Interning in a self-managed organization

5 things that made me forget about the prestigious corporate names

and opt for better learning and well-being instead

Photo by Esther Tuttle on Unsplash

 

An unpaid internship is daunting, even in the best of circumstances. In my case, I needed to complete one as a requirement for my undergrad degree; a Specialization in Human Relations.

As I searched for a potential site, I was wary of falling into the trap of being exploited as free labor rather than gaining rich real-world experience and knowledge.

After interviews with a recruiting agency, an engineering firm and a not-for-profit organization, I still hadn’t found a match that felt right. Either the work was monotonous or their constraints left too little room for me to maneuver and fulfill my learning goals.

But time was running out and I was worried I wouldn’t find anything worthwhile. I still needed to fulfill the required credits to graduate.

Then, I got a response from Percolab Coop. A self-managed organization that works as a living lab; experimenting and embracing horizontal practices. At first glance, their ways of working are unconventional yet, once immersed, they bring out the best in the team and allow space for each of us to take care of our personal needs while engaging in great work.

From January to April, this year, I worked with Percolab Coop as an intern. Here is some of what I learned from that experience. 

 

  1.   Integrating into a self-managed organization requires a shift in mindset

When I first arrived, I found myself lost in what I initially thought of as underlying chaos. During the first few weeks, confusion reigned. So many things were in constant flux and the fluidity of their work practices left me unsure as to how it all fits together.

As I continued asking questions and observing interactions, I began to dig deeper into what it meant to be a part of a self-managed organization and how their practices play a role in their culture. Once I began to realize the advantages, I was able to get over the hump of adapting to something completely new.

Self-management is a way of life or, in this case, way of running an organization where horizontal practices shape the way teams work together. By default, no hierarchies exist. For Percolab, it meant open data flow, transparency, shared decision-making and tending to relationships together.

Being part of a self-managed team means taking initiative and claiming one’s personal leadership in our professional lives. We gain autonomy and more decision power regarding when and how we decide to work.

Self-management is based on the premise that it is natural to us as human beings. We make decisions every day about our needs and desires and how to prepare for our lives. Bringing that ability into work is not only natural but healthy and beneficial for our well-being. It allows us to be present with our full selves and let our intuition guide us in the process.

As an intern, this meant that I was able to be as involved as any other member and take full responsibility for shaping my place within the team while working with them. I was able to put my learning needs at the forefront of my experience and know that these would not be overlooked by the team but rather embraced by all. It also allowed me to choose which projects I wanted to be involved in and decline those that didn’t fit with my needs or interests.

 

  1.   There are clear networks for support & feedback

The welcoming and inclusive culture in Percolab helped me push through the swirl of unknowns to continue showing up with an eagerness to learn more. Team members made themselves available to answer questions and show support.

When I joined meetings or projects, I was always asked to share my perspective. This practice took me by surprise, I was not expecting to receive such genuine interest and respect for my thoughts, questions or ideas.

Moments like these encouraged my participation, helped create a sense of belonging and built trust. All of these elements played a role in creating a healthy climate that made asking for help and feedback a comfortable and rewarding process.

Being a part of a self-managed team does not mean having full independence but rather it means being part of an interdependent network of fellow professionals that can act as a source of inspiration and as a support system at the same time. Knowledge and tools are freely shared within the community.

Working in a team with shared purpose and vision creates a valuable interconnected web of people with diverse skills that lead to wider and more interesting possibilities.

As I joined projects halfway through or picked up projects that hadn’t been touched in a while, it was essential for me to rely on my abilities and find ways of gaining feedback.

The support from the team was incredibly helpful. Being able to freely ask questions, share my reflections and offer my skills encouraged me to further develop my agency and explore my interests in unexpected ways.

Being challenged to take on an entrepreneurial outlook and learn how to thrive through the process of applying my skills in a real-world context allowed me to have a whole new experience in seeking guidance and self-regulated learning.

 

  1.   It’s an opportunity to be a part of work that matters

One of my fears when originally contemplating my internship experience was that I would only be asked to complete throwaway tasks; cue the coffee runs and mindless printing assignments. Or I would work on a report that would then be stashed away in someone’s desk waiting to be discovered by an archeological dig in a few years.

But to my relief and great pleasure, in Percolab, I was able to be a part of work that held meaning.

My goal to be a part of something greater than simply completing credits or learning about an organizational setting was fully achieved. I was able to join the team during city consultations where the findings would impact the lives of Montreal residents and storeowners. Being able to talk to people on the ground about things that affected their lives in-real-time was fascinating.

