#Speak-up series 3 – Why coworkers do not speak up on ethical issues

Speaking up on topics of ethics and compliance is hard to do. Already speaking up when you disagree or have bad news can be difficult in organizations. It is even more difficult to speak up on sensitive ethics and compliance issues. Usually, we have not learned to say the unpleasant truth.

Already as children, we learn that aunt Betty gets hurt, if you tell her frankly that her new hairstyle is a disaster. You certainly do not tell cousin Mark that you think he is a cheat when he boasts about his clever «tax saving» strategies.

We have learned to lie. We have learned that candor about the unethical behavior of others (especially if they are more powerful as us) might ruin the relationship.

Furthermore, ethical problems are often not black or white, but grey. This makes it difficult to draw the line, which can make us more insecure.

Finally, people hesitate to rock the boat if they have the impression that nobody else seems to notice. This is known as the bystander effect – a social-psychological phenomenon that refers to the fact that if there are many bystanders in an emergency situation, the likelihood of one person intervening and taking action goes down. This is because everybody is expecting the others to react first (diffusion of responsibility) and nobody wants to stand out in the crowd. The effect is amplified if the situation is ambiguous and bystanders are unsure if an intervention is socially adequate. This is exactly what is often the case in situations where ethical judgments play a role. (For a great illustration and explanation of the bystander effect, watch this video with Philip Zimbardo and the Heroic Imagination Project).

Consequently, silence is contagious. You observe that nobody else is speaking up, so you do not do it yourself. That is why it is so important to create a corporate culture where speaking up is normal and where employees have seen others speak up without negative consequences.

Because it often does feel unpleasant to speak up, we come up with all kinds of rationalizations, why it is ok not to do it:

  • “It’s not a big deal.”
  • “I don’t have all the information.”
  • “This is someone else’s responsibility.”
  • “This must be the way these things are done (at our company, in this region, in our industry, etc.)”

In reality, this a sure sign that you should actually speak up.

A survey among European companies showed that only half of the people that observed ethics or compliance violations spoke up (Source: Daniel Johnson : Ethics at Work: 2015 Survey of Employees – Continental Europe)

We all know these fears are real and still there are often people who dare to speak up.

What do you think? Who are these people? What is different about them? Do they not have these fears? Are they maybe very brave heroes? Are they maybe in a more powerful position?

No.

People who do speak up on important concerns do this because they have spoken up before. The degree of fear, power or bravery play no important role. It is the practice that makes the difference!

Speaking up is an ability that can be trained like a muscle that gets bigger with exercise. Addressing sensitive issues is not something that comes natural to most of us. However, there are effective ways to do this without jeopardizing our career or our relationship with our boss.

How to prepare and conduct a speak-up conversation with confidence and courage will be the topic of the next and final part of this blog post series on speak-up.

Stay tuned and watch for the next episode of the speak-up series!
Prof.-Bettina-PalazzoAuthor: Dr. Bettina Palazzo
Professor at BSL

Are you interested in having your community of learners fully engaged?

Three dimensional learning — I, WE and ALL OF US, pedagogy for Sustainability and Responsibility.

Are you interested in having your community of learners fully engaged? A good start could be to spell out the purpose of the education you want to be part of.

For us at Business School Lausanne (BSL) the purpose of education is to support and foster responsible leadership and sustainable business. Responsibility and sustainability are in no way similar to the typical functional business and management education areas such as finance, marketing, human resources, strategy, operations or others. In fact they add a layer of learning, even more than a layer, you can think of it as part of the DNA of the learning. How can you learn about business and management if you want responsibility and sustainability to be in the DNA of the learning you design?

I think most of us have experienced some great learning in our life. If such learning has stayed with you for long and has somehow helped your transformation, evolution, development, it may well have been what I call a three dimensional learning. The three dimensions I am talking about are the I, WE and ALL OF US. What does this mean?

It means that the transformational learning can only happen when we discover how what we are learning is connected to the three dimensions:

The I — How is this relevant to me? What are my own struggles with the topic? What is my emotional connection to it? Do I have personal experiences?

The WE — What are the main stakeholders related to the topic? What is their perspective? What do they know and how do they use their knowledge? Are there competing or collaborating views, or both? How do I work with them so that there is not them but only we?

The ALL OF US — What is the systemic use and impact of the topic? What scenarios does the topic create? How does it impact our world in some or all four dimensions — planet, society, economy and governance?

Learners that are taken through the three dimensions develop a comprehensive understanding of the topic from the systemic level (ALL OF US) down to the personal relevance (I), through the application in the relevant communities (WE).

Learning through the I dimension ensures that the learner explores and uncovers the areas of personal relevance of the topic. Here some suggestions for learning designers/facilitators who want to ensure a good dive into the I space:

  • Using blocks of 3 or more hours of learning experience ensure the right variety of activities can take place including reflective spaces.
  • Being a role model in the “I” space and finding the balance with neutral facilitating energy
  • Organizing regular self-awareness gathering for Faculty and Students (breakfasts, lunches, apero’, walks, etc.)
  • Circle sharing of personal check-in into the session/lecture/course with questions like:” What do I expect from this session?” (1 minute per person)
  • Trio-walks where 1 person in the middle has 5 minutes to share his/her personal reflections around the topic and 2 persons on the side are listening and providing 2 minutes feedback each (total 10 minutes)
  • Pair talks around deep questions where strangers get to know something very meaningful about the other (15 mins each). Each will then present the other in front of the audience (up to 90 minutes)
  • Speed dating with a few personal questions with 1 minute per exchange (30 mins)
  • Journaling activities to support acknowledgment of learning and walk-aways (ongoing)
  • Storytelling where a person stands in front of a semi-circle and share an insightful personal story around the topic (10 minutes per story + 10 minutes Q&A)
  • Group brainstorming using post-it to gather what each individual expect to learn and then cluster learning macro-areas
  • MANY OTHERS!!!

Learning through the WE dimension ensures that the learner understand the complexity of the topic by exploring the different interest and perspective of the multiple stakeholders relevant to the topic. The learner also understand the optimal ways to interact in the community. Here some suggestions:

  • Role play where each group of three learners must impersonate the role of one different stakeholder. 1 hour is dedicated to researching key information to understand the crucial points of this stakeholder perspective. The facilitator uses the following hour to host and moderate a debate around key targeted questions among the stakeholders. Finally an additional hour is dedicated to reflection activities and harvesting the complexity of the topic. (3 hours)
  • World cafe with different tables for different stakeholder perspective and teams rotating to ensure maximum contribution and learning from the different perspectives
  • Running Collaboratory dialogues inviting different representatives from all the various stakeholders
  • Certainly this is the space where business is learnt from a customer perspective, service provider, product manufacturer and so on. Most of more “traditional” learning happens in this space
  • Business simulation, gamification, etc.
  • MANY OTHERS!!!

