Let’s build this thing together!

Participatory organising works.

Photograph by Silvia Zuur, 2017

Some organisations, like Buurtzorg, were created ‘from scratch’ to be participatory and self-managing. This is a rare opportunity, and the reality is that most of us will have to figure out how to transition our current organizations into something different.

An organization cannot evolve beyond its leadership’s stage of development. — Frederic Laloux

This means that the impulse for the organization’s transition must be initiated by the current leadership, and probably at the level of the CEO. We were all raised in an era where the expectation about what the organisation was, involved someone sitting at the top of a pyramid. Probably 99% of all organisations in the world today are organised around that philosophy as a given.

As the world transitions and the combination of consciousness, technology, the speed of change and the complexity of navigating the interconnected nature of our lives and work increases at an ever-accelerating pace, it’s become apparent that organizations created to extract value or limit disorder, (based on the Tayloristic paradigm which assumed an illiterate workplace), the very structures within which work is ‘done’ are long overdue for conscious iteration and change.

Understanding our core values around people and work mandate that we create the conditions for those values to be made manifest. For a millennia or more, the assumptions about the workforce were that people:

● Are lazy

● Work primarily for the money

● Own interests are more important than the organisation’s

● Not capable of making good decisions

Our development as leaders, as well as the potential of the organization, is limited by those values and beliefs.

Conversely, if our fundamental values and beliefs are that people:

● Are capable of asking for what they need

● Have the ability to make and keep commitments

● Have the innate potential to develop

We shift the possibility space 180 degrees, and even from within existing organization create the possibility for true transformation.

Last year, Jan Perkins, CEO of Tautoko Services in New Zealand, told her board of directors that she intended to step back to 3 days a week within one year, and with that announcement also recommended that they not replace her, i.e. the role of CEO. Jan had a very strong sense that the job title and even job description of CEO could easily be redistributed into the team at large. So began a process for the organisation to first design, then implement participatory organising.

Jan is indicative of a conscious leader who is clear in their understanding that the legacy they want to leave, and what they believe is possible for the organisations they serve, is not to simply replace themselves as the benevolent leader at the top of the pyramid. They believe that the latent leadership potential of self-management and commitment can not only distribute the sense of accountability and ‘ownership’ but can and will create developmental growth for those members of the team who opt-in to the participatory process.

Transition must not be a top-down mandate, but rather, firstly, an invitation to opt-in to participation, and a carefully scaffolded (and co-created) set of opportunities and challenges from which to start practising. Ideally, these opportunities should quickly transition from being ‘event based’, i.e. offsites and workshops to being ‘practice based’ and part of how work needed to transition is created and implemented.

This does not mean that leaders instantly disperse all of their power and simply become participants. This is neither sensible nor integris. Leaders are called to model the new expression of leaderly behaviour — to invite participation in the decisions that were once their sole purview or domain. To create the opportunity for others to step into the practice that was once concentrated in a single person, and co-create the scaffolding for others to safely step into leadership and accountability.

The right question is not: how can everyone have equal power? It is rather: how can everyone be powerful? Power is not viewed as a zero-sum game, where the power I have is necessarily power taken away from you. Instead, if we acknowledge that we are all interconnected, the more powerful you are, the more powerful I can become. — Frederic Laloux

How you might begin

Simple practices to make information transparent and accessible may be where your organisation is at right now. If we are inviting everyone to opt-in to decision making, for example, ensuring access to the same levels of context and information as those currently making decisions is obvious and necessary. When devolving power, consider context and information first — it’s easy to be disappointed or judge action from a position of power and knowledge.

The consistency of invitation and communication is really important. As we move from event-based change to practice-based transformation, a predictable cadence helps. Formal, event-based consultation followed by long periods of management plotting in dark rooms is what we’ve grown used to. In a participatory organization, frequent updates and ongoing invitations for participation are needed to help everyone un-learn the expectation that change is ‘done to us’.

A practice space that’s proven valuable in a number of organizations is Working Groups.

Working groups are transient teams that come together to deliver a specific piece of value to the organization. They are not limited by traditional departmental assumptions, like only the marketing department can create communications materials, or only the finance department can optimise the process for expense claims. Rather, they are self-organising, self-selecting teams that answer an invitation to participation. Each working group has a convenor whose responsibility it is to craft an invitation, and (in the case of oversubscription) select participants on the basis of diversity.

Working Groups are usually, at least initially, defined by an organization-wide sensing exercise to understand where the needs and opportunities exist, and how they will serve the vision of visible future. This is usually a 3-month horizon. Working groups, once they form, are asked to make visible their objective and 3 month deliverable within their first couple of meetings. It’s a healthy practice for working group convenors or self-selected representatives to meet regularly to notice what they are learning and surface patterns.

This practice gives everyone in the organisation the ability to experience self-selection, self-organisation, self-management, time-boxed deliverables, making and keeping commitments not only to the working group but to the teams and impacted individuals (to ensure they are not compromised through the additional commitment to the working group), and to have the lived experience of building the organisation, not waiting for it to be built around them, or have it mandated and presented to them.

Transformation happens when everyone who wants to build the new thing actually builds the new thing. It’s not easy, and it’s not fast. It can’t be emphasised strongly enough that this is not work that can be done by even the most enlightened ‘leadership team’ — it HAS to be an invitation to everyone. Of course, an enlightened leadership team might create a new structure that ‘feels better’ but it will still be a top-down mandate, no matter how benevolent.