Brian: Welcome to our Community of Practice Call. First in our new topic: Dissecting Governance. This call is focused on looking at the overall governance paradigm in Holacracy and breaking it down, looking a little bit more at this distributed authority system and how it works. We’re going to talk a little bit about some of the new rules in the Holacracy Constitution, particularly with the last update it went through that clarified more about the definition of what an objection is and how governance works.
So, really the goal I had for this call was to pick one part, since it’s a two-call topic. We’ll pick a part, the overarching governance framework, dive in, answer any questions that come up, and try to get a more nuanced sense, as opposed to our last topic, which went into more how it works with us humans. This is kind of the opposite end of the spectrum. I thought we’d really just look at the rules, the processes, the structures and constructs that Holacracy uses to distribute authority in an organization.
So, Tom you’re joining us for the call. I know you’re not on video but you’re here with us on audio. Anything you wanted to say as framing before we dive in?
Tom: Yes. Glad to be here, and it’s kind of nice to broaden our perspective a little bit instead of the minutiae in the fine detail that occurs in Integrative Decision Making. Just more broadly, we always talk about shifting the seat of authority from individuals and conventional leadership structures to Holacracy in this process. So, what does that ship look like, what’s being delegated, and how do we deal with control, power and distributed decision-making more broadly in governance? So, kind of cool.
Brian: Yes, great. So, why don’t we start by just talking about some of the outputs of governance and even before we get that broader framing, what is governance in Holacracy? I think there’s something that a lot of people miss when they first get exposed to Holacracy, which is that this is truly a distributed authority paradigm. I think it’s really easy to come into Holacracy and see some really cool meeting processes and techniques and think, wow what a great way to run a meeting.
However, that really misses the mark on what this is actually doing. At a much deeper level, it is shifting authority in the organization. It’s shifting the way authority gets defined. It’s changing from the typical fusion of authority with a boss into a tangible concrete governance mechanism where authority is distributed throughout the organization.
So, those Governance meetings aren’t just nice ways to run a meeting. They have tangible rules with clear outputs that distribute authority throughout the company. So, the classical boss, that word doesn’t even have that much meaning anymore, so we might ask what we really mean by that? Typically there’s so much fused into that word about the way authority works. That’s just not true anymore.
So, the typical boss simply no longer has the authority to make any decision in their team that they see fit. Authority gets distributed through governance. Tom, anything you wanted to add about that?
Tom: Yes I always find it interesting, especially coming out of conventional organizational systems for so long. The whole notion of even corporate governance in large companies and even small startups by these documents that really kind of go into formation in small companies that specify control. They specify who has authority to sign or represent the company, who has legal exposure and in more larger organizations, the public company.
We have corporate governance that talks about auditability, public company accountability and all of those are really, really static processes, oftentimes done once at the start of our founding of a company and forgotten about at the board, and then in larger public companies done kind of more esoterically at the board level or as an executive subcommittee, and really not our part of the day to day operational aspects of the organization. They are present. They aren’t in any way current and they certainly aren’t distributed.
So, it’s kind of no wonder we talk about governance; there’s all these kinds of misunderstandings and misnomers all the way through the system talking about what corporate governance or organization is. I think from the start we have some work to do to get clarity. What is that we’re talking about as an overall process and not something that’s static and done, brought and forgotten about?
Brian: Yes. That really resonates. In fact it is that level of concrete authority that we’re actually talking about. It’s again not just a new meeting practice. It is not on par with the typical work that’s done upfront and forgotten about at the board with the corporate bylaws or what have you. It’s fascinating to me that the modern idea got set that you can take these corporate bylaws and figure out how things should be governed and then never change it and just always follow that and never break it down and never ask, “What about the more detailed workings of the organization?”
Governance is a relevant topic throughout an organization, not just at the board level, and over time things certainly change, not just upfront, and it’s certainly insufficient to simply define in bylaws a set of roles. You’ll see typical bylaw documents where we’ll have a president, a treasurer, a secretary, etcetera, and to think that one single set of defined roles at that level can address everything is ludicrous. It is that level of authority, the bylaw level kind of authority, that we’re trying to distribute now throughout the organization, and to do that, we need the meeting processes to get there to do governance, which is where the governance processes come in, but we also need these constructs or these outputs. How do we capture the results of governance in a way that is simple, that we’re not trying to write legal documents at every level of the organization, that would be nuts, but in which we can capture true authority distribution in Lead Link structures throughout the organization? That’s exactly the framework and it’s also the process and output fulfilling the needs.
Tom: Yes, that makes complete sense. Yes, I was just going to say we talk about that doing that once and ignoring it from then on. That’s also the first rule that reinforces that it is I the decision-maker, it is I the power-holder who’s going to make the decision, and right from the start when we even talk about corporate Lead Link or bylaws or things that even kind of look similar, we already cling to illustrating the fact that it’s fused with the individual. That decision-making authority, that power authority is with an individual construct or a group, an executive body and that’s the first move away from made in Holacracy.
We’ve talked a whole lot over many, many calls about how the Holacracy Constitution represents the shift of authority, the seat of authority as we say, from an individual to a process and I think that’s the first time the process becomes alive for an existing power holder, existing founder or executive -- when we in the course of adoption ask them to consciously shift their implicit or explicit control to this Constitution, to a document that now delegates authority and delegates decision-making.
Brian: Yes, and it’s funny I think, even with all the up front framing we do in discussing it, I’ve seen often it really doesn’t sink in or hit home until there comes a time with a specific situation where the former power holder or the former boss or founder or whatever is in a dialogue with somebody and generally expecting that person is going to fully take into account and satisfy whatever the issue is to the boss’s satisfaction, the founder’s satisfaction. I think it’s just as hard on the other party as well, as they try to satisfy and integrate whatever it is the founder is saying. And I think that the authority shift doesn’t really hit home until that issue is brought to a head and it becomes clear that this is not the founder’s authority, and there’s no reasonable expectation that somebody’s going to come to consensus with them or integrate everything they have to say if it falls into another role that has clear authority for doing it.
So, we want an authority system shift, not just a process of who’s kind of holding something but still going through the founder, through the boss for every specific issue. We want somebody to have the confidence within a clear authority structure that something is their decision, even to the point where they can say to the founder or the boss or whoever from the former power structure, “Thanks for your input. I’ll go ahead and make the decision now; I have the input, I’ve gotten what I need. Thanks,” and not necessarily deciding it as the boss would.
So, let’s look at some of the actual way that happens. This is what we get into in our workshops, talking about roles and accountabilities which is a vehicle for Holacracy , a vehicle of shifting authority into what we call roles now. So, we have roles that hold accountabilities, and accountability is an activity of the organization. An accountability is something that has an -ing verb at the beginning of it, so it’s some ongoing authority or ongoing activity of the organization. We place that into a role and then when somebody fills the role, they get the authority to engage those activities. They can do that as they see fit. It’s in their best judgment.
I still see even with that, it’s such a tricky move to fully grasp that that is truly authority distribution, and I think one of the things I can point out is looking at the clues that we might need to clarify accountabilities, clarify authority. I wrote about this in one of my recent blog posts. Differentiating Role and Soul I think was the title if you want to find it.
I see these nuances a lot in organizations that we work with. You’ll see people generally trying to build buy in with each other and come to a consensus around what decision to make. Whatever that might be, it’s a group of people who’ll sit around and talk, and each one will be articulating what they think, but you can feel underneath that everyone’s trying to get buy in to come to a collective collaborative decision, and it seems like a healthy thing. In fact, in a conventional organization that’s one of the most healthy approaches, rather than just getting to a pissing contest power fight or an autocratic leader just cutting off all perspective integration and saying it’s over, I’m making the decision.
What we end up with is a healthy response in a typical conventional organization, and you’ll feel it as people sit around and talk and try to come to build buy in or consensus around what decision to make. Often in these cases, I’m feeling that the underlying felt sense is like tip-toeing around the issue to try to build this buy in because it’s not clear who actually makes the decision, so the feeling is you need to get buy in from others, so that there is a shared consensual decision. That is a sure-fire sign that you are missing governance, that there is a lack of clarity in governance, and instead, if that decision were clearly held by a role with an accountability related to it that had the authority to make that decision, then that changes the game quite a bit, and it changes the tone of the conversation. It’s just some kind of tiptoeing around trying to build this essential buy in as contrasted to one person who knows it’s their job to decide to look for help and input from their colleagues.
So, ironically the opportunity for collaboration for input actually increases in Holacracy because now we don’t have to tiptoe around the issue and build buy in. It’s one person saying, “Help. What do you think?” and everyone else is giving input knowing it’s that person’s authority to decide. So, the dialogue can take place and then as soon as that person has what they need they can stop wasting the group’s time. They can cut off dialogue and say, “Thanks. I’ve got what I’m looking for. I know how to proceed now,” and they can make a decision there.
We can also apply limits of authority, constraints to integrate with others but all that is spelled out in the role and its accountabilities.
Tom: Yes, the other way that that shows up for me when a named individual is the go-to, so it’s all about Sally or John or Paul, and that’s also a pointer that there’s a lack of clear Lead Link, which comes with roles and accountabilities to specific ongoing activities. This comes up really often in the early adoption because that’s kind of what we’ve become accustomed to is collapsing even job titles, individual persons filling that position and so it’s really all about a person and that’s another clue. When people want to go to John to get something done, “What’s John actually doing, and is that clear to everybody?” Is there a clear accountability? A clear demarcation of authority that you’re going to?” And if so, you can kind of reframe and ask what role is John holding. That may even be clearer but it may not be clear what accountabilities are at play. That’s really a cool way to tease out governance. In Governance meetings whenever you hear a person being named as an individual, we can read into that and say what are the ongoing accountabilities? In fact what are you seeking from John that’s important? Why are you going to him or Sally or whoever?
Brian: Yes. That’s great, and you see that all the time when that named individual is the founder. You see it all the time, even in organizations that embrace Holacracy, or think they do, there is often the founder who is just so naturally used to being in that role, and everybody goes to them and that continues even as you get clarity of roles. Sometimes it happens when you do have clarity of roles and governance and clear authority, and yet the habit in play is for everybody to look to the founder to try to integrate the founder’s perspective, to try to involve the founder, and you often hear him named, or the boss or the leader, or whoever we’re talking about.
I think that’s another opportunity to look at really embodying this authority system shift. This is not about trying to build buy in from the founder or consensus or anything like that. It’s about owning our authority, stepping up and exercising it. Now, this is an especially hard shift when people first see Holacracy; they see this integrative process for governance, right? So, it’s a natural mistake to think that Holacracy is all about this give everyone a voice and everything and having integration all the time. That gets to what I call the tyranny of consensus. It is not about that. The Integrative Decision Making process is used in Governance meetings to define authority. That’s it. It’s not used to make specific decisions, with some rare exceptions for certain decisions that through governance we do decide need integration among multiple roles.
So, in governance we have a very integrative process. Everybody gets a voice. Everyone’s a sensor of tensions and objections, and everyone is honored in that process so that we can set up a clear authority system and embody that authority without needing integration outside of governance.
So, one of the two signs I think we pointed to here is to watch for discussions to build buy in or consensus. That’s a sign of a lack of clarity on what role owns the authority to make the decision. Also, to watch for somebody being named by name, particularly a founder or leader of some sort, rather than by the name of a role they hold, which naturally needs to be involved, and you can use that as a clue to missing governance.
Now I want to look at and talk about some of the governance outputs and then look at how those get defined in the Constitution just to make this even more grounded. Alright. I’m going to switch our view here for those who are watching us online so that you can see the Constitution here as we go. The Constitution has a lot of stuff in it. It starts with a whole bunch of definitions, but I want to scroll us down to the part where we get to the organizational structure, and then the outputs of a Governance meeting, which are defined in here.
So, as we know, Holacracy structures the organization as a bunch of circles. We defined circles. I think one of the interesting things to note as we dive into this is that a circle is not defined by a group of people. You can think of a circle like a cell of the organization. It’s an organizational construct that is there to express a role and has a span of control, and thus more governance is showing up already at the circle level. It has a scope, which is a span of control, and the circle as a hole might have accountabilities to execute upon, which it then needs to break down and distribute through its various roles, and it has autonomy and authority. So, within a circle we have circle members who show up and energize the roles of the circle, and there are a number of people who are automatically members, like our links from other circles, and then the circle can add members as well. Then we get to the heart of it.
So, just racing through that setup of defining a circle we get to Section 2.3 in the Constitution here, and this is where we start really spelling out the governance constructs of roles and what a role is, and the authority that a role filler has, and this is the job of the circle. So, the circle members, through a governance meeting, further break down and organize the activities needed to express the circle’s purpose, and they do that by defining one or more roles within the circle’s scope of authority.
So, this is front and center in the Constitution. It talks about how Governance meetings are there to define roles. In fact later in the Constitution we’ll even see the outputs of governance very clearly spelled out – in other words, we’re not allowed to do much else in the Governance meeting other than assign roles. Another common beginner’s mistake using Holacracy is making any old decision in Governance meetings, including decisions to do something or take action, or start a project. None of those are allowed in Holacracy in a Governance meeting.
The only thing you’re doing in a Governance meeting is breaking down the authority of the circle, and you’re doing that by defining roles and accountabilities and policies. So, those are the outputs of Governance: roles, accountabilities and policies and here in Section 2.3 in the Constitution we’re defining what a role is. I think one of the interesting things here to note is that the role’s definition is very similar to a circle definition. In fact, they’re almost the same thing. A circle is just a big role that needs to hold multiple other roles to kind of break it down and execute. They are very similar constructs.
So, a role also has a purpose. It doesn’t have to always be specified. It can be explicit, or it can be just assumed until tension needs us to make it more explicit, but a role has a purpose. It may have some scope or span of control that it works within. We’ll talk more about scope later. Roles includes accountabilities, and these are the –ing verbs, the activities of the organization. Let’s look at the definition of accountability in the definition section. Accountability means, “A possible activity which may from time to time need to be carried out on behalf of a circle.” So, I think the key here within accountability is that it’s not an action. It’s not “you’re accountable for finishing that project”. That doesn’t make sense. That’s not an accountability. An accountability is not an action. “You’re accountable for sending this proposal to the client.” That’s a one-time action. An accountability is not about that. Accountabilities are the ongoing pattern. You’re accountable for sending proposals to clients ongoing over time, multiple different clients, multiple different proposals. So, an accountability is the over time component which may from time to time need to be energized in service of fulfilling the role’s purpose.
So, if we go back to our roles, a role has multiple accountabilities and then we have the authority of the role fillers. In Governance meetings, we define roles and accountabilities, and when the role is filled, the person filling that role gains authority for multiple things, and this is just spelled out in Section 2.3.2 here, Authority of Role Fillers and lettered. So, A, the responsibility that this is giving the role filler when someone’s filling the role is the responsibility to monitor the need for each of the accountabilities of the role.
So, this is interesting. It’s not just saying you have to go do these things necessarily. It’s actually saying you need to monitor to see when they’re needed, right? I think that’s a subtle but important distinction. An accountability isn’t even saying you have to go do it necessarily all the time. It’s saying you just have to watch for it and to reasonably decide if, when, how and to what extent to energize that accountability to perform that accountability given everything, given the purpose, the scope of the circle, the current context, all of that.
So, an accountability – you’re filling this even if you decide not to do it in a specific case given the current context. Often there’s so much going on that it makes sense to drop this activity for now. You’re still meeting this responsibility. The responsibility isn’t to necessarily do everything perfectly. It’s to monitor the need for it and decide, using your reasonable judgment, given everything going on including there’s only so many hours in a day, decide to what extent to energize each of these accountabilities in your roles. So, that’s one thing that happens when a role is assigned.
In addition to the responsibility to monitor for that need and to decide how much to do it, also assigned is the authority to (see letter B) perform each of the accountabilities of that role on behalf of the circle. So, we’re committing authority with it and that authority is not trumped by a boss or any of those standard constructs. We get so much into that habit. That’s not the case anymore. This is giving an authority that if that accountability does not say you need to integrate with somebody else, then you don’t. You can choose to get whatever input you want, but it is your job to own that authority.
Then letter C here is saying in service of those accountabilities and in service of performing those accountabilities, you have the authority to distribute across them any time, money or other resources which have been allocated to that role to you. So, the person filling the role is deciding with whatever time they’ve got in a day, and whatever budget they might have for their role, how do they distribute those across the various activities? Now, of course there might be some broader budgeting processes that come in and out of an overlay here. That’s fine. By default it’s the person filling the role that decides. I’m not saying they can spend any money that they can get their hands on in the whole organization, but of the budget or time that they have available to them, they’re going to figure out how to divide it across the many activities, and to what extent to pursue those activities or accountabilities, and they’re going to have the authority to do it. That’s A, B, and C.
So, this is really spelling out the clear authority there, and then D gets into a little bit more of an advanced construct, which I’ll just briefly touch on. I don’t want to overwhelm folks who are newer to this or newer to the practice, so I will just highlight it. What letter D is saying here is where scope comes into play. It’s saying that if you give a role its own scope, for example that, we have a Finance role at Holacracy One, which has a scope of financial and accounting standards for the organization, something like that.
If a scope is defined for a role, it gives the role filler the authority to create policies that regulate other roles working within that scope, and it gives us authority for that role to create those policies even outside of a Governance meeting. So, if you give a scope to a role, you’re saying you want that role to regulate or control that area of the organization and it might define policies for it or what have you. Let me give another example.
We have a Marketing role here in Holacracy One that has within its scope our public website. What that means is the Marketing role is kind of the protector or guardian of that public website and is the one creating policies for other roles to follow when they want to use the public website. So, what this is telling me is in the Training Business role I fill, where I run our training program, because the Marketing role has the scope of public website, I can’t just go update the public website whenever I see fit. Whenever I want to add an event or advertise an event or whatever, I can’t just go and update that website, because it’s within the scope of another role. So, what I have to do is follow any policies and integrate any objections, any concerns to my proposed action from the role that owns the scope. So, as Training Business if I want to change something in the website, I need to make sure I follow any policies that the Marketing role has created for how to do that. I need to make sure if I have a specific request I need to integrate any objections from Marketing before I take an action that affects the public website.
So, it’s yet another way of distributing more authority, and now I’m starting to define the intersection of things. Now that’s what a scope does, and you’ll see many roles with scopes, and it tends to happen over time after an organization has the basics. At first you can mostly ignore scope on roles; maybe some circles do define roles with scopes, but most roles can ignore it for a while in the early days of practice. Over time, I think there’s some real value in looking at these scopes of control, it makes it possible for not everything to have to go through a Governance meeting, for example. You can figure out how people should work when you go to the website and define policies for how to use that website. If anyone has tensions on that they can always bring it back to governance because governance always overrides policies created outside governance.
So, that’s the basic construct of a role. That’s the main output of governance of these roles with their accountabilities and the scopes of those roles, and possibly policies governing them over time, which is kind of cool. Tom, anything you wanted to add or clarify for any of that?
Tom: Some things pop for me. One of the elements about Holacracy that I really appreciate is that it’s simple to start and it’s nuanced and complex to refine your practice. So this whole Constitution just reminds me that it’s a great reference guide to really go to when you want a little bit more about a particular subject like filling a role and it’s kind of like an owner’s manual or instruction book when you realize, “I didn’t know you could do that.” You could have those “ah has” as you’re looking at more nuanced ways and yet it’s all there very smoothly, and that’s just saying you will energize your role and energize those accountabilities and there’s simply this nuance at the same time, which is kind of cool.
The other thing that was popping to me is the very first sentence where one or more persons can fill a role. It’s actually sometimes lost that roles can be filled by multiple role fillers, and this notion of having many people energizing one role, and that’s kind of a key concept that really allows for a more natural fit to the type of work and ongoing activity that might show up in any given circle where you have lots of people doing the same thing, because of the volume of work related to that activity.
Brian: Yes, and in fact that was one of the things we clarified further in this revision to the Constitution. In fact, Section 2.4 talks about how to assign roles, and this whole section has been given a real overhaul since our previous versions; in fact, 2.4.3 covers these assigning roles to multiple people to clarify that. There are many interesting clarifications in this section about authority.
For one, Section 2.4 makes clear that the circles can assign one or more members to its roles. That assignment is through the authority of the Lead Link. So it’s the Lead Link’s authority to assign people to roles, but the Lead Link does not have the authority to define roles outside of Governance. It’s one of the paradigm shifts to get used to with Holacracy, that the “boss”, or the Lead Link in this case, no longer has unlimited authority to define authority, or the authority to define roles outside of governance.
So, governance defines these roles and accountabilities, but the Lead Link then -- outside of governance -- has the authority to assign the roles to people to find the best fit and assignment. So, it’s through that due authority that people fill roles. It’s not a collective process, with the exception of a few of the key elected roles. Most roles in Holacracy are assigned by the Lead Link exercising his/her authority to find the best fit and assign somebody to a role.
Section 2.4.1 was an interesting addition with this last version of the Constitution: when a role is not filled for any reason, for example if we create a new role and it’s not assigned yet, or if somebody leaves a role assignment and for any reason that role is unfilled, until the Lead Link does assign somebody to fill the role, the Lead Link him- or herself automatically fills the role, and everyone else can expect that Lead Link to energize those accountabilities, just as you would expect any other role filler to do so.
So this is a great incentive to get the Lead Link to assign roles and not delay that too long, and it closes a hole in the previous version of the Constitution, which was unclear about what happened when a role is not filled. So, this now closes that hole and makes it clear. When a role is not filled, it defaults to the Lead Link, who holds it until the Lead Link assigns it.
Likewise, here’s another gap that was closed in this version of the Constitution, in Section 2.4.2: what happens if we assign roles to someone who is not a member of the circle? For example, maybe we have an external consultant who does our bookkeeping, and we create a bookkeeper role and assign it to that person? Well what happens? Is that allowed? The Constitution says yes, actually, you can assign a role to someone who is not a member of the circle, but when you do, somebody needs to make sure they’re monitoring for tensions coming up through that role filler, because they’re not a member of the circle and can’t process those tensions themselves in the circle’s Governance and Tactical meetings. So, it’s kind of an interesting construct here where we point back to the tension processing mechanism, which we’ll talk a lot more about on our next call, and we get into the situation of if we assign the role to somebody outside of the circle, that person cannot process their own tensions. So, now we default back to a more conventional structure, which is the Lead Link, in this case by default, needs to stay in contact with the person filling that role, and try to address their tensions for them, which interestingly is exactly the opposite of what you want when you’re assigning a role to a circle member. You don’t want the Lead Link, the boss, to be in the habit of trying to address other people’s tensions. That’s what happens in conventional organizations, the good or healthy boss will try to address the tensions of those that work for them because there’s no other way for those people to address their own tensions.
When they’re in a fundamentally disempowering space, it makes sense for the leader to try to process their tensions. That all changes when they have a Governance mechanism to address their own tensions. We don’t want the leader processing their tensions for them. We want to leave them to process their own tensions, find their own voice, find their own power and process their own tensions. Interesting though, Holacracy embraces what came before. If we do assign a role for any reason to somebody who’s not a circle member and thus can’t process their own tensions, then the Lead Link does need to do that in the way that they used to.
So, that clarifies it and then, Tom, getting to what you were saying, about Section 2.4.3, what if we assign a role to multiple people? There’s some restrictions on that, so we can assign a role to multiple people only if one of two things is true:
A) if there’s some process to differentiate and clarify who fills the role for what accountabilities within each context or time. So you can’t have two people filling a role if it’s going to have muddy or clashing authority. You couldn’t have two people fill a role if that was just going to lead to consensus among those two people, because then they wouldn’t know who had the authority.
So, there has to be some process or mechanism, and that might be something very simple. It might be something like a software developer role that might be filled by multiple people, but there’s a process in place where each of them is working on one feature of the software, on one piece of the functionality. So, each of them knows that they have the authority of the software developer role for the specific features they’re working on. So, there’s some mechanism or process to differentiate that and make sure that they don’t have a clash of not knowing who has authority or who’s accountable for what.
B) The other way it can be done is when the Lead Link assigns people to roles, the Lead Link can specify how to break them down. So, they can say, for example, with a sales role: “You’re filling our sales role for the United States and somebody else is filling the sales role for Europe.” So, we can specify a focus or something to carbon half the role when we make the assignment. So we can differentiate it that way with some focus. That’s what clause B is saying here.
So, I think again it’s really useful. What the whole thing is doing, and I hope you’re getting a sense of it, is trying to enforce clarity. What we want is clarity of authority, and we’re not defaulting back to consensus or politics or tiptoeing around things, or what have you. We want clarity of authority. So, if we assign a role to multiple people that is fine as long as we have clarity and it’s not creating a muddy situation. That’s Section 2.4.3.
So, yes, those are the core constructs, governance constructs in the Constitution. It then goes on to talk about the core roles, structural roles, circle member, Lead Link, the elections and all that. We’re not going to get into that right now. It talks about sub-circles and how sub-circles get defined, but the piece I wanted to jump down to and call your attention to is Article 3, Governance Meetings.
We define governance outputs here in Section 3.5, and this is again one of the most common pitfalls in adopting Holacracy . People use governance to come up with any old output, and it is so important to making this whole practice work. Governance is not about just integrating around any decision. It’s about defining authority. So, the outputs of a Governance meeting shall be only these things spelled out in here: new and amended policies, definition of roles and accountabilities, or amendments to them, and the results of elections. That’s it.
So, a very limited set of outputs of Governance is allowed, and then the other kind of cool thing is that you can bring anything you want as input into the meeting as long as you get to one of those outputs. There’s nothing wrong with proposing something that’s not one of these three things, but there is something wrong with adopting a proposal that’s not one of those three things.
So, you can bring any topic you like to discuss or explore in Governance, but we’re always asking the question in Governance. We’re trying to pull back to Governance. What are the authorities here? What are these policies or roles that we need to clarify?
So, let’s step into this Governance meeting. We’ve got clarity on what our outputs are. Now, I think the whole broader frame or structure for this is processing tensions. I think this is probably one of the most powerful aspects of Holacracy, and what makes this practice so unique is the focus on processing one agenda item or one tension at a time.
It sounds so simple, but I can’t tell you how many times I see again and again in organizational spaces where everybody is trying to process their own tensions all at once. We use this word tension a lot. I’m not going to define it again, but it’s that sense of something you’re resonating with that is an opportunity to improve in the organization, and what often happens in companies is that we have meetings and everybody jumps in and tries to process all of their own tensions all at once.
We have endless discussions or heated exchanges or whatever, where everybody’s trying to address something they feel is important. I think one of the really cool things about Holacracy -- and it’s so simple and yet so challenging to get into the habit of in practice -- is this laser-like focus we have in meetings that process one tension at a time. We don’t let other tensions sneak in. We don’t let multiple people’s tensions get focused on. We focus on one tension at a time, and everything in the Governance meeting is designed to build that up and to look at that one tension at a time. It’s a laser-like focus there.
So, we see this in many ways. First, we see it in the way we build the agenda. We’re not building an agenda in advance. We’re building it on the fly based on relevant tensions, and we’re not discussing the agenda as we build it. We’re not trying to come to a consensus on what the tensions are. We’re just trying to make a list of the tensions we want to address. So, anybody that senses tension can raise an agenda item. We see here, in Section 3.6.1, valid agenda items. Meeting participants may add an agenda item solely to attempt to process a tension they sense into newer amended governance outputs, into roles and accountabilities and all that.
So, we add agenda items to process a tension we sense, so we can have multiple agenda items to process many tensions. The tension does need to be relevant to the circle. So, it’s not just a personal tension that we’re trying to process in the Governance meeting. It is a tension sensed that is relevant to the circle. It’s sensed on behalf of the circle and manifesting the circle’s purpose.
