Evolution of the Holacracy Facilitation Cards
“No Objection, Your Honor! Merely a Safety Concern…” — Shifting the Language to Enhance the Process
Dennis Wittrock / Klaas Reineke, Hypoport SE
There is exciting news from the hola::be circle of Hypoport SE. Based on our experiences from 27 internal Holacracy practitioner trainings we have evolved the facilitation cards for tactical and governance meetings. We changed the design, the language, the order, and the flow of the test questions, as well as framings and tips for the meeting steps. This article explains what’s new, why and what you should pay attention to in the future.
Changes in the Governance Card
Subtle language practice — changes in the terminology for governance
We changed some language and the name of a process step. What was previously called “Objection Round” we now simply call “Safety Check of the Proposal” – because that is what it is after all. This explanation has been part of our framing for the Objection Round for quite a while. Instead of having to explain it, again and again, we simply decided to change the name of the step itself. That is easier.
“No objection, your honor! Merely a safety concern…”
We stopped using the word “objection”. Instead we talk about “safety concerns”. Additionally, these “concerns” are not “valid” or “invalid”, but rather “need to be integrated” or “do not need to be integrated”. This is a bit longer, but the intention behind these changes is to reduce the subtle inner resistance that is provoked by using the words “objection” or “invalid” (“I am wrong!” / “My colleague is wrong!”) The old terminology sounds like being in a trial in which someone is being convicted in the end and in which there are “winners” and “losers”. Nothing could be further away from the intention of the process of integrative decision-making. So, let’s get rid of it.
“Safety concerns that do not need to be integrated” are being experienced as far less aversive and confrontative than “invalid objections”. The willingness to share “safety concerns” (formerly “objections”) and to explore them open-mindedly increases. Sharing “concerns” that help to make the proposal safer is much easier psychologically than raising “an objection against a proposal”.
The value of a “safety concern” is much easier to grasp for all parties involved than the value of an “objection”. Even though “objections” clearly help to make the most of the governance process, the word feels like the very opposite of that. “Objections” taste like petty quibbling, an attitude of refusal, veto, blockade or personal disapproval. The term is an impediment, which is why we decided to erase it from our vocabulary.
First of all, “safety concerns”, or shorter “concerns”, are what they are — a subjective perception. That the person feels a tension is an undisputable (phenomenological) fact. It is therefore not very helpful to label the concern as being “valid” or “invalid”. People feel judged. Therefore, we propose to use different adjectives. The process helps to filter out “safety concerns” that “do not need to be integrated” (formerly “are invalid”). In German, we use the shorter phrase “nicht integrationspflichtig” which can be translated as “no duty of integration”. These concerns may still be meaningful tensions for the respective “harm-sensor” (formerly “objector”), but according to the constitution, they do not need to be integrated at this stage of the process and can therefore be safely ignored.
“Here’s the exit…”
For this reason, we offer a clear exit for the people whose safety concerns are being tested during “Testing Safety Concerns” (formerly “Testing Objections”), so that the test-subjects do not merely smash into the walls of the process but instead get an explanation about why their concern “does not need to be integrated” (instead of being “invalid”) at this stage of the process and what they can do with their tension afterward, in case it should still be relevant to them.
- People who are unable to name the harm, but simply want to optimize the proposal (criterion 1) are offered to bring their own agenda item.
- People who don’t have a role that is being limited by the proposal (new criterion 2, formerly criterion 4) get the explanation that the tension lies outside the authority of their role and that they can make their pitch to the respective role.
- People who are simply being reminded of their own tension by the proposal, which exists independent of the proposal (new criterion 3, formerly criterion 2), are offered to bring their own agenda item as well.
- People who think that no significant harm will be caused by trying out the proposal (criterion 4-b, formerly criterion 3-b) get an explanation that we can collect more data from experience and adapt the proposal later if needed.
These advanced explanations previously were only offered by more experienced facilitators. Due to the evolution of the facilitation process card now even novices will be able to use them. This leads to a far more appreciative experience for the beginners. Once a safety concern passes the process of testing, then, as an end result, we do not have a “valid objection”, but — following the new terminology — a “concrete harm that needs to be integrated”. The ‘objection prevention police’ is dead — long live the appreciative ‘safety concern exploration’!
