Going Horizontal: How do you really want to work?

Curiosity and excitement about horizontal organizations coexist with concerns and cynicism. Most of today’s work force is disengaged and the current ways of working won’t be able to take us into our future. Even if we know all this, we still struggle to figure out what to do come Monday morning.

What if we stepped back to reexamine how we really want to be working?

For over 10 years I have been using our company, Percolab, as a lab of  how an organization can function. With clients, colleagues and international friends, we try things out and sense make, in a never ending learning process. In 2016 I began offering workshops on the topic: Demystifying Self-Management. They helped people connect with the notion and explore some basic elements. In 2017, at SXSW in the USA, with Edwin Jansen, we gave a panel on Growing a Company without Bosses. It was a provocation and we were stunned by the response.

Weeks later I signed a book contract with my favorite publisher, Berrett-Koehler: Going Horizontal: Creating a Non-hierarchical Organization, One Practice at a Time. It is a practical book. It builds on the fabulous work in the field of new ways of working, such as Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. Going Horizontal is all about the practice. It offers seven domains of practice to help anchor new habits and mindset as they develop. But Going Horizontal is more than a book, it is also a community and a series of practical trainings.

A conversation on the Future of Organizations with Frederic Laloux at the annual conference of the Quebec society of HR professionals

Who shows up at a Going Horizontal training?

In Antwerp, Belgium, six countries were in the room. Some people had specific questions while others wanted to make sense of their own experimentations. In Quebec City, Canada, workers from a pulp and paper factory joined Lawyers without Borders, an IT professional (recovering from a less than satisfactory foray into self-management), and consultants and students. Going Horizontal connects across domains and job titles.

A deep dive in Spain

The next stop is in Spain the 11-14th October, 2018 for a four day residential training in a castle in the middle of a 200 hectare forest outside of Barcelona. Beyond the enchanting venue, will be a unique learning experience. This training is offered by a powerful international team:

  • Dr. Salvador García, professor in Personal Development, Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation at the University of Barcelona,  Founder of Imagine Lab, Author of “Management by Values” and “Values Intelligence” and one of the top business speakers in Spain.
  • Carolina Escobar Mejía, Agile coach and Founder of the horizontal organization Somos Mas
  • Phoebe Tickell, Learning innovator and Social entrepreneur with Enspiral NZ & Schumacher College UK.
  • Nil Roda-Naccari Noguera from Percolab Spain and yours truly from Percolab Quebec

The day to day challenges of participants will be the basis of the program. The seven domains of practice of the Going Horizontal framework will help to grow our strengths and overcome our blind spots. Together we are exploring the new rich and yet unexplored territory of all that Going Horizontal can be.  Via each training the community grows as participants can become champions of horizontal practices in their local context.

If this speaks to you, please join us in Spain! If you know someone who should be there, please let them know.

Either way you can pre-order the book Going Horizontal now via Amazon.

If you would like to collaborate to offer a Going Horizontal training or virtual book club in your area, please contact info@percolab.com

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Pulling on the self-managing thread: The Regitex experience

Lisa Fecteau

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in October, we sat down with Lisa Fecteau, founder and owner of Regitex, to ask a few questions about her company’s approach to self-management. As we settled into her cozy kitchen with a cup of tea, she was curious about Percolab and why we wanted to interview her. We shared that Percolab has been self-managed since it’s inception, and as we are continually growing, we’ve made our practices and structures more explicit. We even train other organizations as they make the shift to self-management. We are always hungry to learn from other self-managed organizations, especially in other sectors. Regitex is just about as different as it gets from Percolab.

Lisa founded Regitex with her brother in 1998. Regitex manufactures yarns used in the production of protective garments (think firefighter’s uniforms), technical yarns for medical purposes (think bandages), and high-tech yarns used for a range of other purposes (like hosiery). Regitex does straight-up industrial production: raw materials come into the factory, machines are used to transform them, finished products come out of the factory, and then shipped all around the world.

When I think of this kind of industrial structure I think of foremen and plant managers. I think of a boss and the boss’ boss and of the boss’ boss’ boss. My imagination might even conjure a cigar-puffing owner living on a yacht somewhere far away: totally disengaged with the people who work for him and totally engaged with the profits they generate.

I seem to have a very narrow and staid (maybe even stale) view of what it means to run a factory. And Lisa Fecteau, with her unassuming manner, was turning that view on its head.

