Tag Archives: Self-Organization

Self-organization in sociocracy refers to circles as dynamic systems that can adapt to their environment and generate new systems. As part of a dynamic self-organizing system, the circle is formed by other circles, forms itself, and forms other circles.

Self-Management at Zappos

Zappos Logo Several articles have appeared in the last month or so on the implementation of  self-management at Zappos. After having adopted Holacracy, which is based on the principles of sociocracy, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, sent a memo on 24 March 2015 to employees offering three months of salary to any employee who would read a book on Holacracy and quit if they were still not happy in an organization based on self-management.

It was a long complex memo, and not a simple command to “self-organize or leave” as it has been portrayed. Hsieh said:

Our main objective is not just to do Holacracy well, but to make Zappos a fully self-organized, self-managed organization by combining a variety of different tools and processes.

The full email/memo is on the Quartz site.

Zappos has regularly paid new employees if they decided the new job wasn’t for them and quit in the first month or so. But for this offer 14% of Zappos employees, 210 people, quit. Undoubtedly many were planning to leave for other reasons,  like the move in 2013 to downtown Las Vegas. This was just a convenient time to leave. Thus far there hasn’t been an analysis published on why the employees left. It may well have been poor implementation and confusion, not the expectations to self-manage and self-organize.

And we also don’t know why the 86% of Zappos employees stayed. It may also have nothing to do with liking the new system.

Why Self-Organizing and Self-Management Are So Hard

Why Self-Organizing is So Hard is a blog post by Bud Caddell, a founding member of the NOBL Collective. NOBL is a consulting network that works with organizations to empower “the creativity and capability required for a world of constant change.” They work to “to re-align teams, refocus products, and re-imagine work for the 21st century.” Caddell has worked in an organization using Holacracy and NOBL uses elements of sociocracy, Holacracy, and other self-governing methods in their work.

 

Caddell’s analysis compares Holacracy to a game of Dungeons and Dragons:

Holacracy, itself, is too complex, dogmatic, and rigid. It feels like playing a game of Management Dungeons and Dragons. Everything you already understand about working in teams is reinvented with confusing language (e.g. circles, tensions, IDM, etc.) and a confusing process. Because of this frustration, some companies are trying to pioneer a cognitively slimmed down version. Blinkist, for example, calls theirs Holacracy Lite.

The same can be said of sociocracy when people begin emphasizing structure before purpose, playing the language card—go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200—when someone says agree instead of consent. Or insisting on the distinction between a top circle and a board of directors. It diverts the emphasis from “a more humane way of organizing” to “the right  way.” As if the right language will produce accomplishment of the purpose.

Unless the right word means the accurate and commonly understood word that conveys meaning naturally, it is an impediment to those who are trying to get their work done.

Too often, right means “our word or your word but only in the way we define it.”

Ordered or Programmed?

It’s a thin line between order and homogenization.

An organization isn’t an operating system. It is like an operating system in that all the parts need to work together without conflict so they all contribute to  achieving the same purpose. That doesn’t make people plug-ins for a software program. A big difference.

The Place to Start

Caddell has four recommendations for the implementation of   governance methods based on self-organization:

  1. Focus on self-management first.
  2. Adapt your own model.
  3. Dedicate a Complexity Reduction Officer (CRO).
  4. Tell more human stories.

The last recommendation is a nice one. In the articles on Hsieh’s so-called command to self-organize and the people who left, there are no personal stories from the people who left and those who stayed. Maybe that comes next.

More articles related to self-organization and management:

Internal Memo: Zappos is offering severance to employees who aren’t all in with Holacracy by Aimee Groth on the Quartz website. Includes the full text of the memo asking that employees “take 30 minutes” to read it.

Inside Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s radical management experiment that prompted 14% of employees to quit by Richard Feloni on the Business Insider UK website. A history of Zappos unique company culture which is atypical to say the least, and the story of its adoption of Holacracy. A long article on the historical context of Hsieh’s leadership.

Is Holacracy Succeeding At Zappos? by Steve Denning on the Forbes  website. An excellent discussion of the contradictions in the implementation of Holacracy given the difficult language of the constitution and the many, sometimes contradictory premises. One being the ability of the CEO to take back his power as a CEO Includes links to several other articles.

At Zappos, Banishing the Bosses Brings Confusion by Rachel Emma Silverman on the Wall Street Journal website. I wasn’t able to read this because I don’t have a subscription but it begins with a story from the personal experience of an employee at Zappos so it may be promising. (With all my software programs and online journals going to monthly subscriptions, my budget is blowing in the wind.)