So, we build an agenda and yet while we’re building the agenda we’re not allowed to discuss it. So, we see here in Section 3.6.2, a meeting participant adds an agenda item by providing only a short label. It just references the tension, that’s it. We do not engage in explanation or discussion regarding the tension or anything like that. Just one agenda item at a time, just the headline, the one or two words. We build the agenda. Then we don’t even spend a lot of time discussing order. We trust the people will have brought things up in the order that is most relevant or important from their perspective, and we’re going to move fast enough to get through enough that we don’t spend a lot of time discussing the order of the agenda. The Constitution gives the Facilitator the authority to establish order through any means they see fit. So, they can have a short discussion on it. They can just make a decision. Whatever the facilitator thinks best to do, they can order the agenda.
That’s another clarification in this version of the Constitution that used to be unclear -- how the agenda ordering happens. Now, it’s a Facilitator authority that’s clearly spelled out in the Constitution. So, one tension at a time processing.
I was just reminded of this, actually, while I was reading something in the news this morning. It was about one of the political situations going on in the U.S. right now about the debt ceiling stuff that we’re facing, and it was fascinating. It was talking about the political process, and one of the things from a Holacracy lens that jumps out at me time and time again about the political process in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world is what derails it is that again, we’re not processing one tension at a time. What happens is that everyone tries to get their tensions processed all at once.
So, people will vote no on a proposal that is addressing someone else’s tension just because it doesn’t fully address their tension, and we end up with this least common denominator of everything getting stuck, and it’s really difficult to pass new legislation, and even harder to change or repeal legislation. We’ve got people voting no on good ideas that address a tension because it doesn’t address their tension.
We see the same thing in organizations, right? We see people that will try, unconsciously, not intending in any way to derail the process, but will try to stop the processing of tensions because it’s not addressing their tension, right? So, they’ll raise objections or what they think are objections, or they’ll jump in when we are trying to address someone else’s tension, and they’ll try to take it into a discussion about their tension. We see this all the time. It’s a natural instinct I think we have from the cultures we’re brought up in today, where we don’t have a space to process one tension at a time and just put away.
It’s funny how epitomized this is in our Congress, where we see this massive amount of everybody trying to address their needs, so you get this stuckness. That’s where the politics come from, right? Hey, I’ll address a little of your tension here if you address a little of mine there. Add this to your bill. We get all these things added to bills and added and added and added until they’re doing all these other things other than what they were originally designed to address, and that’s expected. It’s now the normal course of work. So we have this massive effort, this Herculean effort to pass a piece of legislation, because it’s got to address all these tensions, and people will block it or derail it if it doesn’t address the tension they sense, even if it’s addressing others.
With that frame, Holacracy’s Governance meetings are trying to shift that to work through one tension at a time, and all of the rules of Governance are purposed toward that. On our next call we’ll talk about what’s a valid objection, and how do we tease that apart if it’s not the same tension. What are the rules of that, and how do we know that, how can we judge that, how can we stay that focused? We’ll talk about that more in our next meeting, but one tension at a time is the whole focus in Governance, and it’s so hard to get used to.
Tom: Just to repeat and support that, this is what I find in early Governance to be so frustrating in the first maybe two or three Governance meetings. There’s that tendency just out of habit or not knowing what else to do to pile on and process in a lot of tensions at one time, but actually I’ve found that it sorts itself out fairly quickly because of the relief. There is a definite relaxation into, “Ah, I can see how I can get my need, my tension, what I’m sensing resolved if I just hold on long enough for this one to be resolved in a workable way.”
So, it actually remedies, it rights itself pretty quickly after three or four different Governance meetings where you have some confidence that everything’s being processed one a time. There’s a deep relaxation into the whole Governance meeting process. So, it actually goes pretty quickly, but it is really tough to shift, almost violent in some cases in a strange sort of way. The deep felt need to get whatever you’re feeling out on the table and competing for that space, it’s a really tough habit to shift initially but once you do, there’s the clarity and the relaxation, the sense of calm that comes through practice, and that’s kind of what you’re looking for in early adoption.
Brian: Yes. That really resonates with me. So, in our next call we’ll dive into the actual Governance idea. In our last topic we talked about more the theory of the process and its work with human attachment and all that. This time we’re going to get into the rules and structures and processes that allow this one tension at a time processing. So, we’ll dissect the rules of the Constitution here, including the definition of an objection and the nuances around that. That’s happening in our next call.
Let’s take our remaining time to address any questions or thoughts that are coming up from anyone out there listening in. If you have anything to add whether it’s a question you’d like to hear us talk to, or just sharing with us what jumped out at you most of this call, what was your key insight to kind of cement that in, and maybe help invoke in others.
So, you all have microphone ability. Go ahead Zaba.
