And suddenly, we were living in a new culture… How did that happen?

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.

How do companies grow into new cultures? Can a given culture be changed? How palpable is a culture anyway? And if you wanted to change it, how would you go about it? These are questions that occupy Organizational Development consultants and researchers alike. At Business School Lausanne (BSL) we have decided to prototype new forms of organizations as a way to offer a living case study to our students. For the end of the year, I would like to offer a self-reflective piece about our organizational journey, from my own personal (and obviously, limited) perspective.  

On 30 September 2015, BSL had formally implemented self-organization (Holocracy) as its new way to organize itself. Now, one year and three months later, we are looking at ourselves in disbelief. We have become a living and breathing organism with its own distinct culture and sense of purpose. And we wonder: how did this happen?! This blog attempts an analysis by looking at six distinct time periods in the course of the last 15 months.

Step 1: October to December 2015 – We can learn this. The initial three months of implementing Holacracy were colored with a tremendous (good) will to learn this new system. I think every single one of us put in discipline, time, energy, and an open trust. We learned the technique of Holacracy, got burned by what it unveiled in us regarding how judgmental and close-minded one is, and we stopped and wondered, does this work? Some of us masterminded a massive systems-change that we proudly introduced in December 2015: from two circles, we shifted to five circles – in one go (a “circle” is something like a “department” or “business unit” – those roles that work together organize in a circle). Only later would we learn that this is absolutely not the way to go about solving “tension by tension”. We were still operating from a paradigm of hierarchy, quite unaware and unconscious, but willing to try. We attempted to separate “role” from “soul” and forgot about the “soul” in the process, without knowing what to do about it. Holacracy told us – “just trust the system”.

Step 2: January to March 2016 – In the deepest of darkness. After these initial three months of openly learning the mechanics of Holacracy, our team dove into a dark place where we lost our previous natural sense of how to maintain personal relationships as a part of our professional collaboration. Suddenly, everything felt mechanic, cold, and distant and there seemed to be no place to connect from person to person. Our Holacracy coach kept on telling us: “Holacracy structures how you work together; how you want to relate to another, what we call ‘tribe space’, that is up to you to define.” We didn’t know what to do with this advice – “tribe space” was a term that didn’t resonate and sporadic attempts to create a “tribe space” were mostly left unattended. Critical colleagues raised concerns about a serious loss of trust in the team saying we have a big problem.

Step 3: April to May 2016 – Addressing dormant people issues. These dark three months forced some previously unaddressed and uncomfortable people issues into bright daylight. We had learned to talk straight and to listen to one another – one of the great benefits of Holacracy’s very mechanic technics. This dialogue culture enabled us to openly address pain points that we didn’t have the courage to address before. We realized that not everybody would make it and we made generous offers to those that would not be able to dance this new journey of self-responsibility and co-creation with us at a much heightened innovation speed. These talks didn’t help the sense of darkness in the team, to the contrary, now the problems were in the open and things looked and felt bleak.

Step 4: June to August 2016 – Inventing a new recruitment process. Connected to step 2, we were facing some serious recruitment challenges that resulted from having addressed the people pain points. Quite unknowingly, we stumbled into a number of new practices that entirely overhauled our recruitment process. We started to ask very different questions to candidates, asked them to write an essay about how they might do in a self-organizing structure, and we used new strength-based assessment tools. We formalized a policy that the committee should consist of concerned colleagues that were intimately knowledgeable and concerned with the roles a new-hire would take. The blog “we are hiring for DNA” explains this well.

Step 5: September to October 2016 – Questioning the performance evaluation and bonus system. During the busiest time of our year, we also had to do our performance reviews. Given that we were new at self-organization, we didn’t quite know how to do this in our new setting. Those partners who cared formed a committee that defined in a few pragmatic sessions a process that seemed reasonable and time efficient. The result: a small disaster! By now, our team was entirely comfortable to discuss uncomfortable issues collectively and we quickly assembled a list of things that didn’t work. We agreed that we no longer wanted to tie our financial bonus to our peer-based performance review. So how to advance? Simply, a call to those among us to self-organize and propose a better system for the coming year. This is an excellent example of what is called “safe enough to try”. We tried, it didn’t work so well, we still all accepted and embraced the consequences and vouched to do better next year. No hard feelings! As you can see, the goodwill and the trust were back – in a very new and different way. Not a trust in a boss or a hierarchy, nor a need to plead for personal favors, a trust in our way of making decisions, a trust in the ability for everybody to speak up and be respected, a trust that the others cared.

Step 6: November to December 2016 – The real test with titles and new-born authority. With our new-hires in place and with priorities cleared for the coming months, the question arose as to what to do with our old titles, in particular, “the Dean”. We recognized that our outside world demanded such a title and position, even if, internally, we had delegated its accountabilities into a variety of roles and circles and the Dean was no longer a reality for us. There were four of us with external roles that at times resembled what is traditionally called a “Dean” role. In a governance meeting we discussed, argued, considered, reflected, rejected, improvised and eventually agreed that we shall be having the “Dean” title available to those who have an external representation need, clarifying that four people can use the title in four different special areas, such as academic programs, executive education, thought leadership, applied research. The website adjustment is still underway and shows how hot a potato titles are. Meanwhile, new authority arose elsewhere: we will be making three significant leadership changes on 1 January 2017 in three key circles. Leadership in the sense of ensuring that resources and competencies are directed at realizing the identified mission. As my last act of “letting go”, the BSL Company Lead Link (a position even the Holacracy inventor Brian Robertson still holds at his company) will be energized by Carlo Giardinetti, while Branko Sain takes over the School Lead Link and Massimo Baroni takes over the Support Service Lead Link. All of these appointments are announced as being intended for the year 2017, and we shall be seeing who has appetite and talent to embrace such roles thereafter.  Denitsa Marinova has risen to be our inspiration in her new people role, offering daily positivity challenges during the Advent months. David Kibbe says that he feels that partners take more time to connect personally, creating a foundation for getting things done so much more easily. And last but not least, our newly invented Gap Frame Weeks have transformed the way the administration and the faculty interact with the student body, something that was palpable at our Holiday Season Party, which was a huge success. We are closing the year on an unprecedented high, “looking back at the pain with appreciation and understanding” (Aurea Almanso) and “feeling new wind beneath our wings” (David Kibbe). Welcome 2017 – we are ready to embrace whatever is thrown our way!

Are these six steps necessary? Could we have anticipated or planned for them? Can you learn something from these? Do these steps provide insight into cultural transformation? I am not sure. Yet I am curious to continue with our “action research” to see if there is anything we and others can indeed learn, if only in hindsight. And that is one of the purposes of a year-end reflection, too!

To my blog correspondent, Kathy, I wish you strength to continue with your own personal journey of sense-making, most particularly in the coming year. It is a privilege to co-write this blog with you as it brings my own reflection about how to enable organizations to become sustainable and to contribute to taking the common good to new heights. Thank you for that and thank you for sharing so authentically your own journey in your last blog.

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3 thoughts on “And suddenly, we were living in a new culture… How did that happen?

  1. To be fair, I didn’t hold the GCC Lead Link role for the first 6.5 years of our company’s history – I only took it on for the last few… But aside from that nitpick, I love this story Katrin, and congrats on all the major progress and challenges overcome!

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