Learning through the ALL OF US dimension ensures the learner can see the systemic dynamics that the topic triggers. Dimensions like planet, society, economy and governance are explored in their interconnections and relevance to the topic. Typical activities that a facilitator can run include:

  • Watching documentaries that beautifully show the complexity and interconnections of our world
  • Working with interactive scenario simulations
  • Connecting via Skype or other platforms with other learners from very different areas of the world where the topic is experienced in radically different ways and exchange experiences in forms of reciproc questions
  • Using Issue Centered Learning where the starting topic is always a major issue of the world that can be picked for instance on www.gapframe.org a very useful, tool we have developed at BSL. Learners are then invited to explore their personal connection with the issue. Business is then looked at as being part of the solution and/or part of the problem. Functions of business and management are then identified as instrumental to drive the shift from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. Business is then understood and appreciated for what it is, an incredible generator of solutions and — unfortunately too often, problems
  • MANY OTHERS!!!

Clearly all the above introduced dimensions and activities can be complemented with other forms of active and passive learning. Expert views and lectures can and should still happen but should be well integrated in the three dimensions and serve the broader purpose of each dimension. When designing learning spaces you can start thinking of different roles that should be present in the space. For instance:

  • The Expert. These can be faculty, researchers, entrepreneurs, citizens, students that have a deep expertise relevant to the topic.
  • The Facilitator. These are skilled facilitators who can ensure learning continue to evolve from activity to activity in the best possible self-organized way. Facilitators refrain from interfering with opinions and expertise, it is not their role.
  • The Coach. Learning happens so differently within all of us and often encounters any sort of barriers on its way. Coaches can be peer learners that simply have earned some skills to support others in their individual learning journeys. Coaching is about asking the right questions in these cases and also offering a listening partner.
  • The Participant. You can think of this category as the one closer to the typical student. Yet, there is no way a participant would be engaged in passive learning. Learning is participative and contribution is expected. The great opportunity is that participant can switch to coach, to facilitator or to expert at any given opportune time.

Hey, how are you after reading this? Did it move something inside you? Do you also think it is time and it is possible to redesign modern learning spaces that can help us taking care of ourselves and our dear world? If you are curious to know more and join a vision for a new business and management education, go and visit www.50plus20.org.

Let me know what you think and I would love to engage in conversations around reinventing education together.

Let a new purposeful market grow around jobs and competencies that count and will make the world a better place!

Note: this article has been published by Carlo Giardinetti on Medium

Author: Carlo GiardinettiActive in Program Development, Holacracy and directing the E/MBA programs Business 

A quick plunge into top global trends

The newly elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron, has been telling those working on climate change and related innovation in the United States to move to Europe, in particular to France (here), stating “We want innovative people, we want people working on climate change, energy, renewables and new technology.”

In spite of dramatic and highly disappointing indicators of climate change policy change in the United States, opportunities for companies to help solve this global challenge and the other 23 issues identified by the BSL Gap Frame research have never been so diverse, or even so compelling.  But it is not easy to break down the complexity of our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world into manageable chunks. Let’s look at some of the main trends currently emerging from that complexity and their relevance for business, and also for business students: a quick round up of things to note:

1.The globalization pressure valve: Always controversial, globalization is under pressure as never before. The dream of a liberal, multicultural shiny new world with no trade barriers and unparalleled social equity has simply not materialized. And it will not so long as the top 10% wealthiest on the planet own 90% of global wealth. This has led to severe social inequity pushing a new wave of populism and protectionism with looming trade lockdowns and even xenophobia. As with every new development, there are opportunities for some companies, whilst for others, it may spell impending disaster. On the plus side, what seems certain is that days may be over of companies charging into a community, building it up with the usual positive externalities such as jobs and infrastructure etc., only to switch locations at the drop of a hat…leaving serious negative social and environmental externalities in their wake. Companies are moving from seeking License to Operate (LTO) from local communities to seeking License to Grow (LTG). Strategy-makers in companies should take heed.

2.The SDG fanfare: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have entered the scene with aplomb yet corporate awareness has not moved substantially beyond senior executive level and, of course, Sustainability Departments. Widespread concrete and tangible commitment to the SDGs is still very far from a tipping point. Because of this, most companies are not yet actually building strategies around the SDGs, setting goals and objectives or building in SDG-friendly targets or metrics to their activities. For companies reading this, think about setting up a corporate learning program so that your executives can start identifying solutions and innovative ways of acting and reporting on your progress towards the SDGs. The opportunity is to start with the SDGs most material to your business.  Then, join key discussions and relevant fora to communicate your company’s contributions, gradually moving to position your company as a pioneer on the forefront of SDG action.

3.The 2 degree tipping point: Climate change is a highly mature sustainability issue – despite the hubris of deniers in the United States. This means that the urgency of addressing it is generally accepted. The question is ….how and how quickly can we go? According to the World Economic Forum, leaders of the world’s most high profile companies recognize climate change as the top global risk in terms of potential and substantial impact. Climate change is also a prominent undercurrent of the SDGs.   For companies, carbon disclosure is increasing rapidly. COP21 produced the hope of a tighter policy environment, long terms goals for global decarburization, and more investor interest in the issue. Participant governments recognized that they had to tackle it together. And then along came the US election. What a massive climate leadership shift in the last year! We are still seeing the new reality play out but who would have thought even two years ago that China would fashion itself as the new climate leader on the world stage?

4.The news is dead; long live the news: “Fake news” proliferation – with the most high profile being around the US election and the Trump administration – is swaying elections and public opinion as never before. Today, personal, institutional, and corporate reputations can be lost in a matter of minutes, even seconds. With billions of $US dollars tied up in their brands, concerned companies have started to put pressure on high tech companies to scrutinize the boundaries of their responsibility for content on sites such as Facebook. I remember school debates back in the day around whether, in must-win battles, “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Today, it appears that “social media is mightier than the bomb”.

5.Grow ’til you pop: The “shop ‘til you drop” mindset of the new millennium continues but on the web! Just how counterintuitive is it that economies are still so bent on growth when resources are so finite? Denying limits to growth is the “emperor’s new clothes” equivalent of modern times.  Everyone knows it is truly madness but no one wants to say it. Virtually no mainstream business leaders are questioning the growth paradigm for now. Hugely growing consumption, facilitated and enabled by emerging E-commerce opportunities, are great news for the Amazons and E-Bays of this world…..but they are also leading to vast environmental damage, with substantial social issues raising their ugly heads too. This is particularly so in emerging economies that lack infrastructure to absorb the massive waste (particularly plastics and Styrofoam) resulting from said consumption. These countries simply cannot keep up with the pace of their own waste.  Meanwhile social pressure has increased on companies to show that they can minimize their impacts everywhere. In this context, innovation hubs are emerging across the spectrum of business and industry to encourage more collaboration amongst technology start-ups, businesses, NGOs, governments, and academia. Why? To find creative and effective solutions to resource challenges and to tackle negative consequences of rapid growth.

