The Holy Grail of Self-management

Stop overthinking. Start doing. Improve from there.

By Ted J. Rau for Enlivening Edge Magazine, published Sept 15 2018.

No governance system is perfect. Because nothing is ever perfect. We have moved beyond right or wrong in an absolute sense, and beyond either-or. We strive for integration into context, integration of contexts, and for impact instead of ideology. If we find ourselves claiming something we do is the right way, then we have been drawn into a right-or-wrong game which is often a lose-lose situation for everyone, as it disconnects hearts and minds and interrupts flow.

Since there is not one perfect way, we can only meet some needs at a time, while mourning the other needs we had to let go of.

Each governance system or framework will be suitable to meet some of our needs, and inadvertently, each governance system will be less suitable to meet other needs we might have.

For example, a governance system that includes majority vote for large numbers of voters might meet our need for efficiency; it might fail to meet our need for inclusion and connection, as the minority will be easy to be disregarded in a system built on majority vote.

If we understand the needs at play and understand how they are met or not met in the context of governance, then we can tailor the system that we need as a group to govern ourselves in the way we want it.

That’s why this article is an attempt of making the needs visible that are at play in (self-)governance of organizations.

Needs in governance

What needs are likely to come up in governance? Imagine, for example, we are discussing work hours — should team members have fixed work hours or not? Having fixed work hours might meet our needs for alignment and effectiveness. It might even play into belonging and cooperation. After all, how can we cooperate with clarity and feel connected to co-workers if we don’t even know when they are around? On an erratic, unpredictable schedule, some might find it hard to align with their co-workers.

On the other hand, we want to trust that team members fill their roles according to their own needs and schedules. We want autonomy and we want coworkers to attend to situations in a flexible way. We might strive for inclusion of different life situations.

The pattern is always the same: we can consider all the needs on the table, but might not meet all needs well all the time. What’s important is to be intentional and in choice about it. Knowing what the needs are, and being aware that resolute right-or-wrong thinking will make it harder to see creative solutions to maximize needs, will help us choose better systems for our context.

Below are some of the needs that come up for me, based on this list of universal human needs by CNVC. You can write your own list based on your preferences and experiences. (As a rhetorical framing, I am pretending that there is polarity between some of the needs. That’s not what I believe to be universally true, but it works well to get my point across.)

  • As an organization, we understand that some basic structure supports shared reality and cooperation but we also want to be spontaneous and authentic in the moment. (This corresponds somewhat to the example on flex time.)
  • We want to give everyone in the organization autonomy but we also want to make sure there is enough coherence so we work towards a shared purpose. We want to know that every activity in the organization is coming together at some point, while also wanting trust for each member to know what they’re doing without being micro-managed.
  • We want clarity and stability so we can build competence but we also want to learn and improve — for some people (like me!), that’s about play and stimulation. On the side of stability, we also realize we have to try new things from time to time to get better at what we do.
  • We want to have tried and tested solutions but we’re also unique. In other words, we want to be effectiveand competent but we also want self-expression and choice. We want to be pragmatic and action-oriented but we also want to be considerate and aligned with our mission.

As for polarities, we could draw something admittedly sketchy but useful like:

  • predictability ←→ spontaneity
  • autonomy ←→ alignment/shared purpose
  • stability, competence ←→ exploration, learning
  • effectiveness and efficiency ←→ self-expression and choice

Strategies to meet needs

That’s a lot of needs right there! There are many strategies (=concrete actions) promising to meet those needs, and some strategies work better for some than for others.

For example, video calls and chat work well reasonably for me to get me a sense of connection. Others really cherish in-person meetings and on-screen connection just doesn’t do it for them. Any given strategy will meet some needs but might have a cost for other needs. Like someone really appreciating in-person meetings but disliking commuting time. The in-person meeting meets the need for connection but commuting has a cost on the needs for efficiency. It’s a balance.

Also, our “thermometer” for how high of a priority we give different needs varies between people. For example, being able to have free scheduling choices for at least 1/4 of my work day is important to me. I get moody when I open my calendar and the whole day is scheduled and all I have to do is carry out plans (even if I was the one making them!). Others seem to be better at dealing with that–and it’s a mystery to me how they do it.

So what?

We’re all different in where we fall on each “polarity” and what strategies work for us. Within any organization, there will be differences that need to be attended to. But also — and more importantly for this article — entire organizations will be different. Each organization will fall slightly differently on each “polarity”.

That brings us to governance methods. Each governance method comes with strategies that are intended to meet needs. For example, we want information to flow (for example, for effectiveness and clarity, maybe peace of mind), we want decisions to be made (again, effectiveness, safety, clarity but also, in the case of creating roles, to meet our need for autonomy and many other needs).

