Green Amigos Landscaping Tries Sociocracy

I began “Green Amigos Landscaping Tries Sociocracy” 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 to other people. “Where do you start?” was her question.

To help explain the problems that sociocracy addresses along with its solutions, I wrote “Green Amigos Tries Sociocracy.” The story is about a small landscaping company in which success brings three friends and a shovel to heartbreak and near bankruptcy. Just in time, a bartender tells them about a business fixer who stops in sometimes.

1: Happiness

Madison, Chris, and Tyler had been the Three Amigos since they started landscaping school together. When they graduated, they started a business together and called it Green Amigos. They made all their decisions over beer at the Blue Cactus or standing around their trucks in the morning. When they remembered, one or the other of them would gather up the bills and checks and take them over to their bookkeeper.

They worked so well together and were so happy digging in the dirt, that customers multiplied like weeds and the business grew quickly. Soon they had hired 20 new Amigos and formed work crews. The Three Amigos raced from one place to another to deliver supplies, plants, and equipment. It was soon chaos, so they hired a business manager, set up an office, and built a warehouse. It would be late in the day when they loaded their trucks and went home, often too tired to even think about the Blue Cactus. They rarely saw each other and no longer talked several times a day.

They figured one of them would be doing what that needed to be done, just like they always had. They were Amigos one and all, equals in life and work, doing what they loved. And now new Amigos would share their dream.

2: Unhappiness

Actually, not one of the Three Amigos was happy. None of them had time to plant a plant or design a garden. They supervised, ordered, or delivered. They drove a truck all day long.

When decisions had to be made, they scheduled a meeting at the office. They never had all the information they needed so they included the new Amigos to help sort everything out. The Three Amigos didn’t like meetings, and only half listened because they were worrying about everything that needed to be  planted or weeded before their customers went somewhere else. Meetings didn’t pay salaries. None of the Three Amigos understood exactly how much money they needed but they knew it was a lot.

One of the Three Amigos found a book on business at a library book sale. It said managing a business was like going to war. They had to take charge. Go to Battle!

The book said they should maximize profits by streamlining services and specializing. Some Amigos needed to care for exotic plants on site and leave maintaining lawns to others. They needed to focus on big accounts because they were less time-consuming than a lot of small accounts. The business would be more profitable if it hired twice the number of workers, even three times as many, and paid them less. They should hire skilled Managing Amigos to tell the unskilled Amigos what they needed to know. That was not how it worked in the business book.

The Three Amigos divided up the work and hired Managing Amigos. The Three Amigos told the Managing Amigos what to do. The Managing Amigos told the Amigos what to do. The Three Amigos, now feeling lost in a sea of Amigos, began calling themselves the Original Amigos and went back to making all the decisions themselves. They stopped visiting job sites to pay attention to the real business—making money. They stopped wearing dusty Levis and courted corporate clients over long lunches. They learned how to be comfortable in wine bars, the Blue Cactus an occasional memory.

When Amigos were sick or things didn’t go as planned, the Managing Amigos gave priority  to their big new clients and not their small long-term clients. When Green Amigos couldn’t pay its overhead, and some of the new Amigos were fired.

3: Disaster

At first, the Amigos worked as hard as they always had but everyday they just had to work harder. The Amigos didn’t believe the best Amigos had been chosen to be Managing Amigos and they resented being told what to do. The Managing Amigos were expected to produce results, but they had no control. The Original Amigos made all the decisions, but they didn’t know what was happening on site. Ideas from Amigos were now a bother because the Managing Amigos had deadlines to meet. Ideas from Managing Amigos were a bother because the Original Amigos only had time to court new contracts. Raising a problem was now complaining. Too many complaints and an Amigo was fired.

The Amigos no longer felt like Amigos. They were hired hands and dispensable. They missed work more often and only did what they were told. They began to leave as soon as they could find another job. Clients complained about sloppy work and incorrect billing. The Managing Amigos were over-whelmed and cranky.

The Original Amigos were miserable and they were also stuck.

They wanted to sell the business but their lawyer told them that they couldn’t. Green Amigos was all but bankrupt. Doubling the size of the business had quadrupled the size of their debt. There were too many shovels in the tool shed and not enough in the dirt.

4: Back to the Beginning

The Original Amigos left their lawyer’s office and went back to the Blue Cactus. As soon as they walked through the door and sat down on bar stools, they felt like the Three Amigos again—for a few minutes. As soon as they raised their beers to toast Green Amigos, reality returned. There was nothing to toast. After years of hard work and success, all the Three Amigos had a failing business. And not one of them had been in a garden in years.

