A Better Way to Test Objections in Holacracy®

By Chris Cowan and originally published in medium 

Holacracy Facilitator’s Guide

This post is oriented a bit towards facilitators, but it should be helpful for anyone who wants to understand objections a little better.

1. What the facilitator is actually judging.

The Facilitator is judging whether the objector’s argument is reasoned, not reasonable. They aren’t judging the truth of the argument. The biggest confusion is that facilitators think they need to interpret the veracity or merits of the argument when in fact they are just evaluating how the argument is constructed.

The correct way to think about testing objections is like this. Imagine if I said, “Give me a verb that describes something you did yesterday.” If you said, “Cat,” I could invalidate your answer because “that is a noun not a verb.” The facilitator is literally evaluating the type of construct, not the content.

What most facilitators think testing is, is more like this: “Give me a verb that describes something you did yesterday.” And you said, “time-traveling,” and the facilitator says, “Oh, that’s not a valid answer because you didn’t actually do that.” They are incorrectly evaluating the content.

So, when an objection needs to state harm, that means literally…technically…pedantically…the sentence is a statement about harm. So, if the objector says, “Objection…this accountability should be on a different role.” That’s literally a statement about a solution, not about harm (I usually handle this by saying. “Ah, well, that may be a great solution, but to what problem? What is the harm of not having it on that other role?”)

Or if an objector says, “Objection…I don’t think this is needed.” Is that a statement about harm? Nope. Neither are statements like, “I don’t like this” or, “This isn’t needed.” Now, what if someone said, “Objection…this accountability will inconvenience me ever so slightly;” is that a statement about harm? Yep, it is (though it may fail other criteria).

2. Arguments vs. intents (facilitator doesn’t need to psychoanalyze).

Objections are arguments — meaning, we can only evaluate what the objector tells us (i.e. their “argument” or “reason”). So, even if you think there is a valid objection to integrate, but the objector is unable to articulate how their tension meets all of the criteria that deem is necessary to integrate, then you just go with what they say.

Moreover, when testing the facilitator may ask as many follow-up questions are necessary to understand how the argument is logical (but they needn’t agree with the logic). So, an objection is just an explicit argument. That’s it. This is why it’s generally more clear for a facilitator to say, “I need to hear the harm,” versus, “I need to understand the harm.”

The facilitator can only evaluate what is explicitly expressed — not what is implied or inferred. This is also why I encourage facilitators, especially at the beginning, to write down objections before testing. Just prompt the objector, “Can you finish the sentence, ‘My objection is…’ and Secretary please capture what they say in the scratch pad.” It’s not the facilitator’s job to figure out what the objector means. Only to test what the objector says.

3. Objections are discrete arguments.

Objectors can have as many objections as they need, so there is no pressure on them to make one argument and stick with it — they may offer several objections at one time, or give one objection, but then unconsciously start talking about another one. That’s fine. The facilitator is there to help. Their job to help them keep those arguments discrete so that they can be tested, without conveying the objector needs to build a case.

Therefore, give objectors space. Allow them to ramble; e.g. “…and I think this is bad idea because….” That’s fine as long as the objector isn’t stating that this is the objection. The point is to keep things focused only on getting the arguments — weeding through everything else they may be saying, because people rarely state things clearly up front.

4. Objections are like proposals.

A facilitator should capture an objection just as the objector states it. Treat it as a “starting objection.” We don’t need a super-clear objection up front. I mean, sure, that might help. But it takes time to learn how to do that (or maybe someone is just having an off day). That’s why we have testing — to help the objector figure out whether their argument fits all of the criteria.

So, capturing an objection by prompting, “Can you finish the sentence, ‘My objection is…’?” And if they say, “Yeah, I think this isn’t needed and is probably going to create some issue with packaging.” Great! Capture: 1) I think this isn’t needed, 2) It’s probably going to create some issue with packaging. Now, the facilitator can really help the objector focus. It makes testing infinitely easier.

5. What we mean by, “What you just told me…” and “the facilitator isn’t judging.”

Since an objection is a tension and tensions are sensed, the objector alone actually determines whether it’s valid or not. So, the facilitator is just helping them get perspective on their tension because it’s usually difficult to see things from all the necessary perspectives by yourself (like trying to fix your hair without a mirror).

This is why the default position is always to take the objection as valid and try to integrate it. The facilitator should be like a scientist. Help the objector triangulate their tension, and help them see whether or not if it meets the validity criteria.

6. Many objections stem from misunderstanding what governance really is.

Many objections result from a misunderstanding about what governance is. All valid objections are based on proposals (criterion #2), and proposals only change governance, then misunderstanding what a governance change means, results in people raising invalid objections.

The best way to think about it is governance is a map (other metaphors provided here). So, ask yourself, “How can re-drawing a map be harmful?” When you draw a new road, you aren’t physically pouring concrete. The map is not the territory. So, harm like “I don’t have time to do that,” or, “It’s wasteful to have someone focused on that,” are likely invalid, because governance doesn’t allocate resources.

On the other hand, objections stating how the proposal would make the governance confusing, inaccurate, or would prevent me from doing something I need to do — well, those are at least in the ballpark of satisfying criterion #1 (“harm”), and criterion #2 (“proposal-based”).

7. The criteria determine validity — the testing questions are just a best-practice.

The test questions are ways we’ve developed to distinguish valid from invalid objections, but you can actually determine this any way you want. For example, it’s a myth that you’d be putting words in their mouth if you rephrased their objection into something you could better identify as valid or invalid. It’s a myth because if you’re saying something truly different than they are saying, they will tell you.