No more mystical trump card: “formal error” instead of “N.V.G.O.”
We renamed “non-valid governance output — NVGO” as “formal error”, because that is ultimately what it is. The cryptic acronym “NVGO” now no longer is a mystical trump card which confuses beginners of the practice, because somebody suddenly slams it onto the table out of the blue — often without a corresponding explanation.
As the name indicates, a “formal error” is an error concerning the form of the proposal, not necessarily its content. The proposal violates the grammar of admissible governance constructs, as defined by the constitution. This is like the automatic grammar check of a word processor which underlines the faulty constructions in red. The content may be ok, but the form is not ok. That’s all there’s to it, really. A formal mistake is usually integrated easily and swiftly during the integration by restructuring the proposal.
A “formal error” (formerly “NVGO”) does not constitute a reason for prematurely abandoning the processing of the entire proposal, as it is often assumed. A premature abandonment of the process does not help the proposer to solve his original tension at all. Even worse, he feels “wrong” and is less likely to try to use governance for solving his tensions the next time. Such catastrophes are avoidable by eliminating the misleading word “non-valid” (the “N” in “NVGO”) from the vocabulary completely while at the same time connecting the concept of “formal error” with the concept of “needs to be integrated” (German: “integrationspflichtig”). Formal errors always need to be integrated, i.e. one has to (and usually in most cases can) integrate them during integration. On the new card, we highlighted the duty to integrate formal errors.
Additionally, the card names the most common indications for formal errors, e.g. “operational output was captured; outside the circle’s authority; attempt to govern the people; accountability, which is not a recurring activity”, etc. The facilitator is encouraged to explain which rule of the constitution is being violated by the proposal. This way, the participants can follow the process better and improve their knowledge about the correct “grammar” of governance with every mistake. In the tip section of the auxiliary card, typical formal errors and correct governance outputs are being contrasted and explained in greater detail.
The systemic reasons for unproductive governance processes
The premature dismissal of the formal error including the tension of the proposer is usually owed to the lack of experience of the facilitator. The lack of experience with the integration step of the process itself is caused by the rarity of “safety concerns that need to be integrated” (previously “valid objections”). Since hardly anybody raises “objections” (because it is perceived as “not nice” to do so) and the ‘objection prevention police’ has done a good job, the circle hardly ever arrives at integration. Since the facilitator has very little experience with this step, he tends to avoid it. Because the tries to avoid it, he can’t really gather experience with facilitating it. Meanwhile, the circle members sense that avoidance and solidarize with the facilitator and avoid voicing “safety concerns” (“objections”) in an act of anticipatory obedience.
This downward spiral is a systemic pattern that hollows out the governance process over time and renders it seemingly empty and irrelevant for the circle. The “objection death spiral” (as Chris Cowan of HolacracyOne calls it) has found another victim. The recommended antidote is to emphasize the value of “objections” whenever possible. But how? The term “objection” really is a PR disaster in itself.
Construct-awareness and intelligent language design
We are convinced that we have addressed the problem at a more fundamental level, the level of terminology. Words shape our perception of reality in subtle and powerful ways. The re-labeling of “Objection Round” to “Safety-Check of the Proposal”, of “objections” to “safety concerns”, of “invalid” to “no need to be integrated” and of “NVGO” to “formal error” will over time re-shape the perception of the practitioners in a fundamental and beneficial way.
Welcoming “safety concerns” increases the occurrence of the integration step in the governance process. The more often the facilitator facilitates integration, the more experienced he will become in dealing with formal errors and safety concerns. He and the other circle members notice that it is not a big deal if they come up. On the contrary: they are being welcomed since they take the pressure off from the proposer of having to have already considered all unwanted side-effects (harms) of his proposal in advance or to present a ‘perfect’, flawless proposal. The integration of safety concerns through the process makes the new proposal safe enough to try for the organization. The higher level of acceptance of safety concerns, in turn, increases the occurrence of integration, etc. An upward spiral of practice is set in motion.