They had lots of new Amigos but they didn’t even say good morning when they walked by. Firing them would still be hard.

When the bartender announced the last round, the Three Amigos were too depressed to order. The bartender delivered anyway. Then like a bartender who had been carefully not listening, he said, “You know, there’s a business fixer who comes in here sometimes.”

The bartender said he didn’t know what exactly what she did but she wore a seriously expensive suit, with a skirt. And high heels. That sounded good to the Amigos. The bartender gave them her card.

5: Back to the Dream

The next day the Three Amigos invited The Fixer to lunch and explained their faded dreams. She said their aim was clear enough and they were united on it. Not all her clients were so clear about what they wanted. The Three Amigos knew but had no idea how to manage a company to get it. She said she could start right away, as in now. The Three Amigos didn’t exactly race out the door but they were relieved. They all went to Green Amigos to look over the books. The next day the Fixer came back to talk to the work crews at work sites. In less than a week, she had a plan. “It isn’t too late to get back to your dream.”

The Three Amigos were optimistically skeptical.

The Fixer said, “You need to trust your employees. Define jobs and set realistic expectations. Pull together a team of experts. Write a one-year plan and a five-year plan. Take those to the bank to refinance your debt. Put your banker and your lawyer on your team of experts. That’s the direction I recommend and the path I will help you follow.”

She paused. They had discussed her fees and they had signed a contract but she wanted a real go ahead, a personal commitment. All Three Amigos nodded, trusting but not really understanding.

The Fixer put a rather large organizational chart on the table. The Three Amigos hearts sank. It looked too much like the one they had copied from the business book, but instead of boxes there were overlapping circles and most of them were green. One circle was marked “team of experts”. She said, “That’s your team of experts. We’ll talk more about them later.”

She pointed to the circle in the middle. “You need a Coordinating Amigos Team. The Managing Amigos need to talk to each other. They need to support each other and have ongoing discussions so they know what problems the other departments are having and what they are planning.

“All these green circles represent Work Crews. The Managing Team creates new Work Crews, chooses their Managing Amigo, assigns their aim, and allocates their budget. Then the Work Crews and their Managing Amigo are responsible for their daily work. They know what needs to be done and they have control. No need to wait for orders. No need for anyone else to tell them how to get their work done. Their representatives to the Coordinating Circle will report and be told of any problems affecting other teams. ”

The Three Amigos remembered what it was like when they worked as a crew. The freedom and immediacy of doing what needed to be done. And the way it was in the beginning then they hired the first six Amigos to help them. This sounded good but they were so big now. Would it work? Could they trust all the Amigos?

6: Consenting Amigos

“Trusting your Amigos trusting their feelings about their work. When you started, any one of you  could raise a concern before anyone went ahead. When you hired the first new Amigos, you still checked to be sure you had their consent—did they think it was a good idea. Was it something they could do? Not everyone was involved in every decision but when a decision affected an Amigo’s work, you didn’t impose it. You worked something out. That’s the power of consent and that’s what you need to get back to if you want Amigos to be Amigos like they were then.”

“Remember standing around your trucks? You loved your work because you loved gardens, but you wanted your own company because you wanted control. You wanted to do the work the best way possible. To do that you had to have the right to raise concerns and have them resolved, or conversely the right to consent. Somewhere in the middle that got lost. You forgot your aim. You have to keep your eyes on the prize.”

The Fixer let them think a minute and then continued. “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. You can relax about that.”

The Three Amigos perked up. Green Amigos was running some days with 20% of their work force out each week. That meant they had to hire 20% more workers than they needed just to cover for sick days. Or hire temporary workers who understood nothing about the work needed. The cost of health insurance was rising rapidly, mostly because of claims for real or imagined back injuries.

As if she had read their minds, The Fixer continued without waiting for a comment. “The power of consent will have far-reaching changes in your company. Amigos won’t be able to hide behind bad decisions by managers. In fact the power of consent extends to assigning tasks and making budget allocations. Just like the Three Amigos did in the beginning, the Work Crew decides who is responsible for what and how money is spent. If an Amigo has information about a problem or an opportunity, they are obligated to speak up. When an Amigo objects, Amigos will have to listen. An Amigo is an Amigo.

“When Amigos are proud of their work, they are healthier, work harder, and produce more consistent quality.”

So far so good, the Three Amigos thought.

7: Amigos With an Aim

“Work Crews are groups of Amigos who share a common aim—maintenance, planting, designing, sales, etc.. Each Work Crew decides how its work will be organized to achieve its aim—just like you did when there were only three of you. When the company began to grow, however, you didn’t assign new aims to yourselves or to the non-gardening crews. When you left the gardening work and began running business operations, you didn’t have clear aims. When you decided to build a warehouse, you weren’t clear on the aim for it. It became a storage shed instead of a staging area or the hub of a smart purchasing program.