For example, if a facilitator said, “OK, so with the duplicate roles, are you saying that there will be confusion over who does that work?” In my experience, objectors will happily say, “No,” if it doesn’t resonate. So, there is nothing wrong with inquiring into an objection in different ways.

8. Just fill-in-the-blanks.

Given the 5 validity criteria, theoretically any objection has an ideal construction — meaning the argument could be stated in such a way as to clearly describe how it satisfies all criteria. I find this a helpful rubric for discovering valuable information even when the objector isn’t clear.

For example, an objector could say, “By creating this new role, with a purpose of ‘Marketing events…’ it creates confusion between it and my Promoter role’s purpose of ‘Promoting events.’” But no objector will ever say it this way up front. But they may say some of it.

So, the game is to check the box in my head on the criteria they already satisfied, then ask questions about any they didn’t. It’s just fill-in-the-blanks: “Changing X will cause harm Y, which limits my role Z…” and the testing is just trying to fill in those missing pieces. Once they are all filled in, you have a valid objection.

9. A good testing sequence is: 1, 4, 2, then 3.

In general, there is a logical sequence for identifying whether an objection satisfies the validity criteria. Facilitators should always prioritize gathering data to satisfy criterion #1 first (harm), then generally it makes sense to gather them in the following order: criterion #4 (role), then criterion #2 (proposal), and lastly criterion #3 (predictive).

The reasoning is this overall sequence is this:

***#1. Harm) This is always the first criterion that needs to be satisfied, because all of the other criteria and their corresponding questions, are about the harm itself. So, if the objector has not described that harm, then you always need to go back and get that clarified.

***#4. From Your Role) In general, try to satisfy this criterion #4 immediately after criterion #1.

There are two reasons for this. First, it’s the least likely to be offered up front by the objector, because clarifying the role (i.e. perspective) who feels the tension is usually secondary to their immediate felt sense. Therefore, facilitators will likely need to ask this question even with experienced practitioners.

Second, even though “from your role” is listed in the constitution as #4, it is an especially effective and elegant filter to use in testing because it can help you avoid more complex objections which are more difficult to test. Why create a lot of awkwardness with test questions you never needed to ask?

***#2. Proposal-Based) Criterion #2 and #4 both require understanding what governance really is (i.e. a map of expectations, restrictions, and authorities) but criterion #4 is easier to understand because it is about grounding the objector in the current governance (rather than proposed governance), which is why it should be prioritized higher. There is really no other reason for asking this third. As a validity criteria it’s no more or less important than any other. It’s just a matter of prioritizing the test questions.

***#3. Not Predictive or Needs to Be) Oh boy. This is by far the most misunderstood criteria for both facilitators and objectors. Often mistakenly simplified to just, “Is it safe enough to try?” this criteria “invalidates” far too many valid objections, which is pretty much the last thing we want. I have more to say about this criteria (see point #11 below and this whole freaking post), for now my point is simple — unless you are 100% certain you understand what this criterion is all about, dig into it last.

10. “Creates confusion,” usually passes criterion 1 and 3 (with rare exception).

“Creates confusion,” as an objection deserves a special mention because a good facilitator will notice that it already satisfies criterion #3 (it isn’t predictive). Often facilitators will mistakenly take a stand on criterion #3, by saying something like, “Do you KNOW it’s confusing…like in practice? What data do you have?

This is an unfair question based on the facilitator’s own misunderstanding of what the criteria is really about. Therefore, the primary focus should be figuring out whether the objector’s confusion is even necessary to resolve by inquiring;

1) Is it really harmful confusion, or is the objector feeling the tension because they are misunderstanding that they can use whatever interpretation they wish? (you can do this in a timeout, or just explain it and ask, “Knowing that, do you still have your objection?); and/or inquiring,

2) Does the objector have any roles (criterion #4) that require the confusion to be resolved (e.g. do they have any roles which need to request work based on that accountability)? Any of those are more effective questions to ask than the simple one on the card.

11. Are you anticipating?

Valid objections are always based on proposals — meaning, by definition, we haven’t tried it yet. So, in that sense, every objection is anticipatory. But that’s what the criterion is about. Otherwise, there’d be no valid objections (you can read a more thorough explain on this point here).

This misunderstanding stems from one problem-word: “Will.” As in, “Objection…this proposal will…” blah, blah, blah. My suspicion is facilitators get unconsciously tricked by hearing the word, “will” and their intuition immediately assumes the objector is anticipating. Don’t do that.

Instead, listen for words like, “could,” “maybe,” or “might.” Those words convey anticipation. So, if an objector says, “This policy will prevent…” they’re not anticipating that. The data is right there in front of their eyes (e.g. if someone objects to a proposed policy, “No role may offer payment plans,” by saying, “This will prevent my role from offering a payment plan.”) Versus, “I think the policy might prevent…” Ah. Maybe that’s anticipating. These are actually two different objections.

12. Test for each criterion independently — most facilitators don’t.

Test each objection criterion…1…2…3…and 4…separately. Meaning, each one is solely focused on identifying whether an objection meets its particular threshold, and no other.

This is important because an objection like, “This could create confusion for someone else…” actually meets criterion #1 (i.e. it states harm, “confusion”). Of course it might not pass #3 (anticipatory + not reversible), or #4 (from your role), but the objection should be invalidated according to those criteria, not criterion #1.

Facilitators fail to do this when they hear the objection, but mix-up what criteria they are testing for in their head, and start to argue with the objector something like, “Well…if it impacts another role, then it isn’t HARMFUL to your role,” or, “Well…if you’re saying that it “could” be an issue, then you aren’t really stating HARM…”

Neither of those is correct. The objector absolutely stated harm, it’s just their argument would likely fail other criteria.

Republished with permission of the author.

Featured Image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.