Create an empowered organization using participatory governance

Jurriaan Kamer
The Ready

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More and more, we hear leaders talking about empowering the people in their organization. The idea is to have people take ownership and responsibility of roles and tasks, and take initiative to advance the organization and improve its outcomes. Despite good intentions, often the impact of these ambitions is limited.

The problem is, the vast majority of teams don’t actually feel that they have ownership over their ways of working. Everything has always been dictated to them: from the roles they play, to the meetings they attend, to the tools they use.

How can we have an empowered organization if we don’t change the power structure? What would it take to truly give everyone a voice in shaping the organization?

The need for a new approach

Everyone feels the weight of organizational debt; outdated processes, the lack of documented or explicit agreements about how the work should be done, and the vagueness around who makes the final call in various situations. We talk about these challenges and encourage people to take ownership of their work but we lack a forum where we can update policies, roles and agreements to reflect current needs.

The default assumption in most organizations is that we don’t have the right to do anything unless we’re given permission. Over time, red tape builds up until hardly anything can be done. Only senior managers are able to act freely and make decisions on behalf of the people doing the work. Everyone else, unauthorized to solve their own problems, develops a sense of apathy and learned helplessness. Leaders are overwhelmed because they work in a structure where decision-making is concentrated at the top. This all leads to a vicious cycle where engagement dips, mistakes are made, and leaders don’t trust anyone. Preventing people from using their judgment and making decisions like this is too slow for our dynamic and ever-changing world.

But there is an alternative. Progressive organizations ensure that everyone has the freedom and autonomy to use their judgment to serve the organization’s purpose. Their default assumption is that you can do anything unless a specific policy or agreement prohibits it. In order for this to work, it must start from a position of trust. Progressive organizations distribute authority as much as possible to teams and individuals who work closest to the market or customers, where the action and the information are. Teams can then take full responsibility and true ownership for their work and their way of working. As a result, there is more organizational learning and better performance.

The norm of continuous reorganization

The usual model for organizational change is a large scale reorganization every two to four years. These restructurings are risky, challenging to execute, and highly disruptive. They also do not reflect the actual pace and variety of changes happening in the business environment. They’re typically designed in a top-down fashion, and disconnected from the realities of the people who will be impacted by the overhaul.

Rather than this top-down, predict-and-execute approach to reshuffling team members, organizations must develop the ability to adapt continuously to current events. When properly empowered, each person in an organization can act as a sensor, discerning how things are running, and deliver rich data to steward this process. This is what we call participatory governance.

What is participatory governance?

Participatory governance provides the opportunity for people to participate in directing, steering and shaping the organization.

When applying this style of governance, the responsibility for shaping the way a team or organization works is no longer relegated to leaders only. Instead, everyone takes ownership and accountability for fixing problems and acting upon opportunities. We let the people that are affected by these opportunities shape the rules and constraints of the organization’s operating system. This includes things like how we make decisions, how we plan and prioritize, how we share information and other policies or working agreements.

First, some history

The idea of participatory governance stems from sociocracy, which can be defined as governance by those who associate together. This form of governance came into popular practice over fifty years ago in the Netherlands. But its first application emerged even earlier when a young Gerard Endenburg attended a school founded by Kees Boeke which was based on Quaker principles and practices. At his school, Boeke attempted to reform education by allowing the contributions and ideas of children to be heard. He called this process sociocracy and regarded staff and students as equal participants in the governing of the school. All decisions needed to be acceptable to everyone who was affected by them, whether child or adult.

In the 1960s, Endenburg became the general manager of his family’s engineering company, and introduced this philosophy into his workplace. He realized that consensus was not only impossible at scale but it didn’t reflect how adaptive systems really worked. Endenburg proposed that consent rather than consensus should be the principle that governs organizations and communities. His argument was that all decisions involving policy — agreements, rules, roles, structures, and resources — should be made through the informed consent of those impacted by them.

The processes Endenburg developed have been refined over the years by practitioners of sociocracy. They were then reintroduced in a more structured form as integrative decision-making by the creators of holacracy (more on IDM below). To learn more about Endenburg’s inspiring vision, you can watch my interview with him.

Using consent to power forward movement

As opposed to striving for unanimous agreement, reaching consent requires a status of no objections. This differs from consensus, where everyone is required to share the same opinion. Consent asks teams to pass any proposal that falls within the collective range of tolerance rather than every individual’s personal preference.

Everyone can voice their objections, which are then addressed by the person proposing the idea (the proposer). However, anyone who objects to a proposal cannot simply veto it; they must attempt to shape it further. The proposal is then tweaked until everybody consents to trying it out, as long as they believe it will do no irreversible harm to the company or team.

Much of the dysfunction surrounding decision-making in organizations is grounded in a warped sense of risk. Not all decisions hold equal weight and therefore should not all be treated equally. Some decisions have risky and irreversible implications, while others are low-risk and are easily reversed. If we define the waterline, or what is safe-to-try, it becomes easier to distribute authority and empower people to make decisions.