Regitex’s move to self-management did not happen in a burst of inspiration. It was a long, slow progression of small steps that carved out a self-managing path for the organization’s functioning. In the intervening years between the company’s founding and shift to self-management, Lisa bought out her brother’s shares in the company (thus becoming sole owner) and the company made the move from manufacturing yarn for fashion and furniture (its first market) to the protective textile focus it has now. As the manufacturing capacity and number of employees grew, Lisa decided to connect with her employees directly. For a period of 2.5 years she did rounds of interviews every 6 months. Sitting down with teams, and sometimes individuals, Lisa would ask questions so she could learn about their perception of the company. Sometime after the 5th round of interviews she realized that she had heard enough about the dissatisfaction and issues that were arising, and that nothing had significantly changed between round 1 and round 5 of interviews.

She had no idea what to do but decided she would just sit with it for a while

It all started to unblock with the need to hire a new Director of Production. After a long and unsatisfactory search for the right person, Regitex’s Director of Human Resources presented Lisa with an interesting alternative: what if instead of hiring a single director of production they created a Production Team comprised of existing employees who carried production know-how because of their work within the company.

Within a short time it became apparent that the team approach was more efficient and led to better decision-making because the Production Team had direct access to the information they needed to run things smoothly. Lisa and her HR director started experimenting with creating more of a team-based approach within the company to see how this would work out. The enthusiasm for self-managing practices was spreading across the company.

So Lisa left.

I didn’t expect that turn in the story. Lisa explained that had been sensing that she was still too much at the centre of the company and that instead of gently propelling it along towards self-management, her presence was holding them back. She completely withdrew from all operations and administration and didn’t set foot in the factory for months. “It was painful,” she confides, “I felt like I wasn’t needed anymore.”

Upon her return they decided to abolish all titles and job descriptions, including those in upper management, and move to a role-based system. They determined which were the functions that needed to happen for the organization to run smoothly, and then invited employees to self-nominate for the roles they found interesting. The roles were adapted to the logistical challenges of a company that works with day, evening, and night shifts, and the obligations outlined in their collective labour agreement.

Because, yes, Regitex is a unionized workplace.

While we were surprised and intrigued by this information, Lisa seemed unfazed about our union-related questions. For her, a key element to self-management is about trusting people’s common sense and ability to make thoughtful decisions – if you just give them enough space. In recent months, Regitex had a couple of grievances filed against them – not by internal employees, but by the union’s syndicate head office. At a formal meeting between herself, Regitex’s internal union reps and the syndicate’s official representatives, the grievances were quickly withdrawn when the Regitex employees made it clear that they had complete decision-making authority over their working conditions.

As a new collective agreement is in the works for early 2018, a strategic planning committee has been created to ensure that both Regitex’s interests and its employees’ needs are reflected in the next contract. Participation in the committee is voluntary (like everything else at Regitex) and those who have stepped forward to steer it also happen to be the company’s internal union reps. Which, in essence, means that the company’s administration has entrusted its unionized employees to make key decisions that directly impact the company and that unionized employees are considering the company interests and well-being while planning its side of the collective agreement.

As the daughter of a unionized blue collar worker, this reality is worlds away from the divisive power struggles and politicking I imagine when I think of contract agreements between unionized employees and the boss’ boss’ boss. I remember my Dad white-knuckling it through collective agreement processes in the 80’s that did not for a moment consider the interconnectedness of either the employees’ or employer’s ecosystems.

So what’s next for self-management at Regitex? They are investing in internal training for more employees to learn how to coach each other, improving the communications and other organizing systems, and exploring how profit-sharing could be done in a clear and equitable way. For Lisa, her personal next steps involve connecting with what is quickly becoming an international movement around self-management (Percolab’s own Samantha Slade is writing a book on the topic) to share Regitex’s experience.

When asked if she has a nugget of wisdom to share with us about her experience with Regitex, Lisa responds without hesitation: If you want to shift to self-management do less, not more. Don’t try to create all kinds of new initiatives. Pull back for a while, observe, watch, create space, and leave this space open for newness to emerge. That’s when stuff starts to happen.

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What are you doing on Tuesday? Or why Percolab has open team meetings.

“Well, why don’t you just come to one of our team meetings?” I say to the barista, “They are every Tuesday from 10 am to noon at the ECTO Coworking.”

He nods seriously and notes the time and place on a napkin behind the counter. I pick up my latte and wander off to one of the tables in the corner to work out a team budget proposal for one of our upcoming projects.

Inviting not-so-random folks to Percolab’s team meetings has become one of my everyday practices. I must extend at least 5 or 10 of these invitations a week. Sometimes these invitations are received as a gift and a possibility, like in the case of this barista who has just finished a graduate degree in urban planning and is interested in citizen co-design and consultation – one of Percolab’s areas of expertise. He had recognized me from a strategic planning session I had facilitated for one of the units at the university he attended.

Other times, the invitations are received by eyes wide with disbelief as though I had invited this human I have just met to my Sunday family brunch: please bring the mimosas and then you can go jump on the trampoline with the kids and Matante Guylaine.

“Why would you invite me to a team meeting?” said human demands, “Don’t you deal with, like, internal stuff at your meetings?”

“Yes,” I confirm, “we deal with internal stuff. Some of it is strategic, some of it is operational, some of is has to do with our personal dynamics, the first Tuesday of the month is about Percolab International. Some meetings deal with money and how we self-attribute our earnings, sometimes we even process conflicts in our team meetings. Like I said, Tuesday at 10 am – you should just come participate.”

“Um, OK, I can come observe,”says the human, “I am really curious. I won’t be distracting. I promise.”

“Yeah…well… no, that won’t work,” I reply with a suppressed smile, “I’m not inviting you to come observe us. We are people not hamsters. I’m inviting you to come be with us, to participate. Help us think through our challenges and issues, bring in all of your experience, and intelligence, and wisdom, contribute to our decision-making.”

“Really?” the human inquires, “But you only just met me! How can I understand all of your context and policies and regulations? How can I possibly contribute to decision-making? What will your boss say?”

“Well, to start off with there are no bosses at Percolab, we are a truly flat organization and we make decisions through a consent-based approach. And of course you can’t possibly understand everything we are about. But attending a team meeting is sure a more effective way of getting to know us than reading our “About” page online. If we are discussing an issue that needs to be decided upon and you, from your understandably limited perspective, are able to see a potential risk to the organization, we are gonna listen and take that into account as we move forward.”

“OK,” says the human – I can see that they are getting really curious, “but will I be the only stranger there?”

“I have no idea,” I say, “we’ll know when you show up! Some weeks we have no guests (we don’t call them strangers), often we have one or two, and a few times when several members have been out working with clients, we have had three times as many guests as Percolab members! Those weeks are usually great for brainstorming about issues we’ve been trying to work through, like rethinking our website.”

“Doesn’t it get exhausting having new people at your meetings every week?” inquires the human.

“It can be,” I admit, “Some weeks I’ve been downright grumpy about having to host new people into a team meeting, especially when there is a topic that is really important to me. Yet, again and again, I find our guests help me think through some tough questions about both our work with clients and how we work together as a team. Especially, if the person doesn’t “get” what we do easily, it challenges us to be clearer in how we speak about ourselves and cleaner in how we work together. So I might arrive grumpy but I almost always leave energized… coffee helps.”

“What type of people come to your meetings?” they ask.

“Some of the guests at meetings are interested in collaborating with us, some want to study us for academic purposes, some attend our meetings so they can learn about self-management and maybe even bring new practices to their own organizations, some are international experts passing through Montreal who want to jam with us, some are clients we already work with or are thinking of working with us – attending our meetings gives them a really good practical sense of our applied knowledge. One of my favourite things to do is invite all the participants in my workshops to come to a team meeting. You should see their faces!”

“OK, I’m in!” exclaims my new human friend, “I’ve been wanting to learn about self-management for a long time but I haven’t been too sure if my team is ready for it. Seeing it in action would really be helpful. It makes me feel a lot better to think that I won’t just be some voyeur and I can contribute with any knowledge or experience I already have. I find this idea of open meetings really inspiring and unusual. You guys sure are brave to do this!”

“Well…” I respond cautiously. I want to be able to accept this compliment but at the same time I am slightly irked that this practice that I find so normal is deemed as brave. “Well, we have a choice: we can talk about collaboration or actually experiment and experience what it is like to work with “strangers”. We can talk about transparency or open ourselves up to others so we can truly be seen, for better or worse, and understand ourselves and our blind spots better. We can talk about collective intelligence or actively engage in thinking with other people who come from really different backgrounds. To me and to probably everyone else at Percolab too, opening up our team meetings is a practical benefit to the organization, the generosity people show us by sharing their insights into our work is amazing. But opening our team meetings is also a meaningful and symbolic act: we are a fractal of how we would like organizations to function in the world. Imagine, if governments and institutions and corporations and foundations and community organizations had as their base model meetings that were open, transparent, collaborative, and drew on collective intelligence? Just that. Imagine that. ”

“Whoa!” says the human, “I’m gonna need to wrap my mind around that one. Maybe we can talk about that after the meeting on Tuesday.”

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What is the pay system you dream of? Beyond the taboo of money

As an employee for 16 years, I was thankful for my regular pay checks. I never really gave a thought to how I would dream of being paid.  In 2007, I co-founded my own company and I was faced with the freedom and possibility of all that compensation could potentially be. A journey began.

At the start, submerged in the business of starting a business, my associate and I agreed on a model that was a cinch to administrate, though somewhat naive: equal salary. No need to waste time tallying up who is bringing in more business or debating who has more value. All company earnings go into a collective « pot » and equal pay comes out, irrelevant of what each person put in. A bit idealistic you might say? Yes. The model requires similar work experience, similar weekly work hours and similar vacation time. And of course it also requires sufficient revenues for all.

As the company grew, we realized we wanted to offer freedom and possibility for people to create the working rhythm and pace that suits their needs and desires. We didn’t want to systematize any obligations, giving preference to diversity and modularity. This meant that we needed to move on to a different compensation model.

Initially, we were attracted to an algorithm based compensation model. We were inspired by Buffer’s approach. They even have a transparent salary calculator whereby you can find out how much you would make if you worked there.   What were the variables that could help us establish our own contextualized formula?

After a bit of in house exploration we crafted a proposal for the team with our percolab variables as complexity of the work, experience and risk. We held a team workshop and each of us plugged in numbers to try to see if the formula would work for us. Major flop! The process revealed that working abstractly with numbers caused us to create a collective salary budget much higher than the funds available. We were operating from a dream scenario rather than reality. This is when it started becoming clear that the path to fair and equitable pay required the whole team to understand money flows of our company.

But how could we do this? The regular salary model offers stability and regularity of bi-monthly pay checks of fixed amounts as well as benefits. We generally have little influence or involvement in this approach as it is directly linked to an organisation’s budget and pay scale.  The freelancer model offers flexibility and autonomy around our earnings as we are responsible for negotiating our own contractual agreements. The latter model usually comes with extra administrative burden and stress to be able to ensure regular and sufficient pay. Was there a way to blend the advantages of these models together?

Things were becoming clearer. Not only did we want self-set salaries but we also wanted to allow for variance from month to month in the amount each person was earning or wanted to work. As simple as that, we broke free from our fixed salaries and stepped into a negotiated agreements model that we also call variable self-determined salaries.  In so doing, we each gained control over our earnings, began benefiting from a shared administrative system and were better able to leverage the collective work opportunities amongst ourselves to help ensure regular and sufficient pay for all.

Our percolab model goes like this.

  1. Each project has a project lead and project budget parameters (projects can be client based and others not)
  2. A fixed percentage of the project goes to the company  to cover our collective services  (our beautiful office, insurances, web services, resources, business development, accounting, work tools etc.) and development.
  3. Together, the project team (anyone in the team) discusses and makes financial agreements based the project honorarium budget, with full transparency. We strive for a feeling of fairness and there is freedom in how agreements are made
  4. Administration of the compensation model is carried out in a distributed, collective way.  Percolab team members keep track of their agreements with standardized tools and are responsible for their own data entry into the online book keeping system (WaveApps). The project lead takes care of all agreements, invoicing and billing with external contractors, clients and suppliers.
  5. Any challenges with a project that have consequences on the budget are managed within the project with the team and do not overflow onto the company.

Each month any percolab member is involved in multiple projects (as lead, team member or business development).  Therefore your salary is the sum of the work you accomplished that month in each project as per your agreements.

For the system to work, everyone needs to make explicit their work availability and skills they can offer or wish to develop within projects.

Suddenly it was if each person was injected with more space, freedom and creativity to sculpt their ideal professional world. A new service went from idea to reality and the team was stepping up to greater challenges  than ever before. Having control over ones earnings reveals itself as a key lever for empowerment and leadership. Services and business development grew. With hindsight it seems evident that for people to be in their full potential having control over their pay is a key condition.  

Underlying principles

  1. Engagement is commiserate with our power to self-determine our own salary and expenses. Each person is responsible for the salary they want to earn.
  2. Practicing conversations around value helps us to better own our own value.
  3. Our relationship with money is not a taboo, but a skill that can be developed.

Impact

This flexible compensation model has supported us getting beyond our assumptions and fears around pay. It helps us get to deeper conversations around value and to work with money without it being the finality. The potential of a team is strengthened through this compensation as practice approach. More specifically:

  1. Individual: We are all even more responsible and engaged. Each person is finding her own balance with how much she wants to be working, earning, learning, playing and making their personal projects come to action. We are each developing skills around money, business and value.
  2. Teams: More solidarity, mutual support and good spirit.
  3. Organization: More initiatives and entrepreneurship and more revenues.

Lessons

1. A compensation model is meant to be energizing a team forward – if that is no longer the case, then try out a different model. It’s as easy as that.

2. A compensation model can be flexible and self-managing

3. A flexible negotiated compensation model can be an enormous driver of individual, team and organisational development.

If you want to know more about this model and the tools that support its functioning, contact Samantha Slade sam@percolab.com

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What is self-management, really?

What’s the difference between participatory management and self-management?

If you’re an agile learning organisation, does that mean that you practice self-management? Almost, but not quite, is the short answer.

Since 2007, the social enterprise percolab functions with a strong learning culture and edgy practice.  Nobody tells anyone what to do, people show up as their full selves and purpose is the driving force behind the work. Percolab helps clients create the conditions for collaboration and adaptable organizational culture. We work with a wide range of clients from community groups through to government and startups. We use a blend of ancient and new social methodologies and a dash of technology.

Each new person who joins the team (we are 10 and growing) has to figure out  how to get on in this nonconventional company. Many typical employee  behaviours are difficult to play out as the other party (ie. the employer) doesn’t cooperate as a boss. The team ensures most staff support functions. We all partake in business development, communication, marketing, invoicing and human resources. Everyone works when and where they want, even though our offices are in coworkings. Anyone can manage projects or start a collective venture. No one asks permission to take vacation, attend an event or training. Our team meetings take place in circle.

paul

Percolab team member working where and when he wishes.

Yet, despite all that freedom and innovative practice, who was making  the significant strategy decisions? The two co-founders! Flattening the organisational processes and practicing collective intelligence was not enough for the company to flourish in self-management.  The company needed a new structure to support the team to lean forward and the co-founders to lean back.

As the team grew  we were becoming less and less comfortable with the title of “Co-directors”. The notion of “directing” someone seemed contrary to the working culture we were nourishing.  The co-director titles were maintaining a hierarchical paradigm we were stepping away from. Could we not be co-learning and co-evolving  together instead?

The big shift

In 2015 two shifts happened at percolab. First, the co-founders shared the financial files of the company with the whole team. Yes, financial reporting, invoicing, budgets, expenses, payroll was now available to all. Second, the co-founders brought 12 key strategic proposals to the team.  The whole team openly discussed the proposals and adopted them together. These two acts are what set percolab into its full self-managing swing. The co-founders were becoming conscious of the subtleties of power dynamics. The team was not going to self-organise without a formal structure that could help us unravel our habits. Team members needed to stop deferring to the co-founders for figuring things out.  The co-founders needed to stop making decisions for others before anyone could get involved.

How had we found ourselves at this place? Easy enough. The co-founders had been making strategic decisions since the company’s beginnings. Space and freedom for the team was not enough for others to elbow in.  Our daily culture of collective intelligence, experimentation and openness created the illusion that we were self-governing.  It was not easy to see that co-founders were excluding the team from key financial information and strategic decision making. The classic dynamics of money and power were amongst us!

A new structure

As collaborative practitioners with a self-organising mindset we have been able to shift quite naturally and in a way that we can be proud of. Once we had made a collective decision to modify our functioning, change flowed  easily. Within weeks we were set up in a light version of self-management. We integrated certain principles from holacracy. We mapped out the myriad tasks of the company and grouped them into 30 roles that we co-wrote together. We held a workshop to attribute the roles. We all took on roles that we wanted or roles that someone else thought we could steward well. No one assigned anyone a role. It was clear that the roles would rotate between us over time. As simple as that, authority was now distributed within the organisation. Given our ease with prototyping novel practices, working with roles feels good.  It’s a practice that we will play with and fine tune for a long time forward, as learners.

Lessons learned

Today, we are a more conscious team. We know how easily hierarchical command and control reflexes can creep up, even on those who work in participatory ways.  We are clear that there is no need to be making all decisions all together. We trust other team members to make wise decisions for the company using exemplary decision making processes. In the next articles we will share the nuts and bolts of how we got rolling on our self-organising structure.  For now, here are the three lessons that stand out.

1. Being a purpose driven, funky and participatory company does not equate to self-management.

2. With a strong learning and experimentation culture, the shift to self-organisation is a relief and release.

3. Self-management doesn’t just spontaneously happen, it needs to be named and structured.

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