How an AI Startup Built a Fully Transparent Organization with No Bosses

Kaja Kirstine Lilleng · October 22, 2020
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Abzu during a team off-site. Editorial Credit: Abzu

“I wish organizations would go from assuming everything is secret, to being public and open as default, with secrecy as an emergency instead of the other way around.” – Jonas Wilstrup, finance and operations at Abzu.

At AI startup Abzu, complete transparency shines through in both their technology and organization. Since its founding in 2018, the Copenhagen & Barcelona based startup has been building out fully transparent and explainable AI technology. As compared to most other AI systems, Abzu’s technology shows the user how it got from the data to the prediction.

“Our overall vision is to build a product that will bring AI into areas where it wasn't feasible before,” said Wilstrup in an interview with The Org. Through their software-as-a-service machine learning platform, a much broader range of companies will be able to benefit from the use of advanced AI models without the need for a large pool of data or heavy investments in manual data science processes.

Transparency is just as core to Abzu’s organization as it is to their AI technology. “Nothing in Abzu is hidden. We know what everyone earns, board material is sent out to all employees, and everything is on the drive and is accessible to everyone,” Wilstrup said. This openness is simply essential at Abzu, an organization that has no bosses.

The boss-less AI startup has a so-called teal organization, and employees decide their own salaries and work schedules. “If you want to do self-managing, everything has to be in the open. We need transparency of information in order to empower people to make their own choices,” explained Wilstrup.

The concept of teal organizations was first coined in 2014 by Frederic Laloux in his book "Reinventing Organizations," and there is still an ongoing conversation about best practices and ways to operate. “It’s also an exploration journey for us, and we are learning along the way,” reflects Wilstrup. That being said, three practices have been particularly important to get right at Abzu: Self-management and the advice process, not always seeking consensus, and fully understanding the individuals of the organization.

Self-management and autonomy come first. “Everyone is empowered to make decisions about anything,” explains Wilstrup. Following this is an important rule of thumb, namely the advice process: Whenever you make a decision, the bigger implications it has for the company, the more people you should ask for advice. “Now, it's advice you don’t have to follow. You just have to talk to them and get their opinion about the decision you are going to make,” adds Wilstrup.

Self-managing does not mean that decisions are made by consensus. This was part of the learning curve for Abzu, who attributes much of their consensus seeking to a Scandinavian way of thinking. “If you always strive for a consensus you’ll run the risk of having way too many meetings,” said Wilstrup.

Finally, it is important to spend time trying to understand the individuals - the operating mechanisms - in the organization. For example, the Abzu team has a daily morning check-in where they openly share how they are feeling.

“The better we understand each other, the easier it is for us to navigate together,” said Wilstrup. “In traditional organisations we have to give this image of being perfect - as if we’re some sort of machine coming to work. But if we actually understood our colleagues and the person behind the work individual, we would do much better.”

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“We always eat a shared lunch together. Just something we do, no matter what office we're at.” - Elyse, marketing & communications at Abzu

Purposeful evolution, rather than attempting to control and divine the future through ridgid five year business plans, is at the core of teal organizations. In a self-managing, purpose-driven organization, change can come from any team member that feels change is needed. But in today’s corporate world of hierarchies, the model of teal organizing is not for everyone (just yet).

“You have to get used to this environment of transparency, where we talk about how we’re feeling and openly discuss finances and when we’re going to run out of money. That can create stress in a lot of people, who then apply too much pressure to themselves,” said Wilstrup.

While Abzu’s way of organizing can come across as too “hippie” to many in the current corporate world, Wilstrup highlights how transparency and trust ought to be championed by every company.

“We trust people with everything else, but for some reason in the workplace we have to put them into this model of bosses who tells us everything we need to do. Please trust people. They do awesome things if you trust them, and there is no reason not to do it.”

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