Green Amigos: How the Circle-archy Works, or Having Fun in Business Again
I began writing “Green Amigos” when Ted Millich sent an email explaining that Frances Moore Lappe of the Small Planet Institute had loved We the People but was having trouble explaining sociocracy and dynamic governance to other people. Where do you start?
“Green Amigos” is a story about a small landscaping company in which success brings three friends and a shovel to heartbreak and near bankruptcy. But just in time, a bartender tells them about a mysterious woman in a suit who saves their business and restores the harmonious relationships they had when Green Amigos was new. How? And will it last?
Please enjoy, and leave a comment to share your own experiences and make suggestions for improvements. Stories are always developing.
Chapter 1: Happiness
Madison, Chris, and Tyler had been the “Three Amigos” since they started landscaping school together so when they graduated, naturally, they named their new business “Green Amigos.” The three of them operated by making decisions over beer after work or standing around their trucks in the morning, deciding who would buy what, scheduling the jobs, and choosing their helpers. One or the other would gather up all the bills and checks and take them over to their bookkeeper they had time. They talked to each other several times a day. Since there wasn’t anything about the business that they all didn’t know, they could back each other up when someone was sick or schedules clashed.
They worked so well together and were so happy digging in the green stuff, that customers multiplied like weeds and the business grew quickly. Soon they had hired 20 new Amigos who worked in teams at dozens of job sites. All day long the Amigos were now going from one work site to another to pick up and deliver supplies, plants, and equipment. They were never in the same place at the same time and it was late by the time they got all their equipment in the trucks. They now had an office and a warehouse and a business manager. No one knew everything anymore, but they figured that someone was taking care of everything that needed care. It always had been.
They were still Amigos one and all, equals in life and work. And now they had 20 more Amigos who shared their dream.
Chapter 2: Unhappiness
But really, not one of the original three Amigos was happy any more. None of them had time to actually plant a plant or design a garden. They were too busy supervising the other Amigos or buying and delivering stuff.
When decisions had to be made, they either made them on the run or scheduled a meeting. The Amigos sat in meetings only half paying attention because they didn’t like meetings in the first place and in the second they knew there was something else that needed to be done. They never seemed to have all the information they needed to make decisions so they had to include lots of Amigos in meetings in order to sort everything out. That meant nothing was getting planted or weeded. That meant for every hour of the meeting there was no money coming in. They didn’t know how much money that was, but a lot.
The three Amigos rose to the challenge and consulted a book on business. It said the business would be very profitable if it hired twice the number of workers, even three times as many. They should maximize profits from their good reputation by streamlining services and specializing. They needed to focus on big accounts because they were less time-consuming that a lot of small accounts. They needed a chain of command; managing a business was like going to war. They had to take charge.
The three Amigos divided the business into departments with a Managing Amigo in each group. They began calling themselves the Original Amigos and went back to making all the decisions themselves, most often after long lunches with potential corporate clients. They no longer even visited job sites and wore fashionable clothes suitable for lunches with corporate clients and wine bars. Beer was out. And they were miserable.
At first, all the Amigos worked as hard as they had before. The Managing Amigos told them what to do and then the Managing Amigos met with the three Original Amigos who told them what to do.
Jobs became so specialized that some people were caring for exotic plants on site while others were maintaining lawns. Some were doing marketing and negotiating contracts. None of the Amigos were given time to educate themselves about new techniques and products because that was not in the business book. Work for long-time clients was not completed because everyone had to race over to a big job when other Amigos were sick or things didn’t go as planned––which they increasingly didn’t. Failing on a big job meant a lost contract and that meant people could be fired.
The Managing Amigos became more frustrated because everyone wanted something from them but they had no control. There were jobs that had to be done, or else! Not all the Amigos believed that the best Amigo had been chosen to be a manager and they resented being told what to do. Ideas from Amigos were now a bother because the Managing Amigos had deadlines to meet. Amigos’ information about problems doing their work were now “complaints.” Too many complaints and the Amigo would be fired.
The Amigos begin to feel like hired hands and not Amigos. They missed work more often, did only what they were told, and no longer took pride in their work. They began to leave when ever another job came along. Clients begin to complain about sloppy work and incorrect billing. The Managing Amigos were even more over-whelmed.
The Original Amigos decided to sell the business.
But they couldn’t. Green Amigos was all but bankrupt. There were too many shovels in the tool shed and not enough in the gardens.
Chapter 3: Magic!
After years of hard work and success, all the three Amigos had left was a failing business. They had started Green Amigos, became friends even, because they loved gardens. Not one of them had been in a garden in months. They had hired other Amigos who loved gardens, but Amigo meetings were now about working conditions and unpaid bills and missing equipment. Even missing plants. Nothing about gardens.
The business was too bad to sell and it couldn’t close. The Amigos had borrowed too much money to buy new equipment in order to hire all those new Amigos who didn’t even say good morning when they walked by. Doubling the size of the business and quadrupled the size of their debt. The three Amigos went to the Blue Cactus, where it all started, to have a beer and decide how to start firing their Amigos.