We want work to be done which meets our need for contribution and mattering. But we also want to experience connection and belonging, psychological safety, discovery, understanding, and more.

The remaining question is, given where we as a collective fall on the polarities, which governance method works the best for us?

Do we err on the side of effectiveness and give lead links lots of power or do we err on the side of cooperation and give more power to teams? Do we err on the side of choice and make everything up on the fly, or do we use a ‘boxed’ governance system to hold things together? Do we use consent as a default decision-making method or do we want more autonomy and the advice process sounds better? Do we trust that our members will have good communication skills or do we enforce a formal group process?

Most ‘boxed’ governance systems I know, like Holacracy®, “classic” sociocracy, Sociocracy 3.0 and instances of Teal self-management, will fall somewhere on those “polarity” spectrums. To throw out a few stereotypes — don’t get too hung up on them as I will show next how they’re probably wrong — sociocracy is too talky but good on alignment; Holacracy gives autonomy but not much stability and connection; S3 is highly tailorable but complicated; less formalized methods of self-management might be a great choice, but there is a lot of reinventing the wheel, and some fail.

Each governance method is aiming to find their own sweet spot in the web of polarities, erring more on the connection side or more on the autonomy side, more on the side of choice or on the side of applicability etc.

So the task is not to find the perfect system for all but to find a system that meets your needs in a sufficient way.

I have no evidence for this claim but I will say it anyway: I have a gut feeling that if we drew the spectrums on a piece of paper and placed our individual organizations on there, we’d be surprised by how much organizational culture interplays with our governance systems.

There are rigid sociocratic organizations, and there are highly organized self-managed organizations. There might be touchy-feely Holacratic organizations and cold-hearted, centralized sociocratic organizations. There might be tendencies — given that a certain organizational culture will gravitate towards what sounds like a good fit — but really, it’s all, well, on a spectrum.

The less structure and more autonomy you build in, the more you will have to invest into conflict resolution. The more structure you agree on, the less conflict there will be but also more rigidity. There is no one-size-fits-all, and even if we all wear something our size, it will fall differently on everyone.

So, there is no point in making a sweeping statement that one system is better (or that self-management works or doesn’t work.) There is also no point in saying “this is not XX”. It doesn’t matter whether something follows the true doctrine of a system. What matters is only whether it works for people. Knowing more systems will always be better than knowing fewer — as long as the level of information is not paralyzing.

The question is: what’s best for us?

I see a few organizations who catch the self-management bug waver around a bit. Some even fall apart arguing about what governance system to use or whether they should decide at all.

Don’t get me wrong, deciding how you will decide is one of the most fundamental decision to make. But instead of choosing one governance model to be cast in stone, we can also just make an informed guess and move forward from there.

You will always be able to find a migration path closer to another system if there is consciousness on what needs you are trying to meet and what governance strategies might be suitable to meet that need.

Want more of a sense of connection and belonging in a Holacratic setting? Borrow from other systems and see whether it works for you. Want more autonomy within sociocracy? Lean heavier on roles and you’ll get there. Want more freedom and a looser structure? Research other systems and see what you can incorporate.

The only way to find a system that works for you is to start somewhere and tailor it. Most of all, do it. Understand which of your needs you would like to see met more often and what strategies are likely to get you there.

Instead of aiming for the perfect system, find an ok fit and adjust continuously. We learn by experimenting and getting feedback on how it’s working for us, not by overthinking things.

However: my other big worries

I see quite a few organizations catch the self-management bug and then struggle with issues that have been solved a long time ago — they want to figure out everything themselves because it’s self-management. That’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If self-management means that every organization has to reinvent the wheel, we’re not going to get far, and — my other very big worry — we are likely to replicate the biases we already carry.

That’s why I spend my time consulting in the context of sociocracy. I don’t do that because I think it’s the only system that’s good. Or because I want to freeze it in time or defend it. I go with a system that’s good enough, can be tailored and adapted and, best of all, it’s ready to be used in real life. It’s a good starting point. It’s a pragmatic decision, meeting my need for contribution and my desire to give people something that is applicable. We borrow from other systems, learn and adapt but we’re not starting from scratch.

It’s all about balance

  • Sweeping statements about governance methods are probably inaccurate.
  • Be aware of the needs you would like to prioritize. Find a system that will meet those needs. Stay alert and consider the needs you might not be meeting.
  • Start somewhere solid, evaluate what works for you and improve, without dogma.

Ted is co-founder of Sociocracy For All and teaches, consults, and coaches for sociocratic organizations. He co-authored the sociocracy handbook “Many Voices, One Song. Shared power with sociocracy“.