Collaborative Governance

I’ve been looking for a new description for Sociocracy.info and have tried several. In reading recent posts on [email protected] and sociocracy-related websites, I found the word collaborative used the most often to describe sociocracy and, perhaps more importantly,  to be used consistently with the same meaning:

Collaboration is working with others to achieve a common task and to achieve shared goals. It is more than the intersection of common goals found in co-operative organizations.

Why Not Consent?

The word consent is used by many to describe sociocracy but I haven’t found that people are attracted to it. Some because they don’t know what it means outside of a marriage ceremony, and others because they are afraid of it. They envision long meetings and months of discussion. However fundamental consent is in creating a sociocratic organization only those already familiar with consensus decision-making seem comfortable with it and many of them also want to avoid it.

Consent also doesn’t convey the feeling of a group, of a socius, of a society. It’s singular. I may want my singular rights but a sociocracy isn’t a singular. It is singulars working together, moving in the same direction, accomplishing shared aims. Sociocracy is a set of values, principles, and practices that help people do that.

Collaborative as a word has positive connotations* and without doing a statistical study is desirable to most people—if they also desire to be members of organizations. Not everyone does, particularly in their personal lives.

Collaborative Governance, Not Organization?

Using the word governance provides an opportunity to discuss the meaning of governing, of steering. People generally do not understand what “governance” means. They think it means “government.” Before a sociocracy can be created, the  concept of governance must be understood.

While sociocracy is also a method of organizing, the organization is the result, not the aim. What sociocracy does is establish a communications and decision-making structure that can steer an organization so that it accomplishes its aim. That is governance: an ongoing stable structure of relationships between people who self-organize and maintain communications and control in order for an organization to be most effective.

Collaborative organizations are inherently self-organizing. Each person, as an equal, also has to be a leader. Sociocracy is based on a set of values and can be discussed philosophically, but it is about steering and effectiveness, not just organizing.

Sociocracy will make the most impact when governance and leadership are understood.

*The one negative meaning associated with collaboration arises when a person aids an occupying enemy and betrays their own people is called a “collaborator.” Collaborators, however, work as equals and have shared aims. Wartime “collaborators” were not equals and were often treated as inhumanely as their fellow citizens. They sometimes “collaborated” in  fear of threats to harm family members, for example.

In collaborative organizations, people are rarely called “collaborators.” They are said “to collaborate” in “collaborative organizations.”

Yves Morieux: Smart Simplicity

Yves Morieux speaking on stage.A wonderful discovery today, “As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify,” a TED Talk by Yves Morieux. Morieux is a senior partner in the Washington DC office of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG)  and director of the BCG Institute for Organization. He studies how changes in structure can improve motivation for employees.

“Smart Simplicity” uses six key rules that encourage cooperation to solve long-term problems. Not by just reducing costs and increasing profit, but also by maximizing engagement in all levels of the organization.

The focus of Morieux’s work is very compatible with sociocracy. He stresses collaboration over rule-making, self-organization over central authority,  and effective action over complex, multi-layered planning.

A 350˚ Increase in Complexity

In his TED Talk, Morieux first critiques the increasingly complex designs for business plans that might have 5 headings with 25 subheadings under each one, resulting in 125 cogent topics, each with numerous subcategories. Combined with an equally complicated workflow and organizational structure chart, it produces a brilliant, mind-numbing, and wholly unimplementable plan. Impressive in good graphics but hopeless in practice.

The need for an emphasis on smart simplicity is supported by a study done by BCG that reported:

We’ve created an “index of complicatedness,” based on surveys of more than 100 U.S. and European listed companies, which measures just how big the problem is.The survey results show that over the past 15 years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed in each of those firms has increased by anywhere from 50% to 350%.

A wonderful part of the video is when he recites an example of such business plans with their myriad of meaningless words. He has the memorization skills of an actor and the facility of a professional fast talker so he got himself through it without notes and within 12 minutes. If he had a teleprompter, speaking that fast would have burned out its circuits.

Feedback Loops & Decentralization

Morieux emphasizes that self-organization is dependent on feedback loops to make decentralization work. In a Harvard Business Review article from 2011, he says:

There are six smart rules. The first three involve enabling—providing the information needed to understand where the problems are and empowering the right people to make good choices. The second three involve impelling—motivating people to apply all their abilities and to cooperate, thanks to feedback loops that expose them as directly as possible to the consequences of their actions. The idea is to make finding solutions to complex performance requirements far more attractive than disengagement, ducking cooperation, or finger-pointing. When the right feedback loops are in place, cumbersome alignment mechanisms, ranging from compliance metrics to the proliferation of committees—can be eliminated, along with their costs, and employees find solutions that create more value.

