Positive Impact Blog

Thought provoking insights for change makers

Redefining boundaries within organizations

If we want companies to engage in courageous collaboration beyond their traditional organizational boundaries and engage in new ways with other players and stakeholders, we need people capable of engaging themselves personally in new ways, and also engaging with others. This article looks at what it takes to achieve just that. 

Following Kathy Miller’s April blog on Courageous Collaboration which focused primarily on collaboration among and beyond organizations, I would like to complement her perspective with a reflection on courageous collaboration within organizations. Both – I believe – are essential in a journey where organizations and their people can contribute to a better world.

Reviewing the action research blogs about the organizational and personal journey we have all undergone at Business School Lausanne, I have discovered a number of insights that are worth sharing:

Enabling an equal footing among all people

Ensuring the same rights and conditions among all employees, irrespective of their work-related hierarchy, is easier said than done. Even nine months after having transferred our formal power into a constitution that clearly empowers all employees to express their concerns in a safe way, we are still not entirely there. We are still fighting a shadow hierarchy, even if these are mostly in the heads and are projections of the “old system”. What we have accomplished is that such concerns are now expressed openly and with ease. A good indication that we may be at the beginning of an equal footing, that is of essence for true collaboration. Once ensured, an equal footing allows that ideas, concerns and insights of all kinds can be shared with equal priority, a basis for an innovative environment. Even though we might just be at the very beginning, we are already experiencing a significant increase in innovation.

Establishing deep listening

A clear procedure enforced through a clear process has proven incredibly powerful to help us become aware of our deeply engrained thought patterns when listening to each other. Holacracy has procedures that prevent an automatic pattern of interrupting others (and thus preventing real listening). After nine months of living by these rules, I have noticed a change in my listening patterns. Rather than observing instant thoughts popping up whenever somebody suggests something, I notice now a free space in my head that allows a much deeper and open listening, focused on understanding rather than immediately judging, evaluating, deconstructing, denying or approving. We all had our challenges with the strict Holacracy structure and how this brought up patterns in us. At BSL, we offered every employee a CHF 1000 grant for their individually defined personal development programme, recognizing that transforming an organization does impact everybody and that we wanted to not only own our organizational responsibility for this but enable each individual to deal with what comes up and to look at flaws, for those with an appetite for it. Many have jumped at the opportunity and we look forward to seeing what happens if a large majority of the team engages with personal development alongside the organization. The point here is: resources, including financial, must be made available to enable such a profound transformation! We are now able to talk very differently and this space has resulted in more opinions being shared and considered by a broader team that feels more engaged. This is a basic condition for collaboration.

A transparent process for problems

Any organization depends on real processes that ensure that anybody can safely bring up problems and issues without suffering any consequences. Holacracy provided us with such a safe space. It took the various members of our organization about six months until everybody started to be at ease in bringing up controversial and possibly disruptive or questionable ideas that will challenge conventions and ways things have worked. Now that we have this space, which is guaranteed through a bullet-proof process, innovation is emerging in new, unconventional, honest and not always very convenient ways. We have developed our culture from a more homogeneous, stable place to a place where change is a part of the everyday, and transformation happens continuously in small doses. From a developmental perspective, this is very interesting; the only alternative might be to hire the right people from the start, so
mething that is not feasible with a going concern and ignores the possibility of developing those with an appetite to discover and embrace more of their potential along with the organization. Continuous change is not everybody’s business, we have discovered this too and creating a space where this can be expressed and dealt with that is the kind of culture that truly does enable the more underlying transformation of deep change, so very different from a top-down change process. We have never experienced such a degree of honest and authenticity in working with and among ourselves and while some things have been difficult to listen to, we now work on a new basis of trust that is built on a common understanding of reality and where we stand as compared to where we might like to be. Such a basis of understanding removes all artificiality and falseness and enables true collaboration.