Zaba: Hi. Can you hear me okay?
Brian: Hey, Zaba. How are you doing?
Zaba: Hi. Yes I have a few questions. The first one is what about the founder as a Lead Link for the General Company Circle?
Brian: Yes. It’s very common for the founder to be that Lead Link, and that doesn’t actually change the distributed authority paradigm. So, one of the habits to break is that, especially what Tom pointed out watching for, the habit of that founder to be involved in everything. The Lead Link role is actually a very small role in Holacracy. It has some authorities and accountabilities, but relatively few. It shouldn’t be involved in all the different operations of the circle. So, it’s certainly allowed for that founder to be Lead Link; it’s common, and it doesn’t change the distribution of authority, and that’s something to watch out for.
Zaba: Okay. So, are there any special criteria about the Lead Link, like availability if something that comes up here where people have long periods of time, maybe a couple of months where somebody’s away?
Brian: Yes. It is a fairly minor role in that sense, compared to some of the roles that are actually getting the work done in the organization. The Lead Link is one that’s probably more capable of being absent, because again they’re just not that much the Lead Link is doing, but yes, they do need to be available to do the basic things that they do. Although a small role, the function is critical. It’s assigning people to roles. That’s critical. It needs to happen. Allocating resources is a default authority of the Lead Link. That needs to happen. Monitoring people’s fit for roles, and removing or coaching people in roles as needed. All of that is really important, even if it’s not a bulk of a job.
Zaba: Wow. I’m a Lead Link and it’s a lot of work, so I’m wondering what am I doing wrong.
Brian: What usually happens is that Lead Links are filling many other roles as well. In Holacracy we just call that a different role, but the Lead Link function itself is actually fairly small, and the people filling that role often fill multiple other roles as well. That’s actually an interesting game, differentiating that.
Zaba: How about sub-circle to sub-circle communication, like when we define a policy in one circle that affects the way another sub-circle works? Does it have to go back up to the broader circle and then back down? Can a Lead Link take it across?
Brian: Yes. It depends where it’s defined. So, typically if it’s a policy that will affect the intersection across two circles, it’s usually defined in the broader circle to begin with. Almost anything’s possible here. So, the broader circle could give each of its sub-circles authority to define certain aspects of how they’re going to work together. The question is really one of clarity, so is it clear that the sub-circle has the authority to do or define something that affects another sub-circle.
Brian: As long as that authority is clear, you’re okay. If not, the broader circle can clarify that the one sub-circle has the authority to do something that will affect another sub-circle, and the other sub-circle has to abide by it -- at which point it can happen without going to the broader circle, unless that authority itself needs to be adjusted.
Zaba: Okay. So, if something came up in Governance on a sub-circle and the authority wasn’t clear, then that would go up to the broader circle. The authority would get defined, and then if it was the broader circle’s authority to do policies that would affect two circles, then they would do that, taking the starting tension from the sub-circle and processing it into a policy that would then go down to the Lead Links or the Rep Links would take that policy down to the sub-circles.
Brian: Yes, absolutely. That would be the Lead Link naturally as the representative of the broader circle in the sub-circle. The first piece you said about when you sense a tension in the sub-circle that needs to go up and get addressed in the broader level because it’s not clear, the sub-circle has the authority, that’s the job of the Rep Link. So, it’s when the tension’s first sensed in the sub-circle; if that sub-circle doesn’t have the authority to address it, then it’s the Rep Link’s job to bring that up in the broader circle, and to get clarity on does this circle have the issue or not. There’s nothing to stop the Lead Link from doing it as well. It’s the Rep Link’s job and that’s who the people in the sub-circle will look to.
Zaba: Okay. Then I think I read something in the Constitution about the Facilitator not being the same as the Lead Link.
Brian: Yes. Those two must be separate.
Zaba: Okay. So, what do you do when you have someone like me being that person because I’m the only who’s learned Holacracy?
Brian: Yes, you break the rules.
Brian: You break the rule for a while but when I break that rule I also make clear what the rule is for everybody, so they know that this is a temporary measure until we’re really up to speed and ready for that to be different.
Zaba: I thought an easy way to start shifting that is because Tactical meetings are a lot easier to facilitate, then as soon as somebody’s ready to take that on, then the Lead Link is the default to do that, so that doesn’t work.
Brian: Yes. The Lead Link would continue to facilitate in Tactical meetings. That’s normal. One organization that’s adopting right now has partnered with an external facilitator who just wants some practice; he’s a new facilitator who’s volunteered for a non-profit to help them avoid that issue. Another organization we’re working with has multiple circles. The people that are trained are their Lead Links, so they just swap. So, one Lead Link will facilitate for another Lead Link’s circle and that Lead Link will facilitate for the first Lead Link’s circle.