“The aim defines what a Work Crew is expected to produce. It has to be measurable. ‘To do good work’ isn’t tangible enough. An aim has to clearly define what a client can expect at the end of the day from this Work Crew. Each worker needs to be focused on the aim.

“Members of Work Crews are interdependent. They have an unusual amount of  control over their work, and an equal measure of responsibility. They will decide who they will hire and what tools they need to buy. They will control their own budget.

“Work Crews have meetings to decide how their work will be done. They can be on lunch breaks on site or in the truck driving back to the warehouse or in the office before work. It doesn’t matter. It can be a stand up meeting. But in these meetings, all Amigos are peers, including the Managing Amigo. Each Amigo takes responsibility for the Crew’s success as well as for their own. They are responsible to each other. A malingering co-worker will affect the Work Crew’s ability to achieve those goals. Amigos know when an Amigo is being honest.

“Work crews need enough independence so they can self-manage, not sit around waiting for orders. They are also expected to educate themselves about best practices and new discoveries.

That felt like a load off their shoulders. Each work crew could do what the Three Amigos used to do themselves. And the Managing Circle could still keep things under control. The experts in the Top Circle could keep them from getting into a hole again. And help them get out. And everyone could listen to each other and not waiting for orders, which honestly the Three Amigos often didn’t know how to give anyway.

“When you are not sure what to do, think back to what worked so well for you in the beginning. You were clear about what you wanted to do, your aim, and you figured out together how to do it. You have a lot of success to learn from. Don’t forget that.”

The faces of the Three Amigos brightened and they stood a little taller.

8: Amigos Communicating

The Fixer continued: “What went wrong is that you stopped communicating across organization and adopted an autocratic structure in which you made all the decisions from the top. It’s impossible to make all decisions from the top of a pyramid, and even if you could they certainly won’t be good ones. Not enough information makes it up from the bottom and you would be overwhelmed by it anyway. It seems easier to tell people what to do and expect them to do it, but as you discovered, it doesn’t work.

“The Managing Circle is not an autocratic order giving body. It’s the center of communications. It brings together information from all the Green Circles so they can coördinate their aims and directions. When decisions are delegated, they aren’t abdicated. The Managing Circle overlaps all the Green Circles so they are making decisions together and measuring progress in terms of the progress of all the circles. Without this communications hub, the Work Crews could become isolated and distanced from the aim of the company.

The Fixer pointed to the area on the organizational map where the circles of the Managing Team and the Work Crews overlapped. “In addition to the Managing Amigos, each Work Crew chooses a member to join the Managing Team. The Managing and the Representing Amigo are full members of both circles.

“Having two links between a Work Crew and the Managing Team establishes two flows of communication. The Representing Amigo is responsible for carrying information from the Work Crew to the Managing Team, and the Managing Amigo from the Managing Team to the Work Crew. Each one has clear communications responsibilities. This avoids the tension that causes static when one person has to carry messages in two directions. Often one or the other gets mangled.

The Fixer paused for the Three Amigos to ask questions but they had none. Or none that they could verbalize.

9: Who is in Charge?

The Three Amigos were actually getting anxious about everyone except them making decisions. The Fixer had fixed everyone but the Three Amigos. They were the Three Original Amigos. This was their company! They were nowhere to be seen on the organizational chart.

“What about us? Do we fit in?”

The Fixer said, ” You need to decide which jobs you want. The Managing Amigos decide which work crew goes where and how many rakes they need and which job doesn’t get done when Amigos get sick or it’s pouring rain, just like they do now.  You might want to be a Managing Amigo.

“You’ll need a General Managing Amigo. Only one. You could split the job, but I think your business needs one person organize the day-to-day operations. 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 now empty, a wasted investment. You started an internship program with the University but no one called them back the last time they asked for applications. What about leading those programs?”

The Three Amigos brightened up a bit but were non-committal.

“I don’t think any of you wants to be the General Manager because that’s a job that has needed doing and none of you have done it.”

An implied criticism, but they couldn’t disagree. At least there were other important jobs. And someone could be in charge instead of one of them for a change.

The Fixer 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 plan. You need expert advice. What will your world be like in five-years? How can you plan for that? Who does research and development?

