Work with Source: Realise big ideas, organise for emergence and work artfully with money (my new book)

Work with Source book cover

“Brilliantly readable and very timely. The guide you need to build a purposeful business or social movement, see it grow, and keep the creative spark alive.”

- Caroline Lucas MP

Work with Source is aimed squarely at the courageous, creative and vulnerable souls who start social movements and purpose-driven businesses.

These founders know they have to get out of the way and decentralise the effort if they are to scale a collaboration, yet at the same time they sense there is an important role for them to play as the person who first breathed life into the endeavour: What Peter Koenig called the role of source.

The book is a guide for founders to understand their unique role in every step of the creative process they are stewarding.

Here are the opening sections of the book.

Preface to Work with Source

I am writing these words while the Covid-19 pandemic rages around the globe. It’s an event that’s finally shaking the whole world by the shoulders, making it undeniable that we are living in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times (VUCA, as complexity geeks call it). Ask just about anyone how their 2020 annual plan worked out and you may be met with laughter at the absurdity of the question. This is the reality that many less fortunate parts of the world have been living with for far longer than those of us in the West have. The pandemic is not merely a large bump in the “normal” road. The world is so deeply interconnected and fast-moving that VUCA is normal, so we better act accordingly.

The future sometimes feels bleak, and even terrifying, to me, yet I just can’t help being an optimist by nature. I don’t have the kind of blind, naive optimism which denies the reality of the challenges we face but that kind of hope I learned from the activist and author Rebecca Solnit, which is grounded in the reality that the future is so complex and ultimately unpredictable that there is always the possibility of things turning out far better than we fear. Whether it is a massive global youth movement being sparked by a schoolgirl sitting alone on strike outside her school or effective vaccines being developed merely months — not the usual years — after the emergence of a deadly new virus, there are reasons to be hopeful, and this kind of hope can give us the energy to engage with the world and do the necessary work.

I began writing this book over five years ago, in what now feels like a simpler, almost quaint period of history: Obama in the White House, the UK a full member of the European Union, and hugging friends was perfectly normal behaviour. My original plan for the book was simply to help founders like me navigate the rollercoaster ride of developing their initiatives. Yet there were huge issues in the world, bubbling away as if in a pressure cooker, and in the year that followed, 2016, it felt as though things were finally exploding: President Trump, Brexit, the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement. It was also the year I became a father and my perspective on the world as the home of future generations transformed immeasurably. Writing this book took on an urgent purpose. As 2020 drew to a close and I finished writing, Trump lost the US presidential race to Joe Biden, yet democratic institutions are still being stress-tested like never before. It’s clear that we cannot rely on political leaders to get us to a better future. It’s down to the vision, ingenuity, and collaboration of all of us.

My intention and hope for this book is that it finds its way into the hands of many people working on ideas for things the world needs, at just the right moment to give them some helpful nudges that ripple out and create a better chance of success. Perhaps this is you, and you stand on the brink of surpassing your wildest hopes for bringing change to the world.

The Hopi Elder’s prophecy famously said: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” It’s down to us to take the initiative and bring our visions for a better world to reality.

Tom Nixon

Brighton, England. January 2021.


Our complex world faces a dizzying array of threats, from pandemics to rising inequality, authoritarianism, structural racism, nuclear weapons, the mass displacement of people, and bitter societal polarisation. And all of these threats exist within the context of the wicked uber-problems of the climate emergency and Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, both of which are accelerating.

Yet we have unprecedented opportunities too: the positive potential of exponential technological improvement, new social and monetary systems, and the ability to connect and mobilise on a global scale like never before. At a time when it feels like so many of the macro systems we live in are collapsing, the ground is fertile for reinvention. Jack Zimmerman, co-author of The Way of Council, recently summed it up: “We are living in a time of terrifying opportunity.”

Realising the vast potential for progress in the world and countering the threats we face requires human ingenuity to flourish. We need systems change, new inventions, and ways of relating and being that can take all life on our planet forward to a sustainable future. So although this may look like a book about organisation building and leadership, above all else it’s about bringing new ideas and change into the world, whether this is through activist movements or through regenerative, purposeful businesses. We have to make this happen in a complex environment that is impossible to predict, plan, or control. There’s no silver bullet: developing such endeavours is hard, yet there are approaches and examples that prove what’s possible.

