About 12 years ago, Christiane was an organisation and management consultant, a coach in leadership development. Her work lost its meaning as she realized that the organisation was crushing everything under its own weight, that it often became dysfunctional, and the people she had counselled did not ultimately know the difference between before and after… It was quite depressing. There had to be another way, another way of working together.
Then one day, she had a choice to make: to plunge into this new state of mind or to try to make the link between the old world and the new?
She decided to let go of the old and immersed herself into Holacracy and became one of the first people to introduce it in Europe.
Power shift is the key
What characterizes the new methods of governance?
“Power shift” is the key, according to Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller, when it comes to self-organized governance. Power shift stands for the distribution of authority, of leadership and of purpose. The natural consequence of this is distributed governance which takes the focus away from the power dynamics of people and puts it on the purpose of the organization.
The notion of shifting the understanding of power and how to relate to it in a totally new way, is what challenges many leaders who are used to working in conventional hierarchical settings. “Our world is evolving towards a new level of consciousness, we are moving from power over (others) to power with (others)”.
When we want to achieve something, we humans automatically begin to organize. We need structure in order to work together. Self-organization with its system of distributed authority is a significant lever to move this collective shift of consciousness from “power over” to “power with”. Holacracy, until today, is still the only organisational practice that fully distributes authority and decision making. With its clear rule set, the Holacracy Constitution, it makes sure that the same rules apply for everybody, which guarantees full distribution and decentralization.
After ten years of practice, Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller can no longer see herself working differently. Any organisational method based on the power hierarchy would feel unhealthy and dysfunctional to her.
Differentiate the personal from the organisational
An essential aspect in the process of transforming governance to a self-organized system that is very often underestimated is personal development. Stepping out of dependency and into autonomy, moving out of a top down command system and into a system of transparency, letting go of “predict and control” and embracing “sense and respond” — all this triggers huge learning and development needs and opportunities for people concerned by the life in companies shifting into this new paradigm.
Shifting the mindset, behaviours and patterns of people is by far more difficult than shifting the organisational practice itself.
You can learn rules, apply them mechanically like a robot, but practicing Holacracy requires psychological evolution, changes in oneself. It’s a big leap for everyone until “being powerful together” becomes possible.
Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller mentioned the case of a social business, a small company about financial literacy, that invited her to support their journey into self-organization.
Already knowing about the difficulty this journey can evoke, in parallel with the implementation of Holacracy, she proposed using the “Language of Spaces”, a framework to develop the core capacities needed for the shift into self-organization. The framework offers methods to understand and practice the differentiation between people and organisation, between personal tensions and organisational tensions, and to integrate the results into mindset and behaviours. Like with other organizations before, this parallel work has made it possible to balance the frustrations that almost inevitably arise when going through this shift.
Holacracy requires the differentiation of “role and soul” and offers the clear ruleset and practices for “roles”, for structuring the work of the organization. But — by design — the framework does not offer any solution for the people, the social system. If the social system does not develop in a way that is compatible with the organizational system, the result can be truly harmful.
Shifting power as a fundamental principle
Another example is a company of 500–600 people, which had embarked on the Holacracy journey, but soon failed mainly because of the distributed authority and governance system.
Shifting power begins in the mind of the power holder, who makes the decision to distribute it and — just as important — in everybody else’s mind as well. Even when the former power holder does cede his/her power into the distributed authority system of the holacratic organization, it only works when at the same time everybody else steps up and takes on power.
The difficulty is to understand that it is not about letting go of power, but of inviting everybody to step into his or her authentic power, so that being powerful together — the “power with” — becomes possible.
The power shift can be very scary and often creates a lot of fear. Fear of losing power and feeling powerless and fear of the responsibility that comes with power. The fear has its source in our social system, our education. Families, schools, churches, sports clubs… the systems that educate us don’t teach us to see power as a shared responsibility. Society makes us believe that some were born to be more powerful than others. People grow up thinking that he or she was born a leader, or not, and when that belief is challenged, fear of either gaining power, or having to give it up arises.
Overcoming these fears is a huge part of the personal journey into self-organization.
Self-management for self-organisation
These are two notions that often are understood to be similar, but in fact are very different.
Self-organisation is the oldest existing principle. It is the evolutionary principle of the universe. Since the beginning of time the universe has evolved self-organized. Evolutionary development happens according to self-organizing principles. The driving forces of evolution are tensions — the energy that flows from a current reality towards a desired future. Where there is no tension, there is no life. Any organic system evolves by solving its tensions through adapting dynamically and self-organized to its changing environment.
Self-management, on the other hand, is everything we do to manage ourselves: managing our time, our health, our spirituality… and we use different tools to do that. Holacracy, one can say, is a tool, a practice to self-manage an organization, based on self-organizing principles. People practicing Holacracy, because of the autonomy, dynamic and transparency it requires, need good self-management skills to work with the tools (rules and processes) for doing work in role .
A cold, mechanistic framework?
Holacracy is not about managing emotions, or about having discussions around different people’s opinions to get consensus. It is a set of rules for organisational structuring and decision-making. Holacracy manages everyone’s roles, not their “soul”; it governs the organisation, not the people. Through that it makes sure that the organization fully can serve its purpose, by distributing authority into all parts of the system.
It is a framework and ruleset that in its design shields decision making of the emotions of individuals and their relationships. In a conventional power hierarchy, individuals need to use power, relationships and emotions to convince, to advance project, to step up the career ladder …. this doesn’t work in Holacracy, because it isn’t needed in self-organization. The entire system has clarity and transparency about where which authority lies and this can be changed and adapted at any moment in time
Will Holacracy prevail?
The question, if the power hierarchy or new systems of distributed authority will prevail only time will tell. The really important question here is which system will best serve people and planet equally, when trying to find solutions for the huge global challenges humanity is facing today.
Since a long time our economy has lived with the idea of ever more growth and wealth, but it is increasingly obvious that this is no longer tangible. Our hierarchical way of organizing has been extremely successful in the past to create that ever increasing growth. It also has led to humanity creating a world with a level of complexity that is overtaking the systems that create it.
The power hierarchy has outlived its usefulness, because parallel to its success it has also created problems of tremendous magnitude and we know that problems cannot be solved by the same mindset that created them.
It is necessary to transform the way we organize our life in general when facing issues like the climate crisis, the gap between rich and poor and all its social consequences, only to name two of humanities burning issues.
Shifting our understanding of power and then, from that new understanding, creating new ways of organizing, so that we can all be powerful together, is a crucial element of this transformation. In 30 years, maybe in 100 years…. “The power hierarchy as we know it today will have faced the same destiny as the dinosaurs.”
Holacracy is a “first mover” and, looking at all companies in the world, not yet very widely spread, but it is having a large impact on the change that is underway. It is being used by more companies daily and it inspires many to think in the same direction and develop similar practices. Holacracy will evolve, but it will not go away! Until today it is the most concisely defined practice for self-organizing work in service of purpose. It provides clarity and transparency, which is necessary to enable a system to overcome the disruptions caused by the change into self-organization. The fact that large corporations such as Danone and Castorama are testing it is quite encouraging.
A step towards what’s next?
From a decade of experience in self-organization, Christiane can say that Holacracy functions as a “developmental catalyst”. It challenges organisational systems and people equally and requires both to go on a developmental journey. And, as mentioned before, it only brings answers in form of practices for the organization. “What we have seen for years now is the necessity to create what is needed for people to travel a safe developmental journey into this new level of consciousness self-organization requires”.
That’s what Language of Spaces is about. It offers practices for people and organizations (with Holacracy or with other self-organizing practices) to expand the core capacities needed to grow in symbiosis, to the advantage of both, and to thrive in self-organisation. It creates the spaces where people can go on this journey with psychological safety.
With Holacracy, Language of Spaces, and other paths to self-organization, overall humanity is still at the very beginning of this evolutionary journey. Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller hopes that more models and methods will follow in order to support and expedite the changes that the world so urgently needs: a shift in how power is used in service of people and planet, for environmental consciousness and protection and social justice.