From Green to Teal: A Lived Experience of Implementing Holacracy

By and originally published on LinkedIn.

In February 2016, Future Considerations decided to embark on a transition to Holacracy following a unanimous vote among its members. A launch date was set for April ’16 and the organisation began an 8-week process of creating its new structure. During the launch workshop, members were given an overview of the Holacracy operating system and the first live meetings took place. One year on, Future Considerations conducted an internal review of its Holacracy practice. During this time and as their Holacracy Coach I interviewed 3 Future Considerations’ members to discuss what happened, what they would change and what they have learned.

In a world where Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations is often simply referred to as ‘The Book’, the pursuit of Teal within Future Considerations is a relevant part of their story. I began my interviews by asking what being ‘Teal’ means for them?

Dick Baker: ‘It’s difficult to describe what being Teal means. It means listening more deeply in order to get the best out of ourselves and the collective. Being driven by purpose and doing something that matters while bringing our whole self to the organisation and getting beyond our ego. If I think about the alternative to Teal, I think about deferring to someone more senior than me, taking instruction and getting judged or reviewed based on that. Teal isn’t about not being held to account but it’s about being clearer and more direct about accountabilities.

I want to be held to account, I don’t want places that I can hide away within the organisation, not doing things I should be doing.

There is compassion within Teal but this can be direct. Honesty is healthy, it’s empowering. Tell me how I am showing up, give me feedback. Let me energise whatever I want to energise but provide me with a purpose to guide me so there is collective coherence.’

Jon Freeman: Chuckles. ‘I have a different perspective to Teal than many people. What is significant is being more agile in how we operate; more flowing, organic and transparent. This is achieved through integration of the underlying parts of the spiral. Taking what Frederick Laloux identifies as colour stages and finding ways to make them more workable, harmonious and in balance. How is that achieved?

Nurturing an environment where people are able to be who they are, where they are and having an ability to accept people in other stages so they are not in conflict.

A Teal way of thinking is having more flexibility in the processes. This is what Holacracy does, providing process but with greater flow. For example, Holacracy helps us focus on making decisions for now and not necessarily the next 5 years. Holacracy creates a looser sense of what process is and that supports Teal ways of thinking and being.’

How do the colour stages of Blue, Orange and Green show up within Future Considerations?

Dick Baker: ‘Green shows up as being caring and compassionate to each other. It matters to us how the ‘other’ is in the world. Green is all very good and healthy but the danger is seeking consensus. We can fall into collective decision making when it is not necessary and we sometimes get caught in not making decisions at all. Holacracy challenges this, it forces it not to happen. Future Considerations is not particularly Orange as a group. Individuals display Orange; we are successful and we can be fiercely independent but we are striving to be something better and greater than the sum of our parts. I appreciate the humanness of Future Considerations; what collectively matters, but I notice it is easy to slip into Green; letting go of action and losing the focus of getting on with stuff.’

Jon Freeman: ‘Blue doesn’t show up enough within the Future Considerations collective. Orange shows up; a strong sense of commercial dynamic, thinking strategically on an individual level. Sales and delivery are strong but the flip side of Orange is that we may not be as prepared for a shift in the marketplace as we could be. As a culture there is a strong impetus towards Green values. Developing people in a whole way. Being concerned with how you deal with people, creating freedom and empowerment.

The flip side to Green is that we can be too concerned with being unified; everyone having a say on all decisions, not moving forward until it’s clear everyone is on board. This shows up clearly in our dynamics. There can be a divide between the Orange business focus and the Green togetherness. That is a tension until you get above Green. Green needs to let go and accept that it’s okay for Orange to be Orange. Green can be resentful that some people are not being community oriented and the system can get stuck while it waits for people. Blue can disappear completely when Green is strong because there is no accountability to follow up on responsibilities and it can be difficult to deal with that need for accountability without reverting to punitive hierarchies.’

Why did Future Considerations choose to adopt Holacracy?

Angela Willetts: ‘We needed to disperse the work and the decision-making. We needed more autonomy and to stop getting stuck. We wanted to reduce the bottlenecks and it was also important to simplify the process of how someone becomes a member of Future Considerations. It was a unanimous vote to adopt Holacracy but I think we fell into the trap of thinking that Holacracy would solve all our problems.’

Jon Freeman: ‘My perception is that it was driven by one or two people who were aware of Holacracy and believed in it for Future Considerations. The core focus was understanding what it takes to be a Teal organisation and a belief that Holacracy will help make us Teal.’

What challenges did you face along the way and how have you overcome them?

Angela Willetts: ‘I had to get on board with it personally and it’s been like learning a new language. I had to learn the whole model and understand the new rules. As the first Holacracy Steward I had the added challenge of getting everyone else on board. This sounds like it would be easy because it was a unanimous vote to adopt Holacracy but we all work virtually and many Future Considerations members are part-time so it’s been a long journey. Being part time and virtual has slowed us down and this has affected motivation along the way. We didn’t properly kick off with Holacracy until 4 months after the official launch but Holacracy hasn’t slowed us down, our culture has made it a slow journey and I’ve needed to be really persistent. Persistence and learning by just getting on and doing it is how I’ve overcome these challenges.’

Jon Freeman: ‘Well, I don’t naturally follow strict process, I tend to want to shortcut and break rules so that’s been challenging. I’ve overcome that challenge by becoming more compliant.

I can see why the Holacracy processes are advantageous. They help the whole.

The processes give us all a structure to work with, no special treatments for anyone and this channels the energy. People still try to bend the process sometimes but I can see how that dilutes the dynamic and as a facilitator of our Holacracy meetings, I hold the process more firmly now.

As an organisation in the early days of Holacracy, we didn’t understand what it meant to make everyone a member of the General Company Circle. This was a green decision and it was a core element that took 6 months to unwind. We basically put Holacracy on top of Future Considerations. We tried to bend Holacracy to fit our existing processes and behaviours. Over the course of the first 6 months there was a growing internal recognition that Holacracy wasn’t delivering because of this. We commissioned an analysis of our situation and the results gave us a picture of ‘what could be’. We have a flexible and functional model now but we still need more people to dive into Holacracy, even one year on.’

What benefits has Holacracy brought to Future Considerations?

Angela Willetts: ‘Our meetings are slicker and we are able to identify what is that one next action is to move us forward. We have a much clearer layout of the organisation so it’s easier to identify what the roles are and who you need to go to for what. The work is easier to manage when you take the personal out of it and ask yourself what role am I acting in here? We are able to hold people to account and this has been a huge benefit.

The transparency means that there is greater accountability for doing what you say you’re going to do and showing up with the work being done.

There is clarity of responsibilities and clarity of knowing where and when there is a gap. We are able to make tough decisions around strategy and identify definitive pointers so others can get on. There is clearer direction and a set of non-negotiables that everyone understands. In the early days, our culture impacted how we defined our Anchor Circle and General Company Circle but the transparency around this, meant that we were able to see what was happening and change our roles to serve our purpose.’

Dick Baker: ‘I joined Future Considerations 6 months ago and Holacracy has been incredibly helpful for me as someone coming into the business. I’ve been able to figure out what work I can energise really easily. Finding my way around and getting to know people has been really straightforward without having to play politics.

Holacracy has created clarity so more people can get on with more things.

I sense that previously certain people carried more power and others were less involved. Holacracy has allowed us to move on from that. Releasing people from the constraints of power and enabling them to let go. In the long term, we can maintain our virtual and part-time culture and bring more people into the organisation because of the clarity we are creating.’

Jon Freeman: ‘We have created a more functional structure and more clarity around who does what. There is greater transparency and data is more visible. There is a gradual sense of greater accountability. Power, influence, and control is devolving away from the centre towards the peripheries. There is more comfort about knowing where to go with something and its less foggy to deal with. Holacracy has enabled greater participation and engagement has improved.’

What would you like to have known before you started and would you do anything differently?

Dick Baker: ‘I recognise the challenges of being virtual and part-time but it would have helped if we had have moved into role clarity quicker. On-boarding is crucial. People need a vehicle to learn about Holacracy as it is not completely intuitive. More widely, how can we accelerate people’s learning of Holacracy by being direct and bringing people in quicker? How do we speak our truth? How do we handle conflicts? How do we step into our roles more quickly? These are the questions that I would tackle from the outset.’

Jon Freeman: Chuckles. ‘Everything! I can’t pick anything out specifically. Ultimately, you can watch people swimming forever but you only find out what swimming is really like when you get in the water.’

How do you envisage Holacracy will impact Future Considerations in the next 12 months?

Angela Willetts: ‘It entirely depends on our members. We’ve had the training now so more people need to engage with it. We haven’t yet reached a critical mass and we need this to continue benefitting from Holacracy.’

Dick Baker: ‘I hope that the wider sensing of tensions throughout the organisation will be better so we can move our work to what is wanted and needed. I hope we get better at communicating across the circles so we become a better network.’

Jon Freeman: ‘I hope that it will support growth and energising of new areas. I hope it will be our platform for expansion and diversification with greater ease. It’s a challenging time because the market is changing. We must continue to generate strong revenue stream doing what we’ve always done but as the world shifts, we must identify what the new market place look like. We need to embrace the uniqueness of each of our clients and flex and adapt to produce new products and approaches that will be tailored to all situations. We are learning to do that and Holacracy can support us to set up initiatives and fail fast.

Holacracy gives us space to construct projects and teams quickly and pull energy back from them quickly as well.

The move towards Teal is about coping with different ways that the world calls for things. I anticipate a continuation of the process of learning self-management, accountability and empowerment.’

Do you consider Future Considerations to be a Teal organisation now?

Angela Willetts: ‘I don’t know but what I do know is that Holacracy has helped us with the green treacle that we used to get stuck in. We had a really heated meeting just recently that I think we would have struggled with prior to Holacracy.

Using the question ‘Have you got what you need?’ and handling things one tension at a time, helped us enormously.

Holacracy gave us the tools to raise the tension and deal with it rather than ignore it and we focussed on our roles and the purpose of the circle to guide us. Transition takes time at Future Considerations because of our culture and logistics but things are changing gradually.’

Dick Baker: ‘Good question! I don’t know. I have a strong inner critic and I always think we could do better. In some respects we are a Teal organisation and we embrace wholeness, self-management and purpose. All the ingredients are there but the green culture is still present. I know I still look for consensus sometimes as do other people in the system. For example, we have a tendency of getting feedback in tactical meetings as a pre-curser to a governance proposal. I recognise this is part of our legacy but I actually prefer being invited to get out of the way, rather than included in what is not necessary. With Holacracy, I am actively invited to let go.

Actively naming the removal of my ego is such a blessing.

We are shifting. I see people getting on with stuff more. Our virtual and part-time construct has made this transition a slow one but Holacracy is preventing us getting stuck.’

Jon Freeman: Laughs. ‘Well. I don’t really like the idea of having a definition that says ‘Teal Organisation’ in the first place. No, we’re not there yet but we manage the tension between the colour dynamics better now. It’s important to be able to respond to the world with functionality and flexibility and delivering on our purpose. We need to be able to adapt. We need flex and flow, functionality and pragmatism. Having a purpose, wholeness and self-management are important but you can’t give a Kite Mark to Teal. Teal is not a destination and it only exists in the integration and health of all stages beneath it. Future Considerations has the potential to exemplify the transition to function and agility and Holacracy has a great potential to support that flex and flow.’

With thanks to Angela Willetts, Dick Baker and Jon Freeman for their openness and honesty during our interviews.

This 9-minute animation is useful to bring to life some of the concepts discussed in this article, inspired by the book Reinventing Organizations. This 4-minute animation gives a brief introduction to the key principles of Holacracy and if you’d like to learn more, this 75-minute video includes a talk by Brian Robertson, the founder of Holacracy.

Republished with permission of the author.

Featured Image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.