JournalMay 2015

Navigating the stormy seas of organisational change

We’ve been going through some challenging transitions in the last few weeks. Not only are we going through the shift of becoming a social business, but we’re also trying to take huge steps towards becoming as self-managed as possible. It’s a challenging and somewhat stressful experience for all of us at times.

I’ve been reading Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. It’s a phenomenal book, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone else who is looking to move their team towards being less hierarchical, fairer and more effective. In it, there was one particular quote that I thought applied very well to Hanno. It’s from the founder of HolacracyOne (the people who came up with the Holacracy system):

“I think there was [at our company] a real appreciation for the kind of culture where experimentation and change was embraced. However, the actual experimentation process at the level we engaged in to get to Holacracy was very taxing. Things would change under you: one day we are doing it this way, the next day we’d completely change something core, and the next day it’s yet different and we’re always running to catch up. The sense of lack of stability was huge, and for good reason: there wasn’t much stability in our processes and methods because we were evolving them so damn quick.

There was a lot of pain in that organization from the continual experimentation. It would have been so much easier just to say “we are going to run this company in a conventional way”! To be very concrete, there was a 12 month to 18 month period where we went through five different salary systems, each one of which changed the way people were paid, changed the level of pay, changed the way pay was calculated.

These were scary changes. Each system was better than the last, but that didn’t change the impact of “oh my God everything is changing around here continually.”

And the last few weeks have been very tough–for me personally, as well as the whole team. They’ve been full of crazy, radical highs, coming from successfully making huge wins on new projects, big steps forwards with internal tools and operations, and massive achievements from the whole team. But there have also been some very intense and challenging lows, and a lot of soul-searching to try and figure out how I want my own future to map out, and how I need to grow.

We know that pushing ourselves through this is going to be worth the struggle. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the transition itself is going to be challenging, on very many levels.

A lot of this comes from ego, and again, Laloux has some great insight into this:

“The shift to [this next generation of organisational structure] happens when we learn to disidentify from our own ego. By looking at our ego from a distance, we can suddenly see how its fears, ambitions, and desires often run our life. We can learn to minimize our need to control, to look good, to fit in. We are no longer fused with our ego, and we don’t let its fears reflexively control our lives.”

Finding ways to smooth the transition

Gazebo by the sea

Last week was a tough one for me. I had an incredible start to the week, full of positive momentum and great wins, but then Thursday and Friday were two of the toughest days I’ve had in the last couple of years. Just thinking about challenges and things to overcome in the next few years was extremely intense and I spent a lot of time considering tough personal questions related to my role at work, and how I could approach those.

As a remote team, we all know that communications in text can easily be misinterpreted, especially when people are emotional or stressed. Exactly as you might expect from this sort of situation. So I began to warn people in advance that while my replies might seem a bit blunt or annoyed, that’s definitely not the way they were intended to be read.

I’ve now stumbled into a couple of personal rules that I’m trying to abide by:

  1. Assume positive intent–trust that the person you’re communicating with has the team in mind, and is not looking to criticise you personally. Trust your fellow shipmates, in general. Nobody is out to hurt each other.
  2. Let go of my ego: this is one of the most challenging things to do–everyone on the team could see me grappling with it in trying to figure out solutions to the issues of legacy, job titles and team salaries. I’m trying to leave my ego at the door and be as selfless as possible–as challenging as that can be. Whenever I bring my ego into a discussion, it’s a very negative thing and I fail to make the ‘fair’ arguments and actions that I would like myself to make.
  3. Avoid giving any orders or judgements. This is a continuation of something I’ve been trying to do already, but here, I’m really trying to step it up and start adopting the principles of self-management that Laloux sets out in his book. One of the things that makes communication so much more prone to conflict, stress and misinterpretation, is when it takes the form of an order or a command. By trying to avoid this wherever possible, it can definitely help to diffuse conflict and help everyone to work towards the same goals together.
  4. Don’t criticise, condemn or complain. Exactly as Dale Carnegie says in How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness.”
  5. Be transparent, and put in extra effort to make my intentions clear, especially when it relates to something big and ambitious that affects other people. Like pushing to restructure the whole company and affect everything we do at work ;)

In times like these, when we’re making even more aggressive efforts to remove any hierarchy and get the whole team to step up more, it has been important to try to make sure that we’re communicating in a way that doesn’t appear to be one of manoeuvring for political position, trying to manage people, or of having selfish intentions. We’re discussing a lot of big things which can be very scary to all of us. These are major changes, and they affect a very significant part of our working and personal lives.

Even when people have no hidden agenda, and are acting totally in the interest of the team and trying to help us succeed, it can still be a bit disconcerting to others when they see somebody step up and drive a change in a particular direction. It’ll take time for us all to get used to that (myself included) and not allow our egos to get in the way.

We’re all trying to remember that when someone steps up and drives action, that’s not at the expense of the rest of the team. There’s another great quote from Reinventing Organizations, which perfectly applies:

“Power is not a zero-sum game, where the power I have is necessarily power taken away from you. Instead, if we acknowledge that we are all interconnected, the more powerful you are, the more powerful I can become.”

We all know where we want to end up. The challenge will be to try and keep the unavoidable stress levels to a minimum, as we travel through that!

Main article image by defenceimages

Posted by
Jon Lay

Jon is a Partner at Hanno. He wears many hats, but his primary focus is on leading our engineering and technical operations.