Emergent Solutions for a World in Crisis (Part 4)
The Fourth Piece of the Puzzle: Holacracy + Integrative Decision Making by Brian Robertson
Like many of my peers, I am constantly wrestling with the question: What does it take to steer the world into a saner, more sustainable direction? This text is not a definitive answer to that question, simply a summary of what puzzle-pieces I have found so far that seem relevant. I will release it in the form of a series of posts. My hope is that by putting my pieces on the table that others will pick them up and link them to theirs so that this act of distributed cognition can move the whole forward.
My previous article in this series focused on the simultaneous implementation of policies on a global level in order to defuse the effects of the “Tragedy of the Commons” dilemma. This well-studied pattern from game-theory entraps politicians, business leaders, and individuals worldwide and chains them to a downward spiral across a range of crucial issues, such as climate change, wealth inequality, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other thorny and seemingly intractable problems. The Simultaneous Policy Campaign by John Bunzl (SIMPOL) identified a mechanism to overcome the negative incentives that this dilemma places on individual actors. It achieves that by introducing binding rules globally and simultaneously so that nobody loses out in what otherwise would be the usual pattern of Destructive International Competition.
How could we craft and decide upon global policies?
Let’s assume for the sake of the argument, that such a global campaign was successful and could really help international leaders to see how we can break out of the political deadlock that prevents us from making any progress on these issues of global interest. Let’s further assume that these leaders are now ready to sit down around the negotiation table to discuss and decide upon the specific global policies that are to be implemented simultaneously.
It seems obvious that such an endeavor would require a clear and structured process in order to help all parties involved to explore the design space of possible omni-win solutions in a disciplined and efficient way. If no such structured process existed, chances are that any policy negotiation would default to the individual negotiation skills of the political leaders involved. A quick review of the meager results of previous Climate Summits reveals the relative inefficiency of standard negotiation processes. Precious time would be wasted with the risk of a lack of agreement on simultaneous policies and the failure of the entire project looming. There has to be a better way.
Incidentally, “there has to be a better way” was also the very thought Holacracy pioneer Brian Robertson had in mind when he created his own software company after having suffered the effects of typical bureaucratic top-down organizing and decision-making in classical companies. What followed was a frenzy of experimentation on what he calls “the operating system” of his nascent organization. After many years of highly focused, evolutionary trial-and-error, he and his colleagues cracked the code for such a system and encoded its rules in a Constitution for any organization that wishes to commit to the practice of self-management. Holacracy® was born. (If you get irritated by the trademark: it is licensed only for people who want to sell Holacracy®-branded services, but its Constitution is completely open-source and any company can freely practice it).
What is Holacracy?
First of all, it is a practice for organizations. Like any real practice, be it horseback riding, medicine, tantric sex, playing the piano, soccer, or giving physiotherapy, it can be difficult to fully explain it without the listener having a corresponding interior experience of the practice first-hand. But of course, there are plenty of things you can say to describe it from the outside. I won’t even attempt to give a ‘complete’ description, so here’s a thumbnail version to provide a bit more context, before I make my point of why this puzzle piece is crucial for a world in crisis.
Holacracy is a wholesale replacement of the classic top-down management hierarchy. The overarching purpose of the organization is broken down into its sub-components and expressed as a series of nested circles, roles, and accountabilities. Roles and circles are self-organized and authorized to make autonomous decisions about how they want to express their part of the overall purpose.
The larger degree of freedom within such a structure necessitates a higher degree of discipline while working together. Every circle holds two types of meetings as prescribed by the Holacracy Constitution (the rulebook): “Tactical” and “Governance” meetings which are led by an elected facilitator. The Tactical meeting helps to synchronize the daily operations, while a Governance meeting is an opportunity to fine-tune general expectations such as the structure of circles, roles, and accountabilities on a recurring basis. This way, the self-imposed structures stay flexible and relevant in the light of current needs and developments. People usually fill several roles for the organization, sometimes in several circles.
If you feel intrigued about Holacracy, I encourage you to learn more about it. For this purpose, I included a few clips you can watch if you want to go a little deeper down that particular rabbit hole.
The Integrative Decision-Making Process (IDM)
During so-called “Governance Meetings” in Holacracy a very elaborate process is used to arrive at decisions that integrate the key arguments and concerns of all the roles of a given circle. It is used to craft clear expectations by defining specific roles, accountabilities, domains, or policies of that circle. It is called the “Integrative Decision-Making Process” or IDM for short. An elected facilitator guides the group through the process and makes sure everyone adheres to the rules (not unlike a referee in a soccer match). Here’s an overview of the basic steps
1. Present Proposal
2. Clarifying Questions
3. Reaction Round
4. Option to Clarify
5. Objection Round
1) Present Proposal: First, the proposer is invited to describe the specific “tension” (in Holacracy, a “tension” is the gap between what is and what could be) that led to bringing the proposal and then present a proposal that would resolve the tension for the proposer. Notice that the proposal doesn’t have to be perfect at all at this stage. It simply has to be able to resolve the issues in the eyes of the “sensor” (i.e. the proposer) of the particular tension. At this stage only the proposer is allowed to speak, the others listen.
2) Clarifying Questions: During this step, anyone may ask the proposer questions with the sole intent of better understanding the underlying tension or the proposal. Any “fake” questions that are really comments or try to convey information to the proposer (instead of eliciting information from the proposer) are disallowed by the facilitator or relegated to the following “Reaction Round”. The proposer may answer but is also is free to reply to any question with the words “not specified in the proposal”. This removes pressure and the need for defensiveness from the proposer. The proposer doesn’t have to have the answer to all (or any) questions at this point.
