Positive Impact Blog

Thought provoking insights for change makers

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

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 Saintakes 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.

10 steps toward organizational sustainability

What does it take to get an engineering company to embrace their care for a better world? Is it possible to provide access to the deeper meaning of sustainability to those who define it as either one-dimensional economic long-term survival, or as a predominantly ecological issue?

These were my questions as I prepared for my consulting day with a medium-sized traditional Swiss engineering company. The sustainability-fluent CEO had invited me to lead a workshop with his senior team, including the board, in a first conversation towards formulating a vision 2030 for a company that, in his view, had embrace sustainability. I am sharing here the step-by-step process of that very positive one-day workshop.

The design of the day involved some pre-work for the participants to enable me to ascertain the baseline from which we were working. At the same time I provided an accessible definition and framework of business sustainability to set the foundation on which they could build a common new language. The True Business Sustainability Typology developed by Thomas Dyllick and myself and produced into a convenient six-minute film came in handy (https://youtu.be/AEFqUh4PMmI). I asked them to complete a survey, which consisted of the following questions:

Question 1: What does sustainability mean for you? How would you have defined it before watching the video? What changed after the video? For you, what is sustainability and what is it not? (open ended response)

Question 2: How clear is it for you how your company might live true business sustainability? (multiple answers, including: crystal clear; I see possibilities; I have mostly questions; I have some concerns; I see a contradiction; I am open and look forward)

Question 3: Which sustainability problems touch you most / are a priority in your life? (multiple choice from a selection of 24 sustainability issues picked from the Gap Frame tool that translates the SDGs into a country-by-country measure)

Question 4: What do you expect from a whole day sustainability workshop at your company and what is important for you to say upfront? (open ended question)

In my preparation, I analyzed their responses to understand where they stood and what concerns, issues and hopes they brought along and I developed brief personal profiles containing my impressions (and a photo). Since I had never met the team, I grouped them into categories that would allow me to frame their anticipated worldviews and perspectives, in the hope to anticipate their attitude and responses during the day. Most importantly, it allowed me to be lightheartedly prepared for those from whom I might have to expect resistance.

The workshop was designed to be varied, encouraging listening, thinking and talking, and shifting between plenum, individual and small-group work; it included standing sessions with circle meetings, peer walks, silent personal reflection, presentations, group work and, of course, a bit of physical activity to keep the body, mind and heart active and involved. The CEO’s opening words, which I had asked him to hold standing around a lunch table, were to the point and honest; he finished by saying: “Katrin, you need to understand that everybody is a bit afraid of you right now. We never stood together like this to start a day and when we look to the room where we work, we see a circle of chairs with some funny decoration in the middle”. I smiled it off and immediately switched to everybody doing some straightforward physical activities to re-connect their brains, awaken the body and overcome the awkward feeling by doing awkward things! From there on, the day began to bloom.

Let us look at the journey we took together and how this may be helpful to you too, whether you are a business leader or a strategic consultant.

The personal passion of everyone (circle seating): each participant brought a personal item in response to the question: “If I had a magic wand, what is the one thing I would change in the world?” This round of sharing and story-telling set the tone of the day and the level of depth and engagement in the conversation. It allowed clarification of the term ‘sustainability’, including its less obvious facets, and brought everybody on board by revealing their deep personal connection with one or more sustainability issues.

How ready is your organization for change (open circle seating): each participant was asked to assess where they placed their organization on a scale where 1 was ‘incremental change’ and 2 was ‘quantum leap’. The discussion revealed that the change readiness of individuals was higher than the change readiness of the organization. By introducing my inner-outer world model that shows the interconnection between personal development towards responsible leadership and organizational development towards sustainable business, we had a way to frame the discussion; we highlighted the danger that can arise when organizational stability and comfort slows of extinguishes individual initiative. I used Cameron & Quinn’s Competing Values Framework to direct the thought process into a simple question for assessment: is the organization more internally or externally focused, and is the organization more focused on stability or on flexibility? Together, in an open discussion, we assessed the company’s journey and identified future areas of focus if, indeed, the organization were to embrace a quantum leap.