The visionary entrepreneurial founders who make headlines in the media are clearly masterful at realising big visions in the world, yet their often tyrannical, macho style of leadership can be a huge price to pay, and is in many ways emblematic of the wider problems we face in the world. Meanwhile, there is great potential in decentralised, participatory initiatives: in activist movements and in self-organising, “boss-less” businesses and non-profits. These initiatives attempt to switch to a bottom-up approach to create more fluid organisational forms that can scale and adapt in a rapidly changing, complex world and give people environments in which they can contribute their talents. Yet creating such initiatives is far from straightforward.

Take the non-violent civil disobedience movement Extinction Rebellion, which I joined in 2019, as an example. Extinction Rebellion activists have had to learn at breakneck speed about how to create coherence and direction in the movement while simultaneously radically decentralising, which is the only way to scale rapidly, build resilience, and organise in complex conditions, especially when often working outside the boundaries of the law.

This huge and necessary strength in Extinction Rebellion’s organisational approach has also given rise to some of its biggest challenges. With no central body in charge of which actions go ahead, it’s down to individuals and small groups to use social influence and informal means of making decisions. This works well much of the time, yet the occasions when it doesn’t can potentially be catastrophic. During the October 2019 rebellion, a group of Extinction Rebellion activists disrupted morning commuters in a poorer, working-class area of London, sparking a major media and public backlash against the movement despite the action being widely condemned within the movement itself. A single incident, yet a dangerous moment for the entire endeavour.

Differences of opinion about the major next steps of the movement as a whole are also a significant challenge for Extinction Rebellion. Should they try to cause widespread disruption in busy public places, or should they focus on strategic actions at locations like big oil company headquarters, coal mines, and banks who fund fossil fuel extraction? And should Extinction Rebellion retain a razor-sharp focus on decarbonisation, or should it focus on wider, connected, systemic social justice issues, for instance by joining forces with Black Lives Matter? People have opinions, yet the situation is so complex that it’s impossible to know in advance what will actually work, and somehow those in the movement must find direction without having formal, top-down power structures, without becoming paralysed by power struggles, and without being pulled apart in multiple, incompatible directions.

During my own journey as a founder of a purpose-driven business, I also experienced the challenges of working in this way. The first company I started, in 2000, was a pioneer of new ways of organising and working, appearing on WorldBlu’s list of Most Democratic Workplaces in the world for seven years in a row, and it spawned the Meaning Conference on better 21st-century business. We had a highly participatory way of working, turning many traditional notions of management and hierarchy on their heads, like open seats at company board meetings; self-set, peer-reviewed salaries; coaches instead of managers; and full transparency of all financial information. We had successes, like a 10-year streak of never losing a colleague to a competitor, which was virtually unheard of in our industry; and from humble roots, serving tiny local businesses, we eventually had senior figures from some of the largest companies and non-profits in the world calling us to ask for our help.

We had major struggles, too. The crunch came two and a half years after I’d actually left the company, having sold most of my shares and handed over my responsibilities. The company continued to thrive for a year before entering a major decline, even though it had a strong foothold in a rapidly growing industry and a brilliant team of people. The ingredients for success were all there, yet the wheels were spinning and power struggles and blame games were taking hold. There was little vision for where the company was going, an attempt to merge with another organisation fell flat, and good people were leaving. I found myself drawn back into the company to see if we could turn it around together. My first instinct was that it needed to go deeper into becoming ever more participatory, to decentralise further, and to co-create a future together. These are all useful approaches, yet they were insufficient. What unlocked everything for me was a more comprehensive new perspective on the whole initiative, one that runs deeper than strategic or organisational thinking.

This was the moment my friend Charles Davies introduced me to the work of the seminal thinker Peter Koenig. Through conversations with hundreds of creative people about how they realised visions, Koenig developed a new lens, a way of seeing human initiatives. Central to this was focussing not on organisations but on the underlying creative process of realising ideas, and acknowledging the special authorship and responsibility of one individual stewarding the process — what Koenig called the role of source.

