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Holacracy in a represented workforce – Part 2

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life and try not to bash into the walls too much…that’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact—everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you…shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just going to live in it versus make your mark upon it. Once you learn that, you will never be the same again.” – Steve Jobs

In the previous post, “Holacracy in a represented workforce – Part 1," I outlined three key questions identified as important to developing a workable Holocracy governance model for public sector that also takes into account the unique needs of employees represented by unions. The topic was explored in a discussion between Glen Christopherson, the HR Policy Director for the State of Washington, who has logged a lot of time negotiating labor issues with Unions;  Mark Lyon from the Attorney General's Office, who has 20 years of experience in Union representation;  Michael Cockrill, the State Chief Information Officer;  Karilen Mays, the OCIO's assigned Holacracy Coach from HolacracyOne; Brian Robertson, the co-founder of Holacracy; and myself.

In addition to raising the questions, our group also attempted a first-pass at potential answers to these challenges. Although no one at the table believed these were the final answers to the questions or even that these were the final questions, there was general consensus that the concept of a Holacracy in a represented environment is intriguing and, most importantly, plausible given the right leadership and thinking.

Question #1: Will Holacracy make it more difficult for Unions to demonstrate a value proposition for their members?

Short Answer: We don’t think so. In fact, it may create an opportunity for Unions to demonstrate greater value.

Long Answer: We may be at the cusp of an exciting opportunity. When I take what I know about self-organization and imagine myself in the shoes of Union leadership, I can hardly contain my excitement. We may mutually have the potential to completely flip “representation” on its head.

Robert Tobias, a nationally recognized advocate for government employees, is very critical of leadership in organizations and Unions and often speaks of a need for better partnerships. In his speech in 1997 as the President of The National Treasury Employees Union at the Reinvention Revolution Conference, he spoke of the need for partnership to change how employees are engaged in an organization summarized in this article. What he said was amazing! Nearly 20 years later, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a better description of self-organization.

We must create a better workplace. We must create a workplace where federal employees work together and want to work together on a clearly defined agency mission; a workplace where federal employees understand their role and are sufficiently empowered that they can perform their role; a workplace where federal employees are excited about their job and want to give their discretionary energy.

By discretionary energy, I mean that energy which cannot be extracted from an employee by a supervisor. Discretionary energy is that energy an employee wants to give because of the challenge and excitement: the workplace. It is the kind of workplace where employees willingly work harder because they are respected, challenged, and empowered.” – Robert Tobias

Depiction of KDT and TED​Holacracy provides us with an opportunity to change the Karpman Drama Triangle, which I described in Part 1, to a more productive Empowerment Dynamic and shift the focus from an activity-based/problem-focused organization to a passion-based/outcome-focused organization described by Robert Tobias.

In The Empowerment Dynamic model, developed by David Emerald Womeldorff in 2005 as an antidote for the Karpman Drama Triangle, the role of the employee shifts from Victim to Creator. As the Creator, employees are outcome focused and ask themselves “what will make things better?” In a Holacracy, employees are actually empowered to make the changes necessary but may need help navigating the systems to make the changes. Union leaders now take on the role of Coach to help employees navigate the systems to create the changes needed to improve the shared outcomes of the employee and the organization.

This makes a shift in design that allows Union leaders to more effectively fulfill their primary role; facilitate empowerment. Employees who are now empowered to introduce change and who have a clear place to go for coaching, facilitated by a Union leadership with a role that is positive and clearly demonstrates value. Hopefully, this creates an image of greater partnership between employees, Union leadership, and managers described by Tobias nearly twenty years ago.

Question #2: How is the bargaining unit defined in an organization which allows employees to freely move across roles?

Short answer: We're not sure yet. We need help with this. The bargaining unit description will have to be based on skills, or another descriptor, but not on roles. The most desirable outcome will be to come up with an organizational design that minimizes the impact to the bargaining unit while still providing the benefits of professional development for employees.

Longer answer: 

"To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” –Albert Einstein

Graphic of organizational chartOne of the core tenants of Holacracy, and other self-organizational models, is that employees have more freedom to engage in roles that energize them. This concept is a fundamental underpinning of self-organizational models because, from the organization's perspective, self-organization:

  • Maximizes the value of each employee
  • Achieves greater employee engagement
  • Creates happier employees
  • Creates greater collaboration
  • Enables more innovation to occur
  • Produces better customer experiences

Fundamentally, self-organization boosts employee morale, and "Morale is a multiplier of an organization’s velocity” –Joe Justice, Wikispeed.

