Self-governance: 8 lessons I have learned

Time to read:

3 minutes

It’s been almost two years since I have worked in a self-governing organization, and it seems like a good time to reflect on it.

Here is what self-governance is:

A hierarchy-free organization with autonomy and voluntary collaboration, democratic decision-making, no management, and no external control

This concept has been around for centuries, but it has gained popularity as people seek greater independence and autonomy.

To some degree, it sounds like anarchy. As defined by David Graeber, it is not just the absence of government (or management), but a new form of social organization that aims to reclaim the individual by encouraging collaboration and cooperation while ensuring autonomy and ownership. The associated benefit is of course more engagement, motivation and less bureaucracy.

What are the non-obvious lessons after living with it for 2 years?

  1. A collective decision-making process may sound scary at first and requires a learning curve. However, with good facilitation and fluency in the decision-making frameworks, it can be very fast and effective. It’s important to provide support during the learning phase.

    Bonus point: groupthink is a thing, and it’s an important skill for the facilitator to identify and signal bias early on.
  2. The startup culture’s focus on flexibility and close collaboration inevitably leads to a holocratic structure, i.e., an organization based on roles rather than job titles.
  3. The absence of hierarchies and consensus decision-making does not mean that there are no power structures, i.e., individuals or groups with more influence or social standing influencing decisions, operations, and directions. The best strategy is to make these structures transparent and increase the self-awareness of those who hold them.
  4. We have joked about the self-growth path for new colleagues (and ourselves). It is indeed important to cultivate a growth mindset and be very adaptable. Organizations and teams evolve, and without structures to impede and neutralize that growth, team members must adapt and grow with it. Growth can only be achieved through a culture of evaluation, direct feedback, and superior communication skills.
  5. Without a fixed hierarchy, trust, both professional (can I trust your skills) and personal, is critical.
  6. So if your job description includes management tasks or leadership of any kind, you need to fundamentally rethink both your role and your skills: you need to be flexible, consensus-driven, and honest. If you can not tell someone to do something based on your rank, how are you going to do your job? In short, by sharing enthusiasm and knowledge, inspiring and motivating, i.e. true leadership.
  7. The culture of high ownership is great for senior employees, but it’s hell for juniors, largely because it’s easier to use your autonomy when you know what you are doing. Make sure you provide adequate support to your junior employees, especially in the early days.
  8. Finally, cultural differences have a much greater impact in the beginning, as there is usually less organizational structure and relationships to hold onto. It’s a good idea to be especially aware of your colleagues’ cultural communication patterns and expectations

Idealistic as it may be, creating a self-managed structure requires deliberate action – it will not just happen. We made a conscious decision to create some of these conditions: a congruence of values that provides the foundation for consensual decision-making, transparency and feedback, and non-violent communication.

The implicit qualities that are essential are: Trust, adaptability and self-growth, and a strong sense of ownership. Without hierarchy, strict boundaries, or set goals or norms, the mindset is not only a prerequisite for teamwork, but the foundation of the entire organizational culture, and therefore has much greater significance than the usual organizational models.

Even though after two years I still do not have answers to most of the questions, I can only recommend the trip 🙂

Many thanks to the 3 people who coached us through it:

Bram van der Lecq 

Timo Glasberger

Paul Bernstein 

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