can help the organization be more effective.

Some links:

Design Thinking

In a participative organization, all members are in some form creators and designers, and it helps if they together share in common some of the disciplines and approaches of design thinking.


Four key elements:

Design Thinking process guide from Stanford's dSchool:

Stanford's dSchool crash course in design thinking:

Agile & Design Thinking:


Participatory organizations typically have to manage resources held in common internally by the organization as a whole (assets, budgets, time, etc.), or are participating in shared but limited public goods that along with other organizations, that either tangible form (air, resources, etc.) or intangible (knowledge, open source, etc.).

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in Economics for her “analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. In that, she listed 8 principles for effectively managing against the tragedy of the commons. These are very useful for participatory organizations:

  • 1A. Define authorized use
  • 1B. Define commons boundaries
  • 2A. Make costs proportional
  • 2B. Pay all costs
  • 3A. Decide inclusively
  • 3B. Adapt locally
  • 4A. Share knowledge
  • 4B. Monitor effectively
  • 5 . Hold accountable
  • 6 . Promptly resolve conflicts
  • 7 . Govern locally
  • 8 . Connect & coordinate with related systems


Participatory Ecosystem

Participatory organizations exist in a context of other organizations that may have goals that are not aligned. Ideally, the the entire ecosystem should be of companies work together in an environment that is in-and-of itself participative. These practices might, among other things, involve cross-equity between companies in an ecosystem (ala kiretsu, etc), or collaboration to grow the market rather than divide the market.

Here is my first stab for what the requirements of an ideal Participatory Ecosystem might be:

A participatory ecosystem is a business ecosystem with relatively low barriers to economic participation, artistic and professional expression, and civic engagement by all stakeholders, including producers and consumers.

It has strong support for creating, sharing and increasing the production of goods and services of value to the ecosystem. A participatory ecosystem will have system processes where established stakeholders are incentivized to share knowledge, access to markets, and capital to new stakeholders in the ecosystem, and to turn consumers into producers.

Stakeholders with leadership positions in a participatory ecosystem may change over time, but the function of an ecosystem leader is valued by the community because it enables members to move toward shared visions, grow the market, to align their investments, and to find mutually supportive roles in the ecosystem.

A participatory system is resilient, and has system processes, such as decentralization, to prevent bad actors. Every stakeholder in a participatory ecosystem believes that their goods and services matter, and feel some degree of social connection and community with one another (at least they care what other people think about what they produce.) Not every stakeholder must produce, but all must believe that they are free to produce when ready and what they contribute will be appropriately valued.

(source: Created by Christopher Allen, a mashup of Henry Jenkins’ “participatory culture”and James Moore’s “business ecosystem” definitions)

Other useful system models

It can be helpful if members of a participatory organization have a shared understanding of these other system models:

Cynefin: &

Shared Languages: &

Design for How People Learn:


Facilitation skills: (TBS)

Participatory Equity

My second major category of participatory organization practices is Participatory Equity, aka "fair rewards". In many ways is the least complete of the three categories.

Cooperative Equity

Under US corporate law, decision making by equity stakeholders has precedence over other stakeholders, in particular, over that of employee stakeholders. One solution for participatory corporations is to make every employee an equity stakeholder.

There are a variety of ways to do this, among which is the Cooperative Corporation. By tradition (and enforced by some state laws, such as in California) each employee has one share and thus one vote in all decision making. Some cooperatives also require consensus by all stakeholder (typically defined as a lack of disagreement as opposed to true unanimous consent).

There may be some ways to have a cooperative be the managing partner in an LLC where the rest of the general partners come from outside investment. There are also some other LLC forms that have different shared equity approaches, however, the challenge for LLCs is that there can be tax consequences for all when a member enters or exits the organization.

There are forms of cooperatives in other countries that have been around for some time that I've not had time to dive into:


Benefit Corporation

In some US states, a corporation can be founded such that equity stakeholders do not have ultimate precedence over other stakeholders. This is a new form and there are some pretty significant difference between different versions of B-Corps in different states.

LLC's do not necessarily require a new form of corporation in their state to allow them to have B-corp style equity precedence, as they can make changes to their membership partnership agreement:

Many other links about b-corps:

Dynamic Equity

There are emerging a number of systems that allow equity to be more "equitable" without necessarily being exactly equal.

One of the more popular ones of these is the [Slicing Pie / Grunt Fund](Slicing Pie / Grunt Fund) model, however, it does not address corporate governance.

I have a slightly different Brain-Brawn-Money model (see bottom of my post Paying for Favors) that I've used that might be able to be integrated with the above.