6…and grow ’til you drop: Obesity, diabetes and other related medical risks have finally surpassed hunger as a global health crisis and issue. Furthermore, as emerging economies increasingly adopt meat-based diets, animal protein is under scrutiny for both its negative health impacts and the devastatingly huge carbon footprint of livestock rearing (a full 18%, and rising, of global greenhouse gas emissions). There is an opportunity for companies to focus on the inevitable fact that in the future we will all be eating much less meat, more vegetables, less sugar and less salt. Time to get creative with diets! Discussions around health care in the US show us that access to medicine is increasingly a developed world issue also, not just a developing world conundrum (where already some 2 billion people still lack access to medicine). These facts present opportunities for plenty of disruption. We will see the emergence of new business models to serve these massive markets.

7.The global transparency fishbowl: Despite pending deregulation in the US, financial disclosure expectations and regulations have actually increased substantially globally, and with this, transparency. And it is really good news is that investors are taking environmental and social criteria much more seriously than before.  Stock exchanges which long avoided public scrutiny on environmental and social risk are now under the investor spotlight to review disclosure requirements. In 2016, who knew that more than one out of 5 dollars under professional management in the US – yes the US, and that’s almost $9 trillion – was invested according to some kind of sustainability screening? Companies are under pressure to disclose sustainability risk data to shareholders and increasingly undergo stress tests.

8.The big shrink: Finally, as a message to business students, what is happening out there as your local supermarket store replaces people with machines (it happened me the other day, to my chagrin), is a worldwide phenomenon going “from farm to fork” (production to retail). As artificial intelligence and robotics irreversibly move into the mainstream across industries and sectors, we can say goodbye to the world of work, as we once know it! With the social consequences of these massive shifts is in mind, Finland is currently pilot testing the idea of providing universal baseline income (unconditional) in the expectation that automation will massively do away with jobs.  Other countries – such as Canada and Italy – are also testing the waters. Switzerland held a tentative referendum in 2016 but people were not yet ready to vote “yes”; too much of a mind bending change for conservative Switzerland. So what kind of job will YOU do in the future, students?  Make sure a robot cannot easily replicate it. Note that many initially risk averse firms are boldly outlining digital strategies and fostering the right skills and capabilities in their managers to embrace the business world of tomorrow. Soft and subtle human skills, ethics, values, imagination and conceptual intelligence re-enter the picture again as the greatest benefit humans can contribute to business of the future. This may be good news for sustainability.

Ionescu-AileenPICTURE-150x150Author: Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Active in thought leadership, consulting, applied research, teaching and supervising DBA candidates in sustainability & responsibility.

#Speak-up series 2 – How can leaders conduct effective speak-up conversations?

Scandals like Volkswagen or Fells Fargo made it clear again: Before a scandal erupts, many, many people in the company knew about the ongoing ethics problems for quite a long time. According to research about one year! So why did most of them not speak up?

In the first part of this series, Bettina Palazzo explored how leaders discourage that their team members address uncomfortable truths and what they can do about it. Now she will look at how leaders need to conduct speak up conversations that make it safe and worthwhile for employees to speak up.

Coming up in the next parts of this blog series on speaking up:

  • Speak-up post no. 3: Why employees do not speak up and who are the courageous people that do dare to speak up.
  • Speak-up post no. 4: How employees can prepare an effective speak-up conversation and how they can conduct this difficult talk with courage and confidence.

In part one of this series on speak-up we saw that leaders need to encourage their team members to speak up long before there is a critical thing to say : They need to create a culture of constructive feedback, where saying uncomfortable truths and keeping each other accountable for ethical behavior is normal. Speaking up is most of all a communication and relationship problem. If you have good communications and a good relationship with your coworkers, if they trust you, if you share responsibilities with them, speaking up is much easier.

Sounds easy and logical? Of course, but in practice it is not so easy to do. As with most leadership topics we often observe a knowing-doing gap: In theory we know what would be the right thing to do, but in practice there are many obstacles that keep us from doing them. It is a bit like living a healthy life: We all know what to do (no sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, lots of exercise, enough sleep etc.), but actually doing it in a consistent way can be so hard. It is like Chip and Dan Heath say in their bestselling book « Switch » : Your rational mind is just the tiny rider on the big elephant of our irrational behavior, desires and emotions. Our rational mind might decide that it is the right thing to do to go jogging every morning at 6 a.m., but the irrational elephant of our deepest emotions and desires throws the alarm clock in the corner, when we need to stand up to go running.

To overcome the inertia of our own inner elephant, we need a lot of practice, reflection and feedback. That is why good leaders need to invest in self-development work. If they find ways to effectively deal with their inner irrational elephant, they can also go ahead and create an environment that makes it easier for their followers to become better leaders themselves. Leaders’ influence on their followers’ elephant is always limited, but they can influence the path of their followers’ elephants.

In the case of speak-up, leaders need to work on their own intuitively defensive reaction to unpleasant feedback (elephant) and they need to create structures that make speak-up normal.

In my fist blog post I already spoke about the structures that can turn speak-up into a normal practice (e.g. integration in team meetings).

Now I will explore how leaders need to react to a team member’s voicing of ethical concerns.

Let’s imagine the following scene :

Your coworker Claire, an engineer, comes to see you and tells you that she thinks that the new promising product your team has been working on since one year will need an expensive safety check. She also thinks that without this safety check this product could create a lot of damage and might even endanger lives. You are infuriated: In your opinion, Claire has the tendency to over-engineer and is not enough business oriented. Furthermore, you are under a lot of pressure from your boss to finally push this product to market. It would be very difficult for you to explain another delay because of the – in your opinion – unlikely possibility of safety risks.

How should you react?

You natural tendency could be defensive. You really want to market this product soon and you are uncomfortable to explain this to your boss. After all, no product is without risk…and we need to earn money here. Consequently, chances are that you tell Claire that she should think business and stop over-engineering. This, of course, would discourage and demotivate Claire. She will maybe share her experience with colleagues who will conclude that speaking up about sensitive issues is not worth it and might harm your relationship with you as a boss.

The negative effect of this single incident of unsuccessful speak-up goes far beyond this single event. Responsible leaders have to be aware that their behavior is under constant observation and interpretation by their coworkers. That is why just saying, «My door is always open» or “Please tell me your honest opinion.” without constantly acting accordingly will not create an open speak-up culture.

You really need to be serious about your openness to critical voices from your coworkers. It has to be authentic and credible.

Consequently, when a coworker comes to you with unpleasant or critical feedback and you feel the urge inside of you to defend yourself, always mentally press the pause bottom before saying anything and follow this guideline:

  • When a coworker speaks up, always treat them with respect and openness.
  • Thank them for speaking up.
  • Watch out for your tone of voice and body language: Don’t look at your phone or computer, no aggressive or condescending tone of voice. No grim face. Be open and friendly.
  • Get to the heart of the matter, ask questions, be curious. Useful sentences could be:
    • “I have the feeling you are not telling me everything…”
    • “It is important to me to have your critical uncensored opinion…”
    • “Is there anything else I need to know?”
    • “What are your thoughts about this…?”
  • Do not judge or try to fix it, before you have understood the whole story. Practice active listening techniques: “If I have understood your right, you are thinking…”)
  • Do not get defensive. Feedback is always a gift.
  • Follow-up: agree on what should happen next.
  • Update you coworker in time.

