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

Onto higher grounds – Holacracy at BSL after the initial 9 months of birthing

Our all-team meeting carried an entirely different energy than our initial meeting in late August last year. While at the start, everybody in the team was politely and cautiously positive, well, politically correct might be a better term, we now have a team with members that no longer hesitate to express their personal sentiments about their insights and learnings about where we are. That may sound simple but represents a huge shift in how far we have come as a team and what collective and individual work it took to break down the proper facades of polite, superficial engagement with the truth of the deeper struggles, resistances, blind spots and shadows, but also the deep personal learning, the enthusiasm, unlikely transformations and breakthrough. The team has gained in color, flavor, diversity of opinion, in authenticity and in honest relationships.

I am not sure to be able to identify the individual elements that brought us here, but I can try sharing my perspective. To me, Holacracy has been a weekly if not daily reminder of my personal shortcomings and challenges, of where there is room to improve, opportunity to let go, to investigate uninvestigated convictions and beliefs. All of which have triggered a journey of personal development of an intensity that I have been missing in recent years. I had forgotten what it means to work on myself and within myself. The shared journey we have been at together with the BSL team has brought this notion back into the center of my life and I feel much more connected to myself than I have felt in a while.

I had the chance to shed light into my shadows and I have jumped on the opportunity to use a coaching method to work with the most urgent thing I wanted to personally improve: my tendency to express frustration and impatience in an aggressive email. Six weeks later and rich in learning, I have understood that my deeply ingrained values have stood in my way causing this tension in me: one set of my values had to do with wanting to change the world – at all cost, including over-committing myself; another set of values related to me honoring my inner space and seeking deep connections with other. Looking at my shadow I saw how these two sets of values could end up cancelling each other out – creating distance with those I wanted and needed to work with in an attempt of changing the world, destroying exactly what I had wanted most: a deep connection. Sharing such learnings may surprise but by now I am entirely at ease of sharing this with my colleagues and with you. Holacracy opened up that space. This does not mean that everybody does or must share what is going on within themselves. There is full freedom to also share nothing, and some of us are happy with that, too.

9 months into our collective transformative journey, it feels a bit like the initial birthing process is completed. We have had at our last full day work session with Christiane, our Holacracy coach, and five members of our team are currently spending four days in Vienna taking part in a Holacracy practitioner training. We haven’t invested anything like this into our team and our development and I am sure both the coaching and the four team days as well as the training have done much to change our understanding of who we are together as a team.

A few months ago, some members have talked about lost trust and about the team spirit having gone away. We have very much struggled with the separation of work roles and personal soul space. It felt so artificial, so sterile, in the beginning. We didn’t know anymore what to do with our relationships, our culture, our ways of relating. It took months and months for us to slowly experience to what degree we have been mixing work and personal relationships, how we use relationships to get work done and how work issues stand in the way of seeing each other as persons. Some work issues didn’t get addressed because of personal relationships, some personal relationships suffered as a result of tensions related to work issues. I struggled so much with the projections of others, and I still don’t always feel that I am seen as just the person I am when I am having a cup of coffee or lunch with a colleague. Positions and titles and old hierarchy habits do still creep in. What I say still counts as more than it should and sometimes I think I need to go away for this to really dissolve. I had tried to shut up for three months and have since learned to frame what I say as “just an opinion” or “just a pitch” when I am not speaking from any role I am energizing. Yet, it takes more than me to change all of that. We all are required to bring so much courage and openness and vulnerability to work and we are maybe just now ready to start understanding what it takes in terms of safe spaces where we can expose our weaknesses and problems in the spirit of learning and developing forward. One step at a time.

To me, that one step at a time is clearly the best thing Holacracy brought to me. Rather than masterminding re-organization or strategy, or solving any complex issues, my biggest learning right now relates to trusting that one step at a time is all that is needed and the very likely best way to solve any complex issue. Steps in Holacracy are tensions and tensions are positive. That is learned by now and acquired. Yet, there is so much that lies still ahead of us. One of the future challenges is how to bring in our faculty and our students into a more self-organizing, power distributed organizations. Deliberately developmental company (DDC) is what they call places like ours; and we want to share such experiences with our students who come to BSL to learn about how to be responsible leaders in a fast evolving world. Organizing around purpose is one important element of that and it has brought a dynamic of innovation at BSL that was entirely unimaginable just 9 months ago. We have come a long way on our journey from static individual performers to an inter-connected agile organization in just 9 months. I am so grateful to my colleagues for this journey, after many lonely years, I feel that I have partners and peers again I can truly work, share, play and co-create with. And this is just the beginning!

Katrin Muff, PhD

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

 

First glimpse at Holacracy: shaking up work practices

So here is the news: we are exploring the Holacracy system with our administrative team here at Business School Lausanne. Yes, Holacracy. And yes, don’t worry if you don’t know what that means. It’s new to us too and it’s an experiment we’d like to share with you as we go about it.

The word “holacracy” comes from “holon” (a whole that is a part of a larger whole) and it thus means the connection between holons – and – the governance (-cracy) of and by the organizational holarchy.

In the context of organizational development, Holacracy is a different system for working together – one that encourages self-organization, power distribution and decision making in the best interest of the organizational purpose. The concept was invented by Brian Robertson, a 35-year-old former programmer who created Holacracy in 2007 because he had a “burning sense that there has to be a better way to work together.” (Read more in his book “Holacracy”).
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