Reality struck me in those moments. It conveyed to me that what we decide to do with our lives matters. I decided then that I needed to be directly involved in work that helped people thrive rather than excusing myself to simply having a job with a paycheck attached. Following my passion for people led me to work that matters and in a whimsical way to Percolab.

Self-managed organizations provide the opportunity to be a part of work that has an impact and self-determining what that means for you. Being passionate about the things I took on increased my motivation and, in turn, gave me a shared pride in the outcomes. It let me evolve my interests and grow beyond what I thought myself capable of through the support of a team that focuses all their energy on creating a difference.

Photo by Jamshed Khedri on Unsplash

 

  1.   It allows for a thriving work-life balance

Having autonomy in how and when you complete your work opens a world of possibilities. While juggling my internship, I was also taking three classes and working four university-level teaching assistant positions. Looking back, I’m still shocked that I survived.

Yet what helped me get through it was the flexibility granted by a self-managed system. Being able to make my own schedule and work from a variety of places allowed me freedom and ease to fit work in when it felt right for me, whether it was at Percolab’s office space or on the bus while on my way to class. The team’s belief in my capacity to self-organize and complete work as needed was a refreshing alternative to the micromanaging often seen by top-down approaches.

While this openness has enormous benefits, it can also be a challenge when transitioning from a traditional 9 to 5 workplace. Self-management requires a perceptive level of self-awareness so that we don’t take on too much or feel overburdened by responsibility. Strong and clear boundaries are needed so that we don’t become over-committed and, in turn, overwhelmed.

Even if each project represents passion and joy individually, things can easily add up to the point of burnout. Time management and the art of a tactful “no” became valuable skills that I won’t be giving up anytime soon.

In the end, self-management leads to a greater sense of control over what we want our professional lives to look like and how we achieve those goals. All without sacrificing other areas of our lives in the process.

The openness and sense of personal autonomy allow us to be more motivated, effective and productive in our work because we set the terms that best suit our lifestyle. This, in turn, gives us the freedom to have rich and fulfilling personal lives that we can enjoy guilt-free while also doing work we love.

 

  1.   Self-managed organizations offer an alternative path

When I speak to friends and other recent grads, I’ve picked up on a few trends. Many don’t feel ready to enter the workforce and have decided to continue studying. While never a bad option, it is concerning when that decision is derived from fears of not being enough to enter the workforce.

Another trend, getting the job that looks great on paper but in reality, isn’t fulfilling or further advancing career learning and development. A friend of mine once described this experience as feeling like another cog in the machine; he knows that his work is useful yet feels that he doesn’t hold any importance in the greater whole of his workplace or even community.

On the other hand, many others have begun freelancing and have turned their passions into creative ventures. They want to have full freedom and dread the possibility of being held back by top-down hierarchical organizations. Yet their career path is often siloed as a result and they sometimes lack the support system and knowledge that a community can bring.

None of these options felt right for me.

I wanted to begin my career and do work that I felt proud of, all while being surrounded by people who cared equally about my personal well-being and professional growth.

Too much to ask for? Not if you look in the right place.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

 

Let’s recap those five points;

  1.   Integrating into a self-managed system requires a shift in mindset
  2.   There are clear networks for support & feedback
  3.   It’s an opportunity to be a part of work that matters
  4.   It allows for a thriving work-life balance
  5.   Self-managed organizations offer an alternative path

My experience with the Percolab team has shined a light on the benefits of self-managed organizations and how these practices lead to a greater sense of belonging, support and success. It was an ideal placement to continue a learning journey and further develop my skills.

Following my intuition and stepping away from firms that might have left a prestigious name on my CV led me to have a better experience than I ever could have imagined.

If you’re looking for an internship or even a new job, self-managed organizations can be an option where you can co-create your learning objectives along with the organization rather than being subjected to life-draining delegation. Together, you can explore the sweet spot between ongoing work and your interest so that it can be a valuable experience for all involved.

My internship experience prepared me to move away from siloed task-accomplishment and embrace the rich and interconnected world of work where creativity, autonomy and individual interests thrive.

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The future of work should be like this

These are the Percolab’s principles of ways of working that we apply at Percolab right here, right now. We think everyone should work like this.

Principle #1 — OPEN

Keeping secrets slows things down, being open speeds things up. 
Opaque and secretive ways invite in scheming, homogeneity and insular thinking. Openness invites inclusion, co-learning and integrity.

Principle #2 — ENLIVENING

Forget systems that are mechanistic, everything we do is alive. 
Directive, plan and control work can drag on and produce flat results. When work integrates our autonomy, spirit and creativity it can be full of ease with kick ass results.

