Getting real with the unmet needs of Harmonica's customer

Written by
Artem Zhiganov
Published on
February 28, 2024

This is the first post about the product discovery that I'm doing as part of the Co.Lab fellowship (organized by RnDAO and Arbitrum). It began with a clear aim: to identify the pain points and opportunities in decision-making from the perspectives of people embedded in web3 governance, with a particular focus on sensemaking.

What do I mean by sensemaking? I would say it's collecting input from stakeholders to better understand what's going on (internally or externally). A more academic definition can be found here:

"the process of constructing mental models and meaning from ongoing environmental input in order to respond effectively", with an emphasis on complexity of the environment.

Even though I had some first-hand experience with sensemaking as a former governance lead of Protein Community, it wasn't the main problem we set our sights on when prototyping the first version of Harmonica a few months ago. Initially it was more about deliberation, as we envisioned the LLM-powered chatbot to replace forums, where most DAOs discuss proposals, or even advanced deliberation tools like Polis. But as I made progress with my research, it became increasingly clear that deliberation is actually a much lesser pain than what precedes writing a proposal or planning a season, i.e. sensemaking.

When the fellowship started, I formulated my first problem statement like this:

I am a governance lead who's trying to submit a proposal that would get sufficient support, but I'm not getting enough feedback / ideas from the community, because Discord is overwhelming, sharing on forums doesn't feel safe and people are conflict-averse.

Then I began my research to find out if it reflects reality or not. The methodology has been pretty straightforward: doing interviews with governance leads, researchers, community managers, founders and consultants, using a semi-structured guide to learn how they make decisions and facilitate discussions. I'm trying to distill my notes and AI transcripts into drivers and barriers, experiences with specific tools, customer needs, and decision timelines. The interviews, coupled with insights from a few case studies and research papers, as well as the summary of Governance Geeks Gathering workshop in Istanbul, enabled me to critically evaluate my original problem statement.

I've done 15 interviews over the last month, and I'm really grateful to all participants who spared their precious time to answer my questions. I've been lucky enough to interview people from Gitcoin, Metagov, DAOstar, Apiary, Superbenefit and other orgs who operate on the cutting edge of (web3) governance. The first batch of interviews covered a pretty wide range of perspectives on sensemaking, proposals writing and deliberation, lobbying stuff with delegates, governance consulting, professional facilitation, citizen assemblies and E2C transitions.

The research is still ongoing and I don't have a clear picture / JTBDs yet. My intention with this post is just to share a few preliminary findings, without drawing any conclusions, and outline the next steps for my research.

Learnings from the first batch of interviews

The first interviews revealed governance practitioners as deeply committed yet challenged by tooling limitations and cultural nuances. One leader has struggled to overcome the Discord fatigue their members developed over time, while attempts of another to foster a safe space on their forum highlight the human side of online governance. These narratives underscore the anxieties surrounding public discourse and the barriers to effective communication: a mix of tool inefficiency and personal reluctance to engage in potential conflicts.

The article about sensemaking at Radworks identified three main governance challenges: the need for a clear shared purpose, improving community insight capture, and better communication of proposal needs. These align with our findings.

The lack of shared purpose can be the underlying problem DAO people are not necessarily aware of. According to Radworks, "not having a clear shared purpose can lead to inability to design effective governance & incentive mechanisms, lower transparency on roles, responsibilities and strategy alignment, difficulties finding DAO/Product fit, and poor process for off-loading work to the community."

Speaking of proposals, at least three participants riffed on the issue of professional delegates. TLDR: it seems that many DAOs have basically re-invented the crappy old democracy model with lobbying and power games. Truth is often unpopular, so people don't want to risk their status, and popularity is prioritized over wisdom in decision-making. If someone wants their proposal to pass, they seek support from delegates before submitting it to the forum. In other words, real deliberation happens behind the scenes in private chats, which creates a gap between the promise of web3 (shared ownership, democracy, etc.) and the reality that sometimes feels more like the House of Cards.