This is has been an important point for theories of circular organization since the 1970s and for understanding sociocracy. Feedback loops are necessary to implement decentralization and impelling cooperation and self-organization.

Morieux’s Smart Rules

  • Rule 1: Improve Understanding of What Coworkers Do
  • Rule 2: Reinforce the People Who Are Integrators
  • Rule 3: Expand the Amount of Power Available
  • Rule 4: Increase the Need for Reciprocity
  • Rule 5: Make Employees Feel the Shadow of the Future
  • Rule 6: Put the Blame on the Uncooperative

For More: Two Readings

From the Harvard Business Review,
“Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You.” September 2011.

Book Cover: Six Simple RulesMorieux’s book at Amazon: Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated. 2014

There is also a French edition with a much better title: Smart Simplicity: Six règles pour gérer la complexité sans devenir compliqué (2014).

Morieux divides his time between leading research and advising senior executives of multinational corporations and public-sector entities in the United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific on their strategies and organizational transformations. He has been featured in articles on organizational evolution in Harvard Business Review, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Le Monde.

Encouraging Self-Organization

Logo for Interaction Institute for Social ChangeIn a workshop I conducted last Sunday, one of the participants asked, “How do you encourage self-organization?” By some miracle, probably related to my being on every mailing list on anything related to sociocracy and governance, I received in my mailbox a link to an article on the  Interaction Institute for Social Change. You guessed it on  Tips for Encouraging Self-Organization by Curtis Ogden.

After some editing and additions, here are some ideas:

Encouraging Self Organization in the Environment

  • Create spaces where people from different social and work groups encounter each other in the course of the day.
  • Create open space and unscheduled time at home and the office.

In Meetings and Conversations

  • Expect engagement with decisions by asking open-ended questions.
  • Encourage people in finding their own answers
  • Ask “What should we do next?” and “What haven’t we done?” to encourage curiosity and questioning.
  • Reward innovation and risk-taking. Encourage making corrections and trying again.
  • Emphasize that we learn from mistakes. No mistakes, no  risk, no innovation.
  • Encourage people to focus on their strengths and collaborate with others who have different strengths.
  • Actively share information. Practice transparency.
  • Demonstrate self-organization in your own actions.

Most people are not encouraged to self-organize as children or adults. Most workplaces find self-organization disruptive. It’s hard to break the training of waiting for directions and not working outside them.  Changing takes both expectation, insistence, and support. Support alone won’t do it.

Is a Family a Hierarchy?

How does equality and freedom work in a family when a child’s ability to make decisions without harming themselves or others is inherently unequal? How can a family apply sociocratic principles if children cannot consent to the decisions that affect them? Can a family be a hierarchy and still be nurturing or does it have to be a hierarchy in order to be nurturing?

Most people agree that children are not born with the ability to make the decisions necessary for them to live safely and well. For children to be successful as adults, they need parental guidance, or the guidance of other adults in their lives. Is this a hierarchical relationship? If so, how does the child grow out of it? When do the children become free and equal? And how?

Systems Definition of Hierarchy

A definition of hierarchy that I find very useful is from  Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows. It is a small book, very accessible, and an excellent introduction to systems thinking.

  • Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers is to serve the purposes of the lower.
  • Systems are often self organizing, meaning they have the ability to structure themselves and to create new structures. To learn, diversify, and complexify.
  • Systems need to be managed for resilience, not just for productivity or stability.
  • There are always limits to resilience.

By analogy, applying Donella Meadows’ characteristics of a hierarchy to the family, the responsibility of the parents would be:

  • Serving the purposes of the children, which is to become independent, self-supporting adults, leading satisfying lives.
  • Teaching them to self-organize meaning to learn, diversify, and become more complex.
  • Teaching them to be resilient, not just productive and stable, and
  • Teaching them to understand that they are human, there are limits to resilience.

As a guide for parenting I think that works very well. It also establishes the purpose of a hierarchy in a family system. It points the hierarchy toward the development of self-organizing systems, toward enabling children to create new family structures, new hierarchies. The understanding of sociocratic principles would be helpful in managing the process of parenting self-organizing children. (Who clean their rooms, sometimes.)