Facebook is famous for setting their company motto to "Move fast and break things."

The idea behind this is that if you run enough experiments quickly, and find the things that don't work faster, you'll get to the solution before your competitors do.

Unfortunately, that method doesn't work when it comes to DAO governance models.

When you move too quickly and change too much of the base organizational structure that you're working with, your contributors will become exhausted, burnt out, and emotionally fatigued. (Just check out these unsightly names for burnout caused by organizational upheaval..."boiled frog syndrome," no thank you.) Playing with governance models and organization design creates an unstable, volatile working environment that will lead to contributor churn, with those left behind stuck to carry the load.

But...there's no best way to run a DAO yet. And will a single best way ever arrive? Probably not.

We need experimentation. We just need to find different ways to do it.

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DAO experimentation, science style

Let's look to modern science for a moment. No scientific researcher in their right mind would try a new medicine on every person in the entire world tomorrow with no warning. But, about a year ago, the world's immunologists had no choice but to figure out how to do just that: the Covid-19 pandemic needed a solution.

The rollout of Covid-19 vaccines across the world is a good way to look at how "move fast and break things" doesn't work when dealing with real people, but how real-life organizations can "move fast" when needed without breaking everything every time you try something new.

Here are a few key learnings from this massive feat of human coordination:

  • Build upon the body of research that already exists. For example, scientists leaned on over two centuries of vaccine research to build the new vaccine. No one was starting from scratch: the building blocks were already there.
  • Test in a lower-stakes way. After prepping the vaccine, it was tested on animals before being used on humans. This ensured that basic problems with the vaccine would not happen on a large scale to real people. They didn't jump to high-stakes immediately.
  • Bring in experts before mass use. All Covid vaccines were reviewed and approved in some way, whether by various health departments or experts, before use. No one was operating in a vacuum.
  • Pause and re-evaluate if something goes wrong. When certain rare adverse reactions to the Johnson&Johnson vaccine arose, the vaccine was put on pause.  Something goes wrong: put it on pause to prevent more damage.

How could those learnings look when experimenting on governance in a DAO? Quite similarly!

  • Build upon the body of research that already exists. There are tons of resources and studies out there on self-managing, Teal, and non-hierarchical organizations. DAOs must use those resources to craft their governance structures.
  • Test in a low-stakes way. A good way to do this is to test the structure or method in a smaller guild/team/pod/community of practice. Then, that team can share their learnings with the larger DAO. Other guilds/teams/pods/communities of practice can try the method within their circle, and see if it works for them.
  • Bring in experts before mass use. Know any governance nerds? What about people involved deeply in the ecosystem? Hire them as consultants to review your plan and try to poke holes in it. Even just a few comments or flags on your governance document could make a big difference when it comes to implementation.
  • Pause and re-evaluate if something goes wrong. If something goes awry, it's okay to put everything on pause for a moment. Don't gather more organizational debt! For most DAOs today, there aren't enforceable "rules" built into smart contracts that would cause some irreversible issue—it's often simply people trusting each other to make decisions and agreeing to uphold rules. So, putting experiments on pause is lower-risk.
Testing grounds: build on existing knowledge, test in a low-stakes way, bring in experts before mass use, pause and re-evaluate if something goes wrong.
Four ways to prep testing grounds for quick and safe rollout.

An example of low-stakes, small-group governance testing

I'm excited by the concept of testing a governance or organizational method within a small group, sharing those learnings with the wider organization, testing it in another group to prove validity, then using that in the entire DAO. (Many of my ideas around this "small group testing" concept were shaped by reading the work and ideas of Julia Rosenberg and the Orca Protocol team.)

Here's an example of how this smaller-scale experimentation could work. The idea is based loosely on an experiment I was involved in for the Writers Guild at BanklessDAO, which used a tiered membership method to determine who could vote on certain decisions, emphasizing contribution over loudness or token holding.

Here's the "invented for this purpose but still based on real events" scenario:

Membership can be easily bought in your DAO via a token. This incentivizes wealth over contribution, so you want to try a different, off-chain voting method to start.

One team, possibly one with members in it who are acutely in tune with the problems of this voting style, agrees to be the guinea pigs. They create a few levels of membership based on contribution rather than token holdings. For example: new member (one vote), trusted member (two votes), core member (three votes).

