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Outlandish: living and sharing a transformative approach to tech business

12 July 2018

Outlandish is a London based digital agency working on “technology that makes the world a fairer, better place”. CECOP visited their offices on a warm afternoon in June, and spent a couple of hours with its co-founder Harry Robins to understand the operation of this successful worker cooperative.

Harry founded Outlandish in 2010 with a simple ambition: “to build useful web products that make people’s lives easier”: from web apps, data dashboards and monitoring tools that aid the discovery of new insights from complex data, to mass-impact campaigns and websites that help campaigning organisations strive for social justice.

We start every project with the whole team mapping out how the world will be better once the project is finished”, explains Harry. “This outcomes mapping process is often known as a “theory of change” – it’s a silly name, but it’s about having a hypothesis about how you’re going to bring about the change you want. It’s a great process because it means that the developers know they are not trying to “build a form” – they are trying to “make it easier for administrators at Charity X get all the information they need about a client so that they can make a potentially life-changing intervention.”

The Outlanders, as they call themselves, also took on working out the theory of change for the whole organisation, resulting with this statement: “Outlandish lives and shares a transformative approach to tech business that brings about social change, balanced with the importance of a positive working environment.”

“Outlandish lives and shares a transformative approach to tech business that brings about social change, balanced with the importance of a positive working environment.”

We are committed to our vision”, adds Harry. “We’re a worker cooperative, we’re owned by our members, and the profits we generate are invested in prototyping and developing new projects for social change.”

Outlandish started as a LLP, or Limited liability partnership, and formally became a worker coop in December 2015: “We were already largely conforming to the seven cooperative principles that are widely held to be the core of what co-ops are all about. We made some notes on the cooperative code and generally felt that while there was plenty of room for improvement and clarification of Outlandish’s processes, we didn’t score badly on the co-op scale.”

The cooperative model eventually became an obvious choice: “Cooperatives have hundreds of years of experience creating effective governance structures. Creating radically different organisations is difficult, as we have found with Outlandish 2.0 and 3.0 (which had employees). Outlandish 1.0 was basically a very simple worker co-op and worked pretty well.”

Once organisations begin to grow they need to adopt more complicated structures that take into account people’s different roles and experience. A classic approach is to have a managing director at the top, a board of directors, and employees who get bossed around by the directors. Outlandish has always tried to do things differently but creating the appropriate system of checks and balances from scratch is a full time job in itself and would leave no time for making beautiful, useful digital stuff as is our wont.”


Outlandish’s organisation model is influenced by the Enspiral Foundation

Another reason for becoming a cooperative “is the solidarity that it brings with other co-ops. There are around 6,000 cooperatives in the UK, all of which are committed to the same values as Outlandish – providing needed services and decent jobs in a fair and democratic way. There is a great spirit of solidarity between co-ops – we’re already working with Calverts, Footprint, AltGen, Co-operatives UK, CBC, Agile and others in the few months we’ve started investigating co-ops. Having a pool of people who have experience running democratic organisations is invaluable – while learning by experience is fun, there are a lot of hard lessons that other people have already learnt.”

Outlandish is also a co-founder of CoTech, the UK’s first network of cooperatively owned tech firms. Its 32 member-businesses have around 300 workers between them, with trades that range from web development to broadband infrastructure and augmented reality. The magazine WIRED recently wrote an article about CoTech.

Last but the not least, by becoming a cooperative it “helps make it clearer to our potential clients and collaborators what we are all about and how they can work with us. Outlandish is an unusual organisation and I think it’s fair to say well-liked by workers and clients alike.”

Concretely, Outlandish decided to adopt a structure “with a core group of co-op members Outlanders who take responsibility for stewarding and running the cooperative, and a wider group of freelance Outlanders who take a lesser degree of responsibility (…).The aim is to make the two roles different but equal. We’ve learnt over the past few years that people want and need different things from work. Some people thrive with responsibility and some people hate it. That does not mean that those that like responsibility should take decisions without involving those that don’t, or that they should exploit them. However, as the proverbial pigs at the Ham and Eggs restaurant, they are committed, whereas the chickens are only involved. They invest more of their labour and energy in making the co-operative work and take more risk and so ultimate decision-making responsibility must lie with them.”

Regarding decision-making, Outlandish “has always been a very democratic, non-hierarchical company but this we took it to the next level by adopting sociocracy – a consent-based decision making method invented by the Quakers and perfected by the Dutch”.


Harry Robins explaining the sociocracy principles applied to Outlandish

Although a system in which everyone has to agree in order to make a decision sounds problematic, the evidence is that it’s an extremely powerful and even liberating method of governance. Sociocratic organisations have been shown to grow faster, weather problems better and be nicer places to work. Our move towards sociocracy is part of our programme to make sure we encapsulate and preserve all the things that were great about Outlandish when it was small.”

Further Readings:

• In its recent strategic paper on “The Future of Work”, CICOPA, the international organization of cooperatives in industry and services, writes:

"The world is undoubtedly undergoing one of the most profound and radical waves of technological change it has ever known, particularly in the fields of IT and robotics, with profound applications in industrial automation, the delivery of goods and services through online platforms, and an organization of work and production in which individual workers, producers and users are often more disseminated in space. Even though technological change leaves many components of the world of work unresolved, especially as far as the social dimension of work is concerned, it can also favour more genuine forms of collaborative work, such as cooperation among producers, freelancers and SMEs through cooperatives, as well as among cooperatives themselves.

On the other hand, many cooperatives are presently dealing with technological change, and the more they cooperate among themselves in generating economies of scale through networks and groups, the more they tend to be successful with this transformation. Technological change can bring about a positive impact on industrial and service cooperatives not only in terms of production automation, but also in the fields of administration, book-keeping, and marketing. Working time can thus be freed for the cooperatives to concentrate on more entrepreneurial aspects requiring creativity. In addition, although the spatial dissemination of worker-members or producer-members of cooperatives provides an additional difficulty to the practice of democratic control which is so important to the cooperative logic, technological change may offer solutions to improve democracy within the enterprise (on line consultations, electronic voting etc.).”

Two articles written by our member Co-operatives UK: