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Holacracy's Rules Against "by-when's" on Next-Actions, January 9, 2012

January 9, 2012 - 7:52pm 

Brian Robertson 

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

HolacracyOne Partner

Hi Folks,

 

I recently had an e-mail exchange with one of our clients that I thought others might find valuable, so I'm sharing the relevant excerpt here - this is all expanding on my blog post The Insanity of the What-by-When, so start there if you're unfamiliar with the ic.  And, a tip-of-the-hat to David Allen, whose work (Getting Things Done) catalyzed much of my own understanding and distinction-making capacity around this ic.  Here's the excerpt:

 

... To clarify, the Holacracy rule at play here is that you don’t attach “by-when’s” (i.e. make date commitments) to actions taken during the core circle meetings.  Capturing information about the action that relates to dates is just fine; i.e. “Julie: Schedule regular meetings for every other Tuesday starting Jan. 31st” is just fine, as that’s just more information about what action to take, but “Doug: Schedule retreat design meeting by this Friday” is not, as there’s a by-when commitment in that one.

 

Someone then asked for more about how these two examples were really different; i.e. don't both commit to a by-when?  I responded:

 

The distinction Holacracy aims for is about shifting how action-taking is held/interpreted/understood, rather than preventing any particular words or phasing necessarily.  So, I was reading “Schedule regular meetings for every other Tuesday starting Jan. 31st” as just including information about the desired recurring schedule for the meetings, which is fine, rather than something that implied a commitment to necessarily take the action by that date, which is misaligned with what assigning an action means in Holacracy.  Likewise, to get even more fuzzy, an action like “Send the client the proposal by Tuesday” is wording I would avoid, but “Send the client the proposal (which was promised to them by Tuesday)” is probably okay – it’s capturing information about reality that might help in consciously prioritizing the action, but is not implying a date-commitment on the part of the action-taker (at least as I read it).

 

The rules of Holacracy are not about any particular wording to use or avoid, but about how we collectively understand the commitments underneath what “taking an action” means.  With Holacracy at play, taking an action in a circle meeting is by-definition (per the Constitution) making the commitment to (1) consciously track the action, (2) consciously prioritize it against other possible actions you could take as you continually decide where to direct your attention and energies, and to (3) consciously choose to do it as soon as it becomes the most important thing you could do among your possible actions, all things considered.  That commitment may actually be at-odds with a commitment to “do it by Tuesday”, which requires much less consciousness to deliver upon, as you may end up doing it later than Tuesday – not because you’ve unconsciously dropped it, but because you have very consciously (and continually) selected a more valuable usage of your attention and energy which is more aligned with the organization’s purpose given current reality.

 

So, whatever wording is used in capturing actions, the key is to hold them differently and shift the cultural understanding to one where action-taking implies a deeper obligation of consciousness than the by-when paradigm embodies and evokes.  There’s also another piece of this about moving past just trusting someone else’s “by when” in a way that gives over our power to them, and bypasses a more conscious holding of our own needs – i.e. if my role cares about it, it’s up to me to own it and follow-up with the person, without giving in to the illusion of control a nice predictable “by-when” commitment offers me (an alluring drug to be sure, though not as effective for manifesting a purpose as consciously holding whatever needs holding, maintaining my own stance of power and following-up as-needed, and then consciously facing reality head-on without that illusion, come what may).

 

Hope some of you find this useful or clarifying!

 

All the best,

 

- Brian

 

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January 10, 2012 - 2:52am #1

Diederick Janse 

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

Yes, that is helpful Brian, thanks!

 

 

 

September 29, 2012 - 2:48pm #2

Michael Porcelli  

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

Are by-when's explicity forbidden by the constitution, or are they simply left undefined (I'm still part-way through my most recent re-read)?

 

If undefined, it seems like governance could create a policy that requires all role-fillers to give binding by-whens.

 

-m.

 

 

 

October 3, 2012 - 6:20am #3

Karilen Mays     

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

HolacracyOne Partner

Hi Michael,

 

A couple of thoughts: there are certain things - like sending invoices, paying bills, etc., that need to be done on a schedule or by a certain date. As a role filler, I do my best to get this stuff processed 'on time'. I might have a checklist item that I get to say check or no check weekly during tactical meetings. If a role filler regularly has no check, maybe they are not a good fit for the role...or maybe they are balancing their time, attention, energy, and resources to the best of their ability, and this is just a time period where something gets dropped.

 

I think one reason not to demand/require by-whens is because that would undermine distributed authority...by not allowing the role filler to prioritize and have the full authority to energize their role, especially given the likely many roles and projects under their stewardship.

 

Also, and this is still something I am learning to apply myself, a policy cannot require someone to do something. Though you may be on to something there about what we can do if something is not defined in the Constitution.

 

I would love to hear if this is coming from a curiosity or a situation where you think requiring binding by-whens would be useful.

 

K

 

 

 

October 3, 2012 - 10:52am #4

Michael Porcelli  

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

I don't have an explicit by-when situation right now.  But there are some closely related compliance tensions coming up.

 

Two examples.  H1's Prioritization of Processing.  And a circle member that wants to "require" lead-link attendance to governance meetings.

 

From my Coach role, I feel a tension around getting clarity and support in coaching my organization.

 

I hear you and Brian when you say "a policy cannot require someone to do something" but I don't see that stated with that level of clarity in the Constitution.  I understand the distinction between a requirement, vs. a grant or constraint of authority (section 1.8, v3.0).  However, I don't see how the constitution explicity forbids policies as requirements.  Particularly, H1's Prioritization of Processing Policy seems to be a "requirement" from a certain point of view.  I can imagine how it could be a constraint, if there was as specific "default" accountability to process an inbox, which isn't explicit in the constitution currently.  The closest I can find is section 1.3 where it says the A Role filler shall "monitor the current state and operational activity (the “Current Reality&rdquo within the Scope of such Role, as well as within the immediate context which holds such Role."  I can make that conceptual leap, but it certainly doesn't seem clear enough to offer rock-solid coaching to my organization.  And combined with the absence of explicitly forbidding Policies from definiing "required" actions, I think folks might just start making up a bunch of compliance Policies, including by-whens.  It's not helping my case that I'm the one who has proposed Prioritization of Processing.  I feel like I'm on shaky ground now.

 

Needing further coaching guidance.

 

Thanks,

 

-m.

 

 

 

October 3, 2012 - 11:46am #5

Brian Robertson 

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

HolacracyOne Partner

Are by-when's explicity forbidden by the constitution, or are they simply left undefined (I'm still part-way through my most recent re-read)?  If undefined, it seems like governance could create a policy that requires all role-fillers to give binding by-whens.

It's not that they're explicitly forbidden, it's just that there is no mechanism to force people to make and manage to a by-when commitment (and what would that even mean - we can not force the future to conform to a specific predicted state anyway, try as we might).

 

So, how would you try to force them?  You can't do it with a policy, because policies are just grants or constraints of authority and do not require action.  Even if you miss that nuance and define a policy "requiring" it anyway, so what?  I'll just ignore it, and when you say "I have to", I'll ask you to point out where in the constitution it says I have to process policies into actions - there is no such clause.  So maybe I miss that, or maybe you make it an accountability?  Even then, while I do have a responsibility to process my accountabilities into actions, my core responsibility according to the Constitution is then to prioritize my work and consciously choose how to direct my attention based on the overall context, and to choose which actions to execute when based on that - which may or may not align with the "by when" I gave.  If I neglect this conscious prioritization requirement to work on a by-when commitment at its expense, then I am neglecting a core responsibility defined by the Constitution (and defined for good reason).  And no policy or accountability can trump or overrule that part of the constitution, so any policy or accountability defined which attempts to contradict it would be "unconstitutional" - i.e. not valid governance output...

 

All that to say, the simple rule-of-thumb "no by-when commitments" is so powerful not because the Constitution explicitly forbids it, but because it defines an overall system for conscious prioritization which simply leaves no room for the unconscious prioritization that habitually giving and working towards by-when commitments often evokes.  So, sure, I can give you a by-when "commitment" all I want, but my core responsibility is still to a much higher and simultaneously more realistic standard - which may require me to drop that commitment.  So, if I'm a good role-filler in this system and operating under its rules, then you can't trust any by-when commitment I might give anyway.  Because the Constitution requires me to apply a different standard, whatever by-when's I've been foolish enough to throw around.  And there's no way to change that short of trying to rework the Constitution itself, but if you try, I bet you'll find it effectively impossible without being self-contradictory or encoding a much lower standard of consciousness...

 

Hope that helps!

 

- Brian

 

 

 

October 3, 2012 - 12:55pm #6

Michael Porcelli  

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

Yes.  This is very helpful.

 

I also need a little more help in coaching my organization on the Prioritization of Processing policy which seems to require action, particularly when I'm coaching them that they actually can't pass policies that require action, or that policies the require action don't give anyone the right to expect action or process into meaningful action.  Please let me know how Prioritization of Processing actually is a grant of authority or a constraint on some action already required.  (Please see my most recent post above in this thread).

 

This is coming up kind of loud as a Tension for me as Holacracy Coach.

 

-m.

 

 

 

October 3, 2012 - 3:47pm #7

Brian Robertson 

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

HolacracyOne Partner

Hi Michael,

 

§1.9 of the Constitution states that "... each Role-Filler shall have the responsibility and authority to continually assess and decide how and where among such potential activities to focus and apply their attention" ... "provided however that such Role-Filler shall always use best efforts to incorporate and honor in such assessment any prioritization decisions or strategies specified by any Role-Filler, process, or other mechanism with the due authority to so specify".

 

§4.5 further states that "Each Circle Member filling one or more Roles of a Circle shall, in the expression of their responsibilities and authorities as a Role-Filler for such Roles, use their best efforts and judgment to align with any prioritizations established by the Lead Link or any other mechanism which may be granted the authority to so specify such prioritizations through the due Governance Process...".

 

Given that, I would argue that the first piece of our policy, that "Circle Members shall generally prioritize processing messages from other circle members over execution of non-calendared items...", is simply a priority established through due governance process, and captured as a policy merely for convenience - or, perhaps, that it is a constraint on the authority to prioritize work of roles granted under §1.9, and thus clearly a policy.  If the Secretary were asked to make a ruling on whether that's a valid interpretation (per §3.5) and ended up throwing out both of those arguments (although I would accept either/both as valid as a Secretary myself), then you could alternatively argue that the Lead Link has the authority to specify priorities (see Lead Link Accountabilities in Appendix A), and this is a constraint on the Lead Link's authority to prioritize - that leads to a less-broad interpretation of the policy, but one that leaves virtually no room to wonder if it's valid.

 

The latter part of our policy is slightly more challenging to justify:  "... and, for explicit requests, such processing shall include responding with how the request was processed".  But, I might argue that this is just a clarification on what "processing" is intended to mean in Article 1 of the Constitution already, and not requiring any new actions beyond those already required.  That said, if someone were to interpret this differently and simply not do it, I'm not sure how much ground I'd really have to challenge them on it - I could ask the Secretary for an interpretation and make my argument, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Secretary ruled against me and threw out that part as unconstitutional.  I might throw it out myself as Secretary if I were asked to rule on it, unless given a better argument than I just gave here - perhaps an argument that tied in the Duty of Transparency of §4.2.1 or something to show why it was an allowable construct...

 

But, I made the proposal for that policy in our case, and no one has yet challenged the constitutionality of that latter part or failed to enact it in a way that was noticable to me, so it seems to have addressed my tension just fine, at least for now...  :-)

 

Hope that helps!

 

- Brian

 

 

 

October 4, 2012 - 4:13pm #8

Michael Porcelli  

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

Helps kinda.

 

My interpretation of this is somewhat opposite of yours.  I think the 2nd part is more justifiable under a combination of §4.3.1's Incorporating Requests and §4.2's Duty of Transparency.  The first part, simply requiring the monitoring and processing of an inbox, seems to imply additional action not already explicitly  required by the constitution.

 

To solve this, I'm going to make an official suggestion for future versions of the Holacracy Constutition:

 

Please add something like "processing of inbox" or "processing of incoming communication" either as its own section (analogous to §1.4's Processing Accountabiities) or as an explicitly called out addition to §1.3's Sensing and Processing Tensions. 

 

Perhaps it was too obvious to make explicit, and that's why it was left out—just a guess.  But it really stands out when so much of §1 otherwise includes most of the definition GTD.  During integration round, the discussion did really go to a place where there was resistance to requiring that messages from circle members be read, and I don't have anywhere clear in the constitution to point to its requirement.  As currently worded, seems like processing an inbox or incoming communication is still an implicit activity required of a Role-Filler, rather than explicit, whereas processing Tensions (§1.3), Accountabilities (§1.4) , and Projects (§1.6) are explicit in the constitution.

 

-m.

 

 

 

October 4, 2012 - 5:54pm #9

Brian Robertson 

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

HolacracyOne Partner

Ah, I see - yeah, in my prior reply I took it for granted that everyone is of course processing their inboxes!  That said, I do think that's at least largely covered in the Constitution already as well, in §4.3, aptly titled "Duty of Processing":

 

In addition to the regular processing of Accountabilities and Projects required by Sections 1.4 and 1.6, each Circle Member of a Circle shall engage in such processing promptly upon request of a fellow Circle Member of such Circle, and shall inform such requester of the results of such processing, including any resulting Projects or Next-Actions so identified and tracked.

 

§4.3.1 further goes on to define a duty to promptly consider & incorporate requests for specific actions/projects from fellow Circle Members.  So, if you ask a fellow circle member to do something, or otherwise ask them to engage in the processing of an accountability or a project (e.g. asking them to consider something and define some action related to an accountability or project of one of their roles), then you have a right to expect they will do so promptly.  And, per §4.4, if you ask them to consider allowing you to impact their Scope, you also have a right to expect them to consider and respond to that promptly.

 

I know that doesn't explicitly reference "inboxes" per se, and there's certainly some room for deeper clarity around that, though a duty of "prompt" processing seems to cover a lot of that.  I mean, sure, they'd be within their rights to tell you they don't check e-mail regularly or reliably and instead give you a different way to "make requests", but one way or another they've got to give you some reasonable way to make requests (i.e. they have to define some "inbox" to receive the requests), and then it's up to them to track and process all of the requests from that "inbox" (whatever it is) and into an externalized system, etc., etc...

 

Does that help?

 

- Brian

 

 

 

October 4, 2012 - 6:01pm #10

Brian Robertson 

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

HolacracyOne Partner

Ah, I should add:  It is actually intentional that "processing incoming communications" is not a basic responsibility of a role-filler in Article 1, but rather a duty only to fellow circle members (thus in Article 4), and thus, beyond the general requirement to sense & process tensions for their role, a role-filler is not necessarily responsible for responding to or even processing all incoming communications from anyone... just from fellow circle members.  For others, they are within their rights (intentionally so) to simply ignore messages if they so determine that serves their role best and there are no tensions about that to process.

 

Hope that helps!

 

- Brian

 

 

 

January 25, 2014 - 11:49am #11

Dien Kwik         

 

Sorry for reviving an old thread. This seems like the proper place to post my question.

 

I'm struggling with the concept of not using by-whens.  I understand that the reasoning is that you don't have control anyway, and so giving or getting a by-when is never ever a guarantee that things will be done by that date.

 

However, I really can't imagine a whole project team not asking by-whens at all. How can the team even begin to plan when to start activities, etc. Perhaps it is not by-when that is asked, but instead, a "projection" of when things will get done. Isn't the difference just semantics?

 

When I ask for by-whens, I am asking for projections, not guarantees. When we make a project plan, all the dates there are best effort projections, not guarantees, but we still ask by-when, and we still plot the dependencies and the milestones, etc.

 

How can we start to plan if we can't ask by-whens ?  Do we just write all the tasks down without durations or deadlines ?

 

If the answer is that we ask for projections instead of by-whens to get the durations and dates, then I'm really confused since I really don't see a difference between the two. Asking for projections is asking for a date by when a person thinks he will get it done, which is the definition of by-when.

 

I'm also struggling with another thing related to this. From reading the constitution, it seems like one can just drop a task that was requested of them, assuming what they are doing instead is of higher importance, without notifying the requestor. It seems that notification is only required to be given if the project is asked to be updated in weekly meetings, or if a member of the circle asks for it.

 

This seems reversed to what I always think is effective and professional. The person who knows whether or not his/her task is going to get done is the person doing it. The requestor or any other circle member doesn't know when the person decides to drop the task.  Weekly meetings may also be too late for the purpose of notification. Thus, the professional way is to notify the requestor as early as possible when a task is going to be dropped. Somehow I get the impression that in the constitution the burden of notification rests with the requestor, not witht the requestee. Am I reading or interpreting it wrong?

 

 

 

January 25, 2014 - 12:30pm #12

Margaux Chiquet

 

Certified Holacracy Practitioner

Certified Holacracy Coach

What you really want is all the employees to do consciously at anytime what is THE MOST IMPORTANT for the organization, given all the strategies and purpose of the circle.

 

A deadline means what it means. When you take a deadline, you are saying: “ok, I'll do it for monday” - you took an engagement with this person to give it by monday but is was a blind engagement because you didn't check all of your actions before saying it and a lot of things can change before monday so you are ignoring reality. For the instanity of the what-by-when, I would suggest you to read this article: http://holacracy.org/blog/the-...-of-the-what-by-when

 

A projection is different. When I am asked for a projection, it does not mean I will have to do it by monday but I project this to be done on monday. And the thing here is: I totally forget my projection after doing it because it doesn't matter. If the person is unhappy, she will ask me for another projection on monday or she could ask me why it is taking so much time. She can see my organization system and maybe I have real priorities more important so with Holacracy, she will have visibility and understand why it is taking this time.

 

 

 

January 30, 2014 - 7:04am #13

Dien Kwik         

 

@Margaux: Thanks for the link. I've read through the article, but am still confused

 

For me all deadlines are also always projections, but with the added thing, perhaps, that you are committed to put in your best effort to achieve it. However, there are numerous things that can happen such that a deadline is missed, including doing other things that are of higher priorities. I can understand this and work with that condition. I just need to be told that the deadline is going to be missed in time so that I can work around it.

 

So , for me, the by-when is still important, because we need to synchronize all our activities, and we can only do that if there is a projected date that we can use as a basis. It also does not imply a commit to the death obligation, so the fear that it puts an illusion of control can also be considered unfounded.

 

Perhaps, what Brian is trying to state is that the by-when that is used to force people to comply no mattter what is against Holacracy's rule.  If you use by-when for synchronization and treat it as a best effort projection, it should still be in compliance with holacracy, I believe.

 

I'll get clearer on this issue as I study and practice this further..

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