What are the biggest sustainability issues in Switzerland (lecture): In 30 minutes I explained sustainability, starting with the WEF Global Risks Report on which sustainability issues keeps CEOs awake at night, and outlining Rockström’s planetary boundaries and Oxfam’s social foundation, which Raworth used to develop the safe operating space for humanity. I then introduced the N. Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) and the Gap Frame (a project led by Business School Lausanne), which is a translation of the SDGs into a relevant normative framework applicable not only to the Global South but to every single country. We looked at Switzerland and highlighted five or six of the most burning issues in the domains of environment, society, economy and governance. I ended by sharing their own answers to my pre-workshop survey (see question 3 above), allowing them to connect their personal passion and cares to wider issues of concern within Switzerland (the country their business operates in).

What does sustainability mean for your company (world café): we used four relevant topics from the balanced scorecard the company uses and spent an hour investigating how an outside-in approach, borrowed from the True Business Sustainability Typology (Dyllick & Muff) might inspire entirely new strategic business opportunities for them. This process allows for capturing current product and service improvements, as well as more creative reflection upon which of the company’s core competencies might contribute to solving sustainability issues in their geographic region. This was a good moment to integrate social aspects into the ‘employee’ dimension and magic new ideas arose regarding, for example, integration across generations and cultural groups. Each group reported back and the follow-on discussion provided an incredibly rich tapestry for future strategic options.

Dyllick-Muff (2016): True Business Sustainability

What does this mean for me? What opportunities open up? What is new? (partner walk): participants met in pairs and went for a digestive after lunch walk investigating the questions, allowing them to select among more personal dimensions or discussing concrete business insights. They were equipped with the instruction to focus on listening and were requested not to interrupt or comment on what their partner said. They came back to the room with great energy and a good connection both within and among themselves. The condensation process had started.

What insights have I gained? (silent individual reflection space): without any sharing, each partner was invited to find a comfortable space with his journal and to reflect quietly on what he had learned so far during the day and the insights gained, either personally or for the company. The palpable energy in the room was one of high concentration and creative depth. We had prepared a large wall with paper where partners wrote down their company insights for others to read and share. Rather than debriefing in the plenum, I invited all participants simply to read the comments of their colleagues.

What might be a sustainability vision for our company? (fishbowl set-up): the three ‘elders’ present (board members and CEO) were invited to have a conversation among themselves in an inner circle of chairs with the rest of the management team seated in a circle around them. For half an hour, the participants held the space for a deepening and soul-searching conversation among the most senior partners. The level of attention and listening was most intense in the best of ways. In a follow-on 30 minutes, the outside circle – consisting of the slightly younger management team – were invited to reflect on what they heard and what questions and answers emerged for them. The profound, open and honest, critical and daring discussion showed how the existing company culture had already prepared the team to engage in such conversations. Entirely new ideas arose, including the need for playfulness and prototyping, some conversations also queried many of the initial unquestioned assumptions. We were suddenly at a point where we had more questions than answers. The potential was raw; we were further from where we wanted to be and not quite where the CEO had hoped. This was a critical point to assess how to embrace this potential and capture its value while it was so ripe.

What does sustainability mean for your company? (assigned small teams): the break allowed me to reflect on what was next needed and to amend my agenda. I replaced an exercise that I had pre-agreed with the CEO, with an exercise that would allow everybody to walk away with clarity, while also capturing the value that had been generated thus far. This would enable discussions within small teams to arrive at a concrete outcome that could be shared. To add a notion of playfulness, I suggested that the team that defined sustainability for the company using the least amount of words would win. That turned creativity on! On another wall of paper, the teams designed their ideas, and subsequently pitched their slogans – some of which were pure magic. In the process, they redefined not only the company but also themselves, both individually and collectively. I had to entirely redesign the closing hour of the day.

