This post builds on a previous post I wrote about self-leadership and here I will take you through an example of how team-level self-leadership (or self-organising teams) can be developed through a model called holacracy. I will share the experiences we have had so far in Dosh www.dosh.org in piloting this in 2020 and the benefits I have found it can bring.
Overall, the principle of self-organising teams is quite a broad one, with the overall goal being for the team to manage, arrange and lead its own work. This ultimately builds on the idea that in our dynamic and fast evolving world, we cannot rely on the traditional approach of everyone repeating the same monotonous tasks on autopilot whilst leaving the thinking to one designated leader or the organising to one manager. As I mentioned in my innovation post over a year ago, no one person has a monopoly on knowledge or talent, and we are stronger when we involve everyone in contributing to the direction of the team. In addition, hierarchies can become slow and stifle innovation as they create an approval lag that means the team has to wait for a decision to go up the chain and pass back down before they can do anything. It therefore removes decision-making from those with the information and ‘live’ experience who cannot respond quickly to changing circumstances and needs on the ground.
Taking these processes and hierarchies away can raise some alarm bells of course – how do you stop it descending into anarchy, with everyone doing what they like, no overall direction, risk management or business planning? What about the team members? How do you still support, train and develop them if everyone is doing it themselves? It may be quite a scary concept, not only for managers used to telling people what to do, but for team members used to the security of someone else making the decision so they can just show up and carry out the day job.
This is where models like holacracy become useful, through a gradual adoption process that avoids the cliff edge that might risk a collapse into anarchy. Holacracy is an organisational structure based on creating holons, or circles (teams). Members document all the roles they hold (not just one overall job) and write the purpose and accountabilities of each one. These roles are visible to all and they are constantly evolving through a bespoke meeting and organisational structure that allows everyone in the team to develop the roles in response to what they and the organisation needs.
Having documented roles makes them explicit, transparent and gives a clear scope of authority to each – it takes away much of the misunderstanding about who is responsible for what and helps roles work together from a clear starting point. The structure (through governance meetings) for processing changes ‘holds space’ for everyone and ensures they each have a voice, but is skewed towards making changes by using the test of ‘will it cause harm’ (that cannot later be reversed) as the bar for objecting to a change. Thus, most things are ‘safe to try’ and the team (or circle) is empowered to give things a go and take responsibility for making (and reviewing) changes that will better enable them to achieve their goals. The system distributes leadership and power across the organisation.
This is something we have trialled in Dosh in the last year, experimenting with the meeting formats and documenting the roles we fulfil. It has taken some adjustment but has brought a number of clear benefits:
- A ‘refresh’ of roles by creating accurate role descriptions that reflect what people actually do day-to-day – this is open for all to see and has allowed us to address misunderstandings and discuss where tasks and responsibilities should fall, led by the teams when they spot something that doesn’t fit, rather than dictated by the manager.
- Opening up team data through our regular tactical meetings. Teams are looking at how they are getting on at a team, not just individual, level, for example monitoring performance and capacity so that they can share workload across the team more effectively and be part of recruitment and work allocation decisions.
- A sense of shared responsibility has developed from this, so that they are aware of how they are doing (and the competitive ones can compare themselves to other teams!) and support each other if someone is struggling. If something is blocking them from working effectively, they have a forum and the authority to deal with it themselves.
- Pilot projects and new roles have emerged from these conversations, where the team have identified gaps – e.g. ‘we need a better way to quality check our own work’ and have implemented a peer checking project to try this out. Had this been introduced by management it might have appeared an imposition that creates extra work, or even a rebuke for poor practice, but as a team idea it developed into a tool for mutual support and development. This has strengthened our overall practice – showing again that many minds are better than one!
It has of course also brought its challenges, particularly the strange meeting format and terminology. People’s openness to the approach depends on where the team is in itself, so not all are ready to adopt at the same pace or with the same enthusiasm, but these obstacles can be overcome as we work on the system together, tailoring it to our own needs and developing it together so that everyone has a sense of ownership and control over our development. For me, the biggest thing is that it reinforces and supports our existing culture and leadership practice where we all work together to achieve our overall purpose. Whether your own team or organisation is already there, or this is somewhere you’d like to get to, exploring self-organising teams and holacracy might be the tool you need to find a turning point and build towards change.
Read more about Dosh’s leadership practice in Steve’s post here: https://leadershipintheraw.org/2014/09/25/leadership-the-dosh-way/
To learn more about holacracy, try this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBMH4HLilSE or read the founder’s book: Brian Robertson (2015) Holacracy : the revolutionary management system that abolishes hierarchy, London : Portfolio Penguin