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Companies facing COVID-19: collaborative management in a disruptive context

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

In the first part of the article, we discussed the flexibility companies need to navigate a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic.

Several organizations have initiated, or want to start, a reflection on the necessity of reinventing themselves. Regardless of their activity, the objective is the same for all: to help the organization advance. Some have taken the path of adopting a more "democratic" model of management where employees work in more autonomous teams. Various management methods allow the establishment of collaborative practices. To give just a few examples, we can, among others, mention the agile management model, Sociocracy or Holacracy. Setting up an agile, flexible and collaborative management mode facilitates significant and reliable cooperation while promoting the emergence of shared decisions and their effective implementation.

In an increasingly complex world, businesses have a growing need to respond effectively and quickly to changes in their competitive environment. It is essential to give more and more autonomy to those on the front line. At the same time, it is necessary to define a coherent strategic line and align the resources of the company. In the context of the pandemic, for example, we have witnessed, in the global response to the crisis two opposite trends. On the one hand, centralized governments have often reacted with delay and confusion to a situation evolving too rapidly for their ability to respond. On the other hand, poorly informed populations do not always understand the seriousness of the crisis and adopt behaviours that promote the spread of the virus.

Sociocracy: a benevolent tool

Let's turn our attention to Sociocracy. Essentially, Sociocracy is a way of running organizations effectively without laying power solely in the hands of top management. Instead, teams are self-organized, and decisions are made at multiple levels within the organization. The principle underlying sociocracy is the freedom to act and experiment granted to all employees and the empowerment of all participants. It's about putting collective intelligence at the centre of concerns and actions.

In this mode of operation, all employees can, by participating in one or more decision-making circles, contribute to improving the processes and evolution of the whole organization. Everybody's skills are put to fair use in a diversity of contexts, which can be very stimulating. The skills of the members of the organization are, therefore at the heart of this approach. For example, one of the management tools that can be adopted is the election without a candidate, used to assign a team member to a given role. In this process, circle members agree on the list of technical and behavioural skills needed to take on the position in question and then proceed to select the most suitable person. This election, however, is not based on candidatures, but on nominations: each member propose a candidate explaining the choice. Different steps are defined to converge on a final proposal.

This selection mode may take a little more time than in a hierarchical structure. Still, this shortfall is compensated up by the increased involvement of all and a deeper understanding of each other which can lead to increased productivity.

Sociocracy is a liberating tool for companies and for their employees. Indeed, it makes it possible to coherently combine the search for profit, the awareness of the role played by each of the members in the organization and the creation of social value. We can say that the archetype of most organizations is the machine, designed with mechanisms for transmitting decisions and controlling results and operated from the top of the hierarchical pyramid. Companies looking for alternative models, such as Sociocracy, instead draw inspiration from living organisms, trying to build a perception-response approach based on general principles, such as transparency, accountability, efficiency, inclusion, diversity and listening. The basic decision-making principle here is consent. When faced with a situation, we need not look for the perfect solution or general consensus. We must find the most effective solution available now, which does not generate legitimate opposition among the people concerned. In Sociocracy, responsibilities are formally defined, and when one assumes a role, one has a great deal of autonomy to make all the necessary decisions. With the great autonomy, comes the duty to seek advice from all the persons that may be involved by one's decisions. The "non-CEO" (in sociocracy, hierarchical roles are abolished) of a Swiss SME once explained us how an employee had come to inform him that he had made all the necessary arrangements to work in a different city. He wasn't asking for his approval," he was just making sure he didn't have any specific and substantiated objections.

One of the objectives of Sociocracy is to place decision-making capacity at the lowest possible level while ensuring strategic and operational coherence. One of the fundamental elements is the articulation of a shared "purpose" which offers a constant guideline, essential in a context where the "chain of command" is no longer present.

Organization evolve towards this type of extremely decentralized structure through different paths. In some cases it can be agility, emerging from IT development. In other, it may be a strong commitment to Social and Environmental Responsibility which encourages companies to take into account all the stakeholders in their ecosystem. Several associations and NGOs have embraced sociocracy or similar models in response to bottom-up demands from the members of the organization. In companies, on the contrary, it is often the founders who wish to adopt an agile model which frees them from administrative and control constraints and allows them to focus on strategic thinking and development.

There are, of course, several constraints in adopting this organizational style which is not necessarily easy for everyone to accept. In some cases, managers find it very difficult to let go of power and a role that defines them socially: they resist change through obstruction or manipulation. In others, it is the subordinates who fear that they no longer have the proper guidance to perform their work effectively. Also, some may resent the rigidity of the processes that are put in place to ensure organizational coherence and that take the form, for example, of highly codified meetings to allow everyone to participate. Indeed, adopting a sociocratic structure is often a journey of personal as well as organizational development. One must simultaneously learn autonomy, listening to others and the skill of defining and adhering to formal processes.

With the collaboration of several organizations that have adopted this type of structure, Lucia Levato and Roberto Bonino have developed a tool to help teams and organizations identify and address the specific challenges of a distributed and co-responsible leadership approach. This makes it possible to set up group seminars, individual coaching and co-coaching to support a transition which certainly involves challenges.

So are you ready ? We can help you take the path of collaboration!

Marie-France Godin, Lucia Levato, Roberto Bonino.

Marie-France Godin, CRIA is a strategic human resources consultant at GO RH in the Quebec office. Focused on coaching and the development of individuals, GO RH supports organizations in the management of your human resources and more specifically with a view to managing the talents of your organization.

Initally published in french on Go-rh blog.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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