Whole Body Consent

The world of business is divided into owners, managers, workers, suppliers, customers and externalities. The story told in business school for the past forty years has been that the job of management is to serve the interests of the owners. The workers are to be controlled or negotiated with by management. Suppliers should be valued (but squeezed) and surrounding communities and the environment are “externalities” – to be ignored or mined for whatever value they can yield. It turns out these are all mistakes. This division is straining our global economy and driving many people out of work, with conflicts spilling over into bad public policy and environmental damage. This division does not need to exist.

Some people try to bridge that division by making everyone an owner, and I am a fan of co-ops, employee stock ownership plans, and the like. I want to share a different strategy with you, though. Let’s focus on the pointy end of ownership: the right to make decisions. You can build the foundation of any thriving organisation using a few simple decision-making tools. I call these tools “Whole Body Consent”. Consent is a foundational principle of Sociocracy, and Whole Body Consent is a means to fully implement that principle.

When we look closely at the fabric of thriving companies, we see webs of interlocking (and high-performing) teams. Recent research by psychologists Marcial Losada, Emily Heaphy and Barbara Frederickson offers a strong predictive mathematical model for how high-performing teams thrive. At the heart of this model are two variables: connectivity and positivity.

When measuring connectivity, researchers are counting the number of times each team member allows herself to be affected by another team member, changing communication style in immediate response to a team mate. In other words, researchers are looking to see how many team members are in close working relationships where they are responsive to and open to learning from one another. Later work by Carmeli & Spreitzer (2009) has shown that connectivity drives learning, personal experience of vitality, productivity and innovation in the organization. Clearly connectivity is essential – and connectivity is itself driven by trust.

The practice of Whole Body Consent should matter to you for three reasons. It produces trust between team members, which is the absolute foundation of high-performing teams and organizations. It provides the team leader or facilitator who uses it with essential information for decision-making. And it makes workers, managers and owners equivalent in policy decisions about the direction of the company, which is vital to preventing one leg of the enterprise from collapsing. Let’s look at how.

The simple core of the Whole Body Consent process is a short series of questions:

  • “Do you understand the proposal I’ve just made, or do you have any question about what I mean?”
  • “What thoughts or feelings do you have about the proposal?”
  • “Do you have any Critical Concerns about the proposal — in other words, will adopting this proposal stop us from accomplishing our Aim or make you unable to contribute to our team?”

The Whole Body Consent process produces trust when team members see that their input is desired, and that if they have a critical concern they will be heard. Over and over I have seen reticent people, even highly professional people with a strong cynical streak, warm up and enthusiastically join in working with the group as it became clear to them that their “no!” would be respected as the useful contribution it genuinely is.

Whole Body Consent provides valuable information when you hear people’s questions, and have a chance to clarify your communication. It provides valuable information when you hear people’s gut response, and their thoughts. It provides essential information when people raise Critical Concerns. No intelligent leader would want to go forward with a proposal if, after understanding it and discussing it, a team member pointed out a way the proposal would likely result in disaster. If the proposal is dangerous, you want to find a creative way to adjust it. If the proposal will cause a team member to be unable to contribute, you want to change the proposal, maybe abandon it – or maybe what you really want is to get rid of the team member, in which case you are best off doing that as directly as you can. In any case, you need the information you get by asking about Critical Concerns.

The Whole Body Consent process keeps the organization intact by making certain that a proposal which would alienate investors, disempower management, or disable workers is never adopted. Such proposals are adopted frequently in many businesses today, and it destroys a tremendous amount of value. Don’t let that continue in your business!

I call it Whole Body Consent, not just consent, because when I ask someone those questions, I watch their body language. When you make your proposal, are they crossing their arms and sticking out their lower jaw? Are they getting very still? Are they suddenly agitated, looking out the window, or perhaps slumped low in their chair and almost asleep? You probably can’t read minds, but you can mention what you see. I suggest that you don’t make any interpretation at all – just ask a question. For example, “When I asked about Critical Concerns, you
pressed your lips together and shook your head. Is there any input we’re missing here? I want to make sure we don’t skip over anything you see. It might be important.”

Often I also notice in myself as a team leader or facilitator that my breathing becomes shallow or stops altogether for a moment when someone else in the group finds a Critical Concern – whether they say it aloud or they don’t. These physical changes happen for people in organizations all the time. By using the Whole Body Consent approach, I can ask people to check whether they are willing to move forward together, and act on the best information available – what they are saying and what their bodies are telling me.

I said my breathing changes when someone raises a concern. Although I know the concern is likely to be important for getting the right business decisions, I still often find myself wishing I didn’t have to deal with it. When I notice that internal resistance, I take three breaths into my belly and change my posture. This helps me let go of my resistance to learning from the new information I just heard. My own willingness to hear and genuinely receive my colleagues’ concerns is a key part of effectively using Whole Body Consent.

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine realized she had been raising a concern, but not asserting that it was a Critical Concern. In other words, she thought it was mission-critical, but she didn’t want to stop us from moving forward so she didn’t press. In fact, once she acknowledged that her concern was a Critical Concern, we dropped the related product launch and focused on a different product. She had information about the difficulty and time requirements for the product launch which nobody else on the team had. If we continued with the product launch without that information, we might have wasted a lot of time and money!

Contrast this with concerns raised in other organizational contexts, from financial service companies to Chris Argyris’ famous Challenger disaster example. Without the Whole Body Consent tool, organizations repeatedly ignore their best employees right at the moment that they most need to be heard, when they have information which could prevent disaster.

We all agree that a company needs the support and engagement of workers, managers and investors to thrive. But the old model of business mistakenly ignores the voice of people outside the C-suite and Boardroom. If you want to lead a thriving business, use Whole Body Consent. You will have sweaty moments from time to time, as you realize you need to change plans quickly – but your employees and managers will be on the same side as your investors, and the plans you do execute will be much more likely to succeed.

Motivation – It’s Not About The Money

Dan Pink knows something about what motivates us. In this RSAnimate video he shares some surprising findings about what really moves us to perform better, to do our best, to stretch ourselves.

The most general finding is that for all but purely mechanical tasks – anything that requires a bit of conceptual or creative thinking – higher rewards do not improve performance. In fact, they actually reduce performance!

Pink goes on to say that when people are paid enough that the issue of money is off the table – that is, so that they are thinking about the work, and not the money – performance is improved by three primary factors: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Not surprisingly, these factors also improve personal satisfaction. And not surprisingly, a sociocratic organization supports these factors in multiple ways.

Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed, to choose our own course. In a sociocratic organization, circles – equivalent to divisions, departments, working groups, committees, teams, and so on in conventional organizational language – have considerable autonomy. They make their own policy decisions within their domain of work – they decide how to best do whatever it is they do, as well as how to measure and improve their performance, and they elect their fellow members to roles and tasks within the circle.

Contrast this with organizatons where a team, group, department or division is “managed” by some other person or part of their organization. Their autonomy is considerably more limited, if they have any at all. They do not get to decide how to best do what they do – someone else tells them, and performance (as well as possibly morale and collaboration) suffers.

Mastery is, as Pink puts it, our “urge to get better” at doing things. This is, for humans, satisfying, or what we might simply call “fun.” We actually like a challenge, at least some of the time. In a sociocratic organization, getting better at what we do is built into the organizational system. In a circle, we continually measure what we’re doing, and look for ways to do it better (whatever “better” means for us and what we do). This is true for the circle as a whole, and for each member of the circle.

These opportunities for mastery are further leveraged by the circle’s significant degree of autonomy. It’s not some other person or group that is telling us how to do what we do better – it’s us satisfying our own “urge to get better” at what we do. We may even contribute to mastery for others, by discovering some improvement in our work that can be adapted to what other circles are doing – and likewise they may contribute to us.

Purpose in an organization provides multiple benefits. For one, it attracts people who identify with that purpose, who have some similar idea of what is important and why. They are then working for more than just money – they are working for something they themselves “believe in,” thus often working with more committment and energy. Further, there is empirical evidence aplenty that when profit and purpose get separated – or when profit is the only apparent purpose – businesses actually do worse, not better, financially and otherwise. Pink points out several ways this may happen, and readers can no doubt identify more from their own experience.

A sociocratic organization explicitly pays attention to purpose, through the organization’s vision, mission and aim. And, each circle in the organization has clear aims which all circle members have consented to. Collectively, the aims of the circles within an organization fulfill the organization’s overall aim. In other words, everyone knows what the purpose of the organization is, as well as their piece of fulfilling that purpose.

Structures and processes that provide members with autonomy, mastery and purpose are built into sociocratic organizations. Such organizations by their very nature invite us to do our best, to perform better, to excel at whatever we do as a part of them.

Leadership Habits of Strategic Organizations

A core benefit of operating sociocratically is that leadership – including strategic leadership – is distributed throughout a sociocratic organization. Why is this a benefit? Because when only one or a few individuals are designated as “leaders,” leadership abilities of everyone else in the organization are missed, lost, wasted.

This recent Inc.com article by Paul J. H. Schoemaker on leaders as strategic thinkers offers a ready-made framework for demonstrating strategic leadership as an outcome of sociocratic organizing. The article suggests six habits of “Adaptive strategic leaders — the kind who thrive in today’s uncertain environment,” and how those habits support a successful organization.

In the above article these habits are presented as those of an individual. This is our common cultural bias – an idea of individual “heroic” leaders. If we step outside this limiting framework, we can see how entire organizations will practice these habits of adaptive strategic leadership – as a direct outcome of operating sociocratically.

The first habit Schoemaker identifies is “Anticipate,” and he lists three actions to take that will support anticipation. These actions are built in to a sociocratic organization – “peripheral vision” is provided in multiple ways. For example the external experts in an organization’s top circle are there specifically to connect the organization with its larger contexts, providing information input and feedback. And rather than relying on one or a few individual leaders’ networks, the networks and “out of box” thinking of every member of the organization is at work to support a habit of anticipation.

Schoemaker’s second habit is “Think critically.” Rather than relying on one or a few individuals to do this, everyone in a sociocratic organization is not only encouraged towards, but responsible – by the nature of consent decision-making – for thinking critically. Challenging beliefs and mindsets and re-framing problems (and solutions) is intrinsic to sociocratic decision making processes. And sociocracy’s core value of transparency supports avoiding hypocrisy and manipulation. Objections to proposed decisions are not a problem – they are a valued asset.

“Interpret” is the article’s third habit. Schoemaker writes that “A good strategic leader holds steady, synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint.” This is exactly what a circle does in a sociocratic organization – and instead of relying on just one person to do it, all members of the circle are engaged in the process. More people seeking more patterns will uncover more patterns of useful information; assumptions are naturally questioned as proposals are created and modified.

Problems of “analysis paralysis” are raised in the fourth habit, “Decide.” Sociocratic processes are specifically designed to work with available information and arrive at “good enough” decisions, including action steps and measurement (feedback). “Perfection” is understood to be a journey, not a reachable end-point. And again, instead of imposing all this work on one individual, sociocracy applies consent and transparency to draw on the abilities of all involved.

The fifth habit offered in the article is “Align.” Here sociocracy again steps out of the box of “heroic” leadership. A circle meeting explicitly and implicitly works to fulfill Schoemaker’s three key points relative to “alignment.” And rather than resigning itself to an idea that “total consensus is rare,” sociocracy applies a rigorous yet efficient design process to achieve consent from all those directly affected by a decision. A key contributor to this outcome is awareness of – and consent to – common aims that guide design (and re-design) of decisions.

Schoemaker’s sixth and final habit is “Learn.” Rather than honest feedback becoming less and less likely as a company expands, such feedback is built into a sociocratic organization from the start and feedback mechanisms scale automatically as an organization grows. Sociocratic organizations are by design learning organizations. All feedback is valued, and “failures” are simply one form of learning opportunity. An organization designs feedback into all its decisions and actions, and can increase or decrease speed of feedback and adjustment to suit current or anticipated needs.

We can clearly see how a sociocratic organization is well-suited to live these six habits of “adaptive strategic leaders” – and how most of them are built in to such an organization. Moreover these habits are not dependent on one or a few “heroic” leaders. All members of an organization contribute to distributed yet well organized and effective leadership, including these six habits of strategic leadership.

Both And Governance

In recent weeks, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and numerous local and regional Occupy actions in the USA have brought ideas of “horizontal” governance into more common awareness. Occupy groups have mostly modeled themselves on the original OWS model, where “General Assemblies” that operate through a form of active, often large-group consensus are a primary means of decision-making. Inclusiveness and equality are commonly stated values of these processes.

The term “leaderless” is also used by Occupy organizations to identify their mode of operation. In theory, there are no leaders of General Assemblies, or the groups they are used by. There are facilitators who delineate assembly processes and attempt to insure that those processes are followed. There is allegedly no one person or small group of people “in charge” of decision-making, or even of any particular decision-making process.

This is contrasted, by OWS among others, with “vertical” governance – in general, a context where decisions are made by relatively few members of an organization, while nonetheless intended to be carried out by all members. Most often the term “vertical” is used as equivalent to “hierarchical.”

So if there are no leaders – how did this all get started? Who decided how a General Assembly would operate? What if someone just joining in disagrees? How is selection of General Assembly facilitators done?

As this article in The New Yorker illustrates, there is in practice always at least some starting point, some catalyst, which may be no more than one or two individuals. There are always “leaders,” whether by default or by conscious design. And, there are constraints that limit effectiveness of a purely “horizontal” mode of governance – just as there are constraints that limit effectiveness of a purely “vertical” one.

Neither OWS nor related groups nor the highly vertical organizations of Wall Street and “global capital” are immune from an “either-or” mode of thinking that is implicit in our culture. This mode of thinking is problematic if we want to create governance systems that have beneficial outcomes for a widest possible variety of organizations and contexts.

On the one hand, our story goes, there is vertical governance – hierarchy, command and control, top-down management, and so on. A few people make most decisions and some larger number of people carry them out – sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Those few people are in those decision making roles for a variety of reasons, historically including everything from “divine right” to force of arms to majority vote to Supreme Court majority.

On the other hand, this story continues, there is horizontal governance – everyone has “a seat at the table,” a right to be heard, an equal voice in decision making, something to contribute to desired outcomes. Decisions are carried out based on solidarity, enthusiasm, mutual committment, agreement with goals and intentions.

Wall street is on the one hand. Occupy Wall Street is on the other. What is missing from this story is what is possible when these two hands – vertical and horizontal governance systems – are put to work together, in mutually beneficial relationship. What would governance look like when the space between the one hand and the other is a spectrum of possible systems using both approaches to their best advantage?

Vertical governance is best suited to rapid and efficient carrying out of policies. For “getting things done” when decisions about what to do have already been made, an operational hierarchy is highly effective and efficient. Military operations are one major example of this. Most building construction sites and mass production factories are as well.

Horizontal governance is best suited to making policies that include information and input from all those affected by said policies. Equivalence and transparency in horizontal governance systems support a policy design process that consistently gives better results than other approaches. “Better results” means that policies reflect collective intelligence and wisdom and create beneficial outcomes for all involved. Examples include Quaker meetings and the General Assemblies of Occupy groups.

If the question is “which is better, vertical or horizontal governance?” – the answer is “both.” A synthesis of horizontal and vertical systems that supports equivalence and transparency as well as effectiveness and efficiency, and does not sacrifice one to the other. This is the essence of Sociocracy as a governance system. Sociocratic governance recognizes value in both approaches and establishes a context for using them together.

Co-operative Principles

[Cross posted from the DecisionLab blog]

I am passionate about economic democracy — not so much in the sense of majority rule voting, but in the sense of the people involved in something controlling it together.  Some people have argued that, for this purpose, organising as a sociocratic business is better than organising as a co-operative business.  Sociocratic businesses allow their members to participate in decision-making regardless of the size of their contribution to the business’s capital; sociocratic businesses do not get torn apart by the Scylla of majority-rule politics or sucked down by the Charybdis of interminable and impotent meetings.  However, many co-ops do not suffer from these problems either — and a co-op can remain a co-op while becoming a sociocratic business.  The opposition between co-op and Sociocracy is a false one.  Let me show you why. Continue reading

The Key

“I can take one look at an organisational chart and tell you whether they will still be in business in a few years’ time.”  Philip smiled at me and raised his eyebrows.  I was already deeply impressed with his insight and achievements, but with this he had me hooked. Continue reading

The Solyndra Shutdown – Who Knew?

On the last day of August 2011, high-tech photovoltaics manufacturer Solyndra abruptly shut down. The cutting-edge solar power technology company announced it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Employees were turned away when they arrived for work that morning; in total, 1,100 full and part-time personnel were laid off overnight.

Based in California, Solyndra was touted as an example of cutting edge American solar technology design, and was actually manufacturing their products in the United States rather than offshore. The deck seemed stacked in their favor early on – in 2009, Solyndra received a $535 million federal loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. President Obama visited Solyndra in May 2010 and cited it as an example of the type of green-energy firm his administration was trying to cultivate. The company claimed strong growth and substantial sales in the first half of 2011.

Media reports such as this KQED News Fix suggest various generalized causes for the shutdown, including perceived failure of government attempts to stimulate “green” and “high-tech” business development.

The official Solyndra statement primarily blames external economic and regulatory factors. There are no doubt a few kernels of truth in some of these allegations. And, there is a key factor in success for any business or organization that is not even touched on in these or other media reports.

Various news articles and in particular this video make it very clear that Solyndra employees had no idea their company was going to suddenly cease operations. The plant was extremely busy; some employees had even been called in for extra work recently. “The company didn’t say anything,”  says the man in the video above, and later, “…I don’t know what happened.” When asked what his reaction to the sudden layoff was, he says “..nothing I can do.”

So, who knew? And when did they know it?

Certainly the top executives knew about the shutdown before it happened. The vast majority of employees clearly did not. Without inside information, we can’t know how far down the chain of management advance notice was given.

And, without details from within Solyndra, we can’t know who did – or didn’t – see the writing on the wall, have some awareness that the business was in trouble, know that appropriate action needed to be taken. Did anyone notice? Try and raise an alarm? Was the failure a result of lack of information, of poor business decisions, of both?

What seems clear is that 1,100 people at Solyndra were in the dark about whatever the top executives did know. And if any among those 1,100 knew something useful themselves, there was no way to get that information to those calling the shots.

Whether or not the company could have been saved is speculation. What is fact is that they did not have in place proven organizational systems to maximize their chances of success.

Everyone in an organization has information potentially beneficial to that organization. When that information can flow freely throughout the organization, it is available at any level where it is needed. A company such as Solyndra, with few or no informational links between employees and management, is not merely ignoring but actively blocking one of its most valuable decision-making resources.

Dynamic Governance insures that information relevant to decision-making can flow freely throughout an organization. Each decision-making business unit, working group, or equivalent – a circle in Dynamic Governance terms – is linked to those that are operationally above and below it. That is, between any two circles, there are two representatives – links – one from each circle to the other. The circle members who serve as the links are selected by consent of the represented circle, and part of their job is to insure the flow of information between their circles.

We can’t know for sure if this kind of linking and improved flow of information – getting valuable feedback and ideas from all levels and corners of the company – would have saved Solyndra. It certainly would have given them a better chance.

The Stop Button

[edit Nov 14 2011: Now it is the USA, and people are getting clear about what they want. Need a stop button!]

London is burning. The world saw an Arab Spring, and in London and San Francisco — across Europe and North America — we celebrated other people’s civil discontent as a sign of positive transformation. Why are we not celebrating our own civil unrest? Continue reading