Principle #3 — CO-CREATIVE

Individual genius is overrated, the future is created together.
When leaders try to figure out for others it breeds apprehension and singular thinking.
Co-creation builds attuned pathways with legitimacy and collective energy and wisdom.

Principle #4 — HUMAN

Work doesn’t just solve problems, it develops human beings. 
Treating human beings in extractive ways generates disengagement and suffering. When we trust and work consciously we grow and develop into more reflexive and capable humans.

Principle #5 INSIGHTFUL

Knowledge doesn’t come from one source, it comes from all around.

Siloed and linear approaches are unable to deal with complexity. Tapping into the myriad and multi-dimensional ways of listening leads to insightful breakthroughs.

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What is the pay system you dream of? Beyond the taboo of money

As an employee for 16 years, I was thankful for my regular pay checks. I never really gave a thought to how I would dream of being paid.  In 2007, I co-founded my own company and I was faced with the freedom and possibility of all that compensation could potentially be. A journey began.

At the start, submerged in the business of starting a business, my associate and I agreed on a model that was a cinch to administrate, though somewhat naive: equal salary. No need to waste time tallying up who is bringing in more business or debating who has more value. All company earnings go into a collective « pot » and equal pay comes out, irrelevant of what each person put in. A bit idealistic you might say? Yes. The model requires similar work experience, similar weekly work hours and similar vacation time. And of course it also requires sufficient revenues for all.

As the company grew, we realized we wanted to offer freedom and possibility for people to create the working rhythm and pace that suits their needs and desires. We didn’t want to systematize any obligations, giving preference to diversity and modularity. This meant that we needed to move on to a different compensation model.

Initially, we were attracted to an algorithm based compensation model. We were inspired by Buffer’s approach. They even have a transparent salary calculator whereby you can find out how much you would make if you worked there.   What were the variables that could help us establish our own contextualized formula?

After a bit of in house exploration we crafted a proposal for the team with our percolab variables as complexity of the work, experience and risk. We held a team workshop and each of us plugged in numbers to try to see if the formula would work for us. Major flop! The process revealed that working abstractly with numbers caused us to create a collective salary budget much higher than the funds available. We were operating from a dream scenario rather than reality. This is when it started becoming clear that the path to fair and equitable pay required the whole team to understand money flows of our company.

But how could we do this? The regular salary model offers stability and regularity of bi-monthly pay checks of fixed amounts as well as benefits. We generally have little influence or involvement in this approach as it is directly linked to an organisation’s budget and pay scale.  The freelancer model offers flexibility and autonomy around our earnings as we are responsible for negotiating our own contractual agreements. The latter model usually comes with extra administrative burden and stress to be able to ensure regular and sufficient pay. Was there a way to blend the advantages of these models together?

Things were becoming clearer. Not only did we want self-set salaries but we also wanted to allow for variance from month to month in the amount each person was earning or wanted to work. As simple as that, we broke free from our fixed salaries and stepped into a negotiated agreements model that we also call variable self-determined salaries.  In so doing, we each gained control over our earnings, began benefiting from a shared administrative system and were better able to leverage the collective work opportunities amongst ourselves to help ensure regular and sufficient pay for all.

Our percolab model goes like this.

  1. Each project has a project lead and project budget parameters (projects can be client based and others not)
  2. A fixed percentage of the project goes to the company  to cover our collective services  (our beautiful office, insurances, web services, resources, business development, accounting, work tools etc.) and development.
  3. Together, the project team (anyone in the team) discusses and makes financial agreements based the project honorarium budget, with full transparency. We strive for a feeling of fairness and there is freedom in how agreements are made
  4. Administration of the compensation model is carried out in a distributed, collective way.  Percolab team members keep track of their agreements with standardized tools and are responsible for their own data entry into the online book keeping system (WaveApps). The project lead takes care of all agreements, invoicing and billing with external contractors, clients and suppliers.
  5. Any challenges with a project that have consequences on the budget are managed within the project with the team and do not overflow onto the company.

Each month any percolab member is involved in multiple projects (as lead, team member or business development).  Therefore your salary is the sum of the work you accomplished that month in each project as per your agreements.

For the system to work, everyone needs to make explicit their work availability and skills they can offer or wish to develop within projects.

Suddenly it was if each person was injected with more space, freedom and creativity to sculpt their ideal professional world. A new service went from idea to reality and the team was stepping up to greater challenges  than ever before. Having control over ones earnings reveals itself as a key lever for empowerment and leadership. Services and business development grew. With hindsight it seems evident that for people to be in their full potential having control over their pay is a key condition.  

Underlying principles

  1. Engagement is commiserate with our power to self-determine our own salary and expenses. Each person is responsible for the salary they want to earn.
  2. Practicing conversations around value helps us to better own our own value.
  3. Our relationship with money is not a taboo, but a skill that can be developed.

