Project Catalyst - Milestone Module

Growing pains and notable strides in decentralized auditability

In traditional organizations, even (perhaps especially) big ones, the mechanisms to decide what to build, and who will build it, and to test and approve what gets built, are fairly hierarchical and fairly rigid. If you are an individual contributor at the small end of the food chain, you don’t have any ultimate power to decide what product you will build or design. If you are a project manager, you won’t have much leeway to get your hands dirty in the building, even if you do like to dabble. If you see a problem with what is being built but it’s not your role to call it out, you might not have a real voice in the matter.

These hierarchical, big-org machines are effective in some ways, but those of us who have worked in them all know they also have a way of stifling passion and innovation. We all sense that it could be different, and better, but how to get there is a trick.

Blockchain technology is about decentralization. Decentralization means radically less centralized power and decision making. It puts that power – and responsibility – into the hands of individual contributors. You might think of blockchain as just enabling decentralized data, or money, but it can be so much more than that. The decisions about how the technology itself is built, and who builds it, and what they build, and who runs it, and who checks it, and how much everyone gets paid to do all this work – all of those things could be decentralized.

On the Cardano blockchain, the experiment to figure out how that could work is Project Catalyst. The community is refining a process that enables decentralized decision making that is both passionate and accountable. Through successive funding rounds, anyone in the world is invited to contribute ideas and build something. There has been a lot to learn along the way. We have completed 11 funding rounds and are gearing up for the 12th round to launch in April 2024 with a live event in Barcelona. This article covers some recent updates in the accountability systems of Project Catalyst.

Milestone Module: Why did we need it?

In early rounds of Project Catalyst, project who won funding through community votes were expected to do three basic things for accountability:

  1. Perform a Proof-of-Life check, by logging into a Zoom meeting and talking to a designated community member to verify your participation.
  2. Deliver monthly reports about the progress of your project.
  3. Deliver a final report and video with proof of your completed project.

The biggest weak spot in this version of accountability was at step 2, monthly reports. This was the only tool for mid-project accountability, and it didn’t work very well. The reports were publicly visible, but there was no one really checking them. Since the project team at IOG was relatively small, and the number of monthly reports would number in the hundreds, there was no realistic mechanism to check them effectively.

While we are talking about the hundreds of reports, I’ll also mention that as a funded project builder, monthly reports were burdensome and unhelpful. The Lido Nation team would sometimes have a whole handful of projects in-flight, and we would have to spend a few hours delivering these reports EVERY month, regardless of whether it had been a very meaningful month for any given project. That is to say, the monthly cadence did not always align with the cadences of the projects themselves.

With this monthly reporting, projects that were high-profile and egregiously off-track might get flagged by the community, but by and large, as long as you submitted literally any monthly report, you would get your next month of funding. Final accountability was likely to happen at step #3, final report time. If you did not build what was promised, the Catalyst Team would hold your toes to the fire a bit, but by then the project team would have received most of their funding anyway, regardless of results and completion.

To address this, the Catalyst Team at IOG built the “Milestone Module” as it is known, to enable more accountability through the meaty middle zone of a project. The system was trialed with some projects in Fund 9, and then became the standard for all projects in Fund 10.

Milestone Module: How does it work?

Funded Projects each get a page in the Milstone Module, where their Funding Amount and project length (as specified in their proposal) are already set. Depending on the amount of funding and length of the project, a set number of Milestones are specified. A small or short project might have only two milestones, while a big one will have more. The maximum length of a project has now been limited to 12 months, and the rules in Project Catalyst are now starting to limit the maximum budget of projects as well, so I think the maximum number of Milestones for any project at this time is six.

Project Teams are then asked to set their Milestones. A Milestone is a defined set of deliverables that mark measurable progress toward the final goal. So teams can no longer send in monthly reports that simply claim to be “working on it”, up until the final reveal. Instead, each milestone is a mark of provable, auditable delivery.

So what about the small Project Catalyst team – there are still too many projects for them to effectively audit alone, even with the better definitions embedded in the Milestones. For this reason, a new role was introduced: the Milestone Reviewer. Like Project Catalyst “Community Advisors” who rate and review proposals before the voting stage, Milestone Reviewer is a role that anyone in the world can hypothetically participate in.

Milestone Reviewers approve the initial Milestone plan, and then they approve (or reject) the Milestone “Proof of Achievements” when they are submitted. Project funding is tied to the timely completion of Milestones, as set out in the original plan. A project team that gets behind on its plan won’t get paid again until they are back on track. A project that gets far behind and is not communicative about a realistic plan to get back on track could have their funding terminated.

The Milestone Reviewer role is paid from the Catalyst budget, so it’s a great way for interested participants to earn ada. However, since it is a role with high importance and responsibility, one cannot walk in off the street and opt-in to the role directly. Instead, it is based on reputation and experience. Currently, the path to becoming a Milestone Reviewer is not as clear as it could be. I believe that Level 2 CAs from previous funds were invited to participate. I was invited to participate because I am a Cardano Ambassador. There might be other cohorts who were invited in based on their reputation and experience. I don’t think the path to become a Milestone Reviewer has been paved, published, and enshrined yet. I do imagine that this path, and indeed the accountability for the reviewers themselves, will become more clear and established in the future. For now, I would advise someone who is interested in performing this job to start as a Community Advisor, do good work there, and stay tuned as advancement opportunities arise.

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