Change in the order of the test questions
At Hypoport we still practice according to constitution v4.1. One change of constitution v5.0 is that the order of the test questions for safety concerns (“objections”) was altered. Criterion 4 (“Which of your roles is limited by the proposal?”) moves up in the order to the second place. Criterion 2 becomes 3, criterion 3 becomes 4, accordingly. The reason is that most safety concerns fail at the fourth question, which is why it is being considered inefficient to ask the other questions before that. One can arrive at the same conclusion much faster when the order of the questions is optimized in this way.
The fraction of practitioners (on GitHub) that were against this change, argued that the old order of question was more valuable from a didactic point of view. They argued that beginners at least could gain familiarity with the two other test criteria before their concern would be deemed not necessary to be integrated and sorted out. In the end, the efficiency fraction won the argument. We happen to agree with the efficiency fraction and are convinced that the change makes sense since it can help to make a long process shorter and speed it up that way. That’s why we integrated it into our version of the facilitation card. Regardless of that, one may already ask the test questions in any order under v4.1 of the constitution. But adopting this change in the facilitation card is a conscious design decision which of course will influence the practice in subtle, but powerful ways, especially for beginners.
Integration of the cheat sheet essence into the new cards
Whoever took part in our internal Holacracy Practitioner Training at Hypoport in the past, was piled by us trainers with all kinds of material: two A5 sized facilitation cards, a four-page governance cheat sheet in A4 size, as well as a double-paged cheat sheet in A4 for tactical meetings. The good news is that we managed to condense the tips and insights of the cheat sheets and halve the overall amount. Governance now fits onto a double-sided A4 card (“Governance Process Cheat Sheet”) or two double-sided A5 cards (main card and auxiliary card), respectively. Tactical still fits onto an A5 sized card, but additionally contains the tips of the previous double-sided tactical cheat sheet.
Governance card changes in detail
The front page of the A4 “Cheat Sheet” version of the card provides a list of useful framings next to each step of the meeting. Also, the user finds tips, checklists, and notes for each step. Alternatively, you find these tips on the front-page of the A5 Auxiliary Card (currently only available in German).
We added a new box to remind the facilitator that the secretary is supposed to capture the proposal and the underlying tension in the software tool (Glassfrog, Holaspirit or other). Practitioners often tend to forget one or both of these which slows down the process unnecessarily and makes it less clear. If you forget to capture the original tension a potential integration gets more difficult later. If the facilitator forgets to have the proposal captured the process is completely derailed since every consecutive step hinges on it and refers to it. This change will be especially helpful for novices.
Also new is a box describing “criteria for admissible proposals”, since some proposals may not be admissible for processing in rare cases. The questions in the suggested framing for the Present Proposal step already test for these criteria in an implicit way, but if you decide to test the proposal later on, e.g. during the integration, you have a short test instruction at hand without having to browse through the constitution.
Tips and checklists for the other steps of the process
For Present Proposal, Clarifying Questions, Amend & Clarify, as well as for Integration you find further helpful tips in the right-hand column of the A4 card or on the auxiliary card in A5, respectively, especially the rules of integration that help you deal with obstructive behavior during the integration step of the process. You will rarely need them, but if you need them it is of great help to have a concise summary at hand.
Further, we slightly amended and clarified the descriptions of the process steps. But the biggest changes are about the backside of the governance card, formerly titled “Testing Objections”, now rephrased as “Testing Safety Concerns”.
Merging the introductory question with the first test question
The previous introductory question “Do you see any reason why adopting this proposal causes harm; objection or no objection?” If objection, “what is the harm?”, was abridged to “Could this proposal cause any harm? If yes: What harm?”. Usually, the “harm-sensors” (formerly “objectors”) start to articulate their concerns and to formulate the harm. In the old card this was followed by the first test-question, “Is your concern a reason the proposal causes harm, or is your concern the proposal is unneeded or incomplete?”
This often interrupts the flow of the conversation, since the harm-sensor has usually already started to describe how the proposal causes harm as a response to the introductory question. But then the facilitator asks again, whether they think the proposal causes harm. “Yes, harm, as I just told you!” As the harm-sensor, you feel slightly irritated because it seems the facilitator is not really listening to what you say. The questions feel mechanical, not like an organically developing conversation. That’s why we used to recommend our facilitators to first establish whether they have an objection or not and to stop people in the tracks before they explain why and ask them the first test question right away. At least this felt a little more elegant at the time.
