Better sorry than safe

Written by Joris Engbers on 15th July 2015

The red stapler

In my last article I expressed the hope that Holacracy would make it clear for anyone who is responsible for buying office equipment. In this respect, Holacracy has been a raging succes. Bob is no longer informally in charge of red staplers. Now, if you need anything office equipment related at Devhouse Spindle, see the role “Purchases” – currently filled by Egon – that is accountable for the purchasing of office equipment. This would be clear for anyone taking a look into our Glassfrog account.

On the whole, Holacracy has made it more clear for everyone not only what other people do at Devhouse Spindle, but also what they are doing themselves. I thought I was a programmer, but as it turns out I’m also in a “Backend Maintenance” role and an “Organisational Process” role. On top of that, as a Secretary for one circle and as a Facilitator for another, I’m also accountable for scheduling meetings and facilitating at meetings.

All out of tension

There is also progress still to be made. We could probably do with even more well-defined roles, which is paradoxical if you know that our last Governance meetings took just 5 minutes, because we only felt the need to clarify one little thing in a role. Somehow there was no tension at all to be processed. This sounds great, but it also doesn’t feel completely right at this point, because it would mean that we are completely ready as an organization and I don’t feel that we are or ever should be.

Also, the way that Governance and Tactical meetings are organized is not for everyone. For most developers a rigidly structured process in meetings seems, on the whole, to make just as much sense as a well-structured program. For people on the “softer side” of Spindle, for example sales and marketing, the idea that not everyone’s input is needed on all things all the time was harder to accept. The key insight here was the realization that a Tactical meeting is not meant to replace more specific meetings and brainstorms. If it is used for processing tensions only, a tactical meeting is a great way of making decisions and collecting Next Actions very fast. For brainstorms the rules of a Tactical meeting are not going to work.

No need to ask

One of the hardest things in Holacracy for us so far, I think, is the concept of being a leader – or entrepreneur – in your own role. In Holacracy you are not only asked to do all the things that you are accountable for in the roles that you fulfill, you are also asked to come up with improvements which may result from a role or just seem like a good idea in general. Not to say that we didn’t come up with improvements before we started with Holacracy, but the thing that now makes it even more difficult is the mantra: “It’s better to ask for forgiveness afterwards than for permission beforehand”.

Even coming from an organization without management, I find myself asking “Who should I talk to before I do this?”, even if it is something that is by all means directly related to a role I fulfill. This is not to mean that I would need the managerial kind of permission implying that someone else holds authority over a field. It’s more that it doesn’t feel safe to try something and be the sole person responsible when something goes awry. But doing anything that is “safe enough to try”, immediately and without scheduling a meeting, is exactly the philosophy that makes Holacracy the perfect fit for any organization that wants to be fast-iterating.

Trust the system

In software, building things that “Fail fast” is smart design. But people work differently. Trying out things, brings the risk of failure and both people and organizations are inherently geared towards trying to prevent failure. People may fear the loss of face and organizations should ultimately fear the loss of money. This is not to say that running along cliffs (with scissors) is always the way forward, but sitting on your hands for too long will eventually kill you and your company. Somewhere between those extremes, a middle ground of calculated risks should be sought after.

Trust, as anywhere, is key here. A great deal of trust is needed to know that you will actually be forgiven when push comes to shove. While I like to think that we are a trustworthy bunch, we may need more failures to hammer this point home.

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