When the bartender announced the last round, they still hadn’t made any decisions. They were too depressed to order, but the bartender delivered anyway and said, “There’s a business fixer who comes in here sometimes.” The Amigos had no idea what a business fixer was. The bartender said he didn’t either but she wore a suit, one with a skirt. And high heels. That sounded serious to the Amigos. What could they lose? The bartender gave them her card.
The next day they invited the fixer to lunch and explained their faded dreams. She went back with them to Green Amigos to start looking over the company and talking to the other Amigos. In less than a week, she had a plan. “Go back to your dream. You were doing it right.”
The three Amigos were skeptical. They remembered those long meetings with all the Amigos in the small office trying to make decisions. Even with donuts, they were exhausting. And the company was many times larger now. But they listened; they had nothing to lose.
She said you have to trust your employees. You hired them because they were competent—work out reasonable expectations and let them do their jobs. If you want to be more involved in the day-to-day work in the gardens, hire a general manager and get back in the gardens. Each of you join a department or find a job that you like. Be Amigos again.
Then she put a big chart on the table. Their hearts sank because it looked just like the organizational chart they had copied from the business book, except they had put all three of themselves at the top. She had put only one Amigo at the top, then a middle layer of Managing Amigos, and clusters of Amigos at the bottom. Each group of Amigos was encased in a circle. And the circles overlapped. And they were green.
“You still have Managing Amigos who lead the work crews on a day-to-day basis. They decide which crew goes where and how many rakes they need and which job doesn’t get done when Amigos get sick at the last minute.
“But the work crews decide together how the work will be organized, just like the original three Amigos did. These green circles are all Circle of Amigos who work in the gardens, the green houses, or the offices. They also help choose their bosses, their Managing Amigos. They have the most to gain from choosing the best Amigo for the job. The Circle of Amigos also decides who they will hire and what tools they need. How they spend their budgets. These are “policy decisions” and the Amigos make policy decisions by consent. Each Amigo has to consider if they can work well with the policy or if there is a problem that will affect their work. When workers can control their own working conditions, about 80% fewer Amigos will call in sick and they won’t be quitting all the time. Less turn-over. You can relax about that.
“Each Circle of Amigos takes responsibility for their work. They set their own standards and goals, individually and as a group. They have to educate themselves about best practices and new discoveries. And they have to listen to each of their Amigos when they raise an objections that a particular decision will prevent them from doing their best work. An Amigo is an Amigo, and in every planning meeting all Amigos are equal. Each Amigo takes responsibility for the team’s success as well as for their own.”
“When you started your business you were one big Circle of Amigos. Happy and everyone equal. But you couldn’t delegate decisions very well. And there wasn’t enough specialization to expand into new areas. Amigos were busy, but no one was in control so a lot of work was wasted — done wrong or not done at all. A lot of time was spent trying to find out who needed what. No one knew until the next meeting what was going on. Communications took too much of your time and lack of communications lost you both money and good will with both your clients and your Amigos.
“Then you swung over to a traditional autocratic structure to get control over your day-to-day operations. Managing Amigos were put in charge and expected to decide everything — not just operations but policy decisions too. If something wasn’t working, you gave the Managing Amigos even more power. The more decisions that were made by the managers, the worse those decisions became because one person can’t know everything.
“You need your happy Green Amigo Circles back. But you need small circles that are independent so they can manage their own work, not sit around waiting for orders. They also need to communicate well and help each other make decisions. She pointed to the area where the Green Amigo Circles overlapped with a big circle called the General Management Circle. In this circle the Managing Amigos and an Amigo elected by each Green Circle meet to make decisions about the larger budget, how much money can be given to the Green Circles, how many new Amigos are needed and can be hired, whether they need new Green Circles. The Managing Amigos and the Elected Amigos make these decisions together, as equals.”
The three Amigos were getting anxious about this talk about everyone but them making decisions and happily working together.
There seemed to be nothing left for them to do unless they all wanted to become Managing Amigos or go back to daily gardening. After being away from daily gardening and working on big plans, they weren’t sure that was what they wanted after all.
“But what about us.We are the Original Amigos. Do we fit in?”
Do they? Where?
Chapter 4: More Magic?
The Fixer had fixed everyone but the Three Amigos. They were the Three Original Amigos. This was their company! They were no where to be seen on the organizational chart. Happiness had turned to Magic and now to Exclusion!
She pointed to the chart again. “You have to have leadership that focuses on the big picture. The day-to-day isn’t enough. You can’t have a sustainable organization without a strategic plan. You need expert advice. You need a view of the world that is bigger than your day-to-day operations. What will your world be like in five-years? How can you plan for that.
And who leads your Managing Amigos?
The Amigos noticed now that the Green Circles overlapped and were stacked on top of each other to form a pyramid. The Fixer pointed to the top of the pyramid, the top circle. This is your board, your Top Circle. This is where your lawyer, your accountant, your Exotic Plant Expert, your community contacts — all people who can help you run the business. They serve on your board as part of your business. That way they talk to each other and feel more responsibility for your business.
“The synergy of discussion between them is better than just asking questions in isolation. What connects the Amigos to the Board is the General Managing Amigo and a member of the General Managing Circle who is elected by the members of the circle to represent them.