In many workplaces, it’s standard practice to spend hours debating over different options. This slows progress and often doesn’t get us any more information. As a remedy for that, the idea of safe-to-try encourages teams to test something out and gather more data. They can only really learn if the decision works by putting it into practice.

Putting it in practice with participatory governance meetings

Humans have a bias towards negativity: we’re good at noticing when something isn’t working and can easily spot flaws in systems — especially the ones we work with on a daily basis. We call this a tension, a gap you feel between reality and what you’d like it to be.

The challenge is finding a way to channel this sensing ability and potential into productive action rather than idle complaints. Participatory governance meetings provide that forum. During these meetings, any team member can bring forth a proposal for making a change, however minor. The meeting provides a structure for the team to respond to it. The purpose of the meeting is to update, articulate, or remove working agreements (rules, processes, roles, decision rights, and so on) that require team consent.

The integrative decision-making (IDM) process

During the meeting, we use the integrative decision-making (IDM) process as an algorithm for processing a proposal based on the principles of consent and safe-to-try, as explained above. IDM contains a series of rounds that serve as a way of processing a proposal. Above all, the method prioritizes inclusion and forward momentum.

At first, this process can feel slow as a team breaks bad habits. In time, though, experienced teams are able to run through this process quite quickly. Even when just starting out, most teams find IDM is quicker and more effective than the typical unstructured conversations. Keep in mind, we recommend using a facilitator to keep the group on track. Give the honor to someone on your team who can reliably corral the group, instead of defaulting to a leader or “highest in rank.”

Here are the steps:

  1. Propose. Invite a team member to describe a tension they’re trying to solve, followed by a written proposal of a solution or experiment. Here is a template that we often use, which helps you sharpen your thinking around the relevant background, facts, assumptions, constraints, and potential risks. In this round, everyone listens without interjection while the proposer speaks.
  2. Clarify. Going around the table, give each participant the chance to ask the proposer questions so that they can fully understand the proposal. As participants ask, the proposer answers. Help participants save suggestions (even ones phrased as questions) for the reaction round.
  3. React. Going around the table, give each participant the chance to react and/or make suggestions that might improve the proposal. This is their chance to share their point of view. The proposer listens to the feedback but does not reply until the next round.
  4. Adjust. Based on the questions and reactions, the proposer may edit the proposal (or not) and clarify anything that was unclear. The proposer may also remove the proposal at this time if they no longer wish to pursue it based on what they’ve learned.
  5. Consent. Going around the table, give each participant the chance to voice an objection if they have one. An objection is defined as a reason this would be unsafe to try or would cause irreversible harm to the team or organization. This is a high bar by design, as the goal here is progress — a safe step toward resolving the original tension. If there are no objections, this is the final step.
  6. Integrate. If there are any objections, ask objector(s) to work with the proposer to edit the proposal, making it smaller, faster, better, cheaper, or whatever is required to achieve consent from both parties. Once all objections have been addressed, the proposal is accepted.

Things to consider

  • Don’t use IDM for every decision. Examples of unnecessary usage include: when the problem is simple, when the decision will not benefit from group feedback, or when a role has decision-making authority or relevant decision rights. In the last case, use IDM to make working agreements about the decision rights for the roles that are part of the team. This allows most day-to-day decisions to be made by people holding those roles without needing approval from others.
  • You’ll need a transparent and accessible record of the policies, roles, and other agreements that currently exist. This could be housed in your own internal wiki but there are several software options out there that meet this need. The latest being Murmur, a start-up that spun out of an internal initiative at The Ready and specifically designed to make participatory governance easier.
  • Participatory governance meetings can be applied at team level but could just as well be held on a “team of teams” level to cover organization-wide agreements. If there are too many people involved for this kind of meeting to work, we recommend electing representatives to participate.
  • Some leaders might find this difficult because corporate culture typically taught them that their value lies in their tearing things apart and asking gotcha questions. But by starting with questions, we model the importance of understanding. This sets the tone for collaboration (vs. defense) for the proposer. Another challenge this process surfaces is giving everyone airtime, which can be hard for those used to the limelight.
  • Isolated incidents can too easily lead to bureaucracy. The authors of the book Rework describe this as follows: “In many organizations, policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the misdeeds of an individual.” We encourage minimum viable governance, that is, what is the lightest version of formal agreements/red tape needed to operate effectively?

Participatory governance is empowerment in its truest form. It enables the use of collective intelligence and continuous adaptation, and enables leadership at every level. Are you ready to try it out?

Credits: This article is co-authored by Clare Wieck and was based on the contents of an episode of the Brave New Work podcast.

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Jurriaan Kamer
The Ready

Org design & transformation | Author of ‘Formula X’ | Speaker | Future of Work