Agreeing on what should happen next and update you coworker in time is key.

If your coworker took the energy and courage to speak up, it is crucial that you keep her updated. Otherwise, you enforce the message that speaking up is not worthwhile. And this is one of the main reasons people do not speak up. Why put yourself on the line, if nothing changes?

The importance of the leader’s role in speak up cannot be over-estimated.

Now we know that managers need to do, in order to encourage speak-up and how they need to react to coworkers who actually do speak up.

It is time to look at the other side: Coming up in the last two parts of my speak-up series:

  • Why employees do not speak up
  • How to prepare an effective speak-up conversation and how to communicate professionally during a speak conversation with a superior.

Stay tuned and watch for the next episode of the speak-up series!
Prof.-Bettina-PalazzoAuthor: Dr. Bettina Palazzo
Professor at BSL

The Myth of Organizational Culture

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read  more posts from The Transatlantic Debate Blog here

There is no such thing as organizational culture, there is only people culture. 

I am curious to explore the difference between a role and a person, an organization and its people. This difference can be illustrated by considering a familiar scenario: What is the culture of the White House? I am suggesting here that it is not the White House that has a culture – the White House is an institution that has a purpose. Those who live and work at the White House represent the people of the White House and these people, how they work together and how they are together define the culture of the White House as an institution. A different set of people will result in a different culture, even if the institution remains the same in its purpose. Individuals may have an influence on the appearance of an institution or organization and depending on the governance structure, also have an influence on the purpose. And yet, the culture is an attribute defined by a group of people, not an institution or an organization. This insight may influence our understanding of how a culture may be changed. Could it be that cultural change is much more about changes that take place at the individual level, rather than those that can be master-minded at the organizational level? Let me attempt to reflect this by considering our lessons learned through the cultural change at Business School Lausanne.

There is a seemingly small but possibly substantial difference between what Organizational Development experts call an “Organizational Culture” and what is really going on. I have become aware of this difference in a reflective talk with BSL’s Holacracy implementation coach Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller of evolutionatwork. We reflected on Business School Lausanne’s (BSL) biggest difficulty and darkest hour in the transformation from a hierarchical to a self-organizing organization that somehow relates to the people space.

As you may recall, Holacracy is a highly sophisticated operating system for self-organization that explicitly takes care of organizing decisions around the “work” that relates to the purpose of the organization and how it very clearly does not organize how people work with each other. Despite hearing and reading everything we could about this, we entered into this transformation and felt entirely unprepared for what was waiting for us.

As we focused on organizing work-related decisions in a power-distributed, non-hierarchical way, learning the complex and sophisticated Holacracy rules that provoked and forced a behavioral change in every single person taking part, we did not pay attention to something crucial: what do we do with our personal relationships above and beyond strictly work-related discussions. In our darkest months, busy negotiating the shadows cast by difficult change, we entirely neglected these personal relationships, trusting that all we needed was work-talk.

In hindsight, we now know that there is a huge need to deal with and find solutions for personal relationships. This is not something a “tribe meeting” can fix as Holacracy may suggest. It is one-on-one work, not something that can be masterminded and implemented across the board. Personal relationships are apparent in every single moment that people work together – in the same space or around a common purpose; rather than being an occasional moment around the coffee machine, they dominate all interactions. Purely work-related decisions form the exception in such exchanges, something we have become able to distinguish thanks to Holacracy, which forces a particular and awkward talk-protocol when work is concerned. As such we would start work-talk with a sentence that sounds like, “In my role of ….., I would like to talk to you in your role of … about …”. And this is where the conversation shifts from a personal talk to a work-talk where the two people share specific accountabilities they can expect within their cooperation.

Such a situation is in stark contrast with the more typical situation where a person with a superior position casually strolls into an office of one of her or his subordinates, leans against the doorpost and in a collegial tone starts a friendly conversation that, depending on personal affinity, is either relaxed, hearty or a bit tense. Typically, somewhere towards the end of that nice chat, the boss comes up with some new expectation, deadline reminder, urgent action to be embraced or a long-term project to ponder. Depending on the managerial style of the supervisor, she or he either checks back about the feasibility of this requests or just strolls out of the office, fully expecting the subordinate to take her/his request as an order. This is a normal mix of personal and work relationship that all of us who work in a normal hierarchy are used to and know by experience in all of its wonderful – and less wonderful – shades of conscious or unconscious manipulation.

Self-organization crushes such situations by rendering them inacceptable in one way or another. It is impossible for any individual to walk into the office of anybody else and expect them to do something just because his/her seniority dictates that their “great idea” becomes an action on someone else’s to-do list. Anybody who has not lived self-organization has no means of truly understanding the implication of this. It makes no sense and any straight-thinking person wonders how anything that needs to get done, does get done. This is where Holacracy and other self-organizing operating systems tend to fail. A leader cannot fathom giving up her or his power and truly trusting that other individuals will not only step up into the space created by defining clear accountabilities in roles, but will have so many more ideas in these roles than could ever have been imagined by one supervisor alone. This trust is a leap of faith that seems to be a big ask for leaders.

At BSL, we were lucky that this was not a problem. As a leader, I was very keen to let go of the implicit power my position held and to focus on activities I could not spend enough time on but where I felt I could add true value to the organization. Given that letting-go was not our main issue (although, despite my wish to let go, I had to check my instincts for a good year!), a deeper issue emerged as a potential deal-breaker in transforming organizations. This is what I am fascinated by: the distinction between what an organization is and what a group of people is.

An organization is indeed NOT a group of people that work together. An organization, and this distinction is crucial, is a “thing”, a legal entity with a very specific purpose that subsequently serves as a vehicle to employ people and resources to realize that purpose. A group of people consists of individuals who, together, form the group. An organization possesses a “culture”, no more than my teacup can possess a culture. My teacup may look a certain way by having a certain shape and color and material, but it has no culture. In the same way, an organization may house its employees in a certain type of building, paint its walls a certain color or serve food of a given quality in its canteen; however, these attributes do not constitute culture. The only aspect of an organization that can have a culture is the people. There is people culture, not organizational culture. If you want to look at what it takes to change culture, you need to look at what it takes to change the individuals who, together, are the people. This is an insight that is not fully embraced in organizational change theory or organizational development. Organizational change in this sense would imply a change of the organization’s purpose or structure, activities or locations, but not of its people. Organizational development cannot mean that its people develop but that the organization grows through new products and services, locations, contracts, partnerships etc.

The reason I feel this distinction is important is that I have a hunch that, by peeling back this layer called “organization” when we talk about changing the culture, we may discover true levers of change to enable cultural shifts in organizations. I am fascinated by this as I still don’t know how our own cultural change came about at BSL. And I was there closely observing it! What happened in these dark months and what came out and into the light after it? When trying to answer this question, examples of individual human actions come to mind. Acts of courage, love and care. All of which are entirely unrelated to any role or accountability. These acts of humanity are what have touched me and possibly others – as individuals, not in a role or a responsibility. Alex sharing his new Chinese tea leaves and showing me how to pour a cup of tea as I walk in tired from a long outside meeting. Denitsa standing up and giving me a big hug as I walk in to say hi. Yasmina cracking a joke as I walk by that makes me stop and see how she is doing, as a person not as a colleague delivering her to-do list. It is Aurea that closes her work notebook and shares how her friend is doing.