Building on these insights over many years, Koenig clarified some seemingly timeless, fundamental dynamics that all human initiatives, from activist campaigns to companies and creative projects, appear to have in common. His “Source Principles” help us understand why some visions are realised while others fizzle out and offer clues as to how we might intervene when things are not working. Working with source is about:

  • recognising the natural, potent role that founders and their successors play in realising a vision, yet without hero worship, subservience, or tyranny
  • bringing forth the full creative potential of everyone, not only those seen as leaders
  • creating not only a happy community of colleagues but a sustained focus on realising a vision
  • embracing complexity but not drowning in it
  • working both top down and bottom up simultaneously
  • working artfully with money in service of the vision, so we neither cling to nor repel it
  • maintaining a participatory way of working over the long term, even after the original founders have moved on, and creating a sense of release for founders when they reach the end of their personal journeys in their endeavours.

Putting Koenig’s principles to work in my own company years ago led to an incredible journey, beginning with a rapid financial turnaround and ending with blowing the entire company apart, clearing the way for a raft of new endeavours to emerge. That particular story can be told either as a business failure or as an incredible creative explosion. What’s clear is that an expanded perspective can make a lot happen.

Alongside the outward-facing, creative process of realising a vision, Koenig also worked for over 30 years on the inner-facing self-development that anyone acting as a source must pursue in order to keep on showing up and taking the next step. Creativity is a manifestation of our personal histories and drives, so to unleash ourselves fully, we must tend to our inner world. This is vital for unlocking our creative potential and for working mindfully with the mischievous gremlins lurking in the shadows of our personalities (another thing I learned the hard way during my own journey as a founder).

We can enter this inner journey through a surprising route: money. Like it or not, most visions of any substance require money to flow appropriately: we must neither chase money for its own sake nor push it away. The fundamental nature of money is like a mirror, reflecting back to us aspects of ourselves that we cling to or reject, often unconsciously. Our past shapes our relationship to money, yet by transcending our conditioning we can work artfully with money to realise a creative vision. This process of transcending our conditioning not only changes our relationship to money but can effect a deep personal transformation. It’s one of the most powerful self-development processes I’ve ever encountered.

At the root of Peter Koenig’s Source Principles, there is one deeper, more fundamental principle: love. Working with source offers a way to break through the polarisation between individualism and collectivism, to acknowledge both the individuality of our unique human souls and the deep interconnectedness of all humans. As Naomi Klein wrote in This Changes Everything, her powerful assessment of the climate emergency: “Love will save this place.” Perhaps it’s the only thing that can.

How to use the book

You can read this book cover to cover or just dip into the chapters you need. I recommend beginning by reading all of Part One, where I’ll unpack the key concepts you’ll need to navigate the rest of the book. Each chapter in Part One has a summary at the end to recap the key points, which you can skim for a quick overview.

Part Two is full of advice for working with the Source Principles to realise purposeful ideas. You’ll learn how to clarify and steward a creative vision, team up with co-founders and other collaborators, share authorship with many people, and make it through the critical moments of transition for founders and their endeavours: mergers, takeovers, and successions. It also has chapters with very practical advice for organising around a vision in a complex world that requires high levels of participation. We’ll use the Source Principles to show you how to build bureaucracy-free organisation structures, make participatory decisions and resolve conflict, recruit well, and reimagine finance. We’ll take inspiration from some of the most radical, participatory initiatives on the planet, and you’ll learn a powerful approach to organisation development that can help you to develop your own unique way of organising.

Part Three explores the nature of money and the inner journey of being a source. You’ll learn how to understand and transform your relationship to money and how this is the basis for deep personal transformation, with love as its foundation.

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About the author

Tom Nixon is an advisor to purpose-driven leaders. He is also the founder of Maptio, an associate at Greaterthan, an activist, and a steward of the Meaning Conference on better 21st-century business.

Researching and working with founders to realise big ideas and keep the startup passion forever.

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