Impact

This flexible compensation model has supported us getting beyond our assumptions and fears around pay. It helps us get to deeper conversations around value and to work with money without it being the finality. The potential of a team is strengthened through this compensation as practice approach. More specifically:

  1. Individual: We are all even more responsible and engaged. Each person is finding her own balance with how much she wants to be working, earning, learning, playing and making their personal projects come to action. We are each developing skills around money, business and value.
  2. Teams: More solidarity, mutual support and good spirit.
  3. Organization: More initiatives and entrepreneurship and more revenues.

Lessons

1. A compensation model is meant to be energizing a team forward – if that is no longer the case, then try out a different model. It’s as easy as that.

2. A compensation model can be flexible and self-managing

3. A flexible negotiated compensation model can be an enormous driver of individual, team and organisational development.

If you want to know more about this model and the tools that support its functioning, contact Samantha Slade sam@percolab.com

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Learning of today and tomorrow

During the past month I had the opportunity to “hang” with students in two completely different types of learning institutions in France. One, an “alternative” private school (students age 21- 48) and the other a standard university (students at masters level). Beyond the french context, the lessons I learned apply everywhere (I believe).

The first school is an innovative business school in its “birthing” stage, Team Factory. I spent a day there with Marc Tirel of In Principo “helping” the students in their process of setting up their collaborative working environment and working tools.

This years cohort of 6 students are all dynamic souls determined to be part of a new and better tomorrow and in the process make the careers that feed their dreams and sense of self. They are brave because they are engaging in a “school” that is not yet clearly set up and is still without formal recognition – but they know that this school has something to offer them that they can’t find elsewhere.

Of course, we did not meet in a classroom, but in a company working space. We did not “teach” but simply coached students through their process that they own and are engaged in. A lot of listening and open explorations interspersed with some practical decision making and prioritising. It’s a workflow in tune with the real world.
These students are taking on responsibility, tapping into their collective competence, leading their own futures. Inspiring!

Elsewhere in France, in a more conventional university setting I “gave a lecture” (not very comfortable with this term, the expectations are strong) on the subject of “social innovation”. In my “North American style”, I refused to provide a definition and theory, but worked the concept via a smorgasbord of examples.

Students had the task of identifying the common elements in the initiatives and figuring out their own definition of social innovation. And yes we were in a classroom, and yes they were told that it would be on the exam…

Here, the students are looking in on a concept – visiting it, playing with it from a critical intellectual approach. In their place of learning (university), they are following “someone else’s program”.

In Team Factory, the learners are turned on because the program connects to them and their personal and professional future. There is theory and critical thinking, but everything ends up relating to them as individuals who can act and who have their own project. This is the learning of tomorrow. When we talk about competence based approaches, Team Factory is walking the talk, students are confronted on a daily basis with novel challenges that they act and reflect upon, in a continuous process of learning and competence development.

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Réflexions sur l’organisation d’un événement

Dernièrement a eu lieu l’évènement Conversations sur les compétences, organisé par percolab avec la collaboration avec ses partenaires. L’objectif premier consistait à partir de récits de praticiens et de la participation d’un auditoire multilingue, issus de secteurs et de pays divers, de susciter des conversations et d’avancer des réflexions autour de l’apprentissage tout au long de la vie, de l’employabilité et des organisations apprenantes. Mon rôle d’organisatrice a pris fin avec la mise en place du site de documentation de la journée (voir vidéos, audios et document résumé des projets). À moi maintenant d’identifier mes apprentissages de l’expérience.

1. Le moment d’arrêt pour identifier les thématiques sous-jacentes aux portfolios numériques qui les relient a été révélateur. Qui parle portfolio parle en fait de :

  • apprentissage, dans son sens le plus large, tout au long de la vie, tous les types d’apprentissage et l’apprentissage individuel autant qu’organisationnel;
  • connaissance de soi, actualistation et réalisation de soi;
  • un travail et une vie avec un sens. Faire l’ouverture de l’évènement m’a forcé à rendre explicite ses trois thématiques avec lesquels je fonctionne depuis un certain temps, et c’est tout ça qui me motive dans mon travail (et pas seulement avec les portfolios numériques).

2. Réunir des personnes pour apprendre nécessite une ambiance de confiance – une ambiance où l’on peut se permettre de prendre des risques, de se laisser aller. Une foule de petits détails contribue à sa mise en place : le lieu, la lumière, la nourriture, une animation douce mais ferme, un formule démocratique, respect des langues des personnes, etc.  Il faut créer le rire et nourrir le plaisir.

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