The tooling itself is a big issue. Existing tools create limitations for capturing the true essence of community insights and preferences. Tools like Discord, Typeform and forums, while useful, often fell short in facilitating constructive dialogue and collaboration. Facilitators are hesitant to use tools like Polis and run workshops in Miro within their wider communities, considering the limited time and attention spans of members. Tools like Miro prove too complex and inefficient for facilitating collaboration, with low engagement. "Testing and experimentation with new DAO tools or mechanisms remains difficult as the cost of onboarding just for an experiment remains too high for unknown benefits/community satisfaction." The use of tools like Google Docs and Discord, while facilitating some level of engagement, often fell short in fostering deep, meaningful collaboration and feedback (e.g. when setting OKRs).

As one expert noted, knowledge management systems are currently the biggest obstacle for good sensemaking. To quote Radworks again, "There is a need for better stakeholder analysis tools and services (e.g. ways to get better insights into how motives/incentives differ between different stakeholders). Better community insights = more evidence to signal how we should be designing governance mechanisms." One consultant observed the clash between traditional governance methods and the innovative potential of DAOs.

The process of sensemaking (e.g. planning the next season, aligning on specific OKRs) usually takes 1-2 months. In terms of its timeline, this could be the most common pattern described by my interviewees:

  1. Interviews with delegates (Zoom)
  2. Survey (Google Form or Typeform)
  3. Drafting and commenting (Google Docs)
  4. Workshop (Miro)

The research highlighted a universal struggle with engaging community members in governance processes, the need for clear, shared goals, and the challenges of capturing and integrating community insights into decision-making.

The evolution of the problem statement

The initial focus on writing proposals transitioned to a more abstract problem of collecting input from stakeholders to aligning the community around a shared purpose or OKRs:

As a DAO leader I’m trying to get members aligned around a shared purpose / seasonal OKRs, but it’s hard to collect (and process) input from different stakeholders because of (1) fragmentation of community, (2) limited time and attention span of members, (3) people not being used to some of the new tools (for participation), which makes me frustrated and overwhelmed (required coordination effort is way too high!)

The revised statement reflects a deeper understanding of the underlying challenges with sense-making. The focus has shifted from proposal submission to the preceding, arguably less linear and more complex tasks of sense-making and facilitation.

It is not just about getting proposals passed as much as nurturing an alignment and/or coherence. The emphasis shifted towards leveraging tools and methodologies that could support effective sense-making, despite the constraints of time, attention span, and familiarity with new tools.

This article by Aviv Ovadya presents a very actionable framework for designing better decision-making systems, with alignment, competence, and robustness being the key metrics or themes.

A slightly more refined version of the same statement goes like this:

Facilitation of sensemaking, e.g. to formulate a shared purpose or seasonal OKRs, takes too much time and effort - normally 1-2 months of hard work to engage more people and process their inputs (those OKRs won't resonate with members who don't participate!)

Digging a bit deeper into sense-making in DAOs reveals the critical need for innovative solutions that address the nuanced challenges of sense-making, community engagement, and strategic alignment. The insights uncovered through this research will inform our ongoing work. Harmonica's design and GTM strategy will focus more on sense-making capabilities and facilitator's needs.

Next steps

The exploration of sensemaking as a problem space uncovers a landscape ripe for innovation, where the collective wisdom can lead to more inclusive, efficient, and meaningful governance.

The transition from the initial to the new problem statement reflects the nuanced dynamics of decentralized governance. It confirms the critical need for sense-making. Engaging community members in this process, despite their limited time and familiarity with tools, remains a significant hurdle.

The first phase of my research highlighted the importance of developing shared purpose, strategic scaffolding and success criteria to foster a cohesive and engaged community. It not only informs a more focused and nuanced inquiry for the second phase, but also underscores the universal need for better sensemaking and even vocabulary needed to discuss these issues.