How does it feel to teach at Harvard University?

I have always resisted the temptation to create my bucket list but surely, if had to create one, I would have in it the participation to a Harvard course. I am passionate about education and I am passionate about American movies, so I guess you can explain why this would make it into my bucket list. Thing is, I would have never thought I would participate as an Instructor!

If you are reading this blog you may know that Business School Lausanne is self-organized since two and a half years, using Holacracy as an operating system. I participated last year to a conference on self-organization in Amsterdam organized by HolacracyOne where practitioners could exchange their pains and gains in the transformation journey that self-management brings. This is all very new for the business world and still today, I can’t make a clear distinction between self-management and self-organization so please bear with me when I juggle between the two terms.

At the conference, I met Mike Lee who was completing his PhD at Harvard Business School studying new forms of organization and their limits. Holacracy has been a great part of his research and he has run an important empirical study at WAC that is a Governmental agency in the US working with Holacracy. Mike and I had several chances to exchange thoughts and some glasses of wine. There was a common idea we shared that started to emerge. We both strongly believed that organizations operating at the innovative edge with systems such as Holacracy are learning while practicing with some very powerful and novel set of organizational processes. What is new in these organizations is not only newly designed processes, but also self-management practices that people in such organizations are able to adopt. Why is this interesting? Self-management promises to be an important tool to respond to the challenges that the current Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world brings. Self-management brings flexibility, responsiveness, agility, autonomy, all things that are needed in a VUCA world. Well, at least self-management promises to bring all this. What Mike and I were reflecting on was on the opportunity to bring all these great advantages into traditional companies that are still functioning with structured hierarchies (99% of the companies is my estimate) and have no interest in adopting self-management at a large scale. Could it be possible? Can we translate the great and innovative practices from these pioneering companies like HolacracyOne into a language that traditional companies can hear and welcome? We jumped unto this challenge, and excited about the idea of creating a training on this topic, approached Harvard to see if they would be interested in making space for such an executive course. Indeed Mike’s network with Harvard was the key to open the doors to this opportunity.

What we discovered fast was that there was a huge appetite for this course and executive education. Quickly the Harvard marketing team (what a great team they have!) could fine-tune the title for the course based on their research and so our new baby was ready to come to life. The course name was (and still is) “Collaborative Leadership: Building the Organization of the Future”.

Now that we had a title, the real work started and we had to face the challenge of putting together what we believed could serve the need we had identified in a 2-day course. How do we help today’s companies to build their next version of themselves? What is the bridge that takes them from where they are today to where they will want to be in the next 10 years from an organizational design perspective? Great challenge!

Mike and I loved to discover our complementary skills, experience and knowledge. Mike can unpack very complex topics, fill them with solid research-based arguments and still explain them with a disarming simple language that makes it very hard for anybody not to understand them and believe him, what a gift! I am great at putting the cherry on top of the cake (easy one), with sense-making, as well as creating and designing overall learning experiences. So I could contribute 🙂

Having to write a course for Harvard can put you under strong pressure as you think that whatever you are doing well, you should try to do better and this is not easy to manage. My experience of working at self-organized BSL, alongside Mike’s knowledge and research, eventually took us there and the result has been interesting. We ran this course for the first time on March 14-15 and of course we were ready to expect the unexpected. Firstly, we received the list of participants two weeks before the course and had 16 of them, which was a good number for a new course. The following week, the number became 28 and, with only one week to go, we had to readjust parts of the course including buying a new set of puzzles that we used for an interactive session. Just as we thought we were ready, just 3 days before the course, we received a warning that a snowstorm was approaching Boston and it was not clear what this would mean. Both Mike and I made it to Boston on Monday and our flights were probably the last ones that made it, at least until Wednesday when the storm was gone. Harvard University closed down on Tuesday (on Wednesday our course would start), so did the airport and most other things that were simply submerged by over a meter of snow. The tireless team at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education did not stop working though it and started sending us updates. Our course participants started to go down to 22, then 16, 14, 10 and eventually settled at 12 by the Tuesday evening. Given the trend, we were happy we could still run the course, as many other courses had to be cancelled. Oh well, did you think teaching at Harvard would just be easy and smooth?

I will share more about the content of the course in a future blog, and what we learnt from it. For now, I’d just want to share the actual teaching experience. So let me tell you what it means to stand up in front of great participants from all over the world who expect a Harvard-quality level of education! Believe it or not, I felt ready and fully confident. At Business School Lausanne, we approach education differently and focus on transformative learning. Such attitude has taught me to keep the learner at the center of what I do as an educator, and this is what I did during those two days. The feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive and here are some quotes:

“Carlo has great facilitation skills, sensing where the participants are, and creating a more personal connection”

“Energy, managing the learning flow, translation to daily practice”

“He is an excellent summarizer and synthesizer”

“Carlo led the discussions deftly and his real-world experience with self-management was invaluable in exploring these concepts” 

“This is a unique program!”

So, how does it feel to teach at Harvard? Definitely, it gave me great sense of recognition and sense of prestige. It‘s like playing for the football National Team but in education. At the same time, it made me once more realize how important is the work we are doing at Business School Lausanne. Our approach to education as a transformative experience is what the world needs. We had participants standing in a circle in our course at Harvard, sharing their deepest concerns and reflections. We had them engaged in a World Café and in a guided meditation. We do this every day at Business School Lausanne, and now I can confidently say that I am proud I have been teaching at Harvard as much as I am proud I work at BSL!

 

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

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

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!

UPDATE Feb 13 2018: Carlo Giardinetti spoke at the MERIT Summit in Lisbon in January 2018 about self-organization. Watch the video here

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