“The General Managing Amigo is the CEO.” And then she said, “And only one of you should be the General Manager. You could split the job, but I think your business needs the experience of having one person organize the day-to-day operations and the communications. There are other jobs that need doing that are as important as being General Manager. You started developing an exotic plant business but that greenhouse is empty. You started an internship program with the University but no one called them back the last time they asked for applications. What about those jobs?”
The Fixer paused to take a breath and the Original Amigos relaxed. There were a lot of important jobs.
They were believers and the fixer began doing training with the Circles of Amigos. The pieces were all there, she said. It would just take a little getting used to.
Within a month, everyone was whistling and showing up for work everyday, and often staying late when their work wasn’t finished. The billing office no longer looked like a whirlwind of paper no one knew what to do with — complaints plummeted and past-due accounts were paid.
Circles of Amigos kept records and measured their productivity, not so they wouldn’t be fired but so they could improve their work. The records belonged to the Circle of Amigos, not to the Managing Amigo. Part of each Amigo’s pay was linked to the financial success of the company. Even the high school students who came each afternoon to do odd jobs were paid two wages, one at market rates and one that varied based on the success of Green Amigos. The variable wage was paid seasonally and annually. Financial records were open to both Amigos and customers. Everyone was invested in financial success of Green Amigos. There were no secrets to make anyone suspicious. And everyone was responsible for understanding how the business ran. Why it was successful and where it failed.
One of the Original Amigo became General Managing Amigo and the other two organized new Circles to work on their special projects –– jobs they really wanted to do. They still owned the company, but that didn’t mean they had to be a Top Managing Amigo or even a Managing Amigo. That’s not why they started the business in the first place.
Chapter 5: Finally Sustainable
It was hard for many Amigos to assume full responsibility for their own work, particularly to plan, but gradually they began to act and feel like equals, speaking up more, even objecting. With encouragement they began educating themselves and studying methods for making their work more efficient and effective.
The Managing Amigos learned to sit in Circle meetings and not take over the discussion. They could lead on a daily basis but in Circle meetings it was everyone’s responsibility to plan and make decisions.
The Top Amigo, the General Managing Amigo, learned to organize her work and plan ahead, consulting members of the Board when she had questions. She learned how to keep everyone informed and to double-check that the information was being passed on. She learned how to read the financial reports and not leave them to the accountant.
Everything was orderly and everyone understood their jobs. Decisions were made by everyone in their Circles, on time, and with dates on which they needed to be reviewed. Confidence was high. Sick days were down. There had been no Amigo turnover since the Fixer started fixing. Green Amigos was once again a company that was alive from top to bottom and bottom to top, as profitable and efficient as it wished to be.
After the first few training sessions the Green Amigos thought everything was perfect and they could get along without the Fixer. She was gone as quickly as she came, but she said on her way out, as she left her card on the desk, “Call me when it gets tough again.” Of course the Amigos knew it wouldn’t.
But it did. As the Fixer had known all along, the happy days lasted only a matter of months. What went wrong?
The Fixer explained on her first day back. Changing a culture is hard. Working in a consensus environment is hard for the people who are used to making all the decisions but it is even harder for people who are not used to making any. Living as equals means everyone is responsible. Everyone has to step up. They have to learn to trust each other and allow each other to fail. To realize that their Circle of Amigos won’t throw them out if they aren’t perfect, but will expect them to improve.
The Managing Amigos had to be more directive in day-to-day operations, to take more responsibility without orders from above. They had to rely on their Circle of Amigos to guide them, not their bosses. The organization had to work from the bottom up, not just the top down. It was a hierarchy, but it was a circular hierarchy. The energy had to flow around and around. The dynamics depended on good feedback in every direction. Feedback loops were essential. That was what would keep the organization balanced and prevent autocratic and blind decision-making.
The Amigo Circles had to speak up when the Board made a bad decision in a five-year plan when the Amigos had information the Board didn’t have. The Amigos were seeing the first evidence of an area wide blight on trees — strange leaves. It wasn’t the right time to start planting forests counting on a future business in tree farming. The forests might be wiped out before anyone even realized there was a danger building. But the Amigos didn’t feel confident enough to tell anyone what they suspected.
The Fixer helped the Board, the Managing Amigos, and the Amigos themselves design an Amigo Development Program that included more than education about their jobs. It included personal skills that helped them feel more confident in speaking up and willing to be elected to serve in the Managing Circle and even in the Top Circle, the Board. They were all taught to read the financial reports, at least well enough to understand their Circle Budgets and the numbers behind their variable compensation, the part of their salary based on the company’s earnings.
All the Amigos learned a lesson. Things change and Amigos had to grow with the changes. The key to a dynamic business was the information they could get from analyzing their own experience in their Amigo Operations Circles as well as listening to their experts in the Top Circle.
Green Amigos did plant the tree farms — after their tree-trimming Amigo discovered the key to the disease and pointed it out to the intern from the graduate program at the University who took it to the lab to show her professor who discovered a cure and gave it to the Amigo to test.
Credit: Free photos from acobox.com
Originally written in August 2009. Edited and extended in 2011. “Circle-archy” and subtitle added in February 2012.