A challenge with all of these models is that they work until you have substantial non-employee equity investors (other forms of non-equity backed instruments work: debt, royalty or revenue backed, or profit backed).

Non-equity instruments

One of the biggest obstacles to participatory equity is different motivations for exit by employees, founders and retiring long-term employees, and investors. This is often called Founder's Dilemma.

One way to avoid this is to not take external capital, but this is difficult especially when competitors can accept it.

Another approach is not to accept capital that requires an exit. I've mostly been concentrating on revenue- and royalty-backed forms of this, but there are some other interesting models.

One RFB that I've seen gives the investors 5% of revenue flow above that required for a fair wage of all employees + 20% overhead. Once 100% of the principal has been repaid, the percentage declines over time, allowing for new RBFs to be issued. The RBF terminates after some multiple of the initial equity has been paid off (in this case 3x). I have also seen and RBF that converts to equity at 3x principal if the company changes control.

Progressive Equity

There are some interesting use of option pools to reduce inequity upside with spectacular exits:

Participatory Governance

Governance vs Policy

For the rest of this section I'm bundling them together—both of these can be participatory, but I've found that the participatory processes for each are quite different.

Governance is the process by which decisions are made in an organization. These often have unwritten social norms, but largely are internally facing. Policy is the system and principles that are used to guide those governance process and achieve outcomes. Unlike governance, policy often has external factors such as have requirements from external stakeholders (such as investors) and regulating institutions, and thus can be more complex.

I find a common flaw in some of these practices that a process that works for governance (say making a decision about the design of a product feature) doesn't work as well for a policy process (say deciding what products and customers we should focus on, or should we hire someone), or vice-a-versa.

Corporate Governance

These broadly refer to the mechanisms, processes and relations by which corporations are controlled and directed. Note that corporations have a particular challenges in balancing the interests of differing stakeholders with different interests. Under the US system of corporate governance, stakeholders with equity have priority rights over policies that affect the corporation as a whole, in particular as regard to allocation of assets and equity. By tradition (but not law) equity stakeholders delegate much of the decision making for these policies to management.


Intrapreneuring allows for "intracapital" to be held by employees, allowing for some self-governance, innovation, and "freedom to fail". However this isn't really equity — it does not have the force of law or corporate contracts and thus as policy that may be too easily changed.

Dynamic Governance

Both Holacracy® (a trademarked term) and sociocracy (not trademarked, but 'claimed' in a variety of ways) have inside them common forms of governance and policy principles. The defining 3 principles are: policies are made consent (aka sociocracy's “no paramount and argued objections"); policies are created by circles (aka "distributed leadership); and leadership roles in circles are elected by consent. Holacracy is more specific to corporate governance, whereas sociocracy is used more for communities and non-corporate governance.


Of some of the other Dynamic Governance forms, both Holacracy and sociocracy also add a 4th principle, that of double-linking, i.e. two circles intersect by having one person from each circle elected to have membership in the other circle. Often there is a hierarchy in this, where one circle is consider to be "higher" than the other.


Sociocracy appears to be one of the oldest form of Dynamic Governance. It was inspired by Quakers and has roots in Dutch civil society organizations, but the current form largely codified by the early 70s. This history has resulted in it being used more by non-profits and communities due to some of its consensus practices. However, it is relatively flexible practice and has been used for a number of for-profit enterprises.

More recently, some European practitioners of Sociocracy have been attempting to revise Sociocracy adding some Holacracy and Agile elements. Importantly, many of their documents are open source.


Originally a fork of Sociocracy, it has increasingly differentiated itself from its origins, adding many Agile inspired practices. It is considered to be propriety and is trademarked, however, they have recently offered their constitution as open source.

Generally considered to be quite complicated, it gets mixed reviews – some people love it, some people hate it. I've taken some training in it, but have not actively practiced it, and find some of the processes more rigid than I prefer. Flowcharts are great in the beginning, but it feels you requirement for a long time and they can be quite constraining.

Notably, there are some major organizations that have attempted to implement it and have not succeeded:


I personally think Holacracy is too rigid in its process orientation (see my thoughts of processes vs. patterns above). However, I do believe that we have a lot to learn from Holacracy, in particular, some of the details in their responses to their critics is interesting .

Also, in contrast to the similar Sociocracy, there definitely is something useful in aspects their meeting approaches and resolving "tensions".

Another thing interesting about Holacracy is the support of their processes using software:

Enspiral (see below) has their own tool for their process.

Personally I'd like to see something that integrates the some of best of both sociocracy & Holacracy, but simplifies some of their best practices, as well as some of the easiest Agile practices, and add some flexibility. However, having never used either in a real organization, it is hard to say what that integration would look like.