These moments which are entirely and totally disconnected from any follow-on comment that says, “and hey, would you mind printing me x and quickly running me this or that report?” or, “hey, since we are chatting, have you heard back from x on y?”. We don’t do that anymore. We were forced to separate these kinds of conversations by learning how to have power-free conversations among roles in a journey to replace our hierarchy. Awkward, coded language that has nothing human or fun in it. But it does its job, it provides a safe space for anybody with a certain responsibility to do the very best she can to embrace this responsibility with all the passion and knowledge and freedom to innovate that she can put into it, given other priorities of other responsibilities she may also have. What happened in these dark hours is that we reduced all of our conversations to such coded, awkward language, and next to that each of us dealt with the pain and the frustration that such cold exchanges created in our own ways. To all the varying degrees of incapacity that humans possess. Some started gossiping, others started to moan and complain, some formed small groups that tried to super-analyze it all and solve it for the team, some retreated in their caves, feeling alone and rejected by a system that was inhuman. All of us, in one way or another, felt alone, helpless and overwhelmed, and all of us reacted to it through the large variety of dark shadows that are a part of our human characters.

Until the human light started to shine through and some started to reach out in caring conversations, daring to question endless complaints by asking, “do you want help or do you just want to complain?”; some started to share their pains and how they went about dealing with them with their coach or in therapy. Somebody organized tea for everybody. Somebody else brought in a homemade cake. Some people started to have really honest and painful conversations with each other. In these early days, everything felt raw and we were all exhausted. Emotionally affected. Small groups of individuals formed who felt more affinity for each other and much energy was spent discussing a problem that nobody could name. Pockets of resistance against the transformation became loud and forceful and the pain was in front of all of us, all the time. The atmosphere was dim, and some people fell ill. They could not understand the coldness of Holacracy and the inhumanity it seemed to require. People who didn’t perform were suddenly very exposed and position power didn’t protect anymore. Difficult talks requiring courage were needed to end long working relationships that probably could have been addressed long before but were hidden due to an overlap with personal relationships. More and more we learned to separate these relationships and slowly, very slowly, too slowly, the benefits started to emerge.

We had focused on identifying work benefits – and we reported many of these, experiencing them with increasing rapidity. The degree and extent of self-initiative is simply mind-blowing. We have moved from a group of people who each felt overwhelmed with the amount of work we needed to do to a group of people open to listen to new ideas, suggestions and opportunities, and ourselves coming up with innovative new, additional things we can do. Where did this space suddenly come from? Our plates were full before – I had long stopped daring to bring in new projects as I feared the reaction of a team that was clearly already overstretched. How come these same people now had ideas far beyond what I had ever dreamt of bringing in? How come, solutions for problems nobody even acknowledged before suddenly were implemented without anybody even knowing? How come costs were reduced where before there was no alternative? How come a suggestion for improvement was suddenly met with “tell me more” rather than “I have no time”? These are all “just” work-related benefits that brought tremendous benefit to the organization and these deserve being studied to be better understood.

What we didn’t focus on was what would happen to our relationships. And this is where more miracles happened. Our human relations have deepened; we know today more about each other than we ever did before and we are forming more of a family in a true sense than ever before. It is wrong to use “we” and “us” as a term. This phenomenon is an individual one and builds on the individual care for somebody else. Massimo and I are sharing the difficult moments we both experience right now seeing our parents with health issues. Carlo and Branko share their worries about their kids during our upcoming company ski-weekend. Denitsa inspired us with daily emails in the holiday months sharing insights about positive psychology from her current Master’s studies. As I present a key note at a big business event, I see the faces of my colleagues in the audience whose smiles encourage me to say what I want to say in clear language. We are all signed up for a course in non-violent communication. Our stakeholders (students and faculty) tell us that it is easier to engage with us, that we listen better and have more time and space for them as human beings, not just as transactional problems. I notice myself that I am careful in responding with a personal comment to emails that I receive. I am friendlier, warmer and more open, and I like that very much.

In our team, a feeling has spread that says “we are cool” and we are proud to belong together. Strength-spotting has become a past-time. Laughter is easier, humor more present and even after a long, tough day at work, I walk out feeling much better in my body and certainly in my heart and soul. Denitsa had asked me midday, “how is your day going” and I was profoundly touched. What a nice question and rather than complaining about all the things that I had going on, I took a quiet breath and I realized, I was having a really good day!

There is a miracle that has happened in front of my eyes and I don’t understand it quite yet. I remain curious and do want to understand it better. For if I can describe it better, others can benefit from such “organizational change” that really is “people change”, and that would be just great! My hunch is that the differentiation between the organization and the group of individuals that make up the people is key. When I worked for Alcoa, it was not the organization I admired and adored as much as its people. It was not “being the best aluminum company in the world” that made my soul sing, it was the positive opportunities I was given, and the leader’s interest in hearing a twenty-four-year old’s opinion on strategy.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs

Reinventing business models with Big Data Analytics

From a business perspective, the purpose of Big Data Analytics is ultimately to improve competitiveness and impact by making better business decisions that can be acted upon. Such decisions are backed by relevant and reliable facts collected from a variety of sources, providing insights based on trends and patterns which the human brain would never have found, in turn enabling a predictive approach to decision-making.

Every single industry is impacted by Big Data Analytics as digital transformation accelerates. Individual companies and public organisations are trying to make sense of all the changes, determining which are opportunities and which are threats to their activities.

As entire industries reinvent themselves, taking advantage of data-driven business models, we decided at BSL to zoom in on a few sectors and invite guest speakers to help us understand the business challenges each faces as well as how Big Data Analytics is helping them find a path to resolution, sometimes by reframing the challenge.