What more is needed to make this day complete? (standing bar talk): rather than coming up with a plan for the next hour, I decided to ask participants what they each needed to leave with a feeling of accomplishment. The answers varied from a) immediate next steps for action, b) practical application of these great slogans (step 8), c) how does this translate to our plan for the next year, or three years, and d) I want you to give us a lecture on the True Business Sustainability Typology (the exercise I had pre-agreed with the CEO, which I couldn’t ignore!). While I asked each of them to note what they would do a) the next day at work and b) the next week at work, I prepared a short guide as to how to translate the session’s outcomes into the next one and three years, as well as a suggested path on including the rest of the company. The condensation process was achieved when each participant committed their next actions to the rest of the team. My short and medium-term suggestions focused on attending to where energy flows with ease rather than pursuing paths of high resistance (the philosophy of water) and to attend to the opportunities they would attract as a result of this new level of shared. And, of course, I gave my short 10-minute lecture on true business sustainability, using it to further anchor what we had worked on all day.

How do you feel as we leave this workshop? (circle seating): every participant closed the day with some words on how he had begun the day and how he was leaving it. I have never experienced a more energized, inspired and motivated group of engineers in my life! What a humbling moment to be a part of.

These 10 steps are by no means the only way for a company to begin its shared journey of anchoring strategy and vision in the face of global challenges, but they show one way that worked. I am keen to see many companies succeed in this deep change. Kathy Miller in her last blog examined the different mental models that change agents can have and explained that, depending on which model they hold, their approaches will differ significantly. In many ways the above workshop was a means to get a change process going, only. An initial step in a much longer journey.

If you are interested in learning more about these processes, methodologies, and tools, please get in touch via katrin.muff@bsl-lausanne.ch.

The images used in this blog are copyright of Katrin Muff.

We Need to Become Change Experts!

In this blog, I will highlight three different levels of change: 1) at the personal level where change is about changing oneself, 2) at the organizational level where we have a variety of tools to accomplish change as a group, and 3) at the societal level, where we urgently need to understand how to bring awareness to those occupying positions that we consider dangerous (illustrative events being the U.S. elections and the “Brexit” referendum) so that “they change”. More specifically, I will investigate behavioral change. Behavioral broadly relates to anything people do, or as Odgen Lindsley defined it so nicely with his “dead man test”: if a dead man can do it, it is not behavior.

My colleague Kathy Miller has pointed out in her most recent blog, which guides this conversation, that change has a lot to do with loving the mess we are in. She talks about why change is difficult in organizations and appeals to the need for courage. She points out that large scale change is disruptive and can negatively impact our sense of equilibrium. She suggests that building a high tolerance for ambiguity is important to be able to handle change. I agree entirely and want to dig deeper into this important subject, about which I am preparing to write a book.

Change at the personal level has much to do with what Eastern philosophers and self-help gurus call changing yourself. The mantra here is Mahatma Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in the world”. Gandhi was interested in changing the world and, much in line with Eastern philosophy, suggested that any change can only occur if it starts within oneself. My personal experience is that I can change myself all I want; the world is still going to pot. There’s got to be an additional lever for change or we will never get anywhere. What I am saying is: yes, let us find ways to change ourselves, to reflect on our blind spots, to train new behavior, absolutely. Yet, let us also recognize the limitation of this.

Change at the organizational level has been studied in great detail and there are a number of readily available “recipes” available for those who want to become change agents. Aubrey Daniels and Jon Bailey outline in their well-respected fifth edition of Performance Management: Changing behavior that drives organizational effectiveness the importance of providing feedback as an important lever for change. They call levers “reinforcers” suggesting that feedback can help behavior change in a positive direction, thus functioning as a reinforcer. Clearly, there are additional reinforcers besides feedback; for example, compensation is a well-recognized and often effective reinforcer. The advantage of a traditional organizational environment is that there is a power hierarchy that enables those in power to influence those with less power. It allows the use of carrots and sticks, and there is much literature about when and how to use both of these to create change. There is less discussion about creating change in newer and more modern organizational environments, such as a Holacracy, which I am experiencing within my own organization. If power is indeed distributed and people self-organize, sticks and carrots not only lose their power, they simply don’t have a place anymore. I am curious to find out more about how to create change in such new settings.