Lattice & Matrix Governance

A number of organizations don't use the circle approach, and instead have more of a lattice or matrix network of connections.

Gore-Tex, founded in 1953 is among the longest running of this style of organization. Not precisely flat, it has positions of authority and leaders that are selected by their peers.

Spotify has a more explicit matrix, which comes from scaling up Agile processes:

They also have a career path methodology, which many of the other processes here do not:

Other articles:

I'm not quite clear on the differences between this and classic matrix management used in 80's era Enterprises:

Self-Management & Self-Organization

One of the flattest forms of management is known as "self-management". Morningstar is one of the oldest firms with this form.

Key to Morningstar's form of self-management is the CLOU, the "Colleague Letter of Understanding"

Valve calls their approach "Self-organization" but they don't appear to have a CLOU equivalent:

Some criticisms of Valve's approach: &

Buffer started with self-management at first with an emphasis on transparency, but added more structure later:

Article on Buffer adding more structure later:

Other articles on self-organization:

Outcome Based Governance

Intel, Google and a number of other large tech enterprises have succeeded in flattening, though not eliminating, hierarchies through a variety of processes, most notably using "Objectives & Key Results" reports, or OKR.

I personally have used something similar to for team reports as opposed to for personal reports. I think this is because you have to be VERY careful that they are not used for individual performance reviews.


Why being careful about not using them for performance reviews:

OKRs & Agile:

Lots of other resources:

Agile & Scrum

As noted above, software development practices like Agile & Scrum processes have influenced a number of the processes above, in particular Holacracy, Sociocracy 3.0, and Spotify.

Some links:

Criticisms of Agile:

Values-Driven & Social Entrepreneurs

There are a number of recent participatory organizations that I would characterize as using a hybrid of many of the practices above, however, one thing that particularly they have in common is the emphasis on focusing values foremost.

Shared values as a driver for self-management

Culture as being important for self-management

Enspiral, is a New Zealand networked organization that has been particular transparent on their practices:


Some particularly relevant posts:

Older outdated Enspiral-Agreements

Replaced by handbook: Enspiral-Handbook

and why:

Like Holacracy's Glass Frog, Enspiral has an online tool called Loomio to help facilitate their processes. Loomio's differences from Holacracy.

Tyranny of Structurelessness

It is important to emphasize the negative pattern discussed in Jo Freeman's famous 1970 essay The Tyranny of Structureless. Using lessons's from the 60's feminist movement, avoiding structure can actually reinforce structures, and often in non-beneficial ways masking abuses of power:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness – and that is not the nature of a human group.

This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.



  1. Act: “You Already Have Permission”
  2. Flow: “Every Idea Is Playdough”
  3. Open: “Everything Is Transparent”
  4. Accept: “It Isn’t Easy Being Green”
  5. Share: “Communication Is Oxygen”


I have this weird visualization in my head of the territories covered by these participatory practices.

I'm currently dividing things up is a big set of Venn Diagrams (realy more Venn Spheres):

The largest sphere is Participatory Ecosystems, which have a number of practices to support the regenerative systems of a commons, as well as a culture policy to increase participation at all levels, and to incentivize against the tragedy of the commons and unequal equity.

Inside that sphere are two Venn spheres, Participatory Corporations and Participatory Organizations. They have much in common, but Participatory Corporations are more about sustaining and growing financial capital, whereas Participatory Organizations are more focused on sustaining and growing communities.

Inside the intersection of the Participatory Corporations and Organizations spheres are a number of smaller bubbles. There is Participatory Governance, Participatory Operations, and Participatory Vision & Culture.

Participatory Governance increases engagement by the stakeholders by having them participate in policy making. There are a wide variety of these processes. What is known as "Consensus Decision Making" is a sphere that nearest to the Participatory Organizations side of the sphere, but also near the Vision side. There was quite bit of innovation on these processes in the "New Paradyne Management" movement that somewhat ended in the mid-90s due to to dot-com boom which didn't require great participation or even great management.

Participatory Operations is focused more on having more eyes on tactics and logistics. Lean and Agile processes fit here, Intrapreneuring may as well as a number of other project management processes.

Dynamic Governance is a Venn sphere is mostly inside Participatory Governance, but nearer to the Participatory Operations side rather than the vision side. Within that is Sociocracy which leans strongly toward Participatory Organizations in preserving community and social capital and also near the Participatory Vision & Culture. Holacracy is also a form of Dynamic Governance, but it leans toward the corporate side, but also tries to function a lot more in the Participatory Operations space. Holacracy is more supportive of the Policy sphere than Operations. Sociocracy is also more supportive of the Policy sphere but largely gives flexibility on the Operational sphere.