  • As Public Healthcare seeks to improve our quality-adjusted life-years, Big Data Analytics help direct the right care to the right person at the right time. Treating illnesses earlier, sometimes even preventing them, positively impacts society and the economy. Kevin Dean, Managing Director of Smart Health Science Limited and former Director of the Genomics England Project, shared with us how Big Data Analytics is used to accelerate our medical understanding and decisions, thus improving lives and saving costs. One of the main challenges with these often decade-long projects is to balance what is viable with what is affordable – in other words, to prevent costs getting out of hand without steering away from the end goal. Finding immediate applications for the technology is a good way to improve affordability.
  • The Financial Services sector uses Big Data Analytics extensively to inform better investment decisions and to improve their client experience. Who better than the world’s largest asset management company to talk to us about Big Data? David Wright, BlackRock’s EMEA Head of Product Strategy for their Scientific Active Equity (SAE) Group, shared how self-learning algorithms are driving 1,000+ investment decisions daily for parts of BlackRock’s portfolio. To be able to do that, the algorithms analyse over 4,000 brokerage reports a day as well as transcripts of earnings calls, correlated with external data sources ranging from satellite imagery to consumer sentiment based on online search behaviour. Constructing better economic indicators whilst de-risking investments is the main goal.
  • A fascinating talk with Anne Mellano, co-founder of the Swiss startup BestMile, gave us insights into what Public Transportation will look like tomorrow. BestMile offer the world’s first Cloud platform for the operation and optimization of autonomous vehicle fleets. She shared with us today’s main public transportation challenge, which is that users need to adapt to what is offered, no personalisation is possible. Also, no matter how good the historical data, public transportation will always be planned based on past trends (pick-up locations, routes, timetables, capacity, etc.). BestMile are reframing the challenge by imagining an urban public transportation model which adapts to individual user needs through real-time routing and capacity management based on big data analytics feeds from various sources, including user devices such as smartphones. Sharing the mode of transportation will also help solve our urban congestion and pollution challenges.
  • With urban migration leading to >60% of the world’s population living in cities by 2050 (UN report), and with cities representing only about 2% of our available landmass, there are many challenges to be addressed urgently. Health, safety, movement, jobs, construction, education, entertainment and the list goes on. Nicola Villa, Global Leader of Digital Platforms for Government at IBM, shared with us the concept of the Cognitive City. A city where the Internet of Things (IoT) platforms are successfully addressing the various urban challenges and enabling us to shift from smart city to smart citizens. We are all co-responsible for the quality of life we aspire to in our cities around the world.

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  • Whatever the industry, tomorrow’s talent needs to be more agile, curious and collaborative than has been required in the past where the focus was more on hard skills. So, to wrap up our Big Data Analytics course, we invited an expert in Human Resources to share with us the role that technology is playing in redefining that industry. Paul Jacquin, Managing Partner of Randstad’s Innovation Fund, explained how recruiters are changing their approach to sourcing, screening and selecting the right talent. Increasingly, online tools based on self-learning algorithms are testing candidates, managing the hiring process and finding the best match with employers. Sometimes, it’s even the other way around with several employers bidding for the right candidate. Often we are victims of unconscious bias which leads to people hiring people like themselves. Also, the traditional application process of sending unsolicited CVs can be highly frustrating for candidates. And for employees, the cost of hiring the wrong person is very high. Big Data Analytics addresses all these issues, helping reduce the hiring timeline and the associated costs whilst finding the best candidate match.

Getting our BSL students ready for this changing digital world is paramount for their success and their ability to contribute to our collective future. This requires a sound understanding of the use and implications of Big Data Analytics. As one of the leaders at BlackRock says: “All employees are responsible for being students of technology”. That responsibility starts even before becoming an employee.

Author: Anja Langer Jacquin,
Professor at BSL

Sustainable Blue Ocean Strategies Developed in MBA Workshop

The course “Strategic Thinking for General Managers” exemplifies what BSL stands for in business education: preparing managers today for building sustainable businesses contributing to a sounder world. I would like to share with you one aspect of the course which particularly illustrates the BSL approach.

Students in the MBA program at BSL developed Blue Ocean strategies for sustainable solutions in the areas of health, transportation and nutrition. In a workshop atmosphere the students developed original product ideas in these future-oriented business areas which would help shape a greener, healthier – and more enjoyable! – world. In this way the students gained first-hand experience in realizing the three pillars of business education at BSL: Sustainability, Entrepreneurship and Responsibility.

As part of the course “Strategic Thinking for General Managers”, students learned techniques to develop innovative ideas for products and services, differentiate them radically from the existing offers in the market, and evaluate their prospects for success. The key success factors for moving into an “empty space” guided them through these three steps in formulating a Blue Ocean strategy, in which companies, their stakeholders and societies gain quantum jumps in benefits by creating new industries.

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BSL’s Blue Ocean meeting room, named after the business strategy

Highlights of the ideas, and the unique benefits for all, are as follows

  • Check Your Health@Home Prevention Kit: A complete solution in which simple medical devices are used at home to check the basic health indicators, track their development over time, and report the results on-line to the personal doctor. Users become more aware of their health, and doctors can intervene in a preventive way, to together lower the incidence of medical problems, lowering the medical costs in society.
  • The “Fado” Minibus: A transport service dedicated to bringing passengers to and from airports in Portugal – as a first step – and their homes. The reliability as well as comfort and safety on board, including musical entertainment, would attract users away from using their cars, reducing congestion and emissions on Portuguese highways.
  • The Nutri-Patch: A body patch to introduce the nutrients and vitamins for healthy living directly into the blood system. Ambitious sports persons want precisely measured quantities of specific ingredients, and many people on the go would like to eat healthily but don’t always have the required time or access to their desired foods. The Nutri-Patch gives them the benefits of the latest scientific understanding of nutrition, customized to their own needs and preferences, combined with mobility, flexibility, and more free time – perhaps our most precious resource!

More about these ideas cannot be revealed here, because – who knows? – the budding entrepreneurs may want to work up these ideas into businesses without rivals in the know – which is exactly what Blue Ocean strategies are about.

Benjamin Wall, Professor at BSL

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Responsible sourcing at Nestlé – BSL students learn first-hand about key elements of corporate sustainability

As all of us working in this field know, sustainability is highly complex, requiring an understanding of multiple disciplines, many of which rather technical. Additionally, there’s a big gap between theory and practice, especially when attempting to transform existing companies and systems that were not built with sustainability in mind.

In our case, after 5 classes of “Business Responsibility & Sustainability”, covering principles, natural and planetary boundaries, human dimensions, major programs like SDGs and MDGs, the role of businesses, stakeholder models and management, including role plays on how companies create conflict and how to resolve them – it was time to see how it all works in practice.

Early January, we were fortunate to be received by Dionys Forster (Sourcing specialist, department of corporate agriculture) and Diarmuid O’Connor (Global manager, agricultural raw materials) at the Nestlé HQ in Vevey.

Given the size and complexity of Nestlé (over 300k employees, 190 countries, thousand of brands and many more products), we had to focus, in the case of our visit on rural development and responsible sourcing of agricultural products, especially milk, cocoa, coffee. This of course means that many other topics with high sustainability relevance, such as processed food, added sugars, bottled water, palm oil, pesticides and many others, were not discussed during this visit.