She pointed to a circle overlapping the Managing Team. This is your Board of Experts. Your lawyer, accountant, Exotic Plant Expert, community leaders — all the people who can help you run the business. As members of  your Board, they are part of  your business. The synergy of discussion between all of them is better than just asking questions in isolation. The Board also includes the General Managing Amigo and a member of the Managing Team that represents the Amigos.

10: New Beginnings

The Fixer taught all the Amigos how to self-organize, to manage themselves. 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. Billing complaints plummeted and past-due accounts were paid. Work Crews submitted some suggestions for improved scheduling for the Managing Team to consider.

Work Crews, not the office, kept records of their work and measured their own productivity. Amigos were beginning to understand that keeping records was a way of improving their work, not to avoid being fired, and the records belonged to the Work Crews, 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 as a business. Everyone was invested in its financial success.

Financial records were open to both Amigos and customers. There were no secrets to make anyone suspicious. Everyone was responsible for understanding how the business ran—when it was successful and where it failed.

One of the Three Amigos became the General Managing Amigo and the other two organized new Work Crews for special projects –– jobs they really wanted to do: the Exotic Plant Program and Internship Program. The Three Amigos still owned the company, but that didn’t mean they had to be bosses. That’s not why they started the business in the first place.

11: Sailing Along

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.

A Circle Meeting at Endenburg Elektrotechniek
A Circle Meeting at Endenburg Elektrotechniek

The Managing Amigos learned to participate in Work Crew meetings and not take over the discussion. They were day-to-day operational leaders but in Work Crew meetings they were peers.

The General Manager, learned to organize her work and plan, 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 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 Three 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. They were fixed.

But it did. As the Fixer had known all along, the happy days lasted only a matter of months. What went wrong?

12: Into the Wind

The Three Amigos were too proud to ask The Fixer to come back officially so they stopped by the Blue Cactus hoping she would be there. They had to go back three nights in a row before she appeared. Over beer they eventually got around to explaining that her ideas were good but their Amigos were different. They didn’t want to make decisions and wanted the Managing Amigos to just tell them what to do. The Fixer listened but the Three Amigos could see that she already known what they were going to say. This time she didn’t even walk around the shop or interview anyone. She just laid it right out.

“Expecting everyone to make decisions requires changing the culture of dependence. The Amigos want to rely on managers because then they can blame managers. Changing that, even when people want to change takes more than a few days training and an organizational chart. Living as equals means everyone has to step up and allow each other to fail. Each Amigo has to realize that if they aren’t perfect, their Work Crew won’t fire them but will help them improve.”

The Three Amigos realized that it had been hard for them to share decisions. They were probably sending signals that in the end they knew best.

The Three Amigos invited the Fixer to meet with their Board. The Fixer explained that all the Amigos had to learn not just a new way of making decisions, but a new way of relating to each other. It was a new culture focused on everyone being committed to the aim, to the success of Green Amigos and beautiful gardens. Each person having a part in a large system of interacting pieces.

The Fixer said, “They have just been sent to China and want to go home.”

Even the Three Amigos nodded their heads at that.

“What you need is a Training Team to work with your Amigos on an ongoing basis.” The Board agreed.

 The Fixer helped them set up a Training Crew with Amigos selected by their Work Crews. They repeated the first training with The Fixer and met with her once a week to discuss problems and ways of addressing them.

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 up from the Work Crews to the Managing Team and the Board, as well as down. That would keep the organization balanced and prevent autocratic decision-making.

Picture of a ForestThe turning point came when a Work Crew saw the first evidence of an area-wide tree blight—strange markings on leaves that they couldn’t identify. The Green Amigos five-year plan called for developing a tree farm, but with a tree blight the trees might be wiped out before anyone could identify the disease. The Amigos weren’t confident enough to tell the Managing Team what they suspected and feared what would happen to them if  the company took a big loss. What if they were wrong and the information damaged the company’s reputation?

The Training Team’s major task was to help the Amigos design a development program that included personal skills so they would feel more confident when speaking up and when representing their Amigos in the Managing Team and even the Board. They were all taught to read the financial reports, at least well enough to understand their Work Crew budgets and the numbers behind their variable compensation, the part of their salary based on the company’s earnings.

Green Amigos was very quickly back on track. And the company did plant the tree farms with no losses. The same Work Crew that first spotted the disease also discovered a key characteristic and pointed it out to an intern from the University. The intern took it back to the lab to show her professor who developed a treatment and gave it to Green Amigos to test. It worked and made Green Amigos famous.

All the Amigos on the Work Crews now had evidence that they were the strength of the company. It was no longer a problem to find an Amigo to be a Representative to  the Managing Team, or even the Board. And no one considered withholding possibly negative information.

All the Amigos were once again just Amigos.


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