Having a conversation about harm
With the new governance card, it becomes even more elegant, because we have completely merged the introductory question with the first test question. The introductory questions test for the first criterion in the constitution (“The proposal would hurt the circle’s capacity to express its purpose or accountabilities”). In the new version, the first test criterion is translated into an instruction about how to have a conversation about the harm that the proposal could lead to. The facilitator has to ask himself, whether he has heard a description of a concrete harm in the utterances of the harm-sensor, or not. These are the “poles” of the first test-question if you will. We made three common categories of harm explicit for the facilitator. The harm-sensor has to describe one of three things:
- time-related (inefficiency), material or nonmaterial damage
- certain pieces of the proposal are unclear or incomprehensible
- proposal degrades the capacity of the circle to fulfill its purpose
If the harm-sensor fails to refer to a harm from one of these categories of harm the facilitator can specify that he needs to hear a concrete harm and offer the three definitions above. If the harm-sensor fails to describe a concrete harm again, the card prompts the facilitator to ask, “Do you simply have a better idea?”, “Do you find the proposal unnecessary?”. If the harm-sensor says “yes” to any of them he has just articulated an independent tension, without explaining how the proposal causes harm. His concern “does not need to be integrated” at this stage of the process. As a facilitator, you can offer him to bring his own tension for the agenda at this step. As mentioned above, the new card specifies the reason for the rejection of the tension and the further options for the harm sensor from here on. This is much more appreciative than just being brushed off by the facilitator with the words “Your objection is invalid!” People will be much more inclined to open their mouths during the next “Safety Check of the Proposal” (formerly “Objection Round”).
Capturing the harm and inserting it into the test-questions to concretize them
After the first criterion, the secretary is being reminded to capture the concrete harm with as little words as possible in the scratchpad of the software tool. The “concrete harm” is indicated with angular brackets and red color and can be inserted into the other test questions in order to make them more comprehensible. That’s the reason why we highlighted the “[concrete harm]” in the test questions of the other criteria as well. Here’s an example.
Let’s assume the harm-sensor mentions “reputational damage” as potential harm caused by the proposal. The secretary captures it in the scratchpad. Now the facilitator can use this text module to insert it into the test question.
“Is the [reputational damage] created by this proposal, or is the [reputational damage] already a problem, even if the proposal were dropped?”
is much more comprehensible than
“Is your concern created by this proposal, or is it already a concern, even if the proposal were dropped?”
“Do you conclude from your own experience that the [reputational damage] will occur, or are you anticipating the [reputational damage] will likely occur?”
is much less abstract than
“Do you conclude from your own experience that [the harm] will occur, or are you anticipating the harm will likely occur?”
The meaning of the test questions becomes much more apparent for the harm-sensor as well as for the facilitator. The test questions are concretized for the specific concern at hand. Instead of a mechanic interaction with abstract questions, it feels more like a real conversation to explore a safety concern.
With the new cards, we witness the anecdotal effect that novice facilitators listen much more closely to what people are actually saying so that they even dare to drop some of the test questions. We hear statements like “I will skip this test question — you already told me that.” This has virtually never occurred in the 25 practitioner trainings before! The conversation becomes much more intuitive and natural. Instead of an insecure facilitation robot rattling down test questions, we see people interacting meaningfully to figure something out together.
The question of which role is affected
The question of which role is affected by the proposal was moved up according to the order in v5.0 of the constitution. Since facilitators often don’t test in a precise way at this point and the harm-sensor often just vaguely answers “yes”, we have explicated the “sub-question” and gave it its own box in the flow process chart of the questions: “Which of your roles would be limited in expressing their purpose or accountabilities and how?” People that start stuttering at this question and fail to explain, don’t have a concrete role in mind that would be limited by the proposal. They merely want to “help”, but this is not enough for a harm that needs to be integrated. (In the tips accompanying this step we point out that for the lead link of the circle “helping his circle” and “helping his role” converge at this point since coincidentally it is his purpose to do so.)
The question of causation by the proposal
By inserting the concrete harm into this test question, the facilitator can make it much more concrete. As an additional innovation — analog to the test question above – we have added the implied “sub-question” and gave it its own box in the flow process chart: “How will [the harm] be created by the proposal?” Like with the other questions, asking this question is optional. If by carefully listening, the facilitator can already answer this question in his own mind, he doesn’t have to ask it. But if it is unclear to him, it can be useful.