What we saw and discussed was highly sophisticated, well designed and effectively implemented. Here are a few highlights:

  • Planetary boundaries and Terrestrial biodiversity were used to introduce the subject, similarly to how we started our own class two months ago.
  • Nestlé, with 1.7% world market share, is the biggest player in a highly distributed market, top 20 companies collectively accounting for only 9%. This means, to make a big difference, working with competitors is required.
  • Social media analysis reveals that people are concerned about food quality, climate change, packaging, animal welfare.
  • To make sourcing more responsible, Nestlé implemented Farmer Connect, directly sourcing from 760’000 farmers, ensuring almost total product traceability, offering training (400’000 farmers trained) and limiting price volatility (a major benefit for farmers, allowing them to better plan ahead).
  • A broad sustainable agriculture initiative (SAIN) aims to reduce waste and pollution, better use water, reduce greenhouse gases through technology dissemination, financial support for farmers, buying clubs, price stability, education, training, and advocacy.
  • RISE (Response-Inducing Sustainability Evaluation) is a questionnaire-based tool developed at the Bern University of Applied Sciences, rapidly identifying problem areas, allowing to better focus improvement efforts.
  • “Dairy for you” is an education program offering differentiated training for workers, specialists, managers, and graduates, by setting up a local institute or working with a local university.
  • At Nestlé Nutrition, baby food requires much lower limits of pesticide, lead, cadmium, mercury etc. residues – Nestlé applies the same (strictest) standards around the world, even in countries where not legally required.
  • In Ghana, to reach the majority of farmers who don’t read or write, a local theater play with characters representing good farmer / bad farmer is used to develop local community knowledge – and at the same time improve raw material quality and safety
  • A key issue in agriculture is succession – worldwide, the average farmer age is 60, in the US 65, in Japan 77; and specifically making farming attractive for the young generation. Nestlé has been working with many farmers for 2 or 3 generations, but the issue remains.

This reminds me of an excellent article published in the NYTimes “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers”, showing how the design of our food system, among many other issues, also makes farming unattractive for young generations.

Therefore we thank again Dionys Forster and Diarmuid O’Connor, not only for receiving us so well, but for doing so much to make sourcing more responsible.

Author: Sascha Nick, Associate Professor at BSL

Hacking for chocolate

“Chocothon” hits sweet spot of collaborative innovation in Ghana

Key question….what went on in Ghana last weekend that might have something to do with BSL’s vision and mission, and especially its three pillars of entrepreneurship, sustainability and responsible leadership in a context of collaborative learning?

The first Chocothon, that’s what! BSL has partnered with Google, the International Trade Center, the Future Food Institute, Crowdfooding and a host of other cool organizations to promote a “techno” focus on the sustainability and business threats around world cocoa supply. How? By holding a hackathon for chocolate (hence the term “Chocothon”). For those not yet in the know, a hackathon is an event, typically lasting a few days, in which groups of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming. The idea of “hacking for chocolate” was born some two years ago at the Google Food Innovation Lab (where BSL partner and thought leader Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers is an expert participant). The first Chocothon in a series became reality in Accra, Ghana this weekend!

img_9925Threats…around chocolate? What? When you look at supermarket shop shelves today, it is hard to believe there is a problem. After all, we seem to have a plentiful supply of cheap, delicious chocolate treats. But don’t be fooled; our business system is overly short-term oriented. The economics barely work for now and benefit too few stakeholders. Long-term, if the crucial farmer producer of cocoa is not protected, then it’s a zero sum game. In other words, no supply = no business (so bad news for companies) = very expensive Easters, Christmases, Valentine’s days and Birthdays in the future (so terrible news for consumers).

Let’s focus on the challenges. Undercompensating farmers for quality cocoa ultimately leads to too low an income for farmers to bother staying in the business. It creates a rather vicious cycle: no money = low or no investment in new technologies, new trees or desperately needed training = increasingly lower yields and environmental degradation = lower quality cocoa = even less compensation. Then there are government policy threats, such as lack of knowledge and certainty about land rights and ownership leading to insecurity in land tenure. Macroeconomic issues such as inflation and defective exchange rate regimes also take their toll. So farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and other cocoa producing countries are not only exiting cocoa farming and/or switching to other less challenging crops, but they do not want their children to stay in cocoa farming either.  Farming cocoa is a grueling task. If the economics do not work, it is even harder to make a business case to the increasingly literate children of farmers who, after all, may have other options.

So what does the Chocothon set out to do? Well, can the best of modern day high tech ingenuity contribute to resolving the problems around cocoa production? Can this be done in a context where illiteracy is widespread and access to Smartphones extremely limited? We agree…its a pretty tough call. But the technology landscape is changing rapidly. The Chocothon team figured that if we could get young Ghanaians excited about problems in their own country, through collaboration they could be empowered to focus their ingenuity on thinking forward and fixing them. After all, the problems we mention are man-made, so let’s get some man (and woman)-made solutions!

Need more convincing?  Well, if you get enough stakeholders together in one room with some hackers to work on a problem, you can literally start… hacking away at it.  So, for example, at the Chocothon, we invited government representatives to not only contribute their knowledge as “knowledge brokers” but to also raise awareness with them of the importance of increasing internet and Smart phone technology access, or of increasing institutional knowledge about land sizes, ownership and security. After all, knowing what you didn’t know makes for better decision-making. Looking forward, we can expect that young farmers in Ghana will be – as all young people are – ingenuous about assuring their own access to technology; every single trend in the world indicates that this is the case.

Therefore, the idea of designing collaborative platforms to share farming equipment or expertise to increase quality of work and efficiency and thus productivity, is not a pipe dream.  To set up systems empowering farmers to demand and get the best prices on the market is not a hallucination either. To enable mobile direct payments to farmers – faster cashless money transactions – coupled with now fast developing services like mobile insurance or other business transactions for tools or fertilizers are totally feasible future options for Africa, as they have been for other countries. Micro-financing of farmer investments, even by crowd-sourcing funds from all the chocolate lovers out there might be another possibility. Creating training platforms, or indeed tools that help young farmers with assessing soil fertility, tree age, crop diseases…all this is possible today. We can also look at optimizing transportation platforms to allow for better transport of cocoa beans – a big headache for Ghanaian farmers today. Get it? Good!

So from Saturday to Sunday 20-21 January, 2017 a group of young and talented hackers – IT developers and social innovators – got together with other stakeholders at the Impact Hub n Accra, Ghana. Representatives and knowledge brokers joined from multiple organizations such as the Ghanaian government, Google, Barry Callebaut (Swiss B2B cocoa supplier), the International Trade Center and the Future Food Institute. The Chocathon team assigned the hackers to working groups and provided food, drinks, and even mattresses (yes!) for the all night hack.

img_9852-2The teams had a task of building up a prototype and uploading deliverables step by step during the hackathon. Sounds familiar? It is pretty much the techie version of what the students of BSL did by designing start-ups to tackle social issues during the last Gap-Frame week last December… Yes, this kind of collaborative learning is taking hold in more sectors than one! The Ghanaian Chocothon hackers get tempting prizes to encourage innovation and even conversion of their prototypes into working businesses, such as a co-working space for one year at the Impact Hub or for six months at ISpace, or indeed a cash prize.

Watch this space for the next blog about the Chocothon where we will tell you about some of the cool ideas the hackers came up with. This is the first of a series of Chocothons that will ultimately contribute to saving YOUR treasured chocolate from gradual extinction. Tune in to #chocothon hashtag to find out more. Even better…how about supporting our next Chocothon? Here is our crowd-funding site link:  https://www.crowdfooding.co.uk/deal/188/Chocothon

Why should you get involved? Because YOUR chocolate needs YOU!