From an employee’s perspective, self-organization:

  • Allows employees to pick roles that better align to their passions
  • Makes it easier for employees to learn new skills and competencies
  • Prevents employees from getting pigeon-holed into one thing
  • Empowers employees to remove their own barriers and fix their own issues
  • Allows employees to engage in their work more creatively and in more ways

To achieve the benefits of self-management and self-organization, while maintaining the Bargaining Unit will be an interesting problem.  Bargaining Units are defined several different ways in order to capture the Community of Interest. It usually involve some combination of the skills or work being performed, relationship to the administrative organization, history, or job families. In a hierarchical structure, the underlying assumption is that there is a one-to-one relationship between the person, the role, and the skills needed to perform the work. These relationships are fairly static. In a self-organized structure, there is a one-to-one relationship between the role and the skills, but not with the person. A person could be filling a number of roles and the roles they fill could change fluidly and far more frequently than in a traditional organization.

Graphic of organizational chartOne possible solution to this challenge is to create an organizational structure where the skills are abstracted from the roles and have the bargaining unit formed around the skills. Those skills could then be associated to the various roles that require the skill. People filling those roles in some significant way (this concept needs fleshing out) could then be included in the bargaining unit. This would allow a Bargaining Unit description that is focused on the work while affording employees the ability and the flexibility to fill multiple roles that support their passions and the needs of the organization. Interestingly, this model isn’t too far from the current intent.  

The definition of the Bargaining Unit may be at the center of work that is needed to integrate Holacracy in a represented workforce. This will require thought leadership and vision from the Union leadership, the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) for the State, and State leadership to help think through and experiment with different models that can work in Washington.

Question #3: “Will Holacracy decrease the membership of Unions?”

As I mentioned below, this is an important consideration. If implementing Holacracy in an organization were to result in a decline in Union membership, it might negatively impact the revenue model of the Union, which then lessens a Union's ability to represent the membership.  Unions would be right to be concerned.

Short answer: This doesn't necessarily need to happen. Each organization’s implementation of Holacracy is different, and each implementation is designed around the needs and tensions of the organization. If maintaining current union membership levels is a need, there is enough flexibility in the model to allow organizations to design a structure that meets that need.

Longer answer: Holacracy is inherently flexible, adaptive, and responsive. Its whole premise is that the way you organize will be driven by the needs of your organization and that it will result in a changeable system that makes it easy to regularly identify issues and improve the design.

For example, many organizations, especially larger ones, desire to minimize the impact of switching to Holacracy by starting with roles that mimic the design of a traditional hierarchy. This is the approach Zappos took by lifting a division in their traditional model and dropping them in a Holacracy model with the “Manager” now assigned the role of “Lead Link” with many of the same accountabilities like budget approval, setting strategies, establishing priorities, and assigning staff to roles. Once adopted, however, Holacracy provided a system for making incremental improvements in the organization’s effectiveness and improving the working conditions.

Holacracy has a concept of “apps” which are a packaged set of roles, accountabilities, policies, and domains to help organizations adopt Holacracy. One of the apps is the “Manager Mimicry App” which “… defines a structure and set of rules to handle basic partnership functions in a way that mimics some talent management functions (i.e. hiring, firing, promotion, and compensation) of a traditional management hierarchy.”

It would be ideal if there were a “Represented Labor App” that Washington could leverage as we adopt Holacracy, but it doesn’t exist. However, such an app would be a desirable outcome of a larger Holacracy pilot in Washington:  to create and to test a design that works in a represented environment which can be replicated to other organizations. How awesome would it be if management and Labor partnered to create the first Represented Labor App?!

Wrap up

There is so much more to explore and learn on this topic. The next step is to invite Labor and other leaders into the conversation to dig deeper into these concepts and build a model that will work in a represented environment. I'm excited about finding like-minded leaders who are just as passionate about transforming State Government as myself. As I said in my second post, at the end of the day I believe the ultimate question isn’t “Will Holacracy work in government?” or “Will Holacracy improve empowerment?” but rather “Do we have the courage to transform?”  

Stay tuned...

Michael DeAngelo
Formerly the Deputy CIO; now with roles like Lead Link and Holacracy Implementation
Holacracy blog