Slowing down to speed up

We used to mastermind change by considering all intended and unintended consequences of a decision, then orchestrating change top down. This was one of my specialties and I am still learning to resist my temptation to mastermind change. We are starting to see the benefits of simply processing one “tension” (problem, idea, issue, etc.) at a time and implementing related changes in the spirit of “if safe enough to try, let’s go ahead”. And then letting the next tension, which might be unrelated and occurring elsewhere in the organization be processed. The emergent ongoing process of adaptation and change, one step at a time, slightly resembles a dancing spider. While it sometimes still feels like we could move faster when masterminding, we are just starting to experience the benefits of advancing at a speed that is felt by those who are actually affected. It not only results in the most appropriate solution but is also much more relaxed from a managerial perspective. For the first time, working at BSL feels like working in a team of peers with everybody engaged in advancing the organization towards its mission.

Separating the role from the soul

We always say that it is important to separate work from personal relationships, yet we have learned at BSL that most people have no idea what this actually means. Since last September, we have first focused on optimizing our work relationships, entirely neglecting our personal relationships and missing them at the same time. After a dip in team spirit and after a long dark period, the benefits started to emerge. Learning how openly and directly we can deal with work issues, without taking offence, opened up a new type of personal space in which we are now able to be with each other just as human beings. This transformation is entirely surprising and unexpected. It was the most difficult thing in our Holacracy implementation, and we had no idea what expected us at the end of the tunnel. The ability to separate work roles from our individual souls, has professionalized our work and increased our productivity and efficiency while at the same time, we are able to have very difficult conversations without taking them personal. At the same time, we have deepened our individual relationships in entirely new ways. This separation allows an entirely new flexibility and honesty in matching individual strengths with accountabilities and roles. Giving up the idea of jobs and identifying roles and accountabilities has provided the basis for this flexibility.

Seeing the hero in others

The strength-based approach that now defines the way we look at each other, has brought out a special talent in one of our team members, Carlo. He dreams of a team of heroes that work together to advance the mission of our organization and with this view, he has developed a habit of addressing particular skills or competencies in hero terms. He says, “Hey, that is amazing what you did here, which hero suit do you want? How about Spiderman? Or Superman?” By now, his view has become contagious and we are paying a lot more compliments to each other when one does something that is worth appreciating. This has generated a lightness and a humor that has transformed our hard work into more of a dance than a race it used to be. This new sense of appreciation may well be a result of having so rigorously separated role from soul. It has for sure augmented our spirit of collaboration.

Sharing the journey of learning

An important impulse for our newly found basis of collaboration lies in the simple fact that our entire team started a process of learning a system that none of us knew: Holacracy. This put all of us at an entirely equal level and it ensured that nobody knew better, with everybody having a chance to shine, to help others, to ask for help, to praise and be praised, to role model in the many possible ways that make a difference in a team that consists of true collaborators that know both the strengths and weaknesses of each other and know how to ensure progress by focusing on strengths and celebrating big and small successes that were jointly achieved

These seven insights are a result of our organizational transformation that has provoked such fundamental and deep changes in the way we look at ourselves and at each other, how we work together and how we are able to truly collaborate. This transformation was by no means without pain, but the magic that is emerging now is far beyond the wildest dreams I had when we started this process. Introducing Holacracy, an organizational operating system that enables a power distribution and self-organization, has brought about a chance that has fundamentally transformed our ability to collaborate internally. An important element for an organization to also effectively cooperate beyond its boundaries with other organizations. As we have learned, reviewing internal boundaries that reconsider our individual, personal space in an entirely new way – separating soul from role – has become the source of innovation to create an inspiring basis of true collaboration.

Author: Katrin Muff PhD

Dr. Katrin Muff is Director of the Institute for Business Sustainability in Lucerne, Switzerland and Professor of Practice at the LUISS Business School in Rome, Italy. She consults leaders and boards in business sustainability and strategic transformation, and runs an executive program together with Thomas Dyllick. Her book “Five Superpowers for Co-creators” provides insights about issue-centered multi-stakeholder processes. She brings 20 years of international strategic and general management experience in Europe, Australia, North America and Russia and a decade of leadership in business education. www.KatrinMuff.com

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