The Growing Edge of Organisational Democracy

The WorldBlu conference on organisational democracy was organised around Traci Fenton’s 10 principles for what makes an organisation “democratic”.  While many people think “majority-rule voting” when they hear the word democracy, Traci thinks of freedom.  It is this broader definition that makes her vision worth hearing.

Traci spoke (in her keynote address) of three eras of democracy: the ancient city-state, the modern nation-state, and the emerging practice of “organisational democracy”.  The lineage of organisational democracy emerges in the co-operative movement in Britain in the 19th Century, expands and diversifies with exemplars such as the John Lewis company, Endenburg Electrotechniek, the Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation, Semco, and others too numerous to name throughout the 20th, and finds radical positive growth in the early 21st through three vectors:
1) entrepreneurs inspired by previous generations of innovators,
2) consultants directly trained by the innovators, and
3) organisations of innovators where a sense of shared mission nurtures mutual support and exchange of best practices.
WorldBlu is doing a fairly good job of promoting all three

Of course, the co-operative movement also offers all three.  What value could a “big tent” approach to organisational democracy possibly have, when the co-operative economy is already growing sustainably?

About a year ago, I was speaking with a young woman who worked at a local well-known coffee roaster and cafe.  She asked me about my work, and when I told her about it she told me something about her work history as well.  Her last job was as a worker-owner in a financially-successful co-op.  How could she have left it, when she so clearly would have less control over her working life here, I asked?  In fact, she experienced more control over her work in the cafe, and less sacrifice.  In the co-op, she had to attend meetings that dragged on, and her opinions appeared not to matter.  Her voice was lost in the tumult, and her one vote seemed to disappear. In the cafe, her colleagues and the owners were very interested in what she had to say, and she could strongly influence the conditions of her work.  Although she had no say in electing a board, it turns out that electing a board never resolved the issues she had in her previous workplace.  It was membership in a high-performing team, where she could choose with them how to do the work at hand, that made her so strongly prefer her new workplace.

From having spoken with people in co-ops both in Britain and the United States, I believe that many co-ops experience these issues — and that these issues can crop up in any workplace.  The key to resolving them lies in recognising when they arise, and correcting — acting on feedback.  Feedback is when information returns to us after we act, allowing us to steer. Feedback loops are where we act, get feedback, adjust, act, get feedback, and adjust. We will come back to feedback shortly.

WorldBlu offers the co-operative movement a diverse array of solutions to the challenges that all human working communities face.  WorldBlu certifies organisations as “democratic”, based on employee answers to an organisation-wide survey.  Those organisations that genuinely implement the 10 principles — regardless of how — qualify.  This “big tent” approach means that nothing is normal.  We can see very different approaches, and discover possibilities that never occurred to us.

Many businesses attending WorldBlu this year (particularly SRC, Zappos, Hulu, and Groupon) shared a vigorous commitment to:
1) giving teams or individuals the ability to define their own work, and
2) ensuring they had all the information they needed (often through total transparency of financial data, among other things)
Others gave great attention to rituals of belonging and of appreciation (particularly MindValley and WD40); still others focused on building and using online collaboration tools that ease workflows and can be reconfigured entirely by the user (particularly Podio and BetterMeans).

Practices such as these make sense everywhere — but are they in all the co-ops with which you are familiar? In your workplace?  WorldBlu offers this effervescence of practical innovation — and opportunities to connect and do business with like-minded peers.

WorldBlu is at the growing edge.  But its members need the wisdom of the co-operative movement.  Although most companies attending WorldBlu had amazing innovations to share, they also often missed one key area of innovation: Power.

I mentioned feedback.  When consulting, I distinguish three types of link, or feedback loop: the talking link, the trading link, and the power link.  Talking links are where information flows — newsletters, conferences, the water cooler, inter-office memos. Trading links are where people create and exchange value — teams with shared work product, sales and delivery to the customer, multiple team design processes, financial flows.  The companies attending WorldBlu excelled at innovating in these areas, ensuring that information and resources needed for collaboration flowed throughout the organisation.

Often, however, the Power links were traditional one-way links.  One thing I value deeply about the co-operative movement is a willingness to talk about Power.  Who owns it? Who decides how it will be used? Who is in, and who is out? These questions of property, territory, membership, authority and control, are vital.  In challenging times, when people get scared, we often use our power — perhaps unconsciously — to limit our interaction with things that seem threatening.  Because Power is wired into organisations to flow in only one direction, those “on top” shut down the flow of feedback up the organisation.  Talking and Trading links begin to deteriorate.  Policies of openness can be changed.  In turbulent times, the Power links determine whether Talking and Trading will continue.

Co-operatives often solve this by taking an ordinary top-down organisation, and letting everyone vote for the Board.  This creates a feedback loop, where power flows both ways, and I believe is one key reason that the co-operative economy did not crash in the last few years.  That feedback loop, however, is corrected only through annual elections and the abstraction of all a member’s perspectives into a single vote means that a lot of valuable information is lost.

WorldBlu is at the growing edge.  In the living systems design discipline of Permaculture, we try to create as much edge as we can, because interactions are rich at the border.  Co-operatives, sociocratic companies, and a range of others are also at the growing edge, and we must begin to exchange across the edge, to allow the richness to permeate our working communities.

We all need the rich array of Talking and Trading links that are nourishing the growth of those companies that attended WorldBluLIVE this year.  We also all need to ensure that we have Power links running up our organisations in equal measure to those links running down, and that people in every team have as much control as possible over their way of working.  We need all the engagement, empowerment and creative power we can get — here at the growing edge.

Full disclosure: I am a co-founder of DecisionLab, and we were invited to the WorldBlu conference as one of their consulting partners. However, we are also a Co-operative Development Body and part of the global Sociocratic Professional Association — our loyalties lie with what will work best for people and the planet, not with any one organisation.

Posted: June 9th, 2011 | Author: nate | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off

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