Ionescu-AileenPICTURE-150x150Author: Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Active in thought leadership, consulting, applied research, teaching and supervising DBA candidates in sustainability & responsibility.

And suddenly, we were living in a new culture… How did that happen?

How do companies grow into new cultures? Can a given culture be changed? How palpable is a culture anyway? And if you wanted to change it, how would you go about it? These are questions that occupy Organizational Development consultants and researchers alike. At Business School Lausanne (BSL) we have decided to prototype new forms of organizations as a way to offer a living case study to our students. For the end of the year, I would like to offer a self-reflective piece about our organizational journey, from my own personal (and obviously limited) perspective.

On September 30, 2015, BSL had formally implemented self-organization as its new way to organize itself. Now, 1 year and 3 months later, we are looking at ourselves in disbelief. We have become a living and breathing organism with its own distinct culture and sense of purpose. And we wonder how this happened?! This blog attempts an analysis by looking at 6 distinct time period in the course of the last 15 months.

Step 1: October to December 2015 – We can learn this. The initial three months of implementing Holacracy were colored with a tremendous (good)-will to learn this new system. I think every single one of us put in discipline, time, energy, and an open trust. We learned the technique of Holacracy, got burned by what they unveiled in us regarding how judgmental and close-minded one is, we stopped and wondered, does this work? Some of us masterminded a massive systems-change that we proudly introduced in December 2015: from 2 circles, we shifted to 5 circles – in one go. A circle is something like a “department” or “business unit” – those roles that work together organize in a circle. Only later would we learn that this is absolutely not the way to go about solving “tension by tension”. We were still operating from a paradigm of hierarchy, quite unaware and unconscious but willing to try. We attempted to separate “role” from “soul” and forgot about the “soul” in the process, without knowing what to do about it. Holacracy told us – “just trust the process”.

Step 2: January to March 2016 – In the deepest of darkness. After these initial 3 months of openly learning the mechanics of Holacracy, our team dove into a dark place where we lost our previous natural sense of how to maintain personal relationships as a part of our professional collaboration. Suddenly, everything felt mechanic, cold, and distant and there seemed to be no place to connect from person to person. Our Holacracy coach kept on telling us: “Holacracy structures how you work together, how you want to relate to another, what we call ‘tribe space’ that is up to you to define.” We didn’t know what to do with this advice, “tribe space” was a term that didn’t resonate and sporadic attempts to create a “tribe space” were mostly left unattended. Critical colleagues raised concerns about a serious loss of trust in the team saying we have a big problem.

Step 3: April to May 2016 – Addressing dormant people issues. These dark three months forced some previously unaddressed and uncomfortable people issues to the bright daylight. We had learned to talk straight and to listen to another – one of the great benefits of Holacracy’s very mechanic technics. This dialogue culture enabled us to openly address pain points we didn’t have the courage to address before. We realized that not everybody would make it and we made generous offers to those that would not be able to dance this new journey of self-responsibility and co-creation with us at a much heightened innovation speed. These talks didn’t help the sense of darkness in the team, to the contrary, now the problems were in the open and things looked and felt bleak.

Step 4: June to August 2016 – Inventing a new recruitment process. Connected to step 2, we were facing some serious recruitment challenges that resulted from having addressed the people pain points. Quite unknowingly, we stumbled into a number of new practices that entirely overhauled our recruitment process. We started to ask very different questions to candidates, asked them to write an essay about how they might do in a self-organizing structure, and we used new strength-based assessment tools. We formalized with a policy that the committee consists of concerned colleagues that were intimately knowledgeable and concerned with the roles a new-hire would take. The blog “we are hiring for DNA” explains this well.

Step 5: September to October 2016 – Questioning the performance evaluation and bonus system. During the busiest time of our year, we also had to do our performance reviews. Given that we were new at self-organization, we didn’t quite know how to do this in our new setting. Those partners who cared formed a committee that defined in a few pragmatic sessions a process that seemed reasonable and time efficient. The result: a small disaster! By now, our team was entirely comfortable to discuss uncomfortable issues collectively and we quickly assembled a list of things that didn’t work. We agreed that we did no longer want to tie our financial bonus to our peer-based performance review. So how to advance? Simply, a call to those among us to self-organize and propose a better system for the coming year. This is an excellent example of what is called “safe enough to try”. We tried, it didn’t work so well, we still all accepted and embraced the consequences and vouched to do better next year. No hard feeling! As you can see, the goodwill and the trust were back – in a very new and different way. Not a trust in a boss or a hierarchy, nor a need to plead for personal favors, a trust in our way of making decisions, a trust in the ability for everybody to speak up and be respected, a trust that the others cared.

Step 6: November to December 2016 – The real test with titles and new-born authority. With our new-hires in place and with priorities cleared for the coming months, the question arose what to do with our old titles, in particular, “the Dean”. We recognized that our outside world demanded such a title and position, even if internally, we had delegated its accountabilities into a variety of roles and circles and the Dean no longer was a reality for us. There were 4 of us with external roles that at times resembled what is traditionally called a “Dean” role. In a governance meeting we discussed, argued, considered, reflected, rejected, improvised and eventually agreed that we shall be having the “Dean” title available to those who have an external representation need, clarifying that 4 people can use the title in 4 different special areas, such as academic programs, executive education, thought leadership, applied research. The website adjustment is still underway and shows how hot a potato titles are. Meanwhile, new authority arose elsewhere: we are making 3 significant leadership changes on January 1 in three key circles. Leadership in the sense of ensuring that resources and competencies are directed at realizing the mission identified. As my last act of “letting go”, the BSL Company Lead Link (a position even the Holacracy inventor Brian Robertson still holds at his company) will be energized by Carlo, while Branko takes over the School Lead Link and Massimo takes over the Support Service Lead Link. All of these appointments are announced as being intended for the year 2017, and we shall be seeing who has appetite and talent to embrace such roles thereafter.  Denitsa has risen to be our inspiration in her new people role, offering daily positivity challenges during the Advent months. David says that he feels there is more time that partners take to connect personally, creating a foundation to getting things done so much more easily. And last but not least, our newly invented Gap Frame Weeks have transformed the way the administration and the faculty interact with the student body, something that was palpable at our Holiday Season Party which was a huge success, independently organized by David. We are closing the year on an unprecedented high, “looking back at the pain with appreciation and understanding” (Aurea) and “feeling new wind beneath our wings” (David). Welcome 2017 – we are ready to embrace whatever is thrown our way!

Are these 6 necessary steps? Could we have anticipated or planned them ahead? Can you learn something from these? Do these steps provide insight into cultural transformation? I am not sure. And I am curious to continue with our “action research” to see if there is anything we and others can indeed learn, and if only in hindsight. And that is one of the purposes of a year-end reflection, too!

Kathy, I wish you strength to continue with your own personal journey of sense-making, most particularly in the coming year. It is a privilege to co-write this blog with you as it brings my own reflection about how to enable organizations to become sustainable and to contribute to the common good to new heights. Thank you for that and thank you for sharing so authentically your own journey with you last blog.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs