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.
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.
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:
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 email@example.com
Making decisions together does not have to be long and painful. The realm of “consent based decision making” is not well known even though it can help organisations make decisions collectively efficiently and wisely. We use this at Percolab, a consultancy company supporting social innovation and collaboration, based in Canada and France.
We developed Generative Decision Making Process, a consent based decision making process built on the Integrated decision making method of Holacracy with the culture and practice of Art of Hosting. We use it every week at Percolab. Our record is 19 strategic decisions in one hour!
The process requires a host, ideally, the host rotates from person to person. At Percolab everyone can run this type of decision making and we rotate organically depending on the day.
When first developing the practice it can be helpful for an organisation to invite in an external host for an initiation or supportive coaching to develop the internal skills.
Is the time ripe for the decision? Is the context clear? Is there information or data that needs to be gathered? Could an open conversation help develop the ripeness?
Hosting tips: You might need to offer the group one or two open conversation time slots to get to this point (ex. I am going to put the timer on for 10 minutes while you explore the topic in question). Offer supplementary time slots as necessary. You might need to conclude that the decision is not ripe, and this is ok. Listen in deeply and when you sense that there is a possible proposal in the air, the time is ripe. Invite the group to head into the next step.
Invite the group — would someone like to make an initial proposal? This will help the group move forward into action and there will be lots of opportunities to fine tune the proposal together.
Hosting tips: Help the proposer name a proposal in ideally one single sentence. Avoid the proposal spreading into multiple proposals. Ensure that the proposal is written for all to see (separate from the proposer) and repeat it out loud.
The group has the opportunity to voice questions to the proposer. The proposer has two options to answer — i) Provides the answer or ii) Says « Not specified » if the answer is unknown.
Hosting tips: If someone is speaking without a question (ie. reaction) remind him that is question period. Ensure that all questions are directed at the proposer and no one else intervenes. Avoid letting the proposer speak about anything further than the direct answer(keep it tight). Sense into when the clarification period is about to finish (ie. people are ready to react).
It is mandatory that each person (minus the proposer) expresses to the group their reaction to the proposal; the different voices and perspectives of all need to be heard. The proposer listens deeply and take notes. Afterwards the proposer will craft a new version of the proposal.
Hosting tips: Begin with the person who has the most reactive emotion and then go around, until everyone has shared their reaction. Make sure that the reaction is not about the proposer, but about the proposal itself — correct if necessary.
The proposer formulates a new version of the proposal in light of all that has been spoken. The host ensures that it is written and visible to all and reads it out loud.
Hosting tips: If you feel that the proposer might want to stay with the same proposal, remind her that she can. If you sense that the proposer needs support in formulating the second version, remind her that it is possible to ask for help — however do not rush into saying this.
An objection needs to express a risk or a backward movement for the organisation/initiative. All objections are expressed to the host who then decides if the objection is valid or not. If it is valid, then the proposer needs to integrate it into a new version of the proposal. (Then the objection round is repeated).
Hosting tips:Sometimes people might express personal concerns that are not in fact organisational risks. This needs to be differentiated. If it is fuzzy you may ask for help to the group. This is the hardest part of the process for the host.
Everyone visually confirms I can live with this decision by raising their thumb. This is a way of allowing all to see that everyone is fully onboard with this decision. If there is something that has not been spoken that needs to be it will show up because a person will be unable to raise his thumb. This can happen when (i) someone is struggling to find words to put on an idea that is important to them or (ii) someone is disengaging in the process (holding on to the possibility to question the decision in the hallway thereafter). Either way it will need to be addressed and the group needs to return to the part of the process that was not fully addressed.
Note: It is good to have visual confirmation as a cultural cue with which the process may be fast tracked. Someone makes a proposal and you can just do a quick check in to see right away if everyone could live with it.
Hosting tips: This is not a decision council and it is not an opportunity to lower thumbs and restart a process. It is simply a visual confirmation. If the process has run smoothly all thumbs should be raised. If someone is struggling to find voice for an objection kindly support the person and let them know that all information is important.
This sums up the process. A final word just like playing the piano, don’t expect to get it perfect first go. It does take some practice.
This article is also published on Medium in Percolab Droplets
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.
“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.”
I met Bernd Reichert at a training I offered in Brussels on Self-management. During introductions everyone was surprised that we had amongst us a Head of Unit from a European Union Agency that supports small and medium enterprises to bring disruptive innovations to market. Even more surprising was that he was already implementing self-management since 2014 and was there to fine tune his practices and reflect on how he was doing it! It’s not evident how to implement self-management within a larger hierarchical organization; the story of Bernd is helpful if that is your situation and to learn that it is actually possible! After the training I interviewed Bernd to learn a bit more about his amazing story. Here it is.
How did you come to being a ‘director’ of a self-managing unit at a European Union Agency?
I participated in an Art of Hosting training with some colleagues; in the European institutions it is named Participatory Leadership. At that training I was given the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux by one of the team. This gave words to the ways I was thinking and working and supported my shift to deliberately develop my unit with self-organization, wholeness and evolutionary purpose (the three main elements described in the book).
However, I was challenged because in the book Laloux states that if you are in a bigger organization and you are not at the top, or the people at the top are not supporting working like this, then forget it. Later on Laloux did change this story though, stating the job of the manager is to hold what he calls, the “shit umbrella”. That’s to say, make sure people can do their work in a self-organized way and also take care of the people who don’t understand this way of working.
How is your unit set up?
We are currently 60 people and still growing. We are organized as per our business processes into three strands of about 20 persons each: i) Evaluation of proposals; ii) Contract management; iii) Business acceleration. Each sector has a ‘head’ of sector who acts as team coach and helps the sector find its way of what they are doing. Each sector is organized into teams of 5–6 people. There are no orders.
How is a self-managing unit perceived within your European Agency?
If you deliver, people leave in you peace. They might think you are crazy, but they leave you in peace. When I first let my colleagues attend a meeting between business units on my behalf their was an uproar. Then over time it became normal.
What is a challenge you still have to figure out?
Performance assessment and promotions. There is an invitation now to do performance assessment as conversations in groups. But we work with people who do expect the organization to work in a certain way and “does” the assessment to them. This is a major issue right now.
What does your recruitment process look like?
The important part of the recruitment process is being able to get a sense if the person applying has a belief that self-management is possible. That’s basically all we are looking for. They don’t need to know ‘how’ to do it, but at least believe in the possibility.
What have you had to unlearn?
1. I am able to decide by myself. It’s a deeply rooted belief that there has to be a hierarchy.
2. You are allowed to make errors. We very much come from a blame culture. So that is huge.
3. Work can be fun. There is an ingrained belief that if you get paid for doing this work it must be serious and hard.
What impact is this having on other units? If any?
Here are two self-managing practices that are being picked up by other units:
1. Freedom — you are the best positioned to know the best place where you need to be during a work day and how you track your hours. Everyone has flex time and telework as they wish. The priority is more on delivering on the work rather than having to know where a person is.
2. Personal development. Training is free and you can take trainings on whatever you want. The priority is people developing themselves rather than having to take trainings related to their job.
What is your advice for other leaders in large hierarchical organizations contemplating a shift to self-organization?
Just let go. You cannot know what will happen until you do it. It’s like everyone is standing around a swimming pool and now everyone is allowed to go in. There is no real danger because the swimming pool is shallow. You can stand up at any time.