3) Reaction Round: During this step, everyone, in turn, is invited to share his or her reaction to the proposal. Any kind of reaction is allowed even emotional outbursts. The facilitator disallows any direct reactions to previous reactions or talking out of turn (discussions/cross-talk). The proposer simply listens.
4) Option to Clarify: Now it is the proposer’s turn to speak, while everyone else has to remain silent. It is his/her opportunity to make quick clarifications by reacting to what was said during the Reaction Round or by slightly tweaking the wording of the proposal. But that is completely optional without any pressure to integrate anything that was said during the Reaction Round. The proposer is reminded to stay true to solving only his/her original tension, nothing else at this point in time.
5) Objection Round: The purpose of the Objection Round is to surface issues with the proposal that would create harm for the organization if they were left to be unaddressed. The facilitator asks one person at a time (including the proposer) whether they see any reason why adopting this proposal might cause harm or reduce the capacity of the circle to express its purpose. If they have any concerns, those concerns get captured and tested whether they qualify as “objections”. Objections are defined according to criteria outlined in the Holacracy Constitution. (I include them here for the interested reader, although I am aware they may be a little overwhelming due to their technicality. In that case, don’t worry too much and simply skip ahead.)
(a) The Proposal would reduce the capacity of the Circle to enact its Purpose or Accountabilities.
(b) The Proposal would limit the Objector’s capacity to enact the Purpose or an Accountability of a Role the Objector represents in the Circle, even if the Objector filled no other Roles in the Organization.
(c) The concern does not already exist even in the absence of the Proposal. Thus, a new Tension would be created specifically by adopting the Proposal.
(d) The Proposal would necessarily cause the impact, or, if it might cause the impact, the Circle wouldn’t have an adequate opportunity to adapt before significant harm could result.
These Objection Requirements represent a relatively high bar for any argument that claims that the proposal at hand would cause harm. They serve as an effective filter to make sure that only relevant objections make it into the next step of Integration. It introduces a kind of evolutionary fitness-function for memetic expressions during negotiations that ruthlessly filters out
· arguments that are not grounded in concrete descriptions of harm (e.g. mere opinions),
· arguments that are not anchored in the roles (and purposes) of the organization,
· arguments for potential harms that are not caused by the proposal itself (because the pre-existed), and
· arguments that are merely expressions of “future fear” — while we could try to experiment with the proposal at hand and adapt along the way instead).
All concerns that survive the test-questions get charted as objections to be integrated into the proposal, while the rest get discarded. If no objections surface, the proposal at hand is officially adopted at this point already. If objections occur, the circle engages in the following Integration step of the process.
6) Integration: At this point in the process, everyone is “unmuted” and allowed to speak freely or jump in if they have a helpful idea. Integration is an open discussion with the clearly delineated goal of integrating every objection, one at a time until all objections have been resolved and the proposal is amended while still solving the original tension. It is a dance between the proposer who serves as a sensor for the original tension and the objector that serves as a sensor whether or not the objection has been resolved. By checking in with the respective sensors and trying to get “green light” from both sensors for every amended version of the proposal, the facilitator systematically works down the list of charted objections one at a time while staying laser-focused on solving only the tensions at hand, to not fall into the trap of over-optimization (trying to solve additional tensions or “perfecting” the proposal).
Once the list of objections is cleared, the group returns to step 5, the Objection Round, to verify that the amended proposal doesn’t create any harm for the Circle. If no further objection surfaces, the proposal is adopted. If new concerns surface, they are tested and all valid Objections are carried into another Integration. This process of circling between Integration and Objection Round continues until no further concerns surface. In this case, the proposal gets adopted.
IDM — An Evolutionary Winner
The Integrative Decision-Making process is a robust process that has been reworked through practical trial and error evolution countless times. It has been shown to be highly effective in creating organizational clarity and arriving at workable decisions. It is not a nice theory; it is a tried-and-true practice. I would like to stress this point. Integrative Decision-Making is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, it is a robust practice forged in the fires of high stakes organizational reality by a large community of practice. It is an evolutionary winner. Evolutionary selection with skin-in-the-game reaches deeper solutions than any superficial process-design from the ivory towers of academia or from “clever” minds.
Evolution is way smarter than our capacity for deliberate processing from our mind.
That is true for the survivors of biological selection and equally true for memetic selection like in the case of the Holacracy Constitution and its sub-set, the process of Integrative Decision Making. So be careful before you laugh it off as irrelevant — unless you don’t mind ending up at the sucking end of evolutionary selection.
From Governance in Holacracy-Powered Organizations to Global Governance via SIMPOL
That said, let’s turn to the question of how this peculiar puzzle piece of IDM might be helpful for Global Governance via simultaneous policies (SIMPOL). If it is not obvious by now: IDM could be “exapted” to serve the purpose as the engine of the policy-crafting process during the negotiation stage of the SIMPOL-process, where the world-leaders convene in order to reach breakthrough agreements on behalf of humanity. (The dictionary defines “exaptation” as “the process by which features acquire functions for which they were not originally adapted or selected”.)
Since IDM evolutionarily originated in an organizational and not in a political context it would likely have to undergo several mutations in order to become an optimal fit to support such a crucial function on the world stage, but I am confident that the evolutionary process will deliver those design specifications to us if we only dedicate ourselves to such an action-research and refine it in practice in lower-stakes political contexts. This is reminiscent of the old joke: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” — “Practice, practice, practice!”
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.“
– William Gibson
The Other Puzzle Pieces
To be continued…
Follow me on Medium and watch this space for more puzzle pieces. Meanwhile, please share your own gems of insight with the rest of us. Thanks!
PS: If you liked this post, don’t forget to leave some claps. It will help others to find it. The algorithm gods (and me) will thank you!