These three tiers are applied to each member within the team. The team practices making a few internal decisions with these tiers. For example, maybe the team is voting on whether to try a new project management method. The team makes the decision by holding the vote using an off-chain voting software that allows for different weights of voting based on tiers, or simply Discord polls in a gated channel. (Low-fidelity is okay. It's an experiment, remember!)

Maybe they really dislike this method, and decide not to vote in tiers again. They write up a couple sentences on why it didn't work, then store it in the DAO's governance experiment repository. Next time someone wants to test something, they'll check the documents, see that this test was run, read up on it, and then decide if they want to test it themselves.

Maybe the test goes well. The team keeps using that voting method, and everyone is on board with taking it on-chain. The corresponding number of NFTs are distributed to each member (one, two, or three per person) so they can record their votes on-chain. When a new quarter/season/cycle rolls around, new NFTs are distributed to prevent speculation and to show the new roles (maybe a new member was moved up to the trusted tier, maybe a core member got bumped out after some malicious activity).

This is really working, wow! Other teams start peeking in the window. Can we try that? The idea spreads like wildfire. Soon, other teams are deploying the same method: test in a low-stakes way (discord channel polls for a small team) then bump it up a notch (on-chain voting with NFTs).

Now, say we have four unique teams using this method. This much be a really good one! A few representatives from each team present the idea to the entire DAO. Then, the DAO votes on if they want to implement it.

If the vote passes, the DAO will enjoy these advantages:

  • The governance experiment was already tested and proven many times, so they can lean on those examples to better design their implementation.
  • There are trusted members of the community who have the knowledge of doing the thing for real and can help other members through the process, answer questions, and function as experts in the particular model.
  • The DAO will have those four original groups still using the governance model on a smaller scale and pushing the boundaries of what the governance design can do, thus testing new ground and learning new things to share with the larger DAO.

If the vote doesn't pass, and the DAO keeps using their same old voting model? Those four groups can still keep using the method (since it works well for them) and share their findings with the greater ecosystem by writing about them.

With many small groups experimenting with new methods of governing, the ecosystem will improve every single day.

Cautionary words

Not all experiments work out. Some end catastrophically. Which is why we're doing this on a small scale. But....

Experiments on a small scale do not always work on a larger scale. Things might break when small-group dynamics that vibe are extrapolated out to larger ones. For example, a team of ten people may vote ad hoc in a weekly tactical meeting, and find that it works well for them. But an entire DAO could never vote ad hoc in a community call. When things work because the numbers are small, they'll break when the numbers are big. But it can be hard to know if something is working because it's a good idea for the DAO, or if it's working because of that unique group of people, or because of the small scale, or because of tons of tiny interlocking factors that are nearly impossible to consider in the moment.

Experimenting in small groups can become fatiguing. If you're relying on a few core teams to run governance experiments all the time, that will get in the way of the actual work the DAO is setting out to do. Pushing groups to experiment too much will cause burnout, fast. I think the key here is to let the excited groups go for the experiments, and not push the groups that might not be so enthused.

Documentation, or it didn't happen. An experiment is only helpful if its shared with the ecosystem. Imagine if a scientist discovered a new sustainable energy source and didn't share it with the world—it will only be usable to that one scientist, and the whole world would be severely missing out. The purpose of experimentation should be to find better ways to run a DAO and share those ideas.

The replicability crisis is a real thing. In the social sciences and psychology, the replicability crisis was when scientists started re-testing many social science experiments in the early 2010's and came out with results that proved that a vast number of those previous studies were invalid. Contributors cannot expect every experiment to turn out the same way in every group: human dynamics are different, and replicability is hard unless you're in a very controlled environment. But the fact that it's all turning out differently is what makes humans interesting.

In DAO governance, we can still move fast. Let's just be a little more careful to avoid breaking things.

What people often miss is that Facebook changed their motto in 2014 to "Move fast with stable infrastructure."

It seems that after a couple years of breaking things, they realized they could still move fast, just a little differently. (Whether they actually continued to move fast is a topic for another day.)

While "move fast with stable infrastructure" isn't exactly an inspiring rallying cry, I'm still hopeful that we'll get to a point where we can move fast without the excessive breaking of things in the DAO space.

DAO governance today gets a bad reputation for being slow and ineffective. But I don't think it has to be. I don't think it will be.

We just need to run some experiments to get some speed in our legs.

Move fast and experiment on things.

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Thanks again to Cosmic Clancy for the header image!