Change at the societal level implies yet a different spectrum of methods and approaches. Here we are more directly trying to understand how we can change others. And this without the convenient levers we have available when we have some power or pressure points on those we want to change. I am really intrigued by this. The recent climate change debate in the U.S. has shown that simply throwing more information at those so-called climate change deniers does not change anything. The most ardent deniers are as informed as the most ardent supporters. They simply access different information and use information sources they trust to reinforce their beliefs. So how do we “educate” those with beliefs we consider dangerous for our democracy and well-being? In the current electoral environment, I trust this is a worthy and urgent question. Timothy Wilson (author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change) concludes that in order to change the behavior of others, we must change their self-perception; and in order to change self-perception we must change how they act. He uses the example of a study that attempted to reduce teen pregnancy by involving young girls in community activities, thus enabling them to feel more engaged and responsible than before, and consequently altering their self-perception. And indeed, not only did teen pregnancies drop, but participants’ school grades also improved. What does this mean for creating other types of societal change? I believe the resulting question is: how can we create experiences and activities that will change the self-perception of those feeling anger and disappointment with the current establishment as a result of their own reality. How does one do that? I don’t have the answer yet but, more importantly, I have the feeling that I might have just found the right question!

I welcome comments, remarks and suggestions, and look forward to an active and engaged discussion on this topic, which will be the focus of my energy in the coming months.

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.

Organizations of the Future – how to get there?

Organizations of the future can be recognized by a number of unique elements:

They attract and retain talent with future-relevant competencies

They are able to innovate as quickly as the outside world changes

They have distributed power structures based on smart self-organizing units

They build their purpose on solving burning societal needs and thus ensuring long-term economic viability

They embrace stakeholders into their decision-making

They have flexible and adaptive structures and processes

In short: they look very different from the typical large-sized organization of today.

As Kathy Miller pointed out in her February blog, organizations need to “adapt or die” and understanding stakeholder pressure as an opportunity for purposeful growth is an important pathway towards adapting and long-term success. As Kathy has suggested, the average lifespan of corporations has decreased from 60+ years to less than 15 years in the past 100 years (source: Richard Foster, Creative Destruction, 2001). This compares to a human lifespan that has increased by 30 years in the past 100 years. What I am proposing here is a short discussion about how organizational structures need to adjust – a painful, difficult and necessary topic.

Innovation is a big word and many believe that we can innovate around just about anything, including new organizational forms. Gary Hamel has made this claim in his latest Harvard Business Review Article (March 22nd, 2016), suggesting that organizations should prototype new organizational structures into various sub-units rather than adopt carefully designed and complex organizational structures that exist “ready-made”, such as Holacracy. I find this a dangerous invitation for a number of reasons.

First of all, I would say that companies should only innovate in the areas of their specific expertise, which typically do not involve organizational design but rather some specific product or service.

Second, changing an organizational structure can result in significant inefficiencies, fear, resistance and unintended consequences. It makes sense to propose as few such deep changes as possible to avoid paralysis.

Third, organizational structures deal with deeply embedded power structures that trigger all kinds of conscious and unconscious reactions when disrupted – a delicate thing as we know from personal development. It is amplified when applied to an organizational setting. Therefore, I would suggest the very opposite to what Gary Hamel is saying, namely: do not prototype and innovate around your organizational structure. Instead, get professional advice and figure out carefully where your organization stands and where it wants to go and then evaluate what options there are to ensure that the organizational structure supports that future direction. And then choose the option that is most appropriate to your organizational culture.

In Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux outlines different types of organizations using a developmental perspective. He introduces the idea of “teal” organizations which are the emerging newest form of organizations and are considered the most adaptive, flexible and future-ready. He then lists a number of examples of what these companies might look like and then investigates if there are any common themes in the way they are organized. He points out three things: a) such organizations use the wisdom of self-organization; b) they promote “wholeness”, meaning that employees don’t leave their values at the doorstep; and c) they have evolutionary purposes, meaning that the organization serves a larger purpose than the survival of its own unit. Now, clearly, not every company fits this profile or might even want to be operating in such a space. One can claim that such organizations are well positioned to do well in future, given that by their very nature they integrate the six critieria listed above.

At Business School Lausanne, where we aim at educating our business students for the future, we believe it is critical to not only introduce such new evolutionary models into our standard curriculum, but to actually walk the talk by testing such new forms of organization. As a result, we decided to embrace Holacracy as our new organizational operating system in the summer of 2015. Now, our organization is transparent and visible to anybody (see here real-time how we are organized and who does what) – and it has been interesting to see what has happened to us and our organization as a result. Those of us who feel like sharing contribute to our blog regularly, which has become our very own action research in organizational development.

Our experience at Business School Lausanne (BSL) is very different from what Gary Hamel has outlined in his article: the positive energy that is released and the resulting shared and collaborative innovation is so enriching and powerful. And this has been achieved in a relatively short period of time after the initial shock was felt and that goes with any important quantum leap change process. Holacracy does not seek to replace bureaucracy; it offers an alternative way of dealing with power in decision-making processes. In our own journey at Business School Lausanne, we briefly suffered from this misconception, with a number of employees treating Holacracy as a new ruler (top down) rather than as the enabling support structure that it can be (and is intended to be). And we are not yet through the process – but we are sticking with it for sure. This is both for our own personal and organizational learning and to fulfil our promise as a learning institution for our students. Holacracy has put all of us in a new, shared space, one where we had to learn a new language, individually and collectively and where each of us was challenged with our own shadows of how we had so far unconsciously dealt with power. Daring to face these shadows, and enabling one another to dare to take new decisions in the roles we have, has been such a rich experience and has brought such an acceleration of innovation that sometimes I wonder how it is possible to get so much done in one day. The last two weeks feel like six months of work (and done with a smile). There is so much energy locked in the system that can be unleashed if the process is accompanied well and coaching and facilitation is readily available if and when needed.

Now, this was our journey so far and yours will be different for sure, and so I am not recommending that you copy what we have done. Rather, I am curious about where your organization is on its journey towards its vision and whether or not your organization has the right structure in place to achieve your vision. If not, do let Kathy Miller and me know – we are glad to help you with a cultural and an organizational assessment and with recommendations on what options there are for your future journey.

Democracy, democracy, and how to keep the sanity?

At the dawn of the primaries in the United States, there is much surprised rubbing of the eyes in front of the possibility that we might enter the U.S. election with a radical dreamer on the left (Bernie Sanders) and an egomaniac billionaire on the right (Donald Trump), both lining up the late-arriving Michael Bloomberg to represent the sane path down the middle. Both candidates play skillfully with two dangerous emotions: fear and anger. My grandmother had always advised that fear and anger were not wise counsellors.

Of course, it might all go very differently.Yet, at this moment in history, I am left wondering to what degree democracy actually ends up holding up to its promise of liberty and of considering “all men as equal”, the most profound meaning of the revolution according to Lincoln in his Gettysburg address in 1863. We seem far from this sentiment and clearly, “the common people” are angry and unhappy. To the extent of wanting to overthrow the elite in power with a man who has come to represent stupidity in many of its most vulgar dimensions? But is this a problem that only exists in the United States?

In Switzerland, we have our own Donald Trump as well. With a slightly better haircut, and only occasionally more moderated or sophisticated views, our Christoph Blocher still causes indigestion for many of us. If anything, our version has been more consistent and long-living and his political party has been on the rise. And yet, let us look at the two democracies and how good they are at preventing the madness that would threaten the very foundation they are built on.

The Unites States, like many democratic nations, lives an indirect democracy. This means, that the people elect their representatives that subsequently take decisions on their behalf. These representatives are grouped in political parties that people can choose to support, or not. In many countries, new political parties can emerge as a result of dissatisfaction with existing parties, in some not. For example, in Germany, the brand new party “Alternative für Deutschland” emerged after the Euro crisis and many people being unhappy about how Germany subsidizes the rest of Europe. In the Unites States, the bipartisan practice reigns, forcing political expression into two – opposing – camps. The only direct influence the people of the Unites States have is in the election of its representatives, including in the election of its President.

In Switzerland, which is one of the few direct democracies, things work exactly the other way around. While people still elect representatives that subsequently govern for them in two chambers, anybody who is able to collect 50,000 signatures on any topic will create a referendum which will be voted on by all citizens. We vote four times a year on three to four issues of all kind (examples: getting rid of the army, leaving the European Union, allowing minarets, etc.). And, also in opposition to the Unites States, the people don’t elect the President. Actually, it doesn’t even matter who is the President. We have removed all special powers from this position, with exception from an obligation and responsibility of representing Switzerland abroad, a sheer necessity to ensure other countries know who to talk to when they want the “top guy”. Our parliaments elect the seven Swiss ministers in accordance with an historic allocation of the top parties, meaning that each party can suggest one or two candidates for the ministry positions, depending on the size of the party in the country. Seven is a magic figure, preventing any party from a majority and requiring collaboration from all to achieve the much admired Swiss consensus. These elections also take place every four years, always on a Wednesday morning in early December, and ministers can be re-elected for as long as they want. Past ministers are paid a fair life-long salary for their kind service to the Swiss people. The President is determined by rotation among these seven ministers, for a period of one-year. Hardly enough to make any lasting connections internationally and to thus influence one way or the other very much. The foreign minister has more impact and power in the sense that she (we have more female ministers than male, these days) is likely to hold that position for a much longer period than just four years.

An important consequence of the Swiss system is that the government as such doesn’t change every four years as a result of presidential elections. It is unlikely that more than two or three ministers get replaced every four years, with many staying for much longer, thus providing a continuity that allows difficult issues to be tackled over the often required longer-term. It is also unlikely for any newly elected minister to replace the heads of the professionally run ministry she runs, these administrators often serve ministers of different parties and there is a tendency for the issue to matter more than the party-origin. This practice enables a sense continuity that is a valid and necessary safeguard against the kind of personalization of politics we are now seeing in the United States, where most likely both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders represent a voice of their party that may not actually reflect the dominant thinking of the parties at all.

In brief, in Switzerland, we suffer from “issues over personalities”, whereas the U.S. suffers from “personalities over issues”. In Switzerland, we are often confronted with having to vote on highly complex issues that by far not all citizens understand and where there is a high risk of political campaigns instrumentalizing voters on certain issues (a most recent example is the recent vote on foreigners). Worse, we have seen that people are quite incapable of voting in the interest of next generations when their own interests are at stake, not exactly very sustainable neither! In the United States, much time is spent on the personification of the next President, with issues being left to the lobbyists that surround the parliament like a sorry plague. Neither of these situations is ideal or perfect, and I am not even sure which one is better. My aim here was to start a discussion about different kinds of democracy – and there are many more than the two I have superficially compared here – and how they might best serve their original intent of liberty and equality among their people. How wise is it to impose a certain kind of democracy on a country with a history, which may or may not be able to even grasp this concept in a way that is in the best interest of its future? And how do we generate representatives that are able to fully represent not only current, but also future interests, of those not yet born. To me, that would be one of the hallmarks of true democracy in the context of limiting resources and dilemmas of dimensions that is threatening the very survival of our species in the not too distant future. Who has any answers for this?

COP 21: Are current events shaping long-term decisions?

With the COP21, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change starting at the end November in Paris, I was anticipating to dedicate my blog this month on the topic of climate change. Nobody of course anticipated the possibility of the terrorist acts in the weeks leading up to the climate conference. I reflect in this blog about the effects of major current events and how they contribute to important long-term decisions we might otherwise not have taken.

We all remember the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011 which was a result of a tsunami wave that impacted the nuclear reactors. As a result, the German and Swiss governments took the courageous and significant decisions to set an end to their usage of nuclear power as a local energy source. It is believed that the Fukushima events played a favourable role in these important decisions.

Sometimes, we are afraid that terrible events simply end up with more regulations and restrictions without addressing the connected root causes. Such sentiments were expressed loud and clear after the inland security measures in the United States following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The same concerns are now expressed after the Paris attacks which have resulted in tighter security measures and more power to the police and security forces at the expense of “democracy”. And while we all hope to be living in safe and just societies, we never quite know what price we have to pay for it.

Now, what if there were increasing positive outcomes of disastrous events? What if there were more ‘Hurricane Katrina’ outcomes, leading to more trusting communities, significantly better schooling and other highly positive social impacts as we can so gladly observe in New Orleans over the past decade? What if?


Hurricane Katrina sparked some positive changes.

What if the Paris terrorist attacks happened at just the right moment, so that we feel that little bit more human to realize that we are indeed one people and that indeed we live on one planet and that those in positions of decision-making power at the COP21 in Paris can indeed make the miracle we need come true and ensure we do not go beyond the two-degree temperature ceiling we need to survive on this planet? What if?

After all, Canada has just elected a new Prime Minister who finally gets it – just in time for the Paris climate talks. And President Obama is showing signs of being able to resist some strong forces and thus put an end to the planned but highly disputed North American natural gas pipeline. I am one of several thousand academics who have signed an urgent pleading letter to those in power to not exceed a 1.5 degree temperature ceiling. Our students actively send #EarthtoParis images and messages speaking out for the engaged civil society that we also are.

This is a message of hope. Hope, I find, is a noble human trait worth cultivating. A positive force in the face of adversity and difficulties. Let us hope for that miracle in Paris that we need in the coming days and weeks. And that Paris will be remembered for that unlikely positive outcome from a moment from absolute darkness. One candle can light an entire dark room. I am hopeful and I hope so are you! How do you spend your hope energy? What do you hope for? Whatever it is, hope it with all of your heart!

Rallying for Paris starts!

The 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) will kick off next week – companies, investors and policymakers gather to urge world governments to produce a strong climate agreement coming out of Paris.

Read more about it in the November newsletter of Ceres, a non-profit organization advocating for sustainability leadership.

Imagine Corporate Governance for a Sustainable World

I was asked to speak at the Zurich-based conference organized by Frank Bold legal services entitled “Corporate Governance for a changing world”. This conference is part of a global thought leader engagement process with events in London, New York, Brussels and Zurich and aims to develop new insights for new corporate governance. I was mostly impressed by the very impressive turn-out of many of the who-is-who of Switzerland’s relevant stakeholders on the subject, featuring prominent thought leaders from business, government, academia, civil society and consulting.

Given the nature of the 4-hour brain-storming session and the Chatham rules, I am able to share only some general personal insight that particularly struck me. While the pre-reading material and preparatory questions seem to be very detail-oriented, the various speakers (me included) highlighted the need to step back and embrace first the bigger and broader picture. I had suggested that we consider corporate governance in the context of the challenge of living well on one planet, the WBCSD Vision 2050 goal. This allowed me to frame corporate activity within the “safe operating space” of OXFAM’s doughnut model which includes on one hand the outer limits of the planetary boundaries (based on work done by the Stockholm Resilience Center) and the inner limits of social foundation (based on RIO+20 work).

The echo was really interesting and rather than facilitating a one-hour plenary session, I broke our high-level group of experts into relevant topical clusters such as voluntary corporate action, responsibility of the board, stakeholder engagement, influencing the regulatory environment, the purpose of the organization, incentivizing the existing system, and shareholder responsibility. I was deeply impressed by the depth and extent of these discussions and the creativity and engagement that emerged. Interestingly, the largest group and energy emerged in the area of influencing the regulatory environment and better understanding the corporate board to influence the purpose of the corporation.

I look forward to see what happens with a handful of really creative and provocative ideas to change the landscape and use the influence of investors to entice the management of companies to take decisions in favor of society and the planet. It was such an enriching experience to contribute to such positive and creative new ideas with thought leaders from so many different sectors and industries. Well done to Frank Bold and its local partners University of St. Gallen and University of Zurich for organizing this!