Getting from a bossy to a bossless organisation in 3 painful steps :-}

Theodore Taptiklis
May 20, 2016 · 5 min read

This is a companion piece to Richard Bartlett’s post of a few hours ago:

Since I came to Enspiral and Loomio and began to swim in waters like those of Ouishare and the P2PFoundation, I’ve seen a noticeable divide between people who are working on brave new things and those (like me) who are sometimes still struggling with the messy old ones. For many millennials there’s an understandable sense that the economic and political system is so dysfunctional that it’s best to start with something new.

Ironically, just as millennials are looking to leapfrog the dysfunction of the present into something new, boomers like me in established organisations are worrying about the loss of hard-won past experience. As the boomer generation retires, there’s a growing concern about handing over what has become their precious knowledge to what they are seeing as a ‘know-nothing’ Gen Y steeped in managerialism and the suffocating formulae of neo-liberalism.

However, what I’m now glimpsing is the prospect of a new intergenerational alliance between boomers and millennials (that could even act as a pincer movement on reactionary Gen Ys). This prospect rests on three understandings, whose recognition may be painful for leadership traditionalists:

It’s not a one-way knowledge transfer, but a shared practice of renewal. The illustration above comes from an organisation that describes its knowledge inheritance as a ‘chalice’. The chalice is full of deep insights from many years of real-world practice, and testifies to the survival of a strong professional ethos despite many years of ideological battering in a complex and many-layered working environment.

Yet that’s not all. Millennials like those I work with offer the guardians of such a practice a great opportunity for professional renewal. First, they have a new set of aspirations; second, they bring a familiarity and love of technology-enabled connectivity that can enrich the working and learning environment of the profession; and third, they have a yearning for practices of mutual recognition and co-leadership that can transform the culture and the productivity of the enterprise. So the opportunity is not just about passing on the chalice, but is about enriching it at the same time.

It’s about sharing experiences rather than opinions or abstractions. The dominant discourse in established organisations is still a managerial one: that is, it assumes scientific ‘objectivity’, is framed by theories, models, and other abstractions, and tries to talk in an impersonal ‘rational’ tone about things. What it often lacks is real, down-on-the-ground, everyday human experience — the kind of understanding that comes from stories of personal experience and the acceptance of vulnerability. A conversation that brings the lives of boomers and millennials together can be transformative for both.

It’s about paying serious attention to one another, to recognise the differences that make us stronger together than apart. My repeated experience of people in established organisations is that despite years of workplace association, they often don’t know each other very well. Managerial practices deter intimacy and encourage isolation and ‘self-reliance’. Really powerful and creative collaboration becomes rare, and great opportunities for productive cooperation are easily lost or overlooked.

Richard D. Bartlett and I share an appetite — and are developing methods — for a practice of co-leadership, where the group becomes sufficiently attuned to one another’s capabilities that it can respond to events and challenges as an organic whole. In such a group there is never a single leader: each member is poised to offer leadership where their capabilities fit best.

A decentralised, leaderless, nonhierarchical ‘bossless’ organisation that weaves the talents of the generations together is a truly exciting prospect.

So Richard’s pattern for brave new organisations applies just as well to established ones:

In many existing organisations the sense of a collective human purpose is lost, buried under depersonalised abstractions of ‘vision’, ‘brand’ and ‘customer service’. An authentic encounter between the generations is a perfect opportunity to articulate a fresh sense of collective purpose — something that joins aspiration to history.

Ask: what impact do we want to have in the world?

Richard’s words here only need a little tweaking:

If you’re ready to move beyond the use of coercive authority to align people’s efforts, you have to learn how to work together, which requires a great deal of emotional intelligence, humility, and willingness to change.

Ask: how do we want to relate to each other on our journey to impact?

This is a great gift that millennial experience — particularly with approaches like Agile software development — can offer to established organisations.

There is no map or compass when you’re navigating through emergent multidimensional space. The one thing you can count on is the steady passage of time.

I love this story of Richard’s from Loomio:

We have tempos at different time scales:

Daily: the whole team checks in every morning, synchronously: what did you do yesterday? what are you doing today? what support do you need? what are you doing for your wellbeing today? This generates abundant accountability, support, agility and focus, in 10 minutes per day.

Fortnightly: we start by committing to what work we’ll deliver over the next 2 weeks. Then we finish with a retrospective where we stop to reflecton what we learned and what we’ll do differently next time. If you’re not stopping, you’re not learning.

Quarterly: we have 13 people working with high autonomy, but we create focus by setting 3 or 4 measurable objectives that everyone is working towards.

And this:

In our bossless organisation, we use minimum viable structure, codesigned just in time, implemented by experiments.

Of course in an established organisation, with many laid-down and familiar practices, it’s not possible to wave a wand and say, “Make it so.”

A pattern that I’m experimenting with is to make inter-generational exchange explicit. At the Human Methods Lab, we’re working on an approach (based in phenomenology) that invites people to group themselves as guardians or inheritors of the organisation’s practices (a kind of conscious reflection of boomers and millennials).

In this approach, we stage an event that represents a challenge close to the heart of the organisation’s work. The members of each group document their experience of the event, and compare these experiences with one another as insights into their different ways of seeing things. The inheritors then construct a response to the challenge that makes use of these differences, and the guardians, making use of their differences in the same way, construct a response to their response that weaves their separate understandings together.

This work — I’ll say more about this soon — is deliberately designed to reframe differences as resources, and roles and hierarchies as opportunities for dialogue and re-orientation. It opens up a prospect of organisation development by mutual consent and shared aspiration, “codesigned just in time, implemented by experiments” as Richard proposes.

And I can’t do better than the coda from his piece:

So why not get started!

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