The question of “presently known data” / “knowing if the impact will occur”
Again, we’ve made changes to the test question that causes less friction and makes answering it more intuitive. Previously, the question was “Do you know this impact will occur, or are you anticipating this impact will likely occur?” The underlying criterion in the constitution says, “The objection is either based on presently-known data, or is necessarily predictive because we can’t adapt later.” In practice, we observe the most false-negative tests at this question that lead to declaring “concerns that need to be integrated” as “invalid” or “not relevant for integration”.
The Golden Rule for testing safety concerns
Naturally, this is poisonous for the legitimacy of the governance process, because a wrongly dismissed concern actively introduces harm for the organization. The opposite of this, namely integrating a falsely accepted concern is far less damaging. That’s why it is called the “Golden Rule for testing safety concerns”. We created an extra box for it. If you as a facilitator are in doubt, whether or not a safety concern needs to be integrated, the advice is to err on the side of accepting it for integration. It creates much less harm to simply integrate it, compared to throwing it out prematurely — only to find out later that there actually was a harm that should have been integrated into the proposal. Ouch. Bad testing makes people lose faith in the governance process.
Hot cooktops and experiential knowledge
Our reformulation of the test question concerning “presently known data” circumvents the problem of having to explain the definition of “presently known data” over and over again. The new formulation reads, “Do you conclude from your own experience that [the harm] will occur, or are you anticipating [the harm] will likely occur?”
These explanations usually led to explain to the harm-sensors that “presently known data” is experiential knowledge. Of course, I cannot be 100% certain that I will burn my fingers again if I touch the hot cooktops a second time, but my experiential knowledge is enough for me to make the right decision. It is not just a speculative proposition that the proposal to touch the hot cooktops could create harm. My knowing is rooted in “presently known data”. (In the auxiliary comments we added the tip, that concerns that highlight the unclarity or incomprehensibility of the proposal always constitute an “own experience”: I directly experience the proposal as being unclear or incomprehensible in this present moment. Experiential knowledge doesn’t have to refer to the past. It can also refer to the present moment.)
Colleagues with a lot of years of business experience usually have a greater repository of experiences to draw from than entry-level workers. This is an added value for the organization since they don’t have to make the same mistake twice. Entry-level workers may not have that much experience to draw from. That’s why they may land on the second pole of the pole question more often. They have to anticipate a potential harm caused by the proposal more often since they can’t refer to corresponding experiences yet. Only concretely experienced situations or examples that the harm-sensor can explain count as “own experiences”. Again, we explicated the sub-question and gave it its own box: “What is your experience?”. If the harm-sensor has nothing to show here, he is merely anticipating.
Significant harm or safe enough to try?
If the harm-sensor merely anticipates, his concern does not get filtered out yet. This last criterion has a sub-question for the case that the harm is merely anticipated. Under this precondition (and under this precondition only, since the rampant over-use of the “safe-enough-to-try”-question produces false-negatives) the facilitator asks the question: “Are you concerned that significant harm could occur before we can adapt, or is it safe enough to try, knowing we can revisit it anytime?” We tweaked the wording of the question only marginally, but we highlighted the word “significant” with boldface. Additionally, we added the tip that the facilitator should not try to drill down deeper, once a harm-sensor has indicated that significant harm may occur. The harm-sensor really is the crucial sensor here, even if you as the facilitator don’t feel it. (Think of the blinking battery light.)
Result: “a concrete harm that must be integrated”
Once a concern has passed all test questions we arrive at “a concrete harm that must be integrated”, instead of a “valid objection”. The concern revealed itself as a tension that needs to be integrated. Since novice facilitators often stumble after a successful test, we added the following instruction for orientation: “Ask the same person for further safety-concerns and complete the round. Only move on to Integration after you have collected all concrete harms that need to be integrated.”
Constitutional conformity of our new terminology
In order to use our facilitation cards, the Holacracy constitution doesn’t have to be amended (although it may be worthwhile to think about it at some point). The criteria applied match the criteria for “objections” in constitution v4.1 and v5.0 100%. For the time being, it is just a variation in the didactic of the process. We merely translated the intention of the process into a more conducive language.
Our experience so far is that the new governance card works much better than the old version. We will continue to test this version and share our experiences at Hypoport with the broader community of practice.
Changes in the Tactical Card
Optically, the new tactical card now comes in the Hypoport colors, too. Check-in and Closing Round as more human-related “be”-part of the process (“hola::be”) are offset with a blue background color, in contrast to the more work-related steps of the process on the white background. Both steps now contain pre-framed questions that the facilitator can read at the beginning and the end of the process. The goal is to enter and exit the process consciously and create a smooth transition between my perspective as a human to my role perspective and vice versa.
The descriptions of the process steps on the front side were modified only slightly. Instead of numbers, each step now has its own icon. Like with the governance card, the biggest changes are on the backside.
The block on top of the page describes the general steps for processing agenda items. Below that the facilitator finds boxes with the four main pathways available to solve any tension.
Pathways with a clear step by step guidance
The respective pathways are enumerated from A-D in boxes with a red title bar. They contain the questions that you can ask the agenda item owner to find out, what would help him. As soon as the agenda item owner has “logged in” to a certain path, you only have to follow the sequence of steps in a certain box in order to arrive at an appropriate output. Additionally, there are “Watch for” boxes with tips, framings, and cross-references to other, more appropriate pathways. Many of these tips were part of the old card, too, but there are some new hints.
New: holding the focus of the discussion
We added a general “Watch for” box to help the facilitator hold the focus of the discussion:
- Watch for contributions by others that seem long or uninvited. In doubt interrupt and ask agenda item owner: “Is this helpful for you?”
- If “yes”, hold the space and manage the time.
- If “no”, ask agenda item owner: “What do you need instead?”
Previously, these tips were only to be found on our tactical cheat sheet. We found them relevant enough to help the facilitator hold the focus of the discussion — regardless of which specific path the agenda item owner ends up choosing. That is why we added the box in a prominent position.
Something needs to be done
Here, we specified the exact sequence of the path and numbered the steps consecutively. First, the desired outcome needs to be captured, then the facilitator tries to identify if there is a role that the project or action would naturally go to. Once the role has been identified, the facilitator asks the role-filler, whether it would serve its purpose to do take it on. If in the previous step no fitting role could be identified, the project or action is requested from the lead link. He has to assess whether the work is relevant for the circle and catch everything that falls through the cracks of the role grid.
Requesting and sharing information
The questions for these pathways have been complemented with two aspects. Instead of asking, “Do you need information?” the new question is, “Do you need information, ideas or feedback?” The same goes for the other path: “Do you want to share information, ideas or feedback?” These additions give the agenda item owner a broader idea of how he can use these pathways to solve his tension.
Precise instructions for secretaries
The card now also features instructions for the secretary, highlighted by an extra icon. If there is something to be done (C), he is supposed to capture the requested outcome and look up a corresponding role in the governance records (if possible) and capture the respective partner who accepted the project. In the case of requesting or sharing information (A, B), he is supposed to not capture anything. In the case of a recurring expectation (D), he is supposed to capture the underlying tension (the gap, the missing piece, the unclarity), not the desired governance solution (“I want a new role”). Now the facilitator can easily keep track of all of this and instruct the secretary if needed. This is especially helpful for inexperienced secretaries who need guidance from the facilitator.
Summary and outlook
In our trainings we always caution our participants against changing the rules of the Holacracy processes. Adaptations in the practice or the constitution should not be made frivolously since the rules reach deeper than most people think. One should know what one is doing. The adaptations proposed in the new facilitation cards are rooted in a context of intensive practice and didactic. They solve some of the central tensions that we have experienced again and again as coaches, trainers, and practitioners of Holacracy.
In the hola::be circle we’re very proud of these innovations and think that they will make Holacracy practice easier and more intuitive at Hypoport (and beyond). They have the potential to evolve the language conventions in the broader community of practice.
We are very interested in the experience that you collect while using the new cards. What works better, what worse? Let us know. You can play an active role in the evolution of a practice that has the potential to revolutionize the world of work.
P.S.: We’re native speakers of German. We first evolved the German version and then translated it back to English. If you find glitches, awkward expressions or have suggestions for how to enhance the flow in English, please let us know!